In Yoga, Carving Out Safe Spaces for Women of Color

Photo of Lauren Ash by Sterling Miller

As you're hunched over in front of your computer or phone right now, just take a moment to stretch. Reach your arms out, roll your neck a little. Now, doesn’t that feel good? I have to remind myself sometimes that my body is made to stretch. Someone who knows a lot about making your own body feel as good as possible is Lauren Ash, founder of the online yoga-centric magazine and event group Black Girl in Om.

Lauren founded Black Girl In Om in 2014, after completing yoga teacher training and realizing an urgency to create more safe spaces for women of color to breathe easy. Publication of the online magazine started in March 2015 and Black Girl in Om is now on their seventh issue, the theme of which is healing—a lot of their articles focus on identity and self-care. I talked with Lauren about the power dynamics behind self-care while she was heading to New York Fashion Week to lead a workshop on guided meditation.

Photo by Tamon George

SARAH MIRK: You say on your website that training as a yoga teacher made you want to create more safe spaces for women of color in yoga. Can you tell me about how doing yoga training made you think about the issue of needing safer spaces?

LAUREN ASH: Absolutely. I first started yoga teacher training two summers ago. I did so because I noticed a general invisibility of women of color in the yoga classrooms—everything from the yogis practicing alongside me to the people who were guiding the yoga experience—And even though I had recently moved to Chicago and saw definitely more diversity in the yoga classroom, it still wasn't enough for me. So I went through that experience knowing that coming out of it, I wanted to do something. When I initially started and signed up, however, I just honestly did it because I wanted to learn more about yoga, but from the first day to the very last day, it became really clear to me that I was super passionate about creating something really major that had to do with cultivating holistic wellness and cultivating the yoga practice in particular for, by, and with more women of color.

Self-care is obviously a very important concept, but in recent years it has also become a marketing buzzword. Ideas like mindfulness and self-care have often become ways to sell products, to say, “You have to buy this thing to be the most mindful!” How do you try to talk about self-care and yoga in a way that's not just like, “Buy this next thing!” and that balances your need to get paid with not making self-care super commercialized?

Right. Wellness and self-care is absolutely trending right now, and especially that intersection between wellness, healthcare, and technology, and to be honest, I have to admit that I'm actually—in many cases—I'm a huge fan of that. I think that utilizing technology to support self-care practice in ways that feel healthy and mindful makes sense. We are living in a very modern age that's very advanced, and technology can often support our self-care and wellness journeys. But what you speak to in terms of commercialization—kind of making it trendy and like a buzzword and just another way to make a dime—I think that's definitely something that we need to be talking about and thinking about more, especially as wellness practitioners. I personally strive to always find ways to keep the classes and the sessions and retreats that we're going to be doing here as accessible as possible. Because at the end of the day also, for many of us, this is a career as well. It's not just a hobby. It's not just a side job. I think that it's amazing when you can find that perfect balance of making a decent living off of this while also not putting somebody else at a disadvantage simply because this is the next cool, trendy thing, and that you know that you can price it at a certain dollar amount that will oftentimes put people in the hole.

Why do you think wellness is so trendy right now? Why is mindfulness such a hot seller these days?

I think for so many reasons—especially when you look at the United States and the popularity that it's particularly having here in the West—I think one major thing is that we are over-burdened, right? Especially as a millennial—which I am and a lot of our followers and our community at Black Girl In Om are millennials as well, millennial women. We have really only been taught to work, and we've been taught to work really, really hard, in particular, in all ways. You know the whole work hard, play harder mentality? It doesn't even say anything in that phrase about rest, rejuvenate, restore. And so I think that a lot of millennials in particular are really interested in finding ways to recharge themselves and relax and be able to take a break from all of that, the work that we've really been taught is the most important thing to do.

What advice do you give to people who are trying to make yoga spaces more inclusive and more welcoming to all kinds of people?

Something that I always share with fellow wellness practitioners who are interested in creating more inclusivity and cultural competency and awareness in their spaces is something quite simple: just to get to know people. In so many yoga studios, you walk in, you walk out, you maybe look the instructor once in the eyes, but they don't know your name, they don't know who you are, they don't know anything about you. So making those small steps needs to happen. To connect with someone in an authentic way, leads to sometimes really beautiful, authentic connections that you wouldn't otherwise have. In addition to that, I think it's absolutely imperative for more staff and teams at yoga studios to have conversations about diversity, about racism, about oppression, and how those same systems and same dynamics still very much come up in the yoga studio. Just because we're practicing yoga doesn't mean that we don't carry those things around with us in our interactions with others, in small but also in large ways, so simply having those conversations with the staff, and to understand how to mediate that and to eliminate it within the yoga classroom, I think, is really important. 

For more about wellness, race, and identity, check out the recent self-care episode of Bitch's Popaganda podcast. 

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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