“I love to skydive,” said Ali Duncan, relaxing in a yellow chair in the lounge at Urban Sanctuary. She spoke softly so as not to disturb the yoga class going on in the studio next door.
“Not literally,” she laughed. “I’m a big risk taker. I’m attracted to expansion. So being the only Black-owned yoga studio in Denver led me to say, ‘Okay, let’s do this thing. And let’s go as big as we possibly can.’ I like to make friction. It makes me feel good.”
Duncan is the owner of Urban Sanctuary, a yoga studio and healing space located in Five Points, a historically Black neighborhood in Denver. She began renting the building on Welton Street which houses Urban Sanctuary in 2016 and officially bought it in July of last year. It was originally built in the early 1890s, and over the past 100 years, it has been a residence, an upholstery company, a pool hall, a bar, and a school.
When Duncan first toured the space, it was run down. She knew she had her work cut out for her, but she instantly felt an indescribable connection to the energy in those century-old brick walls. Later, she learned that her father used to spend his evenings at 2745 Welton Street with his friends when he was stationed in the Air Force while it was still a bar. “The connection I have to this place is amazing,” she remarked.
Duncan got right to work on remodeling, creating the sanctuary that her students and community have grown to know and love. Every square inch of Urban Sanctuary is intentionally designed with peace and wellness in mind. In the back courtyard, they offer snowfall yoga in the winter and a twist on hot yoga during the summer utilizing the sun rather than a sauna. The lounge is filled with books, cozy sofas, and plants. The indoor studio’s exposed brick walls are adorned with handpainted signs. Buddha statues and shrines sit in the corners, while aerial yoga straps dangle from the ceiling. Soft natural light pours into the studio. “It’s magical in there,” Duncan beams.
Duncan’s background has informed her work in the studio to a large degree. “I grew up on a farm and was raised very Christian. Like, no TV, no music, and I went to church four or five times a week. And then I was a young mom. I had my first kid when I was 16,” she said.
In 2003, Duncan became a police officer in Fort Collins. Around the same time, she began to get into energy work. She practiced yoga while on the police force, and after nearly 10 years, she took a summer off to go study yoga in India.
“When I came back, I started teaching yoga to the police department,” she said. “Police officers have a lot of trauma to release. So I used trauma-informed teaching to teach police officers to move beyond the physical aspect into more of mindfulness and meditation and help them release the trauma that’s in their bodies.”
Soon after, Duncan left the police force. But she used what she learned from her experiences in policing to inform her work at Urban Sanctuary. She created a class called Tap Tap Flow, which combines yoga and emotional freedom technique, or EFT tapping used to treat physical pain and emotional stress. Duncan said the class helps people tap into the trauma that’s stored in their bodies.
The majority of the teachers at Urban Sanctuary are BIPOC, but the majority of the students that take classes there are white. This led Duncan and her business partner Dameda Finney to begin offering anti-racism community talks once a month. Duncan said Finney has a way of confronting uncomfortable topics gently and with kindness. She breaks people into groups to discuss specific subjects—like reparations—and how they can change things. They then come back to the larger group to share what they talked about.
“It’s not coming from a place of shame,” Duncan said. “We’re not here to shame you. Racism is stuck in our bodies. So when Dameda has interacted with some white-bodied students that have started getting defensive, she just pauses. She helps to work it out of their bodies through breathwork and dialogue. It helps everyone.”
“Most other studios use Yoga Alliance for their teacher certification programs; it’s kind of like the overall stamp of approval, but it was started by two white ladies. If we’re gonna take control, then we’re absolutely not gonna use that,” she said.
Once a month, Urban Sanctuary hosts a different Black jazz musician for a live music session. They also offer classes that incorporate cannabis into their practice, astrology, tarot cards, Reiki, and more.
As far as the future of Urban Sanctuary, she plans to keep skydiving. “I want to open a second location. I just want to go bigger. That’s my next plan. That’s my skydive.”