Interview by Celeste Scott
Photos by Deun Ivory
It’s safe to say that Lauren Ash is the epitome of Black girl magic. Not just the trendy, coconut-oil-soaked, Instagram-baddie kind. Lauren Ash embodies the kind of magic that Black women inherently possess—the kind that builds an empire out of sticks and stones, that creates a city with just a few bricks. She started Black Girl In Om just a little over three years ago out of a need to create a space by Black women for Black women. More than just a fantastically curated Instagram feed full of inspiring Black women, BGIO is a movement that is radically intent upon promoting holistic wellness and inner beauty for women of color. BGIO accomplishes this by connecting women of color in the online space through avenues such as the BGIO podcast and #BGIOMindful Twitter Chats, as well as Self-Care Sunday sessions often led by Lauren, herself, in Chicago. In addition to having created the village that is BGIO, Lauren is also a Nike Trainer and co-founder of Lifestyle with Ivory and Ash.
The work that Lauren has done in her various capacities has had a tremendous impact on my own personal creative journey. It was just about a year ago that I stumbled upon the BGIO Instagram. It wasn’t long before I became an avid listener of the BGIO podcast and frequent reader of the BGIO online publication, which led me to an awareness of the integral nature of the Black, creative experience. Lauren’s mission and work has revealed to me, and undoubtedly, so many other Black women, the value in sharing our stories.
I was lucky enough to catch Lauren for a quick phone call before she hopped on a flight to LA for a three-week yoga training program. She shared some insights into her personal growth throughout her journey as a visionary and creative entrepreneur, as she pioneers the way for so many women of color in spaces of wellness and creativity.
Celeste: I kind of stole this question from one of your older podcasts, but as of right now, who would you twerk with and why?
Lauren: Who would I twerk with? (laughs) All of my best girlfriends! I think I’ve learned a lot in the past year, especially from my friend Abena [Boamah] from Hanahana Beauty, that it’s amazing and important to just, like, let loose and dance by yourself, and dance in communities of amazing women who look like you and who understand your journey and your past.
C: How have your friendships changed throughout your journey as a creative entrepreneur?
L: My deepest friendships honestly go back to college. To me, there is only so much depth I can get in relationships that don’t really affirm my blackness and what being a Black woman means. I’m so grateful to have had two of my best girlfriends’ relationships really deepen when I was in grad school in a predominantly white space. We always talk about how, before we really knew what self-care looked like, we really found it in one another because it was such a white, conservative space. We really provided a safe-space and safe haven for one another back then.
I’ve also developed a series of relationships with other Black women entrepreneurs and Black women visionaries, like Deun Ivory and people like Abena who are also very aware of the challenges of being a Black woman and entrepreneur. We are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S.. However, we’re the least likely to be funded. That means that we support one another. To be able to have someone like Deun, whose life is just as fast-paced as mine, but who finds time to support my projects and vice versa, to create new projects with me, like Lifestyle with Ivory and Ash—that question is like asking me why reading is important. Quite honestly they're literally everything to me, and even though my community and support has definitely grown by the thousands, and tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands, my group of support and true friendship has honestly gotten smaller and more intentional.
C: I love how you talked about how your friendships were a form of self-care before you even realized that self-care is important. Why do you think it’s important for Black people, Black women specifically, to cultivate spiritual and mental health with everything going on in the world?
L: It’s vital because we’re quite literally being attacked, in one way or another, every single day.
It’s a consistent attack on our minds, our spirits, and our bodies. It’s just something I think that I’m really passionate about it because of all the reasons why self-care is so important – everything from making sure that we’re grounded and centered, and everything from connection to our ancestors, connection to ourselves, connection to our higher selves and God: all of that is inherently ours.
