Ashley Zhou ’23 on mindfulness and her work with The Pelican
BY JACQUELINE PRIMO LEMMON
For many in the SPS community, walking from one building to another — whether between classes, on the way to dinner, or to and from clubs and activities — is a chance to catch up with friends. For Ashley Zhou ’23, it’s often when she’ll squeeze in some brief walking mindfulness, paying deliberate attention to her movements and staying present in the moment.
“I make mindfulness a part of my daily life through formal practice and ‘informal’ practice,” Zhou says. The formal practice means daily meditation and yoga in the mornings; the informal mindfulness exercises are between classes or even when brushing her teeth. “Oftentimes, people think of meditation as something you need to devote a great effort to or squeeze in time for in order to start, but really you can meditate anywhere, and it can be very brief.”
After early exposure as a young child, watching and playing along as her mother practiced yoga, Zhou began to develop her interest in earnest to help with her father’s chronic back pain. “I taught him specific asanas, like the supine spinal twist, to try to help. He felt like his back pain was much more alleviated, and I realized so clearly the therapeutic power of yoga,” says Zhou. She became a certified yoga instructor at 13.
As a Third Former, Zhou had the opportunity to stay at an ashram in Florida and learned a lot about mindfulness and meditation as she navigated the strict practice schedule and diet there. Zhou’s perspective on mindfulness was further sharpened in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic: traveling to Beijing and having to isolate for two weeks gave her a new understanding of those in long-term quarantine — including people in nursing homes, substance abuse patients and the left-behind children of migrant workers — and a desire to help. In August 2020, she founded the Youth Alliance for Mental Health to teach meditation and mindfulness practices to those in confinement. Today, the youth-run YAMH is global, and Zhou has twice been named a Hershey Heartwarming Young Hero for her work.
At SPS, Zhou heads up the Mindfulness/Meditation Society and the Yoga Club. She’s also working on an Independent Study Project with Kate Daniels, director of academic support, to create a mindfulness handbook for students and a long-term series of mindfulness sessions for the SPS community. “I’ve come to understand clearer than ever that living mindfully means accepting your emotions and thoughts, but also not getting caught up in constant chatter. It’s about creating space between yourself and the mind and body,” she says.
Zhou is also co-editor-in-chief with Madison “Maddie” Rosato ’23 of the School newspaper, The Pelican. “Journalism and community service are actually very intertwined,” she says. “Just like people use art to fight for social justice, journalism is a way to combat stereotypes and show different perspectives to complicated issues. … We’re not only contributing to the current School community, we’re also documenting the intellectual and cultural environment of St. Paul’s at our time.”
One of Zhou and Rosato’s aims is to cover more perspectives on campus. The publication recently included an article about Vishal Kumar, who works at the Kwok Café, written by Lidia Zur Muhlen ’24, and there’s another in the works about the SPS Bookstore staff.
A talented oboist, a member of Chapel Council and co-head of the International Society, Zhou last spring received the H. Boone Porter Prize in Applied Religious Studies and was one of just eight Fifth Formers to be inducted into the Cum Laude Society. She also was a Ferguson Scholar finalist in her Fourth and Fifth Form years.
As for her post-SPS goals, Zhou is still figuring out the specifics. “Ultimately my goal is to serve the community and be of some service to the world; to leave something behind,” she says. “I’m excited to continue exploring the world and who I am.”