Lauren Ash: In Pursuit of Purpose
In her collection of essays titled “A Burst of Light,” black feminist Audre Lorde writes, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The practice of self-care has become a ubiquitous topic in the 21st century, particularly crucial for those with a hand in social justice—those who must seek to protect themselves while also advocating for others. Twenty-nine-year-old Lauren Ash understands firsthand the necessity of safe spaces for marginalized populations, specifically women of color. Thus, she founded Chicago-based Black Girl In Om.
“I had to create something I didn’t see: an intentional space for women of color to breathe easy through practicing holistic wellness and self-care,” says Ash in her smooth, vibrato voice. Prior to launching Black Girl In Om, Ash had taken yoga classes as an undergraduate at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, where she grew up. She further embedded the practice into her life during graduate school at Purdue University, where she pursued a master’s degree in American Studies.
She noticed how rare it was to find instructors of color in the wellness community, and how few students of color were in her classes. This sparked Ash’s desire to create a dialogue around the idea of self-care for people of color, one that eschews the bourgeois associations and narcissism that often come with it. “Self-care doesn’t have to be your $150 yoga membership or green smoothies that you get from a co-op,” she says. “It’s deeper than that. It is fundamentally rooted in making sure we know how to sustain our spirits and that we can take care of each other.”
Ash then made her way to Chicago, where she enrolled in a yoga teacher training course and began hosting yoga sessions, which she titled “November Namaste.” It was in the midst of her yoga practice one day that the idea for Black Girl In Om came to her. The awakening led to an expanded collection of events with titles such as “Wednesday Recharge,” “Sol: Stay Woke,” and “Food Church.”
Home to various artists, musicians and authors, Chicago has historically been a site of migration where African Americans could find new opportunities. It offers the same rich possibilities today, as young black millennials, natives and transplants alike, are anchoring their talents and finding purpose there. Such is the case for Ash. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say it: I think Chicago is the place to be as a black creative right now. Particularly as a black creative interested in collaboration, impactful community work and catalyzing ideas.”
Her sentiments are corroborated by the recent successes of young Chicago-based artists of color. Shani Crowe, whose 2016 solo exhibition “Braids” was exhibited at Fountain Head Lofts in the Chicago Art District, gained the attention of Solange Knowles, who invited the artist to style her hair for her first performance on “Saturday Night Live.” Musicians, including Chance the Rapper and Smino, have risen to fame in the past two years. These millennials are carrying the torch handed to them by storied Chicago-based artists like Theaster Gates, continuing to push for creative freedom. “Many of my friends are black artists or creatives in some way,” Ash says. “It’s a black Renaissance right now.”
Black Americans routinely grapple with invisibility and inadequate representation in media and the arts, while a disproportionate number suffer from the effects of poverty, police brutality and lack of access to affordable health care. Furthermore, very few platforms that promote fitness, yoga or self-care are targeted at minorities. These truths cannot remain invisible once citizens become conscious of them, and it is this work of consciousness-raising that Black Girl In Om has undertaken.
“There are some people who are never going to be able to step into a Black Girl In Om session or any other physical space that prioritizes wellness and self-care for people of color” says Ash. It’s a challenging truth, but one that has not stopped her and fellow creatives from lifting the voices in communities of color, as Black Girl In Om persists onward.
Photography by Attilio D’Agostino