Tonia Crosby Created a Yoga Studio for the Community — But Can the Community Save the Studio?

“This class is about breaking rules,” says Ahmad Sawalmeh, the fresh-from-teacher-training yogi who’s leading tonight’s vinyasa flow class. “If you feel like doing a headstand while the rest of us are in down dog, go for it.”

The class’s theme is fitting, because Tonia Crosby has been breaking all the rules typically associated with Western yoga since she founded bhavana-collective in this building in the Cole neighborhood last year.

Accessibility: that’s one of her new rules. Since the first yoga studio was introduced in this country in the ’70s, yoga has grown to be a $27 billion industry. But Crosby eschews the $150 yoga pants in favor of letting those who can’t afford to practice elsewhere come to bhavana-collective for reduced-price — or even free — classes.

“Our campaigns don't utilize westernized images of the perfect yoga body and posture."

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She breaks traditional marketing rules, too, forgoing the popular imagery found at many American yoga studios. “Our campaigns don’t utilize Westernized images of the perfect yoga body and posture; we use images of real people who actually practice at the collective,” Crosby points out. Adds bhavana-collective teacher Sarah Lyons, “A lot of studios say everyone’s welcome, but when you look at the imagery on their posters, many people don’t see themselves represented.”

And the most significant way that Crosby has parted from tradition is in breaking the first rule of real estate: location, location, location! Crosby wants to serve the underserved; the Cole neighborhood is one of the most diverse in the city, with a demographic almost equally divided between Latino, African-American and white residents — many of them close to the poverty level. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me to open shop in a bourgeois neighborhood,” she says, “because that isn’t my style.”

Breaking rules creates challenges for a new business, and now bhavana-collective faces the biggest challenge of all: Crosby has had to leave Colorado to take care of her dying mother in Nebraska. But her teachers and students have stepped up to help, and are giving the yogi a lesson in the real meaning of community.

Tonia Crosby, who greets acquaintances and strangers alike with the salutation “Namaste, friend,” has long brown hair, bright eyes and a humble energy that’s nothing short of remarkable. With her tender appearance and wayward spirit, she doesn’t look or talk like the popular image of a revolutionary — but that’s what she is.

She grew up with her parents and sisters in Castle Rock, back “when Castle Rock was still a small town,” Crosby says, and her first memory is of a vacation in the mountains. Her dad had set her up with a pole at the edge of a lake, and Crosby was ecstatic when she caught her first trout — until the flailing thing tipped her off balance and pulled all thirty-odd pounds of her into the water. “I remember Dad scooping me out of the water, holding me up in the sky; I was so embarrassed at first,” Crosby recalls. “And then I looked around and realized my dad wasn’t mad — he was laughing.”

That’s one of Crosby’s better memories. “Mine wasn’t the prettiest childhood,” she admits. “Dad experienced a lot of trauma in Vietnam, and then he died when I was nine. That made our lives intense.”
Left to support the family alone, Crosby’s mother moved her children to a farm in Kiowa. They spent summers in Nebraska, on their grandfather’s massive cattle, corn and alfalfa ranch. When Crosby wasn’t developing her work ethic as a farmhand, she played softball, competing nationally in high school.

She started college in Greeley before transferring to what is now Metropolitan State University of Denver, and from there it was “Los Angeles for a bit, Southeast Asia, Peru, Costa Rica, and all over Central America,” Crosby says. “I’ve lived all over the world, but Denver was always my home base.” She lived in San Diego, too, while working on a master’s degree in Peace and Justice Studies, and it was her thesis for that program that first took her to India in 2010.

"I've lived all over the world, but Denver was always my home base."

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Crosby was staying in northern Goa, collecting ethnographic information on women in marginalized communities and their access to online social movements when, during her fifth month abroad, she found a lump in her breast. After she returned to California to finish her thesis, she was diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer. “It became stage IV cancer when it metastasized into my lymphatic system, which means it is incurable,” Crosby says. She moved back to Colorado to live with her sister in Parker and begin treatment. After three surgeries, Crosby refused any chemotherapy but agreed to join a targeted radiation clinical trial at the University of Colorado hospital.

