Skip to contents
Coloradans

Kindness Yoga called out: Weakened by coronavirus, 9 studios close after Instagram campaign exposes rift over race

A hashtag led to hundreds of cancellations just as the company was readying to reopen. But some teachers wonder how closing down helps Denver’s yoga community make progress.

A photo posted to the Kindness Yoga Instagram account in November 2018.
  • Credibility:

Patrick Harrington is sitting on a rock high on a hilltop, using his bare feet to push his flip-flops around the sandy gravel, his head in his hands.

The owner of Kindness Yoga, and one of the most well-known yogis in Denver, is struggling to piece together the words to explain what happened — in the span of a week — to his once-stellar reputation and his 19-year-old business. He is stunned, though remorseful. He is eager to speak up, yet on edge for fear of saying anything that could make all of this any worse.

”My goal is to represent our attempts at being a diverse, inclusive place where people felt like they belonged,” he begins, slowly. “I may not say things perfectly … I’m practicing learning how to speak in a way that is more inclusive and caring of diversity.”

Kindness Yoga founder Patrick Harrington talks to The Colorado Sun at Denver’s Central Park on June 25, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Harrington, a straight, white guy who expanded Kindness to nine studios and 160 employees across metro Denver, announced last week that he was closing them all after a handful of yoga teachers, including a Black woman and a transgender man, called out Kindness on social media for “performative activism” and “tokenization of Black and brown bodies.” The teachers’ public comments, following a Black Lives Matter post on Kindness’ Instagram page that they termed too little, too late, evoked a backlash that was fierce and immediate.

Within 48 hours, as the nightly protests over police violence unfolded around the Capitol in Denver, just three blocks from Kindness’ Capitol Hill studio, the yoga company received nearly 400 emails from students who were upset, including many wanting to cancel their memberships. A week later, the emails had reached 800 and counting. Harrington has yet to read all of them, but with each one he opened, the direction his already precarious business was heading grew ever more clear.

June 1, 2020

Already operating in the red, Kindness was struggling to make it through the three-month pandemic shutdown. The membership cancellations were more than the business could withstand. Harrington and his wife, Cameron, are now putting their Denver home on the market to dig out of the financial hole.

“It happened like an avalanche,” said Harrington on Thursday, as he sat at the highest point of a park in an east Denver neighborhood now going through a name change because Benjamin Stapleton, the former mayor it’s named after, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. “I felt like it was an out-of-body experience.”

Harrington, 47, announced June 19 that Kindness was closing and that it would not reopen on July 1 as planned. The membership cancellations made “what was going to be a monumental task in reopening near impossible,” he said in an Instagram post and email shared with his 1,300 members and hundreds of other drop-in yoga students. He apologized to the yoga teachers who said Kindness wasn’t a safe space, and said he had no “ill will towards the former employees (from) whom I am learning humility and listening.” 

“I hear you and I will do better personally.”

“White friends and allies” not invited

Kindness Yoga, which began in 2001 with one Cherry Creek studio called Yoga Energi, had an outward reputation of inclusivity — with its earthy studios in Capitol Hill and Hilltop, gender-neutral bathrooms and person-of-color yoga nights where “white friends and allies” were asked to “respectfully refrain from attending.” Kindness held an LGBTQ yoga workshop just weeks before the pandemic forced the studios to close. 

June 9, 2020

The company’s donation-based model meant that all were welcome, regardless of their ability to pay. “Yoga is first a spiritual practice and second a physical practice, and just like our religious and spiritual institutions you don’t have to pay to go in,” Harrington explained. 

But outside the public space of yoga class, some teachers who identify as gay or trans or as BIPOC (Black or Indigenous people of color) were asking for change and said they got no meaningful response from management.

The grievances aired on social media in the last several days described — with few specifics — a culture where the voices of minorities and LGBTQ teachers were not heard. In interviews with The Colorado Sun, yoga teachers Jordan Smiley, who is Indigenous and transgender, and Davidia Turner, who is Black, said the white management team at Kindness was not willing to put in the work to make change.

For example, Turner said, the board of directors declined to hire an outside diversity expert as she suggested, instead “cherry-picking” certain diverse members of the staff that they felt comfortable talking to about race and inclusivity. After hearing that Kindness’ website was too white-centric, management then invited people of color and other minorities to an hours-long yoga photoshoot. They were accused of “tokenism.” 

In retrospect, Harrington says, he wishes Kindness had not staged photos but instead had sent a photographer to any of its classes. 

After the photoshoot for minorities, several instructors expressed their outrage. And when Turner told the then-CEO, a white woman, that it was not the job of her minority employees to fix the culture, the woman began to cry, Turner said. 

June 19, 2020

https://www.instagram.com/p/CBnes-dlddL/

Turner, 29, resigned from Kindness after the company’s Black Lives Matter posts, criticizing Kindness for what she termed “performative activism” — meaning that Kindness touted the movement on social media but didn’t do enough in real life to expand its community beyond white culture. She also pointed out a lack of diversity on the company’s board of directors, which until this year, was all white.

Turner also posted a video to her blog, railing against the former CEO’s tears as well as Harrington’s expression of “sadness” regarding her resignation. 

“The weaponizing of sadness and tears is infuriating,” Turner said in her viral video. “It is one of the more insidious factors of white supremacy and whiteness. And it is used as a tool and as a tactic to make me feel in this Black body that I have done something inherently wrong to bring this sadness upon you.”

Davidia Turner, who resigned from Kindness Yoga on June 17, 2020, is starting her own yoga business. (Photo by Holly Hursley, provided by Davidia Turner)

On her Instagram account, Turner asked her 4,520 followers to continue calling out not just Kindness but other yoga studios. “This is a rallying cry for every white-owned yoga studio to step the (expletive) up and be better,” she wrote. In a post called “action steps,” she provided Harrington’s email and phone number and requested that people not only ask Harrington to “provide reparations” to his minority teachers, but to cancel their yoga memberships.

