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Business of Yoga

This Former Police Officer Built Denver’s First Black Woman-Run Yoga Studio

Ali Duncan opened Urban Sanctuary as a safe space for traditionally marginalized communities to heal in a historically Black area of Denver.

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The last place I envisioned myself receiving energy work was in a former embalming room. But then again, I never imagined I’d work with a self-proclaimed spiritual guide.

Unless you are familiar with the unique history of the building, located in Denver’s historic Five Points neighborhood, there is no way you’d know the room’s prior function. The little nook—adorned with pillows and blankets, and filled with the aroma of essential oils—felt warm and welcoming. And though I didn’t know what to expect from my first energy healing, I felt open to try it because of the healer I was working with.

Ali Duncan founded her studio, Urban Sanctuary, in 2016 as a refuge for people just like me—people of color who might not feel safe in white-centric wellness spaces.

In addition to various yoga classes–including Kemetic, aerial, and even naked yoga–Urban Sanctuary offers life coaching, workshops, Reiki, energy work, and wellness services like Thai massage and acupressure. But it’s the focus on cultivating community and providing a safe space for queer folks and Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) that attracted me to Urban Sanctuary—and to Duncan’s work. 

When I visited Duncan for my “energy recalibration session,” I was emotionally exhausted, struggling with depression, and seeking clarity. On a cold Saturday morning, I sat across from her, talking about quantum physics and frequencies. She told me to think of myself as a radio tower, picking out frequencies to match with—this could be anything from work to relationships. “Everything is in response to a frequency that we’ve sent out,” she explained. The universe responds to those frequencies by sending back an experience.

I laid across the massage table and closed my eyes. As Duncan worked to recalibrate my energy and clear out any “low-vibrating frequencies” lingering in my body, I focused on my breath and Duncan’s verbal cues. I felt safe to let my guard down and allow my stress and uncertainty to melt away.

Finding her calling

Duncan, who identifies as a Black woman, understands firsthand the importance of belonging—and the sense of ease that comes from being around people who look like you.

Duncan grew up on a farm in Fort Collins, Colorado, about an hour and a half north of Denver. The town was first established as a thriving agricultural hub and economic center in 1883, and is home to Colorado State University. According to the most recent U.S. Census, more than 86 percent of residents identify as white. As a child, Duncan struggled to fit in among her classmates in a majority white school. At home, she found little freedom to explore her individuality apart from her parent’s strict, Christian beliefs. Even when she started practicing yoga, Duncan felt out of place among the white yogis in Fort Collins. “I was used to being the only Black person, but it was still uncomfortable being the only one on my mat,” Duncan recalls.

Duncan wasn’t always a healer. In fact, she didn’t start exploring these practices until she was 33—around the same time she was hired as the first Black female police officer in Fort Collins. Duncan was convinced she could connect to people on the job in a kinder way. “I was listening to other police officers,” she says, “and I decided that I could interact with people differently.”   

All that changed when Duncan was introduced to energy healing through a woman named Georgette, who worked in the records department. Georgette gave Duncan a massage, and during that session, “she started telling me things about myself that she shouldn’t have known,” Duncan says. “I asked her what she was doing and she told me she was doing Reiki.” Intrigued, Duncan found someone in Fort Collins to train with and earned her levels one, two, and three Reiki certifications. Eventually, she established her own Reiki practice and would see clients whenever she wasn’t on patrol. “Now I am a Reiki Master Teacher,” she says.

In 2011, she traveled to India to become a certified yoga instructor. Within five months of returning home, she quit her job with the intention of opening a space centering energy work and yoga “for people who look like me.” And for people like her eldest daughter, who inspired—and ultimately helped build—her Denver studio. “My oldest daughter is queer and, of course, Black,” Duncan says. “If she had a space where she could go that she felt really safe and supported, then her experiences would be different—not meaning that they’d be better, they would just be different.”

The inside of Urban Sanctuary yoga and wellness studio in Denver, Colorado
(Photo: Courtesy of Ali Duncan / Urban Sanctuary )

Creating a healing space for those who need it

Urban Sanctuary offers just that—a safe space for everyone, especially BIPOC yogis, to come together and cultivate a community free from shame and judgment. But the venture holds an even deeper meaning: Duncan’s studio is located in Five Points, a historically Black area of Denver that has endured immense gentrification over the years. Once known as the Harlem of the West, famous jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole would frequent clubs just blocks away from where Urban Sanctuary currently resides. A century before Duncan leased the space, the building functioned as a mortuary (hence the embalming room) and was thought to be owned by Lewis Henry Douglass, the son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The building later housed an upholstery shop, shoe shine, and pool hall—a place where Duncan’s father would occasionally gamble in the back room after hours.

“My dad would bring us down to Denver…to go to the Black church, like right up the street,” she recalls. “But he would always talk about Five Points.” When she was little, Duncan’s father told her about the violence in Five Points and warned her to stay away from the area. But when she was looking for a space to build a studio, the listing for 2745 Welton Street popped up on Craigslist. “I got full body goosebumps when I saw the outside,” she says.

Duncan says the building chose her, and now she’s trying to make it official. In September 2021, Duncan launched a GoFundMe to raise the half-million dollars needed to purchase the building, which would cement Urban Sanctuary as an established, Black-owned gathering place for communities that are often marginalized. In the last year, her energy work gained momentum with more Black clients booking appointments (which she offers to BIPOC on a sliding scale) and free BIPOC-only yoga classes.  For people of color, “I believe this type of healing is what’s needed,” she says.

But time is running out—the owners gave Duncan three years to fundraise, but the pandemic scared away her initial investors. “It’s been difficult,” she says. With a little more than $13,000 raised so far, Duncan is feeling the pressure. “It’s gonna be up to me to make this happen.” Determined to buy the building, Duncan took out loans with the hope that money from the fundraiser would eventually come through.

She is confident in Urban Sanctuary’s mission and knows how to find peace among the uncertainty. Instead of worrying about the future—which takes up so much of our energy, as Duncan mentioned during my healing session—she is focusing on the community she serves.

“Things are so mellow,” she says, “In my world…everything just coasts.”