“I felt like I was getting sicker,” Crosby remembers. “I knew I’d die if I didn’t leave. I was depressed beyond belief, and scared.” When two unacquainted friends both recommended a Tibetan physician in San Diego, Crosby called the doctor. Ten days later, she hopped on a plane and headed to Dr. Lobsang Dhondup’s office — mere blocks from the apartment she’d leased while studying in San Diego.

Crosby worked with Dhondup for two years, spending upwards of $500 every month to fly to California to see the physician who’d dubbed her “Wind Woman” for her nomadic spirit. But then on one appointment, Dhondup told her: “Okay, Wind Woman, it’s time for you to go and be a wind woman. I don’t need to see you again.”

“It was a shock, and I was crushed,” she remembers. “I couldn’t believe he was sending me away.” Her doctor might have discharged her, but Crosby says she wasn’t exactly cured: “I will live with cancer my whole life; it will always exist in my body in one form or another. It just isn’t dangerous as long as I’m taking care of myself.” Working with Dhondup, she explains, “shifted my entire perspective.”

She’d already drastically changed her diet; now she changed how she regarded exercise. “I’d practiced yoga for a nice ass-ana for a decade before I was diagnosed because I wanted to look good,” Crosby says. A marathon runner, she’d always thought she lived a healthy lifestyle, but Dhondup had set her straight. “He told me running was too stressful on my body, that I needed to learn to rest,” she remembers. “He said what I needed to do instead was find meditative movement for exercise, and that’s when I really started doing yoga.”

Cancer completely changed the trajectory of Crosby’s life. She’d been pursuing a career in international nonprofit humanitarian work because she thought she could make the most impact in a position of power. But she’d grown increasingly frustrated by how little impact big organizations seemed to have, “especially for people on the ground, who really need it.”

In 2013, Crosby quit her job as general manager at Hapa Sushi in Cherry Creek and returned to India — this time for yoga teacher training in the Ashtanga tradition at a school in a tiny town in southern Goa, a seaside Portuguese colony where Catholics and Hindus intermingle. She lived on the top floor of an old house with marble floors and wrought-iron-framed windows overlooking a cashew orchard on a hill leading down to the water; Crosby could smell the family below cooking curries while neighborhood dogs barked nonstop. “There was a Catholic school the equivalent of a couple of blocks from my apartment, and the kids came out every morning to sing hymns in the yard, and I listened while I drank my coffee,” she remembers. “I have this knack for finding spaces that are really cool.”

In India, Crosby got her strength back. When she wasn’t swimming in the Arabian Sea, riding a scooter through town or drinking milk from the cow a few houses down, she studied under several teachers, including Keshava Murthy, a “very mischievous, goofy little Indian man who was always making jokes but had these amazing insights into the world,” she says.

After 32 days of comprehensive yoga training, Crosby snagged a job at the school where she’d studied and started up a private practice. She finally felt like she was affecting others in profound ways and had “connected.” So she was totally unprepared when, after she described a dream to Murthy, he suggested it was time for her to move back to the United States. “Once again, I was crushed,” she says.

For weeks, Tonia Crosby had been dreaming about a brick wall. After leaving India, she landed in New York, and “I started looking for bricks in Brooklyn because it has a lot of brick buildings,” she remembers. “Nothing felt right, and I really missed my family. I just needed to go home.”

But back in Denver, Crosby felt “out of sorts,” she says. “I didn’t have any money; I was totally down and out.” Crosby’s sister and her best friend took turns supporting her. “I couldn’t get my shit together,” she admits. “I was back waiting tables, and it didn’t feel right. That’s when I started writing my business plan for the collective.”

In India, Crosby hadn’t just dreamed about brick walls. During her waking hours, she’d thought about starting a yoga collective, a place that would be open to all. And she’d brought that dream back to Denver with her.

