People and Places

University of Ottawa yoga instructor: It’s ‘accommodation gone mad’

Jennifer Scharf, above, found herself at the centre of a media firestorm earlier this week when news broke that a yoga class she taught for the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD) would no longer go ahead. In an email from a representative of the CSD, Scharf was thanked but told, “that while yoga is a really great idea, accessible and great for students, that [sic] there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice.” Scharf, who graduated cum laude from the university with a degree in honours physics and mathematics in 2008, was inundated with interview requests and the university was bombarded with negative publicity. The case soon received international attention, with newspapers such as the Washington Post, Britain’s Independent, and Daily Mail all covering what most seemed to agree was a case of rampant political correctness. But the story prompted many questions that were left unanswered — how many students were affected, who made the controversial decision to cancel the class and would public pressure open the door for the course to be reinstated. OTTAWA magazine went directly to Scharf to get some answers. The following is an edited transcript of her responses. (The Centre for Students with Disabilities has also been contacted for their side of the story but has not yet responded to OTTAWA magazine’s request.)

Let’s backtrack a little. Can you explain to readers, in a nutshell, how all of this happened?

The Centre for Students With Disabilities (CSD) wanted to cancel my classes in September. I pursued them to try and make a compromise where we could still run the classes. One single person, whom I have chosen not to name out of compassion, took it up as a cause to fight against and pushed the rest of the students to cater to their will. Months after this whole dialogue started, I voiced my sadness to my mentor. He empathized with my situation and later put me in touch with a contact at the Ottawa Sun who thought the story was interesting and later carried out the interview.  Then it got crazy.

How long had you been teaching the class at the University of Ottawa? How many students took part?

The classes started in 2008 and the attendance varied based on the promotional efforts of the CSD. Class sizes ranged from seven to eight to (as many as) 60 students, as you may have seen in the picture that is circulating.

Jennifer Scharf taught yoga to dozens of students at the University of Ottawa.
Jennifer Scharf taught yoga to dozens of students through the universitys Centre for Students With Disabilities. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Scharf.

What has the reaction of your yoga students been so far? Have you heard from any of them?

I’ve had a groundswell of loving support from students and non-students alike. They have offered immense love and I have been blessed to hear stories of their personal success aided by attendance of my (and other) yoga classes.

Had there ever been rumblings of any sort that the class might be cancelled or that there were concerns about cultural issues of any kind?

The sole person responsible for cancelling the class never had the courage to confront me to my face on this issue. The duty of that fell to another representative and I am sad to say that the fall guy in this, Romeo Ahimakin (acting president of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa), is guilty only of good intentions gone awry.

How were you notified that the class would be cancelled and when you received that info, did you try to contest the decision in any way?

Yes. I received notification in September of the suspension of the class and have been trying to resolve the issue ever since. The contents of those emails were given to some media outlets. (Editor’s note: Scharf shared the content of some of the emails with OTTAWA magazine. One said, “yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practised and what practices from what cultures (which are often sacred spiritual practices) they are being taken from. Many of these cultures are cultures that have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy,  and we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves and while practicing yoga.”)


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Scharf says the university, which has been mocked via social media, has been unfairly criticized. “Ottawa U is in no way involved. I love Ottawa U,” she says. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Scharf.

There have been reports that you offered to rename the class but were told that that wasn’t possible because a suitable French translation of the new name couldn’t be found. Is that true?

That was one excuse given but I cannot confirm that it is true. I think most people are reasonable and will draw appropriate conclusions from the facts presented.

The acting president of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa has said the class wasn’t cancelled at all — just suspended. Like other programs, he maintains it’s simply under review. But everyone is reporting that the class has been cancelled. What’s your take on this? Is it just semantics?

I think the argument that it is under review is hard to believe because I have been working since September to conduct said review. I did everything I could to facilitate this discussion, and was stonewalled at every turn.

This story made headlines around the world yesterday, so you must have had lots of feedback from readers. What’s the general consensus?

People are upset that a free (karma) yoga class was cancelled for what appear to be dubious and unfounded reasons. I think there has been a trend of over-accommodating entitled young persons that is leading to the censoring of free speech. People cherish free speech and free expression, so people’s frustration with the larger issue of walking on eggshells so as to protect the “feelings” of overly entitled so-called “crybullies” is being channeled into this because it’s such a clear-cut case of accommodation gone mad.

The reaction on social media was swift and very critical, but most people seemed to aim their criticism at the University, but they weren’t the ones to make the decision to cancel the class, were they? Do you think the University has been unfairly maligned in all of this, or does it bear some responsibility for the way this has been handled?

Ottawa U is in no way involved. I love Ottawa U. I reached out to the University of Ottawa’s media relations officer on Saturday and offered to work with them to deflect any possible negative press the uni might receive. They declined because the SFUO is independently managed by students and the university wants to respect that autonomy. I respect the university’s decision but I am saddened that they may have been negatively affected in all this.

Yoga instructor Jennifer Scharf
Scharf says shed be pleased to return to the class if it resumes. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Scharf.

Is there any hope that the decision will be reversed?

I have emailed the CSD to say let’s just move on and keep the program. I have not received an answer yet.

In the international media, and on social media, this has been presented as a case of out-of-control political correctness. Is that how you’d characterize it?

I would characterize it as bullying dressed up as political sensitivity. It has served as evidence that many who claim to be fighting for social justice have lost touch with the true essence of the words. I pray that this series of events serves to highlight that we cannot build ourselves up by tearing people down. The best thing about Canada is our rich diversity and tolerance/celebration of other cultures/practices. We are also known for being “overly polite.” I think this is a case of our higher nature being subverted by our cultural norm of politeness and accommodation.

If the class is reinstated, will you still want to teach it, or do you think you’ll take your yoga mat elsewhere now?

I would be happy to continue teaching if they want to host the event. I already teach two other volunteer classes so I don’t need any more, but maybe in the future when I am not so busy writing my book (Scharf is writing a book about “quantum mechanics, quantum chemistry and the mind as a quantum computer) with all of my spare time (until last Friday!! — short break for my 25 seconds of fame).

Is there anything that you’d really like people to understand about this story that hasn’t been reported?

This course had a special place in my heart because students don’t always have the money to participate in yoga classes, and Ottawa U is my alma mater. I felt this was a way to reach many people and do as much good as I could. Maybe with this turn of events I will be shown a way to better serve humanity and I am always praying for that.