Representation Matters: Creating a Space for All

Ready to put your money where your Om is? Lauren Ash, founder of Black Girl in Om, shares six ways to make your studio more inclusive.

As the founder of Black Girl In Om, the leading contemporary lifestyle brand and global community invested in black women’s wellness, I recognize that our movement has sparked more, much-needed attention to inclusivity within the wellness movement more broadly. For this I’m both grateful and proud.

It’s no surprise, then, that I receive many questions in interview settings and casual conversations with fellow yoga teachers and owners of wellness-focused initiatives related to inclusivity. The advice that I provide is rooted in both my personal experience as a black woman who for years navigated yoga spaces as “the only one”—the only woman of color and also the only black woman.

We know that representation matters. What we see represented racially and ethnically within any space, a hot topic as of late, can tremendously affect our sense of worthiness. I’m so pleased that my awareness of myself being the only one within my yoga classrooms only led to my increased determination to do something about it. In 2014, I earned my yoga teaching certification and began holding space for women of color shortly thereafter. A safe space for women of color to breathe easy. A space that encourages, rather than discourages, self-identified black and brown women to recognize in a tangible way that wellness is and has always been ours.

Photo by Arik Cardenas at Wanderlust 108 Dallas, 2018

Looking to create a more inclusive space for people of color in your mainstream yoga studio or wellness center? Here are my suggestions to get started.

Take an honest assessment. This is step one. Who frequents your studio now? Is your space representative of the real world? Especially if you live in a multicultural, metropolitan city, there’s an opportunity, and I would argue a responsibility, to do all you can to invite your space represent that city and the larger global community we all call home. As part of this assessment, analyze your team and leadership. Do the people nurturing your space illuminate racial and ethnic diversity? Have you taken intentional efforts in your hiring practices to attract a racially and ethnically diverse team?

Be intentional. Hopefully, as a wellness-focused space, intention guides the work that you do. Begin, or seriously continue, to let it guide your efforts around racial and ethnic diversity within the community and team aspect of your decisions. Getting anxiety just thinking about this? Hire someone to help. Put your money where your heart is and prioritize creating a more inclusive space. Warning: Not all “social justice” facilitators or workplace diversity experts are created equal. Do the research and identify someone who may make you and your team feel a bit uncomfortable, and someone who has proven to guide other likeminded organizations through effective change. Rule of thumb: Hire a person of color.

I want to stop hearing horror stories from people of color who step into a yoga studio or attend a wellness retreat only to experience trauma.

Invite community feedback and ideas from “the only ones.” If the studios that I have frequented over the years actually asked for my opinions about how they could create their studio into more of a safe space for people of color, I would have gladly shared with them. Never has this happened. Doing so signals your care. Taking action after the feedback, which can also be gathered anonymously, signals it even more. Do the work to build authentic relationships and demonstrate your willingness to better your understandings of yourself, the world we live in, and your particular community.

Hire people of color as more than just the cleaning staff. And pay them equal to their white counterparts. I’m serious. Economic equity matters on a micro- and macro-level. And you will sleep sounder at night.

Talk to your colleagues within the wellness industry about the efforts you’re making. Because change on a larger level is needed. I want to stop hearing horror stories from people of color who step into a yoga studio or attend a wellness retreat only to experience trauma. Bring it up at your happy hour that you’re intentionally learning about systemic racism and how it even shows up in spiritual, healing spaces. Tell your prospective employee during an interview that you treat everyone equally and even go out of your way to especially get to know the people of color who enter because to even step into your space signals a brave act on their end. Be ready to have the conversations. Your privilege protects you; which is a luxury people of color do not have. As a black woman, having these conversations with white folk can be exhausting, annoying, and at worst dehumanizing.

Go out of your way to especially get to know the people of color who enter because to even step into your space signals a brave act on their end.

Acknowledge when you’ve messed up. And apologize. Publicly, when appropriate. But only if you mean it. There are deeply saddening stories that are not mine to tell about wrongs against people of color working at mainstream wellness spaces. Sometimes there were apologies. Sometimes the apologies came too late. Sometimes the apologies were given individually, but a larger conversation amongst the community could have led to some critical change and awareness.

What efforts have you taken already that you would add to this list? This is a crucial conversation for those of us striving to create more healing and transformation during a time where racism continues to rear its ugly head even within spaces where we affirm the divine light in all beings. Let’s only say namaste if we live and feel it.

Lauren Ash is a wellness visionary, yoga and meditation teacher, creative writer, and founder of the culture-shifting lifestyle brand synonymous with black women’s wellness—Black Girl In Om. Through BGIO, Lauren creates and cultivates meaningful experiences and content for a hugely marginalized community. From the BGIO podcast—which has reached more than half a million listeners—to holistic self-care retreats, Lauren considers her work an act of compassion, belonging, and ultimately a space she once needed and didn’t see. Lauren was recently named at the top of ESSENCE’s list of “33 Self-Care Sistahs That Helped Redefine Wellness in 2017” and declared “one of the most important voices in the wellness industry” by Shape.