“One day I was sitting in a coffee shop in RiNo looking on Craigslist,” she remembers, “and I saw an ad for this place in Cole.” The picture posted online was weird, and the place “looked like shit.” But fifteen minutes later, she was at the building at 37th Avenue and Franklin Street, and when the landlord opened the front door, she found herself staring at fifteen-foot-high brick walls. “I knew this was it,” she says.

The turn-of-the-last-century, L-shaped storefront had at various times housed a theater, a bar and a brothel. Crosby thought it would be a perfect yoga studio — a traditional shala like those in India, where a teacher lives in the yoga space — and she signed a lease for a portion of the building last May. “I was broke, and it was scary,” she says. “Still, money’s never been one of those things that keeps me from doing what I do. I always find a way.”

At first, that way was hard work. The property was littered with old cans of beans and cat food and pornographic videos, and it took her about $15,000 and two months of cleaning, scrubbing, painting, tiling and adding new windows to get the place ready for its (rather anti-climactic) grand opening. “It was all me in the beginning,” Crosby says. “There was no community then.”

Thanks to Crosby’s handiwork, bhavana-collective’s cheerful red doors now lead visitors past a string of Tibetan prayer flags into a sunny studio with wood floors, 3-D local art, rows of books and spare mats, blocks and straps.

Crosby built up her business by pounding the pavement. She went to every hyper-local coffee shop, school and restaurant she could think of to talk about the collective. She visited studios around town — “I’m a yoga whore, and I take classes all over the city” — and mentioned her plans. And she spent hours sitting on her front porch, waiting for people to walk by. “I also began taking private clients and was impressing people with that,” she adds. “And I fucking prayed — a lot.”

The students started rolling in.

From the start, Crosby wanted to make yoga accessible, “and I’ll walk away before that changes,” she says. She offered $10 drop-in classes, with the option of a ten-class, $90 package; nearly a year later, those prices are unchanged.

“Yoga’s caught a rap as being elitist and for suburban moms in Lululemon,” says bhavana-collective student Frank Moya, an attorney who has been coming from Lowry to practice with Crosby since meeting her while the two were practicing at Kindness Yoga Studio. “Tonia’s objective is to make yoga available to all.”

“Tonia is so earnest,” says Sarah Lyons, who’s been teaching at bhavana-collective from the start. “She’s genuine and welcoming and unafraid. She is one of the most courageous people I’ve met. Everyone experiences fear, and I know Tonia does, too. But she walks through that fear so gracefully.

“There’s plenty of yoga available for the regular population in Denver,” Lyons continues, adding that bhavana-collective caters to folks who “are seeking something more than just a workout. A lot of people are under- or unemployed and can’t afford a $16 to $20 drop-in class. People should be able to practice yoga without worrying about money.”

Bhavana-collective’s teachers are another point of distinction. “The way Tonia hires is wonderful,” says Crosby’s second cousin, Cindy Kochis, a regular. Prospective teachers are asked to do a community audition; after the class, students give their input by rating the instructor’s performance, and Crosby hires based on those reviews.

Since bhavana-collective opened last July, 375 people have walked through the doors; about sixty are now regulars. “I’d never done yoga before, and I’m not your regular yoga type,” says Kochis. “I’m a bigger person, and I always felt intimidated because I’m not a young, skinny blond girl.”

From her home in Littleton, it takes Kochis over half an hour to get to bhavana-collective. “It’s worth it every time,” she says. “Before I started yoga, I didn’t even like driving on the highway. I was so body-conscious. Working with Tonia, I’ve lost my fear and stepped outside of my comfort zone in some pretty major ways.”

Bhavana-collective is a diverse, inclusive studio for folks of “all income levels, races, ethnicities, shapes, colors and sexual orientations,” Kochis says. “Tonia makes everyone feel comfortable and included there. That’s the beautiful thing, really.”

That’s the thing that attracted Lyons. “Yoga didn’t just change my life, it saved my life,” she says. She’d practiced on and off throughout her twenties for exercise, but didn’t tap into the spiritual aspect of yoga until four years ago. “I was struggling with addiction and was totally disconnected from my body,” Lyons recalls. “I got sober, and at the time, I didn’t use a twelve-step program; that’s when yoga really clicked for me.”

