Should We Ban Yoga?

How a Canadian college’s decision to ban a free yoga class for the disabled shows our worries over cultural appropriation have gotten out of hand.

11.28.15 5:01 AM ET

For political correctness to thrive, everyone has to be pointlessly offended and willing to explode with rage at everyone else all of the time. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that hypersensitive totalitarians at the University of Ottawa have singled out yoga—yes, yoga—as an enemy of their perpetual Reign of Terror: it makes people too calm to be upset about microaggressions.

And since yoga comes to our shores from a different region of the planet, Americans are “appropriating” it—which is roughly the equivalent of perpetrating genocide, if these furious students are to be believed.

For the past seven years, instructor Jennifer Scharf has taught yoga at Ottawa through its Centre for Students with Disabilities. One would think such a class—a free class, administered to students with special needs—doesn’t deserve the ire of an activist movement. And yet a student—a lone “social justice warrior” with “fainting heart ideologies,” according to Scharf—complained that the class was a slight against yoga’s ancient Indian inventors.

Bafflingly, the Centre agreed.

“While yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students ... there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice,” said the students who run the Centre, according to The Ottawa Sun. The cultures from which yoga originate “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy… we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practicing yoga.”

That statement, translated into English, reads thus: Doing yoga is racist because, uh, colonialism.

Scharf, for her part, thought she could outsmart the offended students, and suggested changing the name of the course to “mindful stretching” in order to strip it of its ethnic context. But finding something to be upset about is the prime directive of the campus left, and as it turned out, “mindful stretching” looked problematic to some when translated into French for a promotional flyer.

Scharf’s class is therefore suspended—and its 60 enrollees will have to find some other place to work on their flexibility.

This incident may seem too ridiculous to matter much; surely yoga is safe most everywhere else. But the ideology that convinced students to ban it at Ottawa—the doctrine of “cultural appropriation”—has a powerful hold over far-left thinkers, particularly on campuses. And if they took their philosophy to its logical end, much we hold dear would be at risk—not just yoga.

Cultural appropriation first became a talking point in sociology circles in the 1970s and ‘80s. Explicitly racist and exploitative incidents from the past—like 19th and early 20th century blackface—were deemed wrong, not merely because they were horribly insulting to black people, but because they stole from black culture. As Cathy Young wrote in a Washington Post article on the subject:

“Some of this critique was rightly directed at literal cultural theft — the pilfering of art and artifacts by colonial powers — or glaring injustices, such as white entertainers in the pre-civil rights years profiting off black musical styles while black performers’ careers were hobbled by racism. Critics such as Edward Said offered valuable insight into Orientalism, the West’s tendency to fetishize Asians as exotic stereotypes.”

Unfortunately, the revolutionary vanguard of the campus left has taken perfectly legitimate concerns about historical disregard for marginalized people and mutated them into a movement that opposes the intermixing of cultures whatsoever. To take just one (glaring) example, a couple of activist students at Northwestern University accused everyone on campus of appropriating Mexican culture because they were eating tacos and drinking tequila on Cinco de Mayo.

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Student outrage over offensive Halloween costumes is often the product of misplaced concerns about cultural appropriation as well. I can understand why blackface is rightly deemed offensive, but are all ethnic costumes—cowboys, Native Americans, samurais, gangsters, pharaohs, geishas, etc.—off limits to people who were not born into the culture they wish to portray? That would be a rather limiting, anti-modern, and, dare I say, illiberal, way of thinking about our responsibility toward people who are different from us.

Indeed, cultural appropriation, when done respectfully, has enormous social benefits. Part of the reason people are so much better off today than ever before in human history is that we aren’t confined to the beliefs, cultures, resources, technologies, and traditions of the villages in which we were born. We can “appropriate” the best aspects of cultures from around the world, blend different ways of thinking, and produce something even better.

It’s not even clear that cultural appropriation in the abstract is insulting to marginalized people. Marginalized people, in fact, have been some of history’s most eager appropriators—borrowing status symbols from societies they admire in order to subvert their oppressors. As Charles Paul Freund wrote in Reason magazine, Russians toiling under the brutal despotism of the Soviet Union “appropriated” rock and roll music from the West in order to undermine the state-approved music scene, and Afghani barbers began administering illegal Leonardo di Caprio-style haircuts to customers in 2001 after copies of Titanic were successfully smuggled into the repressive country.

In their zeal to prohibit all potential offense, yoga’s campus naysayers are aligning themselves with totalitarians who imposed cultural isolation on their people in order to keep them enslaved. If they want to encourage respect for other cultures, fine—but imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.