Editorial: In defense of yoga classes

Pitt students take advantage of Pitt's yoga classes. Emily Klenk | Staff Photographer

Clear your mind, relax your muscles. Now breathe deeply — in through your nose, out through your mouth.

We suggest the administration at Ottawa University try this, and then reconsider its stance on yoga.

This school year, the Canadian university has decided not to continue offering its free, weekly yoga class to students. The reason, apparently, wasn’t because of a lack of student interest or funds, but because of what the university deemed to be a lack of cultural awareness associated with the practice.

The former instructor of Ottawa University’s free yoga class, Jennifer Scharf, recently divulged her email correspondence with university administration regarding the class’ cancellation to The Washington Post.

“While yoga is a really great idea, accessible and great for students … there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice,” the email explained. “Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced and what practices from what cultures, which are often sacred spiritual practices, they are being taken from.”

Mainly, the university argues that yoga classes easily run the risk of misrepresenting the spiritual and cultural importance of yoga for groups of people that have historically been oppressed via western colonialism — like Indian Hindus. So, they decided to cancel the class in order to prevent such cultural appropriation.

Yet, while Ottawa University’s intentions are good, it’s missing the point — people who take yoga classes aren’t using the practice in a way that reinforces harmful stereotypes. Rather, they use it to reinforce physical and mental well-being, which is essential to college students.

Yoga itself is not representative of one group of people or another. In fact, many different religions, like both Hinduism and Buddhism, utilize yoga as a means to achieve mental and spiritual ends. Rather, yoga is a universally recognized strategy to help one relieve stress and to achieve mental clarity.

“Yoga in its truest form is not a religion and is practiced by many religions,” Scharf wrote in response to the university’s email. “Many students … are happy to have the option of a free class that they feel good after doing.”

Yoga is about personal gains, not superficial ones associated with actual forms of appropriation. It’s not, for instance, a stereotypical joke used to get a few laughs. If it was, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India would have never suggested that the United Nations declare an “International Yoga day,” which it did on June 21.

As illustrated by the United Nation’s declaration, the world celebrates the health and mental benefits yoga provides — just as we do here at Pitt.

Pitt offers its own free yoga classes on campus, taught by students and volunteers. The classes provide students with a means to curb the stress that comes with college life.

Malia Voytik, a student instructor of one of Pitt’s yoga classes, told The Pitt News of her experiences with yoga.

“As all my students also attend Pitt, both as undergraduate and as graduate students, I think the main draw to my yoga classes is the mental health benefit. My students leave with clear minds and the added benefit of exercise,” said Voytik.

To Voytik, the appeal of yoga speaks to the needs and circumstances of college students.

“Yoga is vital to me, personally, because it allows me to quickly and efficiently relieve stress. It allows me to decompress without wasting time so that I can get back to my busy schedule,” Voytik, a senior biological sciences major, said.

Yoga is a method that people across the globe use to achieve goals that are relatable to every person — it is not synonymous with one group or one culture. It provides the means for a healthy lifestyle, something that every university should strive to do, as it is essential to the learning process itself.

For the sake of the students at Ottawa University, it must be said that yoga is not an example of cultural appropriation, but an example of a shared human experience. 

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