Lyons got certified as a yoga teacher and brought Indianapolis-based Y12SR — Yoga for 12-Step Recovery — to Denver. She now offers the free class at bhavana-collective every second Thursday; the workshop begins with a 45-minute AA meeting, followed by a flow class. “When I started teaching Y12SR, I decided I should join a twelve-step program,” Lyons says. “It’s weird how one path leads to another.”

Lyons’s other gig is teaching Denver Queer & Trans Yoga. “Why’s that a thing?” she asks, then provides the answer: Walking into a mainstream yoga studio can be really intimidating, especially for people who don’t fit into a binary gender structure, and bathrooms are particularly tricky. “When you go to a yoga studio, you might have to use the facilities or change clothes, and not everybody feels safe in a place that doesn’t have a bathroom for them,” she explains.

Teachers at mainstream yoga studios often haven’t had diversity training, she notes, and they’re more likely to use gendered language while teaching. For example, a teacher might say that “Men tend to have really tight hips,” a comment that’s both unnecessary and false, Lyons says. Queer & Trans Yoga provides “a welcoming place where people can come and be themselves and not worry about being judged,” she adds.

Before she met Crosby, Lyons bounced around from one space to the next and was having a hard time finding a permanent home for Queer & Trans Yoga — in part because the class is donation-based. Lyons teaches the class for free, and any money collected is given to an area nonprofit of the group’s choosing.

Lyons heard about bhavana-collective last June, when Crosby was gearing up for her grand opening by advertising on social media. “I looked it up online and immediately knew it was different from a typical yoga studio,” says Lyons. She reached out to Crosby, who happily offered up rent-free space for both Y12SR and Queer & Trans Yoga, currently held at 7 p.m. every fourth Tuesday.

“It is very important to me to have space for communities that don’t have space elsewhere,” explains Crosby. “Sarah and I always keep communication open — even when it isn’t easy, even when there isn’t a resolution.”

Adds Lyons, “Tonia’s willing to educate herself, and she’s willing to go there to engage with people in a way that lets them know she’s truly an ally.”

The Cole neighborhood could use some allies these days. The area has been under scrutiny lately because of gang violence. Two weeks ago, 22-year-old Nolan Ware was gunned down outside a local church after his uncle’s funeral.

Bhavana-collective is currently the only yoga studio in the neighborhood. “Cole is across the tracks,” Crosby explains. “It’s this rough little neighborhood that people don’t know about yet — but they’re about to know.” That’s because the light-rail stop at 38th and Blake streets, part of the East Rail Line, is scheduled to open in 2016, opening up access to this area northwest of City Park. But in the meantime, Crosby notes, “Cole is the only place where people can still afford houses in Denver.”

Councilman Albus Brooks, who represents the district, has lived in Cole for eight years; he’s even a client of Crosby’s. “We’re very much aware of the gangs,” says Brooks. “The biggest challenge is that we have rival Latino and African-American gangs living literally a block away from each other.”

“I have this knack for finding spaces that are really cool."

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The city has expanded police presence in the neighborhood and is working on intervention programs, “to help young people come out of this lifestyle,” he says. But community-building is also pivotal. “The most safe communities are the engaged communities,” Brooks notes. “What gets us talking and connecting is assets — places where neighbors can come together. And one of our current assets is the yoga studio.”

“I’ve never had an ounce of trouble,” Crosby says of the neighborhood. “There are great folks in the area who have been working tirelessly for a long time to mitigate the violence and heal the community, and I hope to be one of those folks moving forward.”
She’s tried to attract more Cole residents to the collective. “There is a group of Latino women who come for the Friday beginner class,” Crosby says. “Only a few other people of color in the neighborhood come regularly for class.”

Price is one of the obstacles. “I’d already been giving yoga to people who couldn’t afford it, and then Cindy had her idea,” Crosby remembers. Last Christmas, her second cousin wanted to do something charitable. When Crosby mentioned that some folks in the neighborhood were interested in yoga but couldn’t afford it, Kochis and a few friends donated free classes.

