The discussion around the recent cancellation of a yoga class at the University of Ottawa has been focused on whether or not practicing yoga is cultural appropriation. Claiming that practicing a form of exercise that originated in a different culture is cultural appropriation is far fetched; one could just as easily say that people who play lacrosse are appropriating indigenous culture, or that those who Nordic ski are appropriating Scandinavian culture. Not only that, but the teacher of the class later told CBC that her focus was on the physical benefits of yoga, and did not even get into the spiritual aspects.
Most of the responses have been geared toward arguing that yoga is more of a spiritual than religious exercise or that by its nature it is meant to be accessible to everyone. These are important points, but they miss a more central issue: Denying people the ability to engage in foreign cultural experiences. In a globalized world, cultures constantly bleed into one another; calling this cultural appropriation is simply incorrect. People should be able to engage in cultural practices that are not theirs, as long as they do so out of honest interest, and do so respectfully.
Genuine cultural dialogue is the best way to increase understanding and cooperation between people with different cultures. Denying someone who is interested in another culture this opportunity hinders greater respect and understanding. Imagine that a student takes this class and becomes genuinely interested in Indian culture as a result. There is a point where individuals have to, and should, engage in a culture that is not theirs for the first time; likely they will not have a complete knowledge and understanding, but that comes with time. The important thing is that people have a genuine interest, and approach other cultures with respect.
This is not to say that cultural appropriation—when one culture is seen as stealing elements of another culture—is not an important issue. Donning a headdress and moccasins as a costume is wholly different from genuine attempts to learn more about another culture. Going to McGill’s annual pow-wow (which is always open to everyone) to learn more about indigenous culture in Canada cannot be equated with dressing up in a headdress for Halloween. The difference is in the sentiment that each individual has, and the reaction of the people who are supposedly being disrespected. This not always so obvious, which makes distinguishing between genuine attempts to engage and cultural appropriation difficult, especially with those who do not have a lot of experience with the new culture—nevertheless it is an important distinction to make.
The issue it ultimately one of intention. The central question is whether people who are practicing yoga, or playing lacrosse, or going to a pow-wow are honestly interested in the culture. In the case of the first two examples, they may just want to exercise; if individuals are genuinely interested in engaging with new cultures that are not necessarily theirs, they should have the opportunity to do so. The amount of people who would benefit is far greater, on both sides of the cultural exchange, than the small number who might abuse these opportunities.