“Close your eyes. Picture yourself 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, and when she says these words to white students, she notices something.
“They all tense up,” Duncan said of the bodies she works with to heal racism. But once the students sit with their discomfort, and “shift it,” she explains, their uneasiness starts 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 on the Fort Collins’ police force to start Urban Sanctuary, offering yoga, massage, reiki, coaching and more healing services in the heart of Denver’s Five Points.
Back then, she remembers being “the only Black girl” in all of the yoga classes she could find around Denver. When Duncan started her business, Colorado’s yoga scene was overwhelmingly white and still largely known for corporate-backed studios like CorePower and crunchy homegrown chains such as Kindness.
But Kindness’ nine locations and a handful of other white-owned Denver yoga studios have closed for good this summer. Zenver, Flex Barre + Yoga, Samadhi Center for Yoga and Lacuna Juice and Yoga have all announced the permanent closure of their physical spaces due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Suddenly, community members who have felt marginalized by a white-washed Western yoga scene now find themselves in a unique position to step in and pave the path forward.
Black bodies, white spaces
“If you’re noticing a different race not being treated well, and you’re not using your platform and saying anything… you are not promoting what yoga is,” Duncan said, plainly. ”(Equality) has nothing to do with politics, and it has everything to do with yoga.”
Duncan built Urban Sanctuary in 2016 inside an abandoned Welton Street speakeasy, and when it opened, “I was just hoping for a rush of Black bodies. And there was none,” she said.
So she acted deliberately. She designed classes for people of color and she networked, looking for diverse students. Slowly she got the word out so that her community and others could find their way to Urban Sanctuary.
“We need to be specific,” she said of seeking diversity in class and practice, “because (people) don’t really connect yoga with the black community.”
Now the studio offers classes that are sex-positive, like Men’s Kundalini Tantra, classes specifically for people of color (see Brown Sugar Yoga), and combines a range of spiritual practices with movements — Duncan’s own Tarot and Flow, for example.
“Everybody comes to me … because of the other yoga studios being so closed in,” Duncan said. She thinks the yoga community on the whole has been too complacent regarding issues of race and racism.
“The normal was running their business, supporting their business and the white bodies,” Duncan said. “We may not consciously be racist, but when our normal is disrupted, people will fight back. If a Black body lays their mat out next to yours, and you’ve never had that in your class, there could be some reaction.”
Duncan considers the events last month at the intersection of the Black Lives Matter movement and the business community to be a breaking point.
Specifically, Kindness Yoga closed all of its Denver studios permanently due to the economic effects of coronavirus but also as a direct response to public accusations by employees of what they considered racist behavior, including performative allyship on the part of the company, hollow attempts at activism, tokenization of teachers of color and a lack of diversity in leadership.
Kindness CEO and founder Patrick Harrington said he was shocked, saddened and confused by what those employees posted to social media using the hashtag #calloutkindness, asserting that he has never been approached about issues within Kindness’ culture. “Not one conversation,” he emphasized.
“Of course we’re going to make mistakes, this is all new to me,” Harrington told The Denver Post. “I’m a 47-year-old white privileged male. I have used my privilege to offer spaces of yoga and meditation for 20 years in the city of my birth, and in three days, that was completely trashed without even a conversation.”
Now the conversation has started, and Duncan hopes to see more accountability, especially from white-owned yoga businesses, moving forward.
“It has to flow through your entire organization,” she said.
‘Yoga does not occur 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’s focus that evening was to encourage students to connect with their ancestors — to know “where we’re coming from,” to connect that knowledge to “the current moment” and, also, “to reclaim any parts of (ourselves) that haven’t felt safe,” she echoed throughout the hour-long Vinyasa.
A few weeks earlier, Turner, who is Black, had used her social media platform to call out Harrington and Kindness, before resigning 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 working life.
“I kept attaching myself to these white-owned studios, because I thought it was the only way to be successful in my chosen career field,” she wrote on Instagram. “But I’m done working for others and with others who do not value my humanity.”
Shortly after leaving Kindness and witnessing its closure, Turner started a crowdfunding campaign for her own yoga business. She has raised more than $8,700 to start working “around healing and justice for BIPOC individuals, with a focus on Black Womxn and all individuals who are actively dismantling the systemic failings of our culture,” she wrote of her mission.
At the same time, Turner’s former Kindness colleague Jordan Smiley is focusing on his own Courageous Yoga studio, a “BIPOC and queer-led trauma-informed community in Denver,” he writes on its website. Smiley, who is trans and indigenous, says he felt compelled to speak out against Kindness alongside Turner and as part of the LGBTQ community.
“Yoga does not occur in a vacuum,” Smiley said in an interview with The Denver Post. “We are still embedded in the cultural context. It has become clear in the past month to eyes that hadn’t seen it yet that there are oppressive pressures that are really built into our culture, and the yoga industry is no exception.”
Harrington acknowledged the pain of his former employees in a statement over social media last month.
“I write today to share my deepest apologies to our BIPOC and LGBTQI+ community,” Harrington wrote on Instagram. “It is clear that our studios did not represent a safe space for you to offer your teachings. I hear you and I will do better personally.”
Then he announced that he would close Kindness, which had grown to 150 teachers across nine studios, permanently.
Duncan of Urban Sanctuary has witnessed the dismantling of Denver’s yoga institutions this summer, and she says she loves to see her community and others “finding their voice and calling out companies.”
When Duncan, Smiley and Turner speak about their own practices moving forward, the term “no harm” comes up again and again. It is a central tenet of yoga and too often it’s ignored in Western practice, Duncan says.
“If white studios would start offering anti-racism classes at their studio, I think that would be a huge shift,” she says. “This is a white issue, it’s not a Black issue…”
This summer, as she’s running Urban Sanctuary, her husband Marc Neal, another former police officer, is teaching anti-bias policing, or “heart and mind connection,” for cops around the country. Duncan sees his career, the current social climate and certainly her own line of work as all closely related.
“The mind just goes crazy with stories, right?” she said.
“You fear for your safety based off of a story that is in your head.” And as the stories “go crazy” in your mind, and as the body is “already reacting,” you “don’t understand that the stories you have about Black bodies… are just stories.”
So now comes the hard work: “It’s just understanding that and healing it,” Duncan said.
If you go: Urban Sanctuary’s weekly classes, including POC-specific groups, as well as other services are available through the center’s website. Check out Davidia Turner’s site for witch yoga, hatha and more, and find Jordan Smiley’s vinyasa flow and yin offerings at courageousyoga.us.