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In Highland Park, a Donation-Based Yoga Class Taught by an Indigenous Mexican Woman in Náhuatl Proves Gentrification Is Not Always Black and White

1:56 PM PDT on March 10, 2020

    [dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap]raceli Contreras’ donation-based hot yoga classes at noon on Mondays are a lot browner than the rest of the mostly white-attended classes at Kinship Yoga, the yoga studio that opened on the Figueroa Street side of the ‘hood in 2014.

    Her classes stand out from the rest of them in another unusual aspect: They are taught in Spanish, English, Náhuatl, the latter of which belonging the 68 indigenous languages found in Mexico. 

    “My English is limited,” Contreras admits during an interview with L.A. Taco after class. “By teaching in Spanish, I know I can connect with others out there who are like me.” While there have been a few bilingual yoga available over the years, one being taught en Español in a neighborhood as heavily affected by gentrification is a noble effort to be more inclusive to the community. Even more when that class is taught by an indigenous woman who is free to also teach it in her family’s native languages alongside yoga’s other ancient language, Sanskrit.

    “My family is from Mexico City and Hidalgo and spoke Otomi and Náhuatl; integrating Náhuatl little by little in my classes helps me and some of my students connect deeper,” Contreras says. She shares that students come from as far as East Los Angeles and Huntington Park, a few students whom also identify as indigenous. “One student told me that her that a chant I did remind her of her mother who used to sing lullabies to her in Náhuatl as a child.”  

    In a generation when representation matters more than ever, Kinship is leading by example—offering up to four donation-based classes a week. Nonetheless, it finds itself in a tricky position since it was featured in a boycott list posted by the neighborhood watchdog group on social media Defend NELA in 2018. The same boycott list that Rage Against the Machine’s guitarist Tom Morello honored in 2018 by moving his show from The Lodge—a venue featured on the long list—to a venue in downtown instead. 

    “Anyone who has come to us with a concern or criticism has been met with open ears and open hearts,” says Ryan Paravecchio, Kinship Yoga’s owner who first saw the potential or Contreras leading bilingual classes. “I think our mission has been understood; we walk the walk—not just talk the talk.”

    Contreras shares that she implements many of the same principles that she has learned through two nearly decades of being an Aztec dancer into her yoga classes.

    Paravecchio is aware that neighborhood activists and media are quick to refer to a yoga studio as a general marker for gentrification in Highland Park.  “There are always going to be people loyal to their specific cause, and I respect that. But if you would like to target us for a specific topic and ask us to make improvements in any area, I’ve devoted my whole life individually and as a community and am willing to do the work to improve everyone’s rights and situations.” In between classes, Paravecchio communicates with Contreras in Spanglish.

    Before pursuing yoga instruction more seriously, Contreras got by in the gig economy. “I’ve seen Ryan give people a place to sleep, shower, and provide vegetables. Personally, he’s helped me open more doors in my professional life and has helped me get more comfortable in my teaching abilities,” Contreras confirms in Spanish. 

    Her class size varies in size. In November, it wouldn’t be unusual to attend a class with only four students, half of which being señoras who heard about the class through word of mouth. This week, the class had over a dozen students. 

    Contreras’ groundbreaking yoga class in a neighborhood that many have called ground zero for gentrification in Los Angeles shows that when it comes to talking about it, it is not always black and white. 

    “I feel really comfortable here. I am Central American and never considered yoga to be an activity open to Latinos—until now. It’s really helped me in my mental and physical health.”   

    In this past Monday’s class, instead of finishing the class with hands in anjali mudra position, she informs her students to hold their hands flat over their chest, directly over their hearts. 

    “Let’s all take deep breaths and count our breaths in Náhuatl: One, uno, ce, two, dos, ome…” She also refers to the tree position as a position of “the abuelos” in Náhuatl, which holds generational wisdom. Contreras shares that she implements many of the same principles that she has learned through two nearly decades of being an Aztec dancer into her yoga classes. In the background as the students sweat through the asanas, instead of generic new age or modern bhangra beats lightly bumping through the speakers, there are atmospheric ceremonial horns and sounds of rainsticks by Jorge Reyes, a famous musician from Michoacán. 

    “If Araceli offered this class every day, I would attend it every day,” says Carla Alvarado-Goldberg, a 48-year-old school counselor. She heard about the bilingual class online and makes the drive from Echo Park to every community class that Araceli and Paravecchio offer, including the 6 AM ones on Saturday mornings. “I feel really comfortable here. I am Central American and never considered yoga to be an activity open to Latinos—until now. It’s really helped me in my mental and physical health.”   

    The fact that the class is taught in both Spanish and English also appealed to 24-year-old Priscilla Gutierrez, another newcomer to yoga and a dedicated student of Contreras’ indigenous school of hot yoga who commutes from Pasadena. “It’s refreshing because it’s not just in English,” Gutierrez says. She grew up in Highland Park and addresses the complicated feelings that she now has of her hometown. “Highland Park has completely changed from what it used to be and a class like this brings me back out here and makes me want to participate in my community again.”   

    “I never stopped loving Highland Park, but this yoga class is a good start because it’s not just a bunch of white people in the room. It’s baby steps.”   

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