Though Malliha Ahmad is a successful entrepreneur who already runs two companies — her creative marketing agency, Guud Social, and the 501(c) nonprofit Guud Soup, which seeks to support underserved communities through holistic healing — she and her partner Essence Wall, a yoga teacher and DJ, added another one to the mix when they created BLK Temple in May of last year.
Founded as a safe space for the BIPOC community (and invited allies), BLK Temple officially opened as a studio in January 2020, with programming from Ahmad, Wall and other teachers that included yoga classes, breathwork and meditation sessions, and an emphasis on holding space for women of color in a Black woman-run studio. In the Los Angeles yoga and wellness world, which is largely white, a place dedicated specifically to the BIPOC community was a welcome one.
Ahmad has been running Guud Social and working as a creative director for close to a decade, and she still supports herself solely through her work with the company, but felt the urge to expand further with BLK Temple. “Guud Social has been my sole provider for the past eight to nine years,” she explained, when we spoke over the phone late last month. “I’ve been able to work with everyone from corporate clients to startups to different influencers. And I still have that company, but I’m shifting gears at the moment. I wanted to find a way to really put all of my creativity into something as well as broaden the spectrum of things that we can do.”
Running a business together is just the latest step for the couple, who met in New York back in 2011. After reconnecting in 2016, Malliha decided to move to Los Angeles rather than try a long-distance relationship, and has been based in LA ever since. “I moved out here for Essence, who I initially met in New York back 2011,” she remembered. “We reunited in 2016, and our energy was still cosmic and powerful. She told me that she lived in LA, and I’m not really interested in a long distance relationship, so I picked up and moved. We’ve been together since — so basically four years here and four years with her.”
Outside of her work as a creative director, Ahmad is also certified as a breathwork teacher and is an avid meditator — BLK Temple allowed her space to share these practices, as well go further than just creative direction and dive deeper into ideation and events. The space was also a natural extension for Essence, who is an ambassador for Manduka, a popular yoga gear brand, regularly leads yoga retreats, and teaches at one of LA’s local, independent studios, One Down Dog.
“We decided at the top of this year, we were going to really create space and focus on the BIPOOC community — plus allies — and create a safe space where people can come and heal, thrive, empower each other, feel inspired, expand, and just really feel held in community,” Ahmad explained of BLK Temple’s mission. “When we started to have very regular programming, we were just servers of the space and of the people who showed up. We could really feel a shift in energy after everyone would leave any panel or event or workshop. So it was just rewarding and very soul-enriching to have that connection with our community.”
But barely two months after officially establishing BLK Temple, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Los Angeles began closing down public spaces in preparation for quarantine. The founders of BLK Temple knew their two-month-old studio needed to shift toward digital programming in order to better serve the community, although the inevitable transition was made with something of a heavy heart.
“This is a baby of ours that we only started cultivating in January, and now we’re really switching gears to create an online community since that is the most pressing thing at this time,” Ahmad explained. “It is a big shift for us because we were such a physical community-driven space that the online factor for BLK temple was very much just posting a flyer for the event. The beauty of us coming together was that if anyone felt weird or had questions or anything afterwards or wanted to talk privately, there was that open door policy of being able to say, ‘Hey, yeah, come let’s talk.’”
But, because of how isolating the circumstances of pandemic and quarantine can be, continuing to host the events in a digital format still felt important. Even if the shift to holding space and hosting events digitally has significant drawbacks for BLK Temple, especially considering the work they facilitate can be difficult or triggering for people who are stuck at home, and who might be there alone.
“It’s still very difficult, because how do you keep the authenticity while encouraging people to be vulnerable in the midst of intense separation?” Ahmad asked. “And we’re just seeing each other on screens. You also have to be very careful of how you say things because if someone’s alone and they start spiraling, no one is there with them. We can still follow up with people, which is what I’ve tried to do, but it’s still so distant. We’re still trying to navigate what that looks like, and how to be really mindful and careful as well as sensitive and tender around how to have healing events.”
Now, the BLK Temple offerings include regular weekly programming — guided meditation and light breathwork by Malliha every Sunday, and open level yoga flow guided by Essence every Tuesday — along with other events and conversations like tonight’s screening Creating Dangerously: Lessons From Toni Morrison, followed by a Q&A with DJ Lynnée Denise, and this Saturday’s conversation about allyship that goes beyond the current trend of support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of outcry against the unjust murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Currently, all the event programming is donation-only for BIWOC, and some events, like the conversation about allyship, are open to allies and aspiring allies.
As the country slowly and carefully approaches reopening, Ahmad is uncertain when BLK Temple will transition to hosting events physically again — and she envisions pop-ups will happen first — but regardless of modality, the primary goal of the project remains the same: reclaiming.
“If you go back and you look at our neighborhoods, there are lots of food deserts, lots of just lack when it comes to resources and nutrition,” Ahmad said. “And lack when it comes to wellness, yoga, when it comes to healthcare, everything — so it’s very important to show there’s an alternative. This may not be something that you’re used to. This may not be something that you’ve had access to growing up, or even just now. So let’s heal together, let’s educate ourselves and really pay homage to the ancestral healing practices that have been our birthright, that were taken away from us due to colonization. It’s reclaiming wellness, reclaiming ancestral rituals and reclaiming healing. It’s reclaiming community.”