BareSOUL Yoga’s founder creates a new collective centered on Black wellness
When Vicki Wise heard the news on Sept. 23 that the two police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, would not face criminal charges, she was angry. After a summer steeped in racial tension, it felt like yet another reminder that the lives of Black people — and especially Black women like her — aren’t valued in this country.
She wanted to do something to honor Taylor, so she put on a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, grabbed her yoga mat and joined dozens of other Richmonders for community yoga at the 17th Street Market in Shockoe Bottom. Now a public square laced with colorful string lights and lined with restaurants, the 17th Street Market was once at the center of the busiest slave trading post north of New Orleans.
The location for the community yoga class was no coincidence.
Ashley Williams, the founder of BareSOUL Yoga and Wellness, started hosting weekly classes here precisely because of its dark history. She wanted to invite the healing power of both yoga and community to reclaim the space.
And for Wise, this mission resonated. On that day, practicing yoga with a community of like-minded people brought her some peace. “I do believe that finding peace — that is an act of resistance in and of itself,” Wise says. “Being a Black woman in that space doing yoga — when you think of yoga, that’s not necessarily what you think of.”
Williams recalls that when she attended her first yoga class as a student at the University of Virginia. She was the only Black person in the room and felt like she didn’t belong. Later, when she started visiting yoga studios around the Richmond area, she often felt keenly aware of her otherness. “I couldn’t completely relax,” she recalls. She would invite Black friends to yoga classes, and they would say they didn’t feel like those spaces were meant for them.
With BareSOUL Yoga, which she started in 2017, Williams has made it her mission to create a space for Richmonders who don’t feel comfortable in predominantly white studios.
The coronavirus pandemic and the racial reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s death in June put the importance of Black wellness front and center.
The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on people of color, with Black people in particular dying at more than twice the rate of white people, according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker. Black people are at higher risk for diabetes, heart disease and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re also more likely to experience chronic stress as a result of racism, and this can have a profound impact on their mental, behavioral and physical health, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Research shows that yoga can be beneficial for reducing stress and improving emotional and physical well-being. And yet, the yoga and wellness industry in the United States — and Richmond — remains dominated by white women.
It’s an issue that had been weighing on Suzanne Burns, the owner of Humble Haven Yoga, for some time, and it had become even heavier last summer. “It was not new to me that there was not race equity in wellness spaces,” says Burns, who is white. “ I was trying to serve a holistic community, [but] we didn’t have a really diverse community that was showing up.”
Burns opened Humble Haven about five years ago in Shockoe Slip and in early 2020 expanded to a second location in the West End. But as the pandemic forced Humble Haven to temporarily shut down in-person classes and, later, operate at reduced capacity, and as Burns cared for her two young children at home, she decided to consolidate her resources in one location.
Burns and Williams, who formed a friendship after working together on trauma-informed yoga teacher trainings, had been having conversations about the importance of representation in wellness. Burns knew she wanted Williams to take over her vacated Shockoe Slip studio.
“She talks the talk, and she walks the walk,” Burns says. “She is authentic in her relationships, and at the same time never steers away from her mission, which is to bring yoga to communities that are underserved.”
After much reflection, Williams began to envision the space as a home for virtual programs, as well as an accessible space for meditation and small, in-person yoga classes. She envisioned selling products and artwork from local Black-owned businesses and Black artists. It would be affordable, with sliding-scale pricing.
Most importantly, it would make intentional space to foster Black wellness. “My first intention is to create a space of support,” Williams says. “How can I invite people into their own inner resilience?”
The space, which Williams has named The Well Collective, opened in November with the mantra “I am well. We are well.”
Yoga is about more than physical movement, says Ashley Williams, a yoga therapist and founder of BareSOUL Yoga and Wellness. It’s about creating space for rest in both mind and body, turning inward and finding joy regardless of external circumstances. Restorative yoga is slow and gentle, allowing the practitioner to stay grounded in a restful pose, often supported by a bolster, pillow or yoga block, for several minutes to encourage deep relaxation.
To make space for restoration, Williams recommends a breathing practice, a restful posture and a meditation.
Diaphragmatic breath, or belly breathing. From a comfortable seated or lying down position, place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Breathe deeply into your belly and feel it expand under your hand, while keeping your chest still. Exhale through your nose, feeling your belly compress. Repeat for six to eight cycles at your own pace. This form of deep breathing can help to calm the mind, access full lung capacity, and lower heart rate and blood pressure.
Supported fish pose. Place a bolster or pillow lengthwise on the mat. Lie with your back over the pillow and stretch your arms out to the sides. Take six to eight slow, mindful breaths. This position can help open up the chest and relieve physical tension.
Compassion meditation. This type of meditation can help you cultivate a kind space of awareness that includes yourself and others. Take six to eight slow, mindful breaths.