By Sadé Carpenter Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Lauren Ash, a 200-hour yoga certified teacher, established "Black Girl In Om" (BGIO) in 2014 after a series of serendipitous encounters. The holistic wellness lifestyle brand "creates space for women of color to breathe easy."
On a mild Sunday last May, I walked into a room filled with black and brown faces. Women with shea butter-kissed skin and tresses ranging from afros to twists to braids to locs perched on yoga mats, some stretching, others sitting serenely, looking around the room in anticipation.
Apart from my sister at my side, I didn't know anyone there. Yet, I immediately felt a sense of community. I immediately felt at home.
We sat in a large circle. One-by-one, moving counterclockwise around the group, we introduced ourselves and shared anecdotes about our experiences with mental health.
Some teared up as they shared long-ago and recent traumas. Others celebrated accomplishments and stories of renewal, triumphant testimonies.
I was one of the last to share, and sat in awe of the strength and sincerity on display among strangers. I spoke of feeling a constant state of transition, physically, mentally and emotionally, over the past year.
I spoke of feelings of loneliness in the absence of black female friends where I lived. The words caught in my throat and I was surprised by the tears forming in my eyes. I rarely emote that way, especially when surrounded by people I've just met. But that's the power of Black Girl In Om.
"The overwhelming thing that I hear literally every single session from at least one person is ... this idea of never have I ever entered a space with like all black and brown women ... being in a space of positivity and affirmation and vulnerability," said Lauren Ash, Black Girl In Om founder and executive director. "It's not just a yoga session. People don't know that. ... I'm always, even though I've been doing this now for three years, so pleasantly surprised by the amount of people who just go there immediately."
Ash, a 200-hour yoga certified teacher, established Black Girl In Om (BGIO) in 2014 after a series of serendipitous encounters. The holistic wellness lifestyle brand "creates space for women of color to breathe easy." This space manifests in the form of a monthly Self-Care Sunday series, Om, an online publication featuring stories categorized under mind, body, soul and space, a podcast, new book club and a gorgeously curated social media presence that reaches women of color far beyond Chicago.
Ash was working an unfulfilling 9-to-5 job when she decided to complete yoga teacher training to focus her time outside work on something more meaningful. She said she was in a yoga class when the phrase Black Girl In Om came to her.
"I started to just kind of like reflect on what does this mean, what does it mean for me to be a black woman in a very white, traditionally white space?" she said. "Like literally just looking around and seeing that I was more often than not the only woman of color and you know, rarely if ever had a black woman guiding class. ... I knew what it felt like to actually be surrounded by other women of color in a space and like that feel-good kind of familial kind of energy. I was like, 'Why can't that be in a space like this?'"
At the time new to Chicago, Ash started sharing her idea with different people as she formed new relationships. At the Silver Room block party, before it moved from Wicker to Hyde Park, she met Chicago artist RJ Eldridge. He connected her with cultural curator Janice Bond, who would become instrumental in Black Girl In Om's emergence.
"I was at my job in the middle of the day on Facebook procrastinating, of course. And I see Janice post something ... and it said something along the lines of 'Hey, I have a couple hours in my afternoon if anyone wants to sit down and share an idea with me and strategize something with me. My door's open.' "
Ash shared her idea with Bond, explaining that she hoped to launch Black Girl In Om in six months to one year. Bond told her she could do it in two weeks, and offered her South Loop condo as the space for Ash's yoga sessions.
"(From) the moment of me deciding to do yoga teacher training, which, by the way, I signed up the day that it began, to the moment where there was this very supportive you know, black woman who was like you can use my resources ... both of those moments I think are very key."
BGIO Art Director Deun Ivory was in Houston when the lifestyle brand started following her on Instagram. She says she had a girl crush on Ash, "I mean she thought I was poppin', I thought she was poppin' "but was shy about initiating a conversation. A mutual friend encouraged them to connect, and Ivory would eventually move to Chicago and join the BGIO team.
"From day one, I was passionate about Black Girl In Om," Ivory said. "Before I even joined the team, I had visions of my own, they can be doing this, they can be doing that. So I feel like it was my own baby in a sense."
Visit the BGIO website or Instagram page, and it's immediately clear this is a brand created by women of color, for women of color. It's a real-life representation of Solange's song "F.U.B.U."
"This shit is for us."
Ivory and Ash are refreshingly, boldly, dedicated to this mission.
"I'm a really big advocate of us telling our own stories. There's a difference between, like, creating something about black people for white people. So I'm really intentional and always rooted in that philosophy," Ash said. "I know that that's what Deun's work is grounded in, too, representing black women through photography and illustration. And doing it with black women in mind. Not doing it like, are these white people gonna like it? If they like it, cool, but if not, that's cool too."
"One thing that we preach a lot is just being unapologetic about your blackness," Ivory added. "I create for a purpose. I'm serving my black community. If I'm gon' serve y'all, I'm gon' serve y'all in whatever space. I never want to feel threatened at all to just abandon my people for the sake of being you know, featured here or hired there or whatever. We intentionally have black women in mind at all times, regardless of what the cost is."
Ash and Ivory strive to make wellness affordable and accessible for women of color. Self-Care Sunday classes cost $20, and BGIO has collaborated with other Chicago groups and spaces, like skincare shop Scratch Goods, to offer free or inexpensive programming.
The BGIO podcast features conversations on topics including nutrition, mindfulness and meditation. Both say their viewpoints on holistic wellness have changed since Black Girl In Om.
"For one, I didn't think that ... it was something I could access. I thought you had to have a lot of money," Ivory said. "It's not language you hear, especially where I'm from. All of that has changed for me. That's what we want other black women to be exposed to as well. Girl, you ain't gotta have all the coin."
Because of the prevalence of trauma and mental health issues in the black community, Ash stresses the importance of incorporating more preventive wellness practices into a daily lifestyle.
"Hopefully Black Girl in Om can provide that for you, whether it's Self-Care Sunday or listening to the podcast and receiving some uplift, or whether it's like reading an article from one of our amazing contributors who share how they were able to be supported in their mental health journey," she said. "We're not the cure-all for everything, but it's like we are one resource that I believe is very powerful in a holistic sense for those in need."