DENVER | In one of Denver’s only Black owned yoga studio, owner and teacher Ali Duncan quietly guides her students through light breathing exercises and gentle body movements.
“It’s ‘silver mat’ yoga; these are all older women from Five Points and they’ve been together since elementary school and they’ve been with me for four years. They do yoga, they do dance; they even do the aerial yoga. We offer that and they love it,” said Duncan. “I just encourage them to move their bodies and stay healthy and we have great conversations yeah that’s one of my favorite classes.”
Urban Sanctuary sits on Welton Street in Denver’s historically Black ‘Five Points’ neighborhood. Duncan says the mission is and has always been to ensure that Black and brown people have access to ancient practices that originated in their own cultures in the first place.
“Teaching people where it [yoga] came from, the history, and that Black and brown bodies were given the practice of yoga and it spread from there,” Duncan explained.
Ultimately, Duncan wants to decolonize yoga, which has a layered meaning.
“Just taking the idea that ‘this is what you need to look like to do yoga,’ because most spaces are run by white women and they’re skinny. So to actually open it up and say ‘No, this is actually what it is’ — it’s you tapping into your inner divine to move your body and flow. It has nothing to do with what you wear or how you look at all,” she said.
Duncan grew up on a farm in Fort Collins and was a police officer for 10 years before deciding to take a summer off and go to yoga teacher training in Rishikesh, a city in India widely known to be the birthplace of yoga. It inspired her to leave her job in law enforcement and open Urban Sanctuary in Denver six years ago.
In May of 2022, after getting support from a GoFundMe campaign and a loan, she bought the building that houses the Urban Sanctuary space.
“I feel so much relief yes. Big time, yup. I feel really rooted now and we can take this and not have any fear of getting kicked out or as Welton Street starts to shift and change, and other buildings are getting bought up. It’s like we’re here and we’re not going anywhere so that feels good,” said Duncan.
Urban Sanctuary is more of a wellness center rather than just a yoga studio. Yoga classes in various styles are offered along with massage and reiki. What’s most important to Duncan is that Black and brown people feel that Urban Sanctuary is their space.
“It’s very different to go into a place and you are the only one with dark skin,” said Duncan. “So it’s nice to come into a place where the teachers look like you and the other students look like you and it allows your nervous system to relax.”
Duncan ends ‘silver mat’ yoga class with the same gentle note she started it with and plenty of gratitude for the space she holds and the people in it.