The vision was so persistent.” Aya-Nikole Cook, the director and founder of the Haji Healing Salon, has been an entrepreneur for many years and pursued multiple projects, but nothing has driven her as much as her vision for the community healing sanctuary now located in Bronzeville.
Hajji is an honorific title given to a person of Islamic faith that has completed the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of thousands of faithful Islamic people travel to Mecca each year to fulfill this divine duty. This journey, or <i>Hajj</i>, is a testament to their faith, devotion and love for God. While Cook is not Muslim, her dear friend who is of Islamic faith gave her that title out of respect for her spiritual devotion and love. She also sees herself as being a spiritual pilgrim or traveler through life.
Life is an unavoidable journey. We learn every step of the way on our individual paths and form relationships with others who are on their own paths. “Hajji Healing is like a beacon of light for all people” who are on life’s journey and seeking healing, said Cook. Haji Healing goes deeper than the more popularized self-care rhetoric like hydrating face masks. A path of healing and spirituality is not easy, but it is available to anyone with the courage and open heart to step on the journey. The good news is that there is a community of individuals or “travelers” on their own path who you can draw strength and support from.
Haji Healing compels us to not only see, but also experience and find joy in the fact that we learn and heal best with community. Most importantly, through practice and people on your side, Haji Healing urges us to realize that we have more tools to live healthy and wholesome lives than we realize. A healthy and wholesome life is available to us within ourselves and right in our surrounding environment.
These lessons, that are “woven into the fabric of Haji Healing,” are fruits of wisdom that come from Cook’s own lived experiences and past teachers. “I learned that the purpose of community is having people who can bear witness to your journey, so our healing is not complete until it’s witnessed by our community.”
This rang true for her when she was diagnosed with fibroids, which are small tumors that develop in the uterus. After her surgery, as she faced the most arduous part of her healing process, an eight-week period during which two insistent dear friends offered to take care of her, despite Cook arguing otherwise.
Although she wouldn’t usually let others take care of her, Cook realized that she could let go with her friends and truly get the rest that her body and mind needed. “I could just release,” she said. Most importantly, Cook learned that she “cannot heal alone.” After all, inspiration to walk the path you are on can take you a long way, but you can go so much further with support.
Cook’s health ordeal was not only eye opening and humbling—it was instrumental for her vision. In 2015, she was called to Chicago for a residency with Arts & Public Life Creative Business Incubator, an initiative of the University of Chicago. At the time, she aimed to create a healing space for women who were suffering with fibroid tumors.
The space featured healing practitioners Cook invited to teach about multiple healing modalities, plant-based nutrition and natural healing. She also invited doctors to speak about surgery so that the women who came had a broad spectrum of options and information for their healing. The space ran for about four months and was so successful that people began asking for more than she offered. So, her vision expanded.
Cook began to envision a space where all healing modalities could be practiced at the same time. During the last month of her residency, she created a wellness center that would run for thirty days using resources and support from her residency. But when her residency in Chicago ended, she moved back to Oakland with no intention of moving back to Chicago. “The mountains and oceans in Oakland were everything,” she said.
Of course, there is no place like home, and Cook, who is from South Shore, cares deeply for her roots in Chicago. While she was away, her vision of a healing sanctuary in her homeland kept nudging at her. Even though she did not know how she would manage such an enterprise or where the resources would come from, she kept on envisioning a healing sanctuary during her meditations and healing sessions.
After ten months away, she had a strong feeling to return back to Chicago that couldn’t be denied. She moved back to Chicago with only a vision and faith that all would work out as it should.
This was no easy task. When Cook returned to Chicago, she thought she had secured a guaranteed space in Washington Park, but when that agreement fell through, she began scouting for yoga spaces from friends, past instructors and old connections. Eventually, she found a pop-up space in Chatham. “It was not the vision yet but I was determined to make the most of it,” she said.
She primarily held yoga lessons, meditation sessions, and invited her personal acupuncturist for the acupuncture sessions. Cook’s time in this space only lasted a few months. “The keyholder was unreliable, some mornings he was there and other times not,” she said. Out of frustration and pure determination, she took her few yoga students to her home for yoga classes. She created a “speakeasy” space in her house where not many people knew that she was hosting classes. Nonetheless, she was fully booked every Sunday and did this for a full year.
