Jordan Smiley didn’t know he wanted to start a yoga studio until the coronavirus hit.
As he watched the pandemic and social justice movements unfold, he saw the need for a studio in Denver that would continue intense conversations happening over Zoom and center on Black, Indigenous and queer leaders. As other studios across the city have shuttered during the past five months, he opened Courageous Yoga on July 25.
The initial class was a joyful reunion, he said, because it included some people who formed friendships in his Zoom classes and met in-person for the first time.
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“As Denver started to emerge out of quarantine, there was a desire for this community to stay intact, so I proposed that we get a physical space,” Smiley said in an interview with The Denver Post last month. That space turned out to be the studio formerly occupied by Kindness Yoga, at 1280 Sherman St. in Capitol Hill, with its large windows and bright, airy rooms for classes.
With coronavirus restrictions, each session is limited to 13 participants and an instructor, with no walk-ins, Smiley said. He added that people must wear masks and use hand sanitizer, and instructors created sequences that don’t use props or other shared objects. Staff members also clean between classes and leave the windows open to keep air flowing in the space.
Courageous Yoga also is part of a larger reckoning occurring in Denver’s yoga community, which is grappling with heteronormativity and a lack of diversity, Smiley said. Before the pandemic, he taught at Kindness Yoga, which came under fire for alleged mistreatment of queer and nonwhite instructors. All nine of its locations were closed in June.
Smiley said that when he started teaching his own yoga classes over Zoom during quarantine, he watched people open up about the failures of Westernized yoga, connecting it to social justice and activism around Black Lives Matter. He said these courageous conversations prompted him to open his own studio and inspired the title of the business.
“Yoga’s values apply to societal structures around us,” Smiley said. “One of the well-meaning but really harmful tendencies of the Western yoga complex is to focus primarily on self-care. Although self-care is really beneficial, if we don’t look at the other layers of our relationships … then we’re not looking at the whole picture.”
Now, participants can sign up for a variety of yoga and meditation classes, including traditional Vinyasa, meditation focused on social justice, and West African dance.
Smiley wants to create “accountability groups” where members read books, go to protests and take other actions to interrupt oppression as a team. He emphasized that one of the values of yoga is minimizing harm, but without understanding how factors like white privilege impact other people, individuals hurt others unintentionally.
With a focus on making the space accessible, Smiley also decided to use a “shared pricing” model where participants have the option to pay a minimum, intermediary or suggested amount. Classes cost at least $8, $16 in the middle and $22 for a donation. He said people who can spend more have been willing to help cover the cost for other participants.
Smiley already has eight certified instructors who are queer or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous or people of color) on his team. Though the classes are open to all students, he said he aims to create a space where marginalized identities are leading the conversation about yoga.
“As we recognize that there have been some illnesses, some erasure and some exclusion inside of this community, we have to look to the people who have been on the periphery to correct and heal those wounds,” he said. “It’s critical that we prioritize bringing Black, Indigenous and queer voices to the front, because they’ve been on the periphery for a long time.”
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