When Ali Duncan first saw the building that’s now Urban Sanctuary, she got full-body goosebumps. Her husband asked if she was sure about the space — the abandoned speakeasy was disgusting. The derelict historic building before them was a far cry from the wellness center of Duncan’s dreams. But she was sure.
Fast forward to today and Duncan’s diamond in the rough is now a truly magical space. Light pours in the windows, exposed brick peeks out from the walls and plants are abundant. Each room in Urban Sanctuary channels one of the five elements: fire, wind, water, earth and ether. When you walk through the door you know you’re in a welcome space, no matter who you are and where you come from.
The doors to Urban Sanctuary opened in October 2016 and since then Duncan and her team of wellness professionals have created a space where all sorts of communities have been able to feel welcome and at home. As one of Denver’s only Black-owned yoga studios, you’ll find everything from energy work to Thai massage to counseling and yoga. Duncan is even experimenting with Zoom bedtime stories. The offerings are abundant and ensure that you’ll find a space that fits regardless of your background and identity.
“Our community is completely across the board,” Duncan mused. “We have white girls who show up and do their thing, we have Black women, we have gay men. It’s such an eclectic mix of different groups all within Urban Sanctuary.”
The studio offers designated LGBTQ+ classes and BIPOC classes, in addition to workshops for specific communities. Duncan has created the sanctuary she wanted to see in Colorado — for herself and her children. Growing up in Fort Collins, her father was the second Black man in town. She and her siblings were the only Black kids in their school. In her twenties, Duncan became the first Black, woman police officer in Fort Collins.
She took a summer off in the late ’90s to get her 200-hour yoga teacher certification in India and when she returned, she found that yoga, energy work and Reiki were all things that could benefit her coworkers at the police department. After 10 years as a cop, she realized that her vision for her life wasn’t aligning with her career anymore. Both she and her husband quit law enforcement and moved to Denver.
As a kid, Duncan’s father would drive the family to Denver every month to attend a Black church. To her childhood eyes, Denver was the picture of diversity. When she moved to the city as an adult, however, she couldn’t find the Black wellness community that she was craving.
Duncan was raised in a strict Christian household and, after having her first child at 17, she raised her as she had been raised. There was no room for different lifestyle choices. As her children grew up, Duncan knew her daughter was a lesbian and, looking back she reflects on how she could have handled things differently.
“She’s a queer Black woman and I love it.” She reflected, “If there had been a space like Urban Sanctuary for her, it would have made all the difference.”
Duncan hopes that Urban Sanctuary can be that place for the people she serves.
“I wanted to create a safe, brave space where people can show up and be themselves,” she said. “Where they vibe with a teacher who they identify with and they can have their own community within Urban Sanctuary.”
Healing is very important to Duncan. Urban Sanctuary’s logo includes a lotus flower, a traditional symbol of peace, unity and rebirth. It’s a powerful metaphor for the healing community she’s created–from the ashes of her own story, to the literal ashes of the building Urban Sanctuary now inhabits. Before the space was a speakeasy, it was a poolhall her father frequented when he was in the military and — even before that — a mortuary. You can still see an urn engraved in the building’s roof.
Much of the work at Urban Sanctuary is informed by trauma. Duncan knowns that many of the people the Sanctuary serves have metabolized trauma in different ways.
“People don’t have to identify themselves when they show up,” Duncan said. “If my daughter–a queer Black woman–walked into an all-White studio, she’d be very uncomfortable. A white person walking into an all-Black studio would probably feel the same. Uncomfortable on some level. Asking themselves, am I welcome here? Is this a space where I can just be me?”
Many different healing techniques are incorporated into her yoga classes. She offers EFT tapping, sematic practices like yelling and shaking and even naked yoga (that one’s not available on Zoom yet).
Duncan understands that marginalized communities often can’t afford the price tags that come with yoga and healing. She sees that Five Points is a community being affected by gentrification and is working to combat that with free classes to the BIPOC community and a sliding monthly membership scale that starts at $65 for unlimited classes.
She created a non-profit in June to help offer more. The non-profit is working on buying the Urban Sanctuary building and hopes to one day offer all classes for free. Through the non-profit, Duncan works with many different organizations to offer wellness from helping Women of Welton end youth violence to teaching monthly Zoom yoga to women with AIDS through the Children’s Hospital.
“It’s just a magical space,” she concluded. “When you walk in you just stop and think woah because it feels so good.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Urban Sanctuary has been offering classes via Zoom and is expanding its community across the world. Learn more and sign up for virtual or in-person classes and wellness sessions at usdenver.com.
Urban Sanctuary is located at 2745 Welton St., Denver.