People and Places

Yoga instructor at centre of controversy set to teach new class at University of Ottawa

Fewer than two months after a controversy over cultural appropriation forced yoga teacher Jen Scharf to hang up her mat, she will be teaching on the University of Ottawa campus again on Friday.

This time, however, yoga will only be one component of the class she’ll be leading as part of the Telfer Student Council’s Wellness Week, which promotes healthy bodies and minds.

“The feeling after the class is usually really relaxing, and I like to tell people, ‘Remember that part. Don’t focus on the struggles and the difficulties,’ ” she said.

Yoga instructor Jennifer Scharf. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Scharf.
Yoga instructor Jen Scharf. Photo courtesy of Jen Scharf.

The student council kicked off Wellness Week to promote mental and physical health among students on Monday. The week’s mandate was to provide students with “concrete ways to carry the rest and relaxation from the holidays,” such as making healthy snacks, discussing mental health stigmas —  and practising yoga.

Scharf said the student council knew about the controversy that exploded last November but was “excited” to have her on board.

The University of Ottawa graduate found herself at the centre of a media maelstrom when, after teaching a free yoga class at the Centre for Students with Disabilities for seven years, she told the Ottawa Sun that a complaint about her class’s “cultural appropriation” of Indian culture caused the centre to suspend the class.

At the time, Scharf provided Ottawa Magazine with some of her email correspondence with the centre. One message stated that “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”.

The story garnered international attention, with articles in Time magazine, The Washington Post, and The Independent in the U.K. Outrage over a perceived excess of “political correctness” swept through social media sites such as Reddit.

For her part, Scharf, who has been practising yoga for 17 years, said she was surprised by the media uproar.

“I didn’t think anyone would even see the article,” she said, adding that she hopes to make amends.

“I’m not out to get the centre. I felt terrible that they had to go through that,” she said. “I do think it was more important to voice the issue than not, but I would love nothing more than to resolve our differences.”

Scharf said the experience was a learning experience for her and others.

“The down side is that the class isn’t happening,” she said. “But everybody else got the opportunity to discuss this issue … It gave people a chance to connect over an issue that maybe hasn’t been that easy to talk about.”

Cultural appropriation has been an issue of some concern in Ottawa, with local band A Tribe Called Red asking their audience to stop wearing headdresses to their concerts and Liberal MP Linda Lapointe of Rivière-des-Mille-Îles criticized for wearing ethnic Chinese dress for Halloween, complete with rice paper hat.

Scharf’s claim that complaints of appropriation caused the suspension of the class has been disputed by the Student Federation of the university. It stated in a November press release that the class had been suspended in order to make improvements, due to issues such as declining attendance and complaints that the class didn’t serve the needs of students with mobility issues and physical disabilities.

However, Scharf said the centre stopped promoting her class, which resulted in the drop in attendance.

The class was always accessible, she said. She’d had students in wheelchairs attend and go on to start their own yoga practices.

She said she hasn’t had any contact with the centre since November, although she has sent emails that haven’t been answered. The Telfer Student Council had to retrieve her yoga mats from the centre for use in Friday’s class, she said.

Roméo Ahimakin, a spokesperson for the Student Federation who was acting president when the story broke, would not comment on the matter further on Thursday, other than to reiterate that the class would begin again in January after a consultation process.

The centre wasn’t immediately available for comment.

While Scharf won’t be returning in the near future to teach at the centre, students can attend her class at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Friday at The Telfer School of Management.