I think recent conversations that I’ve had with Latham Thomas, whose book we focus on for our first BGIO Book Club “Own Your Glow”, really emphasize how all of this spirituality, all this wellness, and all of these things appear right now to be new and cute and the “hot new thing”; that’s always been ours. It has always been here for us. We deserve it. I think that's why I’m so big on culturally specific spaces for us because, not because we can’t enter mainstream, i.e. white space, and still get our self-care on, but because there’s often distractions of various kinds in those kinds of spaces. There’s just such a power in what happens when we all come together and are able to see ourselves reflected in the space and experience an immediate sense of belonging rather than wondering if we’re going to be accepted or truly be able to focus on ourselves when we’re in those kinds of spaces.
C: How do you navigate the overwhelming white self-care and wellness world as someone who has specifically dedicated her work towards people and women of color?
L: I’m just increasingly clear on who I am and what I do, because I certainly do receive and participate in opportunities outside of the work that I do with Black Girl In Om. For example, I’m a Nike Trainer and I do a lot of work with Nike, even outside of that. I'm in this really amazing group of diverse, creative women called Air Society Chi; we activate different events within Chicago rallying a lot of women around fitness, health, and creativity. At the end of the day, people are always like, ‘hey, that’s Black Girl In Om’. People know what I'm about. I don’t really rearrange what I do or why I do it to make other people comfortable. I’m just myself in all the spaces that I occupy, and very clear about the work that I do and why I do it.
C: Do you ever get people questioning ‘why Black women?’ or ‘why are you focusing on this specific group of women when you could be focusing on all women?’ And if so, what is your response to those people?
L: Honestly, I hate that question. I hate that it comes up a lot in interviews too because no one’s going over to the mainstream yoga space and saying, ‘why are mostly white people here? Where are the people of color?’ But I understand it – because it’s the world that we live in.
But, I mean, I’ve gotten those questions very marginally. Some people are surprised by that. I’m not. I think that those who gravitate towards the work understand why it’s important. It’s called “Black Girl In Om” and that’s very much rooted in who I am, first and foremost. Striving to be a Black woman that is able to pick myself back up when I need to and use the resources that are very much around me to take care of myself in a preventative sense. So those who resonate with that and also want to cultivate that lifestyle are gonna be down with it, and those that aren’t can go do their own thing elsewhere.
C: In the past year the idea of self-care has become really popular. However, communities of color often shy away from self-care, fearing that self-care means spending a lot of money. How do you combat that mindset?
L: I do it really intentionally through Black Girl In Om. All of our self-care sessions that we’ve offered since day one have been accessible and affordable. We have volunteer for trade opportunities. All of our sessions are still under priced according to the industry standards. Many yoga studios that you go to offer classes for $28 plus. And you don’t get the same kind of soulful experience that you get when you come to BGIO Self-care Sunday with us. They are often much more focused on fitness of the exterior.
I also do it very intentionally through our visual representation of what self-care looks like. That’s always been something that's very important. Our first art director, Zakkiyyah Najeebah really helped shape that, and now Deun Ivory has elevated us to the next level. Our entire team of ten women contributes to dismantling the misconception that self-care is a $60 mask or a $100 massage. It’s meditation, which is free, in your own house. It’s journaling, which is free and takes some intention on your end, but can always provide perspective, or release, or awareness. It’s cultivating relationships with other Black and Brown women. The list goes on. You certainly can put a price behind self-care, but you don't have to. I feel like we literally front that on every single angle. On our podcast, on our social media platforms, literally everywhere, we’re debunking this myth.
C: When was the first time you felt like you really accomplished something in your work either with BGIO or any of the projects you have under your belt?
L: Every single time someone shares their gratitude for the platform that I have cultivated and/or created, that is substantial to me. It’s only in those individual people who tell you what it has meant to them, you know. I wouldn’t know otherwise. And it’s especially amazing when I receive a very personal email or DM where people are detailing how Black Girl In Om has changed their lives, like literally changed their lives. That’s amazing to me. No amount of likes on a photo compares to a personalized note. Knowing that you changed someone’s life, especially a Black woman’s life, that’s everything to me. Because I started it because I needed it myself. I didn’t start this thinking of this moment that I’m at right now, where there are hundreds of thousands of women of color around the world impacted. I didn't even know that was going to happen. I knew it was going to be big, but I didn't know what and how. So, just knowing that it’s impacting people’s lives is major.
