CHICAGO -- 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.