“My living room was for yoga and the dining room was used for acupuncture,” she said. One fruitful year had passed when she got the call from the landlord of the space she had been using in Chatham, who offered the space to her again.
The timing was perfect. The small 1600-square-feet space in Chatham was suddenly filled with so much potential. Cook enlisted the help of her father, a carpenter, as well as her own artistic skills to create a new healing sanctuary in the neighborhood. Two years later, as the pandemic started, she moved classes online while beginning to work on a space in Bronzeville, a community that she knew was experiencing revitalization led by many Black entrepreneurs. The space offered in Bronzeville was larger and felt perfect for her vision, and officially opened in 2021.
So, again, Cook continued in faith. “I go where I’m called,” she laughed.
One of the most important values for the Haji Healing enterprise is to maintain sustenance both for her students and the sanctuary itself. From the very beginning, Cook has emphasized the importance of remaining community supported. This way, the prices of classes and healing sessions could remain low, and the community bond is strengthened.
The classes and healing sessions paid for rent, utilities and insurance. “It was simple math. I had no money and no loans so I planned for every single class and session to contribute to bills,” she said. This also provided incentive to expand, so she invited practitioners of other healing modalities like Reiki Masters, Tarot Card readers and Body Workers.
Inviting several practitioners to share the space lowered costs, but most importantly, it made the services provided to the community more accessible. For example, acupuncture usually requires multiple treatment sessions to be effective. With lowered costs, members can come for treatments more frequently—some even weekly.
Clearly, along her journey, Cook has always had provision and other people to make the vision of Haji Healing a reality. In her own words, Haji Healing is a “story of grace.”
“When you form relationships, then it becomes a community. That’s a whole other level of support and sustenance. You can do anything with that.”
Cook is a wellness curator. Like a museum or an art curator, she leaned on her background as an artist to design the Haji Healing Sanctuary “artfully and with intention…to make everything beautiful.”
The healing begins as you walk into Haji Healing. You are met with a gorgeous and refreshing display of a plethora of lush and healthy plants of different sizes and species. There are large windows looking into the sanctuary, letting in ample sunlight. It feels like a mini breathtaking forest.
The walls are painted with a moderately dark blue hue which makes the space feel even more expansive and refreshing. As I stood marveling at the plants, Cook reminded me that when we “take care of life, life takes care of you.” The wall to the left of the plants is filled with a wide range of products such as plant seeds, incense, and herbs.
Behind the plants is a beautiful display of body and facial products because “it’s just as important to be conscious of what you put on your body as what you put in it,” according to Cook. My personal favorite portion of this half of the sanctuary is the book shelf located behind the plants that is filled with a range of books concerning spiritual and bodily well-being.
In the other half of the sanctuary, separated by a large sliding barn door, is the space where most of the community healing occurs. On one side there is a beautiful arch-like structure used for acupuncture with vertical open gaps so it is not completely secluded. The open spaces of this arch allow for beams of sunlight to come through and shine beautifully onto the larger open space next to it. The larger open space is reserved for communal healing sessions like meditation, yoga, sound healing, dance, oracle reflexology, Nidra yoga (deep rest), festive events and monthly meetings with members.
Within the walls of this beautiful space, community takes shape through the communal practices. Imagine, for example, having an acupuncture treatment and just a few feet away there is a sound healing and meditation session with other community members at the same time. This is important, according to Cook, because when there are multiple healing practices occurring at the same time, “there’s a nexus of energy created when people heal together and simultaneously.” Also, simply bringing a friend or family member to the sanctuary can be helpful for those who are unfamiliar with these practices.
Clearly, the birth of Haji Healing is a testament of vision, faith and courage. It also represents the richness and infinite potential of Bronzeville and the South Side, which is rich with community and community members like Aya-Nikole Cook who build beakers of light and well-being. They remind us that we can lean on each other and that leading a healthy life, both internally and externally, is especially accessible to all through community.
Tebatso Duba is a curious, dedicated, life-long student and Lake Forest College graduate. Tebatso was born and raised in South Africa and is currently an aspiring lawyer and legal scholar. This is their first story for the Weekly.