Turner, who would only agree to an interview with The Sun via email, said she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support after her social media posts, including from yoga teachers and students in other cities. “That has been really inspiring to know that my voice had such a far reach,” she said. “I’m also extremely hurt by some of the responses I’ve received blaming me for Kindness’ decision to close its doors.”

Turner noted that Kindness already was in debt before she spoke out. Harrington, she said, “insinuated in his apology that I and others who spoke out are responsible for Kindness closing, which is not accurate,” she said. 

June 19, 2020

https://www.instagram.com/p/CBjVXNFl1mY/

Turner is starting her own yoga business, where she can “center the healing of Black, Indigenous and POC folks,” she said. “I want to divorce myself from the white, Western yoga studio model and expand beyond a physical brick and mortar studio.” 

A seed fund on her website has surpassed $7,300 so far.

Smiley, too, plans to start a new yoga enterprise after working at Kindness for five years. He’s calling it Courageous Yoga, and will focus on “body-positive” work and “voices that have been on the outskirts.” 

Yoga, with its roots in southern Asia, is a practice of not just individual spiritual growth, but community growth that can lead to social change, Smiley said. White-owned studios in the West have distorted yoga into foremost a physical practice, instead of a mental one, and have instituted a preference for a certain body type, color of skin, ableism and athleticism, Smiley said. 

“And that is not the message of yoga,” he said. Smiley said he has been speaking out at Kindness for years and that management only “reacted to discomfort” when teachers asked to make the place less centered on the healing of white people. He said he was not supported by managers after a student harassed him and that managers told him “that as a trans body I had to dress differently than the rest of the staff.”

June 10, 2020

Smiley, however, said his goal in speaking out was to push Kindness to “undergo some serious inclusivity work.” 

“That was not my hope for the company, for it to shut down,” he said. 

Neither Smiley nor Turner talked directly to Harrington about their complaints before the Instagram posts. Turner said she followed the “chain of command” and talked to other managers instead. Smiley said talking to Harrington “would be a danger to my mental health.”

No “graceful exit”

Other Kindness instructors, including people of color and one who identifies as LGBTQ,  told The Sun they were shocked and heartbroken about the closure, and upset that a handful of teachers chose to hold a “trial by Instagram” instead of choosing to work with Harrington.

“For me, the most hurtful thing about this, … is Kindness not having a graceful exit,” said Sam Abraham, a 64-year-old Kindness yoga teacher who is Black. “Yoga is a healing place. Why didn’t you go talk to him?”

Abraham, who moved to Colorado from Eritrea in 1982 and began practicing at Kindness in 2001, said he never experienced racism at Kindness. 

“As a Black person, I have been asking this myself the last few days: How come I never felt it? How come I never experienced it?” said Abraham, who is a father of two and a retiree from the City of Denver. “I’m not shy. If I catch you doing something, I am going to call you out.

“I didn’t see it. I loved the place — that’s why I made it home.”

To Abraham, Kindness felt like it was owned by its teachers and students. They set the tone for its culture. Some students paid as little as $1 to attend a class because that’s what they could afford, he said. 

Kindness Yoga founder Patrick Harrington talks to The Colorado Sun at Denver’s Central Park on June 25, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Harrington, who left Kindness in the hands of his management team while he lived in Costa Rica for three and half years, returning in mid-2019, admits he has more to learn about white privilege. He’s working on it, including reading the book “White Fragility” this month. He’s also planning a community forum to help business owners, yoga and otherwise, work through inclusivity and diversity issues. 

Yoga studios in Denver and beyond are watching what happened to Kindness with alarm, he said. 

Harrington knows the company flubbed its social media posts after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police. 

Kindness’ Instagram posts, handled by a marketing team, are scheduled weeks in advance, so as the nation was reeling from Floyd’s death, and protestors were taking to the streets on the last weekend May, Kindness sent a silly Instagram post asking followers about their favorite game. 

The response from the public was not good. On the Monday after Minneapolis streets were filled with fires, June 1, Kindness realized its error and put up a Black Lives Matter statement. “We believe whole-heartedly that Black Lives Matter and want to support the black practitioners in our community in whatever ways we can,” it said. About a week later, Kindness invited its students to a weekly conversation called “Unlearning Racism.” 

Turner resigned soon after and started a new Instagram hashtag: #calloutkindness.

June 17, 2020

Harrington, who filled up the room when he taught a yoga class, says now that he didn’t understand the depth of Kindness’ role on racial issues.

“I didn’t realize the responsibility that our organization had to be a voice for matters of race,” Harrington said. “And it happened so fast that when we tried to speak … it showed up as performative, or too little, too late.” 

He also was in the middle of trying to reopen studios after the coronavirus, and had managed the spending of $300,000 in federal coronavirus aid that paid his yoga teachers for eight weeks of the shutdown. 

What happened to Kindness, Harrington said, is a “symptom” of a broader, societal problem of using social media to create change. The conversation is too shallow. And he wonders how the closure of Kindness will help improve racial injustice or discrimination, asking whether other studios will now step up to hold person-of-color-yoga nights and LGBTQ-only workshops. 

“Did our community in Denver gain something by Kindness Yoga closing its doors?” Harrington said. “I struggle to understand the benefit of this outcome for white people, people of color, LGBTQ+ people. I don’t see the benefit of taking us down this way.” 

After a beat, he added: “My privilege could have me blind to that. I’m trying to learn.” 

The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.

This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.