With Best Intentions: Yoga, Gentrification and Solidarity in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

One thing I’ve noticed about yoga teachers is that almost all of us are in some way driven to help people. We want to create positive change in the world. We want to show others that healing is possible, just like others have shown us. Usually we’ve come from a place of suffering and when we found yoga we discovered safety, peace and serenity we didn’t have before. We discovered our breath, our bodies and even sometimes God – for lack of a better word. Eventually our paths as teachers and healers were revealed to us.  We excitedly make our way through our teacher trainings and when we finish we’re unleashed into the world – shiny eyed and well intentioned. We are a quickly growing league of big-hearted, makeshift missionaries. Despite the purity of our intentions, in our fumbling infancy we sometimes accidentally cause harm where we mean to be helpful.

Before I move on to the remainder of this piece I want to clarify a few things. I am a relatively new teacher. I don’t claim to know all the answers. I am merely hoping to ask questions and point out some problems I’ve noticed. I have respect for the teachers’ whose work I address in this piece and I hope to work with them in the future so we can discuss the questions raised here and more. I want to be a comrade and a friend – not an enemy or an outsider. I believe the work we do is deeply important, I just think we need to be more mindful of how we execute it so that we can better contribute to the change we hope to create. I also want to acknowledge that while I use one group as an example here I am by no means trying to target them – my intention is to spark conversation. This group is just one example of people doing this work and they happen to be doing it in my hometown, in a community I’m familiar with. There are many teachers, yoga studios and non-profits that should be thinking about gentrification, privilege and oppression – myself included. This is work we all need to be doing.

Recently I came across an article from Elephant Journal that was posted on the Karma Teacher’s website. It’s entitled “Karma Teachers: Showing the Huddled Masses How to Breathe for Free”. What I’d like to draw some attention to here is the language used to the describe the “huddled masses” Karma Teachers are “in service to”:

“We have walked around East Hastings several times, treading carefully around its edges as if not to wake a dragon. The sights are indeed lamentable: homeless, drug addicts, drunks, prostitutes stumble mindlessly from one side of the street to the other, some silent and lost in thought, others raging loudly against the world, some mumbling incoherently and some intimidating outside voyeurs with defiant looks.
This is where Karma Teachers have opened their new studio. They are on a mission: teaching yoga for free with an open door policy in this forgotten part of town (emphasis added).”

As far as I’m aware the person who wrote this article is not a member of Karma Teachers. They don’t live in Vancouver. Still, the article is posted on the Karma Teacher’s website which implies to me that they condone what it says and the portrayal it renders.

I find this article troubling for a number of reasons. First of all, how do you think potential students (or, you know, the “huddled masses”) would feel about this description? Do you think it would make them feel welcome and respected or looked down on and untouchable – just like they are made to feel every day by most of society? When we talk about accessibility, do we just mean prices, or are we actually attempting to create safer space where people can leave the judgments others have of them at the door? Our words have power and in this case they serve to illuminate a massive perceived separation between the people being served and the people doing the service.

Second, this piece is quite de-humanizing and degrading to the people being described. Yes, many of the people who live in the Downtown Eastside are homeless, suffering from addiction or involved in the sex trade, but they are people having these experience. They are not simply “homeless” or “drunks”. The tone of this piece reminds me of someone going to the zoo to cautiously view wild animals. It’s eerily similar to racist depictions of Indigenous people by European colonizers when they arrived in the “new world”. Emma Laroque explains:

“As an inherent part of the colonial project, Europeans categorized themselves as the “civilized” and Indigenous peoples as the “savages,” the underlying assumption being that as savages, “Indians” were at the bottom of human development. From this institutionalized bias a complex set of images, terminology, policies and legislation has set Aboriginal peoples apart, both geographically (on reserves and residential schools), and as inferior peoples. In the larger society such assumptions are perpetuated through the media and the marketplace, through Hollywood, comics, ads and tourist sites. Such racism is deeply institutionalized to the point that it is the norm in White North American society (emphasis added).”

Considering this historically established relationship of dominance, can you see why I would find the description East Hastings troubling? Reverence for this history is of particular import when we are offer yoga classes on un-ceded Coast Salish territory. Even more so when such a high proportion of indigenous people make up the demographics of East Hastings.

I think this situation offers us a crucial opportunity to think about our status as outsiders – both as settlers on indigenous territory, but also as teachers coming from outside the community of the Downtown Eastside. When you come from outside a community, especially when you assume they need your help, there is a tendency to impose solutions on the people you are trying to help – solutions they may not need or even be open to. This happened with Christian missionaries hundreds of years ago and it’s happening now as the Downtown Eastside is transformed through gentrification. Harsha Walia, an activist and organizer from the DTES explains:

“Gentrification is the social, economic, and cultural transformation of a predominantly low-income neighbourhood through the deliberate influx of upscale residential and commercial development. Encouraged by municipal development policies, economic incentives for investors, and the mythical pull of the creative city, urban land is purchased and developed at low cost for middle-class buyers.”

