In the early days of my yoga practice, when I was bunched up in an awkward ball, my limbs bent at odd angles with ligaments unable to fully extend, I used to watch from an aching side stretch as the women and men around me smoothly walked their bodies over their mats, flowing with a grace it seemed my stiff, inflexible muscles would never achieve. I was fragile in those early days, my body and my ego. If someone had said to me, “maybe yoga just isn’t for you,” I would have packed up my $10 Target yoga mat and never returned to that practice.
Between the incense, the group oms, the crowded rooms hot with other people’s sweat, it’s a wonder that anyone new to the modern yoga class sticks with it at all. Couple that with an unfortunate elitist attitude and an inaccessible price point that accompanies many studios and it becomes easy to understand why yoga can feel downright impossible.
Courtney Smith, founder of Thug Yoga in Aspen, Colorado, is on a mission to challenge that elitist yoga mentality and create a space where anyone can practice.
“Thug Yoga is an alternative way to get into yoga,” she said. “It’s designed for the person who thought they would never do yoga or never wanted to do yoga.” She laughed as she excitedly explained the fundamentals of the practice.
“We call it the gateway yoga.”
Courtney Smith in "Reverse Chug" pose
Photo credit: Jesse Hoffman
After traveling the world for various jobs and practicing yoga everywhere she went, Smith returned to the states landing eventually in Aspen, Colorado. She worked at a ski shop in town, practicing yoga in the early mornings in the back of the shop.
Smith worked with all men at the shop, and despite seeing her practice every morning, she said, “they had every excuse under the sun for why they wouldn’t do yoga.”
They’d tried other classes, Smith explained, but they felt uncomfortable. They didn’t like the music and the stifling heat of the more popular hot yoga practices.
But worst of all Smith said, “Some of the guys had been told that maybe yoga isn’t your thing.”
When Smith heard this, she said, it hit hard.
“Every single person on the planet can do yoga. It doesn’t have to be the fancy Instagram posts with hands stands.”
She started working with her ski shop friends by inviting them to the classes she taught at the Aspen Club and she said they quickly found enjoyment in her style of teaching.
“They said to me, ‘if we could have our own space and our own studio, we would do yoga.’”
Smith began teaching classes at the ski shop, moving the racks of clothes on wheels to the edges of the shop every morning so she and her small following would have a place to practice. Classes were capped at a maximum of $10 and focused on flows designed around the musculature involved in snowboarding.
During class, Smith played hip-hop music, let her students drink a beer and created new names for poses that were easier to remember––like Snoop Downward Dogg.
Courtney Smith in Thug Yoga's "Snoop Downward Dogg" pose, with the Dogg Father himself
“One day,” said Smith, “This guy comes in and sees all of these snowboarders in their baggy clothes and goes, ‘what is this, thug yoga?’”
After that, she said the name stuck. Looking up the origins of the word, Smith found it was rooted in Sanskrit and Hindi, referring to a people cast out and given their own space by a merciful sultan.
“Thug means we’re not the traditional yoga people,” said Smith.
This is the way Smith and her following practiced for a few years––in a ski shop, gathering whoever they could to join. But when Jayne Gottlieb, a well-known yoga instructor, opened a studio in Aspen, she found Thug Yoga and invited Smith into her space.
When Smith explained to Gottlieb the less traditional style of Thug Yoga and the occasional spilled beer, Gottlieb said to her, “I don’t care. You can clean things up.”
“She actually gave us our first studio,” said Smith. “She’s been absolutely awesome.”
Students in Thug Yoga's "Brazilian Landscape Inspection" pose
Photo credit: Seth Beckton
Thug Yoga classes are later now, typically running around 7:30 pm to accommodate those working retail jobs. Drop-ins for a single class are still never more than $10 and mats and beer are always included.
Despite a little more recognition and full classes even in the off season, Thug Yoga has managed to maintain the core of its foundational beliefs.
“Anyone, any level, any age has access to this amazing science, this amazing tool. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it,” said Smith. “Ultimately the right yoga will find you.”
Learn more about Thug Yoga and Smith's practice here.
Creative Writer & Journalist
Anja is a professional freelance writer living in Boulder, Colorado. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and appears in such places as Terrain.org and Zoomorphic magazine. Keep up with her at anjasemanco.com.