We’ve all experienced those pivotal moments in life when deciding to take a leap sets us on a new and exciting path, protecting us from the negative effects of what could have been.
For Jo, that moment materialized on a summer’s day on West Hastings Street, when she walked by the women’s health and wellness centre run by the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective (VWHC) and spotted a poster for free yoga in the window.
It was the first time Jo had left her apartment in a month. After thriving as an executive assistant for more than 20 years, chronic health issues left her unable to work and she had to move from the West End to a building managed by the Portland Hotel Society.
As a new resident in the Downtown Eastside, she felt depressed, isolated and afraid, but desperate to make a change. Though she hadn’t practised yoga before, she wondered if she might find like-minded neighbours in a yoga class. What she discovered was a life-affirming practise that improved her health, allowed her to discover a community and gain a new lease on life.
“I was really, really unhappy,” she says. “I was grateful that I had a nice place to live with a hot shower, but I didn’t think that there’d be a community. From the minute I walked into the back space and started doing yoga, I thought, ‘This is a good place.’ And it’s working, because I keep going back.”
The VWHC is a volunteer-run non-profit that is bringing vital health and wellness services from all over the city straight into the Downtown Eastside. Their health and wellness centre offers medical care, yoga, art therapy, tutoring and specialized seminars, all at no cost. They also hand out free condoms, essential toiletries and muffins and coffee to clients.
The women’s health and wellness centre is housed in the main floor of the Cosmopolitan Hotel, which was bought and extensively renovated in the last decade by Central City Foundation to offer safe and affordable housing to inner city residents. Several years ago, Central City began to expand on the building’s services and brought a vision of flourishing community collaboration to life. Central City Foundation subsidizes the rent for the organizations who supply services at the Cosmopolitan, proudly supporting the unique opportunity for collaboration between like-minded women’s organizations united toward a common cause.
Jo attends yoga three times a week at the centre, and has begun exploring other free yoga programs in the Downtown Eastside. Since she began practising, she’s seen her health issues improve, plus she says she looks and feels much better. And Jo isn’t the only one who’s noticed. She’s been on the receiving end of positive comments from both her doctor and closest friends.
“My doctor said, ‘Jo, you’re the only person going down to the Downtown Eastside and getting healthier’,” she recalls. “Going to yoga at the women’s centre has really changed my life in a positive way. It’s making me healthier.”
Jo’s regular yoga practise has allowed her to develop relationships with other women in the community, all within the support and safety of a women-only space.
“I’ve met other women and we’re becoming friends,” she says. “There isn’t really another place that I would feel comfortable going to meet other people who live close to me.”
Jo also uses the centre for the free computer access, and enjoys the complimentary muffins and coffee. She has nothing but praise for the dedicated staff and volunteers who have helped change her life.
“From the first day, it was just such a welcoming place,” she says. “It’s so non-judgmental. They don’t judge me and they don’t judge anyone else there, either.”
Jo is grateful to have a wonderful resource up the street from her home, and hopes the women’s health and wellness centre is around for years to come.
“I’m blessed that the space is there, and I know I’m not the only person who feels that way,” she says. “I can’t give back because I don’t have the money and the resources, but we all do give back in our own way. Yoga makes you calmer, and that calmness makes you a better neighbour.”