Whenever newcomers set up shop in a neighbourhood that is experiencing gentrification, especially when we are trying to do good work, it is important that we are mindful of the realities of the neighbourhood which we now “call home”. In fact, it is all too common that predatory condo developers shroud their intentions in language similar to service – language like “renewal” and ”revitalization”. Harsha Walia explains:

“In cities like Vancouver that purport to be progressive, the violence of gentrification is masked behind [an] ideological discourse aimed at giving it an air of reasonableness. First is “urban renewal.” This presumes that the downtrodden ghetto will be uplifted and revitalized through social entrepreneurship and trickle-down investment… (emphasis added)”.

Gentrification is a vital part of this discussion because, I feel, it is the responsibility of groups like Karma Teachers to understand the lived realities of the communities they are hoping to serve. The Downtown Eastside is constantly swarmed by outsiders, who claim to have good intentions, but are usually much more predatory than they appear.  This neighborhood has a rich history of community organizing and resistance against predatory condo developers and the opportunist governments who work in partnership with them. Examples of this resistance and community organizing include the Woodwards squatthe Annual Downtown Eastside women’s housing marchthe 2010 Olympic tent village and the campaign to save the Pantages Theatre– and this is just barely scratching the surface.

There is a big difference, I think, between for-profit condo developers displacing Downtown Eastside residents (and consistently failing to produce promised “affordable” housing) and the work Karma Teacher’s is doing. That being said, gentrification is an aspect of the political reality of the community they hope to serve. Considering this I think it’s crucially important that Karma Teachers be mindful of the language they use to describe where they work and who they work with. For example, note their intention, as quoted from their website:

“We make yoga accessible to those groups that might not otherwise have an opportunity to participate in yoga classes. In doing so, we are helping to revitalizeVancouver’s lower east side community (emphasis added).”

No one I have ever met who lives or works in the Downtown Eastside refers to it as the “lower east side”. “Lower east side” is not geographically accurate and it works to erase the rich history and vibrant, relentless resistance of this community.

“Revitalization” is a stated goal of many condo developers as well as Gregor Robertson’s administration, both of which have contested, antagonistic and predatory relationships to the Downtown Eastside. Who is this revitalization serving? Does it work to accomplish anything positive for the people who are living and surviving in the Downtown Eastside? Many community groups and residents would say no. Considering this, perhaps this rhetoric should be avoided in the intentions of anyone hoping to provide service to this community. I don’t think this intention was meant as alignment with condo-developers, but I think this language is indicative of an outsider’s relationship to the Downtown Eastside.

I realize that this may read like a very harsh criticism. I want to make clear that while I feel strongly that this language is a problem and indicative of a power and privilege imbalance that needs to be addressed, I am not saying that their isn’t an opportunity for good work to be done here. I think offering accessible yoga is valuable and sacred work. It’s work that I feel called to do, however imperfectly. I’m simply suggesting that we need to be mindful of what we are trying to accomplish when we set our intentions for this work – are we suggesting that the community we hope to serve is broken? Are we saying that they must change or be “revitalized”? Or are we meeting people exactly where they are at and doing our best to empower them?  I believe this work can be made manifest in a powerful and beneficial way when we see ourselves as allies – not as givers of charity or missionaries with all the answers.

This work is not easy – but that’s why we do it. We want to do more than just feel our breath inside our bodies – we want to help others discover theirs, no matter who they are or where they come from. We want people to connect with a higher purpose and be able to remember the dignity bestowed upon them simply by existing. This is a beautiful and pure intention. With this intention in our hearts we would do well to remember that all those we wish to serve have stories of struggle and resilience, just like us. Their stories are held in their bodies and woven through their communities. These stories were written long before we came to serve and they are endlessly complex. If we open our hearts their richness will teach us the meaning of true service: solidarity, connection, empowerment.

Andrea is one of the founders of Community Yoga Vancouver - an accesible and anti-oppressive collective of teachers, eccentrics and healers. Before becoming a yoga teacher Andrea spent several years as an organizer and volunteer coordinator. She worked on many issues from oil-tankers to affordable housing. She brings a passion for social justice and community building to her teaching and strives to make her classes safe, accessible and empowering. Her teaching utilizes a consent based-approach and encourages students to discover authentic embodiment by honouring their desires, needs and boundaries. Her writing has been published on Elephant Journal and in UBC’s Ignite Journal. You can read her pieces and see her updated teaching schedule and anti-oppression policy at www.moonlitmoth.wordpress.com.

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