Ali Duncan, center, owner of Urban Sanctuary Yoga Studio, is attending the Friday Night Light yoga class in Denver on July 3, 2020. Classes take place in the courtyard when the weather is nice and are an additional precautionary measure for the coronavirus. (Kathryn Scott, Denver Post special)
“Close your eyes. Imagine walking into a place in Five Points surrounded by all black bodies. How would you feel?”
Ali Duncan is a Denver-based yoga practitioner and wellness studio owner. When she says these words to white students, she notices something.
“They’re all tense,” Duncan said of the bodies she works with to cure racism. But as soon as the students sit with their discomfort and “move” it, she explains, their discomfort begins to make sense to them.
She is in a unique position to know. Four years ago, Duncan left her decade-long career as the first black woman from the Fort Collins Police Department to start Urban Sanctuary. She offered yoga, massage, Reiki, coaching, and other healing services in the heart of Denver’s Five Points.
It was then that she remembers being “the only black girl” in every yoga class she could find in Denver. When Duncan first went into business, Colorado’s yoga scene was mostly white and still largely known for corporate-backed studios like CorePower and crunchy local chains like Kindness.
But Kindness’s nine locations and a handful of other white Denver yoga studios closed for good this summer. Zenver, Flex Barre + Yoga, the Samadhi Center for Yoga and Lacuna Juice and Yoga have all announced permanent closings of their physical rooms due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Suddenly, community members who felt marginalized by a whitewashed Western yoga scene are in a unique position to step in and pave the way forward.
Black bodies, white spaces
“If you notice that another race is not being treated well and you don’t use your platform and say nothing … don’t promote what yoga is,” Duncan said clearly. “(Equality) has nothing to do with politics, and it has everything to do with yoga.”
Duncan built the Urban Sanctuary in an abandoned speakeasy on Welton Street in 2016. When it opened, I was just hoping for a black body onslaught. And there weren’t any, ”she said.
So she acted on purpose. She designed courses for people with color and networked in search of different students. She slowly brought the word out so that her community and others could find their way to the Urban Sanctuary.
“We have to be specific,” she said of the search for diversity in teaching and practice, “because (people) yoga doesn’t really connect with the black community.”
Now the studio offers courses that are sexually positive, such as Kundalini Tantra for men, courses specifically for people with color (see Brown Sugar Yoga), and combines a range of spiritual practices with movements – for example Duncan’s own tarot and flow.
“Everyone comes to me … because the other yoga studios are so closed,” Duncan said. She finds that the yoga community as a whole has been too complacent about race and racism.
“The normal ones ran their business and supported their business and the white bodies,” said Duncan. “We may not be consciously racist, but when our normalcy is disturbed, people will fight back. If a blackbody puts their mat next to yours and you’ve never had this in your class, there might be a reaction. “
Duncan views last month’s events as a breaking point at the intersection of the Black Lives Matter movement and business.
In particular, Kindness Yoga has permanently closed all studios in Denver due to the economic impact of the coronavirus, but also in direct response to public allegations by employees of racist behavior, including performative allies on the part of the company, hollow attempts at activism, tokenization of color teachers, and a lack of diversity in the leadership.
Kindness CEO and Founder Patrick Harrington said he was shocked, saddened and confused about what these employees posted on social media using the hashtag #calloutkindness, claiming he was never about issues within the Kindness culture been addressed. “Not a single conversation,” he emphasized.
“Of course we will make mistakes, this is all new to me,” Harrington told the Denver Post. “I am a 47 year old privileged white man. I used my privilege to offer rooms for yoga and meditation in the city of my birth for 20 years and in three days this was completely destroyed without a conversation. “
Now the conversation has begun, and Duncan hopes that more accountability, especially from white-owned yoga companies, will move forward.
“It has to flow through your entire organization,” she said.
Instructor Brad Hay leads his students during a class at Kindness Yoga on October 13, 2015. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)
“Yoga does not take place in a vacuum”
In early July, Davidia Turner sat on a yoga mat in her Denver home, smiling big and thanking more than 50 attendees as she watched her zoom screen fill for a virtual session called Yoga for Witches.
Turner focused that evening on encouraging students to connect with their ancestors – knowing “where we come from”, connecting that knowledge to the “current moment,” and “reclaiming parts of (us) this port me didn’t feel safe, ”she repeated during the hour-long vinyasa.
A few weeks earlier, Turner, who is Black, had used her social media platform to call Harrington and Kindness before stepping down from her position as an instructor with the company.
Yoga studios, she said, are some of the places where she has experienced the most racism in her work life.
“I kept joining these white-owned studios thinking this was the only way to be successful in my chosen field,” she wrote on Instagram. “But I’m done working for others and with others who don’t value my humanity.”
Soon after Turner left Kindness and witnessed its closure, she launched a crowdfunding campaign for her own yoga business. She has raised more than $ 8,700 to “work on healing and justice for BIPOC individuals, with an emphasis on Black Womxn and all individuals who are actively addressing the systemic flaws of our culture,” she wrote of her mission.
At the same time, Turner’s former friendliness colleague Jordan Smiley is concentrating on his own courageous yoga studio, a “BIPOC and queer-led trauma-informed community in Denver,” he writes on his website. Smiley, who is trans and indigenous, said he feels compelled to speak out against kindness alongside Turner and as part of the LGBTQ community.
“Yoga doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Smiley said in an interview with the Denver Post. “We’re still embedded in the cultural context. Over the past month it has become clear to the eyes who have not seen it that there is an oppressive pressure really built into our culture, and the yoga industry is no exception. “
Harrington confirmed the pain of his former employees in a social media statement last month.
“I am writing today to offer my deepest apologies to our BIPOC and LGBTQI + community,” Harrington wrote on Instagram. “It is clear that our studios were not a safe place for you to offer your teaching. I hear you and I will do better personally. “
Then he announced that he would permanently close Kindness, which had grown to 150 teachers in nine studios.
Ali Duncan, left, owner of the yoga studio Urban Sanctuary, will take part in the Friday Night Light yoga class with some of her clients in Denver on July 3, 2020. (Kathryn Scott, Denver Post special)
Duncan of Urban Sanctuary witnessed the dismantling of yoga facilities in Denver this summer and says she loves when her community and others “find their voice and call companies.”
When Duncan, Smiley, and Turner talk about their own practices, the term “no harm” comes up over and over again. It’s a central tenet of yoga and too often ignored in Western practice, says Duncan.
“If white studios had anti-racism classes in their studio, I think it would be a big change,” she says. “This is a white problem, it’s not a black problem …”
This summer, her husband Marc Neal, another former police officer, while she runs Urban Sanctuary, is teaching anti-bias policing, or “mind-heart bonding,” to police officers across the country. Duncan sees his career, the current social climate, and certainly her own work as closely related.
“The mind is just crazy about stories, isn’t it?” She said.
“You fear for your safety based on a story on your mind.” And since the stories in your head are “going crazy” and the body is “already reacting,” “you don’t understand that the stories you have about black bodies … are just stories.”
Now comes the hard work: “It’s just about understanding this and healing it,” said Duncan.
When you go: Urban Sanctuary’s weekly courses, including POC-specific groups, as well as other services are available on the center’s website. Visit Davidia Turner’s website for witch yoga, hatha, and more, and find Jordan Smiley’s vinyasa flow and yin offerings at courageousyoga.us.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, The Adventurist, to get outdoor news delivered straight to your inbox.