The podcast has been incredible because the audio landscape is still overwhelmingly white. And the topics covered aren’t typically topics that relate to transformation, your self-awareness or holistic wellness. To be able to serendipitously create this podcast that’s already reaching tens of thousands of women per episode is wild and amazing to me. It’s something that my friend, Abena, recently teary-eyed, thanked Deun and I about because at its essence, the BGIO Podcast is a conversation between two Black women who are just talking about their lives. It’s one of those things where, I think sometimes we can forget, and I’m guilty of it too, that when a Black woman is producing something that’s rooted in her life, it’s literally sacred. Deun and I are having these conversations with other women, and these conversations are not edited in the way that many others shows are. We’re literally going in, having these raw, unfiltered conversations and then sharing it with the world. It’s something that has been resonating really deeply with so many women and I think in part because not every woman of color has access to a community of supportive Black and Brown women.
C: How have you seen yourself grow personally with the growth of Black Girl In Om and some of the other projects you’ve been working on?
L: I have grown so much. I’m entering into 2018 and my 30th year with personal growth at the center. When I started Black Girl in Om, I started it right after yoga teacher training. I was really enthusiastic about starting to create a space for people of color, Black women in particular. I was practicing yoga all the time, [and I was] really really jazzed about it. Over the course of the past few years, as I’ve grown as an entrepreneur and as I’ve grown my team, I’ve also ebbed and flowed in my own self-care practice. When you have nine people to check in with every week, when you have a podcast to create and release, when you have a blog post to put up, when you have Self-care Sunday to make sure runs smoothly, when you have a playlist to make, oh and then we have an event that we’re going out to St. Louis for, and then oh, someone wants to interview me…Then it’s like, where’s my own time? And so, I’m literally leaving for LA this afternoon for three weeks to really re-center myself.
Our tag line for Black Girl In Om is ‘creating space for women of color to breathe easy’—I’m taking that and applying it to my own life. Every morning I want to ask myself, ‘How can I create space for myself to breathe easy?’ Because in creating that space, I’ll be a better person in service of the mission, in service of all the people who are impacted by the mission, better in service to my team. I want to do a radical thing next year, which is to have many hours of self-care in a day and see how that impacts the work. I think we’re so often taught that we have to grind and just work, work, work and create, create, create and it’s like you have to give yourself room and space to breathe in order for the work to be at its best. Because life is short, you know? So, I’m just trying to reject those notions of the hustle and what entrepreneurship looks like and really take care of myself so that I can be invested in this in the most meaningful way possible.
C: As a visionary, how do you effectively work on a team, while maintaining a strong personal vision?
L: When I first started, I was thinking it was just going to be me. And that’s incredibly limiting. I can only say that in a personal sense. But what I’ve seen is that any time you invite someone else in or respond to someone else who's eager to contribute their talent and their voice and their perspective, it expands the capacity of the vision.
The podcast, for example, is a result of a conversation that I had with James T. Green, a friend of mine and also the co-founder of Postloudness, our podcast collective. We explored ideas, and he shared ‘well if you want to start it, we can support you’. If I hadn't been willing to have that conversation, the podcast wouldn't even be in existence. We wouldn't have our #BGIOMindful Twitter chats which bring together hundreds of women of color every month around really inspiring and necessary conversations had a prior team member on our social media team not suggested doing that. There are so many aspects and layers to Black Girl In Om right now that were someone else’s ideas or activated because of someone else’s willingness and expertise to do so.
