Meet Lauren Ash, One of the Most Important Voices In the Wellness Industry
With Black Girl In Om, Lauren Ash is spreading a powerful message to women of color.
Though an ancient practice, yoga has become more and more accessible in the modern era-you can stream live classes, follow yogis' personal lives on social media platforms, and download mindfulness apps to guide your solo meditation. But for some people, yoga-and the holistic lifestyle it promotes-remains as out of reach as ever, especially considering the fact that the set of modern women that has co-opted it has been predominately white, thin, and decked out in Lululemon. (A sentiment echoed here: Jessamyn Stanley's Uncensored Take On "Fat Yoga" and the Body Positive Movement)
That's where Lauren Ash comes in. In November 2014, the Chicago-based yoga instructor started Black Girl In Om, a wellness initiative catering to women of color, after she looked around her yoga class and realized she was usually the only black woman there. "Even though I enjoyed my practice," she says, "I always thought, how much more amazing would this be if I had other women of color here with me?"
From its start as a weekly yoga session, BGIO has grown into a multi-platform community where "women of color [can] breathe easy," Ash says. Through in-person events, Ash has created a space that's immediately welcoming to people of color. "When you walk into the room, you feel like you're with family, that you can talk about something that's happening within our community without having to explain yourself for it." She still guides the original Self-Care Sunday series, and BGIO hosts various other pop-up meditation and yoga events. Online, Om, the group's digital publication (created by women of color for women of color) does the same. "There are so many wellness platforms out there in the digital space, some that I love, but the audiences that they're speaking to aren't necessarily culturally specific," says Ash. "Our contributors share all the time how powerful it is knowing that the content that they're creating is going to someone just like them." And with her podcast, Ash is able to take her message to literally anyone with a smartphone or computer and internet access.
As BGIO approaches its third anniversary, Ash has become a crucial voice in the wellness world. Plus she recently signed on as a Nike trainer, so she's poised to take her message to a larger audience than ever. She shares what she's learned about diversity (or the lack of it) in the wellness world, why bringing health and fitness to women of color is so important, and how changing your life for the better can impact so many others.
Yoga may be for every body, but it's still not accessible to everybody.
"As a yoga student, I looked around and I saw that there were very, very little women of color in the yoga spaces that I occupied. And I rarely, if ever, within my first two years of practicing, had a black woman guiding a session. When I started BGIO and the Instagram account shortly after, I didn't see enough representations of black women practicing yoga, or black women in general just loving on each other and being positive with one another. I created it because I wanted to see more of it, and I thought it would be such a beneficial and beautiful thing for my community. There's a lot more diversity in the wellness industry than ever before, and certainly more than when I started three years ago, but we still need more of that.
"I've heard stories from people in my community where they get mistaken for the cleaning lady at their yoga studio or people ask questions about why they're wearing their headscarf in class; just a lot of stories about culturally insensitive interactions or questions. That breaks my heart because yoga is a space that's supposed to be for wellness and for love; instead, we're being triggered. So for me to create a space that's culturally specific so that women can enter and feel an immediate sense of belonging, family, and kinship rather than wondering if they're going to have something happen that's going to make them feel worse about themselves, that's really important to me."
Representation is key to more diversity.
"What you see in the world is what you believe you can do. If you don't see a lot of black women teaching yoga, you're not going to think that's an opportunity for you; if you don't see a lot of black women in a yoga space practicing yoga, you're like, well, that's not what we do. I've received so many emails or tweets from people who have said, because I saw you do this, I've become a yoga teacher, or because I saw you do this, I've started practicing mindfulness or meditation. It really is a snowball effect.
Mainstream spaces-and when I say mainstream, I mean spaces that aren't overtly culturally specific like mine is-can do a lot more to make it clear that there is space for every body. Perhaps they start by hiring people who don't look like who we usually think of when we think of yoga. Making sure that their staff reflects diversity as much as possible is only going to then signal to their communities, hey, we're here for every body."
Wellness is about so much more than cute Instagram posts.
"I think social media can make wellness look like this really cute, pretty, packaged thing, but sometimes wellness means going to therapy, figuring out how to work through depression and anxiety, dealing with a childhood trauma in order to really understand who you are. I really feel like the more that you deepen your wellness practice, the more that it should actually change your life and be, like, shining out from who you are. People should be able to know you're who you are because wellness plays a part in the choices that you make in life-not because of what you post on Instagram." (Related: Don't Be Intimidated By the Yoga Photos You See On Instagram)
Figuring out what fulfills you will change your life.
"My true belief is that wellness can be a lifestyle, that it can be central to all of the decisions that you make. And I believe that living your life by your values is also a part of wellness. For me, BGIO is a manifestation of that. I was on the 9-to-5 grind and realized I was not finding fulfillment in a job, in working for something else. When I asked myself what else would fulfill me, I always came back to yoga. And it was exploring and deepening my yoga practice that led to the creation of this platform that has already impacted so many people's lives for the better. Regardless as to whether you're a woman of color or not, I hope people look at this BGIO and say, oh, wow, she was able to identify what gives her life and it has given others life-how can I do that as well?"