For Danié Gómez-Ortigoza, braiding her hair is more than a style statement—it's a daily form of meditation, a source of strength, and an homage to her Mexican roots.

By Angelika Pokovba
October 13, 2020
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courtesy of @celiadluna

While many of the hobbies we’ve picked up during the pandemic have functioned as welcome diversions, there are some seemingly simple pursuits that are far more than a mere distraction—they're humble activities that can serve as eye-opening ways to find joy and even heal emotional wounds. Hair braiding, for instance, one of the most common worldwide beauty and self-care practices, also happens to be deeply therapeutic. The manual, repetitive pattern—over and under, up and down—in itself is a sort of tactile mantra focused on bringing something together rather than taking it apart. 

“It’s the fact of creating oneness,” says Miami-based journalist, multimedia artist, and hair-braiding virtuoso, Danié Gómez-Ortigoza. “In Mexico, the indigenous tribes say that you should always tie your hair so that your thoughts are not scattered.”

A Mexico native, Gómez-Ortigoza is known for her ornate braids decorated with ribbon and canvas textiles for added visual effect (follow her mesmerizing artistry on Instagram @journeyofabraid). For her, braiding is so much more than a style statement; it’s a daily form of meditation. Fashioning a braid is her equivalent to getting ready to face the world, no matter what's happening. Whether there’s a pandemic or a major societal change, for Gómez-Ortigoza, the intimate act of braiding signifies a sense of normalcy and habit, even on the toughest days.

The history of braiding can be traced back thousands of years. Ancient stone paintings in North Africa, dating back to 3500 BCE, depict a woman wearing cornrows, and evidence of elaborate box braids and hair extensions was found on the remains of a woman buried in Egypt around the 1300s BCE. Across Africa, braids of varying styles, sizes, and levels of intricacy and embellishment were worn not only for cosmetic beauty but to convey one's age, social status, marital status, wealth, tribe affiliation, religion, and power. Over hundreds of centuries, the braid has appeared in societies and cultures across the entire globe, spanning from Russia, where braids were a sign of chastity; to China, when men wore the queue braid as a sign of submission to Qing rule; to Scandinavia, where distinct variants denote different religious expressions; to Native American tribes and many indigenous Latin American peoples.

Many cultures believe the crown of the head has a sacred connection to their ancestors or gods; in others it’s the gateway to a particular chakra. And there is perhaps something special in the simple act of taking care of our heads, and what’s on it, that offers a certain solace. Today, wearing a braid can be a sign of just about anything you please, or simply a way to calm your mind and body. We often take hair for granted—cutting, coloring, and transforming it—but there is much more to it. Gómez-Ortigoza believes everyone should try to braid their hair at least once. Here, she makes her case for the healing powers of hair braiding that she appreciates daily.

The repetitive nature of braiding hair is in itself a meditative practice. The consistent ups and downs mimic the ebb and flow of life, of mood, of breathing, and the overall heartbeat of the planet. “I truly believe that there is a very therapeutic aspect in braiding,” Gómez-Ortigoza says. “The act of braiding is extremely calming and grounding. I cannot stop braiding, myself; I need it.” Like meditating with mala beads or practicing mindful breathing, the consistent twists and turns of braiding create a rhythm that can calm and recenter the mind.

The ancient Mexican saying, that one should tie their hair to prevent scattered thoughts has quite a bit of pragmatic validity in everyday life as well. Updos are required for sports, dance, and other activities, not just for practical and safety reasons, but to promote concentration, provide uniformity, and prevent distraction. 

While a familiar ponytail or messy bun might not inspire you, gathering your locks into a beautiful braid for whatever you’re about to tackle—a sweat session, Zoom call, cleaning the house—promotes a mindset of order, and intention. Especially these days when you’re working from home, creating a “work-mode” hairdo can help break up the sameness of each day and get you in the zone.

As Gómez-Ortigoza puts it, “We all need an alter ego. Having a visual reminder is key; you wake up and get ready to take over the day.” It’s a tangible and effective way to prep your mindset for the day, or even a single, tough task.

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“My grandmother said that when a woman felt sad the best thing she could do was to braid her hair; in this way the pain would get trapped between the hair and could not reach the rest of the body…” writes Paola Klug, a Mexican writer, poet, and craftswoman. In Klug’s grandmother’s story, the woman is then prompted to run as fast as she can to let her sorrows float away with the Northern winds. While the extra cardio is also great for mental health, the idea of visualizing sorrow and worries as something distant or external can help the mind heal faster. The physical effort and focus of braiding your hair also averts your attention from painful rumination, offering a moment of mental reprieve.

The simplest and most common braid involves dividing the hair into three sections and weaving them over and under one another (find a how-to guide right here). Using a technique most resembling those from the Zapotec culture of Oaxaca, Gómez-Ortigoza incorporates bursts of color and texture into her impressive plaits by threading ribbons, scarves, and string throughout. Adding fabric, even a simple piece of ribbon or cloth, adds length and artistry to short hair fashioned in a simple braid.

Her particular halo-inspired braid features a giant length of canvas (like a large foulard) and fastens at the crown of her head. “When I’m wearing my braid, it’s a power braid,” Gómez-Ortigoza says. “I take over the world.”

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Braids are, of course, accessible to anyone with tresses and a desire to try. But we have to acknowledge the rich history of sisterhood woven together by this technique. If we contextualize the art of hair braiding, it’s a technique often passed down through the women of the family. Through braiding, women have shared the beautiful complexities of womanhood. When we think back to visionaries like Frida Kahlo, in addition to her brilliant art, we envision her iconic braid, through which she speaks to all women across time.  

For Gómez-Ortigoza, her masterful braids are her personal “feminist manifesto.” When she was asked to gather Mexico’s 50 most influential women for the International Women’s Forum in 2014, everyone wanted their hair braided like hers. In that moment, Gómez-Ortigoza realized the power of her unique gift to connect women from all over: “That’s when I started living with the intention of helping another woman out and changing my mindset.”

The final strand is the convenience of braiding your hair. Whether your hair is short or long, weather and activity shouldn’t hold you back, and a braid is the perfect way to tame your hair. For those with thinner hair, weaving an extra piece of string or cloth ensures more volume and texture. And braiding is the kind of self-care that ultimately gives back throughout the day: A little extra effort in the morning means both consistent confidence and all-day stay for your strands. (Just think of how chic and polished you’ll look on all those Zoom calls.)

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