We also have team values. The team values are one thing that I developed after a series of conversations and questions with some of our team members about a year and a half ago. All of the values are very central to who we are. We strive to abide by these values to really remember how we want to work with one another, how we’re holding ourselves individually accountable to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be, and how we can be best in service of the vision. We literally do so much magic with incredibly limited resources. Everyone on the team is also highly entrepreneurial and has projects outside of BGIO too, so it’s pretty dope!
C: How do you avoid spreading yourself too thin while working on multiple projects?
L: Black Girl In Om is really my heart and soul. I want to start sharing my journey more as a means of inspiring others. I recently had this revelation that my overall purpose is to inspire and awaken and encourage other Black women. That's my purpose at the end of the day. It doesn't matter what platform it’s based in. If Black Girl In Om were to dissolve tomorrow I would still find a way to do all of those things in service of Black women. In order to do those things I need to share my story and I need to share my narrative more. So, I’m going to start writing my first book in 2018.
C: That’s so exciting!
L: Thank you!
C: Could you tell me a little bit about Lifestyle with Ivory and Ash?
L: Lifestyle with Ivory and Ash started after Deun moved to Chicago. I was so excited that she moved. When she moved here, it was already a given that she was going to start contributing all of her amazing talents to Black Girl In Om.
What we didn't expect is that we were going to start building another project together. And that was a result of me commissioning Deun to create a really beautiful illustration for a mindfulness session that I guided. When she created it, I was like ‘wait, this just needs to be a thing.’ We just need to be creating illustrations and beautiful mantras that people can be inspired by, particularly Black women, because that’s who we’re passionate about.
It’s really beautiful because while we’ve been a little bit quiet with it in the past several months, the intention is still there. People are still reaching out for custom projects and we’re like wow, we need to do this' because having more reminders for Black women of mindfulness, of gratitude, of love, or self-love is still very radical. I would say in 2018 we’re definitely going to be prioritizing more collections, more offerings, hopefully some more experiences as well because we’re really passionate about talking in person and inspiring other Black women. We’re actually flying out next week to Syracuse University to do just that.
C: I actually purchased two of the cards for a friend and gifted them to her for her birthday. And she still has them!
L: That's amazing! We want to always create something that you want to keep forever. We’re all about longevity and making that long standing impact. Even our first collection, “Gratitude”, we created that out of a space of need because we were really going through it in the fall of 2016. And we were like, 'wait this is our struggle, this is our challenge, so why don't we create out of that and create messages that we need to see on a daily basis and then see how other people sit with it, and still it’s resonating'.
C: What advice do you have for young, Black creatives who find themselves in predominantly white spaces?
L: I love that question. I would say patience is a virtue. Because the very things that I now look back on and was like lamenting – like ‘oh, I grew up in a predominantly white space and how I went a conservative college and grad school and oh blah blah blah’ – those things shaped me too, you know? Those are some of the reasons why I’m so passionate about being a Black woman and about having spaces that center Black women and our joy and self-care and wellness. Sometimes you don’t know how the experiences you're going through, which you’re not loving at all might be building your character and directing and showing you what your purpose and contributions to the world might be.
I would also say that I get so many women who are reaching out to me saying, ‘I want to start a similar platform and tell me how you did it!’ Literally, you just do it. You say, ‘hey guess what world, I’m gonna have some Black girl meet ups over here, if you’re interested come through’. That’s literally the origin behind every single thing I’ve done. I just started it. I have never had a lot of money or resources to start these things. I think people are like ‘oh my god everything’s so beautiful’. And it’s like yeah, because I have a team of people who create beautiful things, but we don't have a lot of resources yet we’re literally still in the beginning stages of things. And I have a lot of support, you know? So, I would say, sometimes you have to create your committee of support and you have to be patient in doing that. All of my friendships are rooted in us having similar experiences and us really sticking through all of these challenging times together and supporting one another and developing trust and mutual affirmation. And that takes time too, you know, developing friendships that are rich and meaningful.