After Crosby thanked Kochis publicly, others wanted to donate, too. Now whenever somebody wants to practice yoga but doesn’t have the cash, Crosby draws on a growing pool of donated free-class cards. She’s hoping to eventually establish a streamlined application process for would-be students — like one who recently lost her job but was able to continue yoga while job-hunting thanks to the informal scholarship program. So far, Crosby has handed out 170 free classes, and she plans to engage area nonprofits like Urban Peak and the Denver Center for Crime Victims, among others.

Given her goals, Crosby could probably structure her business as a nonprofit; instead, she’s gone the for-profit route. “I really believe we live in a world where I can make a living and keep a business open that’s purposeful,” she says. “I want to believe people will show up and we can make this thing succeed.”

Crosby’s kept her place going by running a private yoga and energy-healing practice and, until about two months ago, waiting tables at Hapa Sushi’s Landmark location. “After the bills are paid at the end of the month, I pay myself as much of a salary as possible,” Crosby says. In February, she took her first paycheck from bhavana-collective: just shy of $600.

“Her generosity inspires others to be generous,” says Lyons. On March 20, Crosby opened up her studio for a blowout Spring Equinox party, at which she introduced three new instructors — Ahmad Sawalmeh included — and raised a couple hundred bucks for the yoga scholarship fund.

Just days later, she learned that her mother had terminal lung cancer.
Fifteen years ago, Crosby’s mother had moved back to the family ranch in Nebraska when her own father was diagnosed with lung cancer. For years, Crosby and her mother had been trying to fix their relationship, which had been rocky since Crosby was a teen; now it was suddenly clear to her that if she wanted to resolve any remaining issues, she’d have to relocate to Nebraska for the short term.

But how would the collective keep going? “My private practice is the breadwinner for the collective,” Crosby says, “and so I launched a GoFundMe campaign to keep the studio alive while I’m gone.” In the first month, the collective received over sixty individual donations totaling nearly $4,000, and it wasn’t just locals pitching in. “People from all over the world have donated, from London to India, Singapore and Peru,” Crosby says. “Here’s the cool thing: It’s an amazing pay-it-forward opportunity.”

Unfortunately, what the campaign has collected so far is just enough to keep the lights on for another month or two, tops.

“It is very important to me to have space for communities that don't have space elsewhere."

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Crosby’s supporters are just getting started, though. “You can just feel the community coming together around her and the space,” says Lyons. The help isn’t just coming in the form of cash. Sawalmeh has become the caretaker for the collective and lives in the back apartment that Crosby had created for herself at the studio; Lyons is the unofficial PR point person. Together they’ve joined forces to keep Crosby’s vision going. Students, too, have rallied.

“We don’t know how long I’ll be in Nebraska,” admits Crosby. “I started asking myself those questions: What happens if I can’t keep the center open? But then I realized if I worry, I’m phony and not practicing what I tell everyone else.”

Lyons says she’ll do anything for the space — and for Crosby. “If bhavana doesn’t make it, that’s not the end of Tonia, that’s just the end of this chapter,” she adds. “Whatever else she does, if it comes to that, will be amazing, and I want to be part of that. She has so much passion; it’s infectious.”

“We’re going to keep going as long as we can,” Crosby says, “knowing our intentions are good and hoping the universe sustains us.”

For now, Crosby’s plan is to put her faith in the community she’s created and nurtured. “I have aspirations for the whole building someday, with a cafe, hostel and yoga,” she says. “It’s so important that it’s clear that this isn’t about me. It’s about all of the amazing people who come to the studio; none of this is worth anything without them. They’ve given me the ability to be with my mother right now, which is probably the biggest gift I’ve ever received.”

But while it may take a lot of incredible individuals to form a one-of-a-kind village like bhavana-collective, as Kochis puts it, “Tonia’s what brings everything together; she’s the heart and she’s the soul.”