Women's Empowerment

Meet the Boricua Yoga Teacher Who’s Fighting to Center BIPOC in Wellness

Kells McPhillips

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Photo: Constanza Eliana Chinea; Graphics: Well+Good Creative

You’ve been hearing the term “decolonizing” as it pertains to most industries, but what does that mean for wellness? Fitness, spirituality, and other forms of well-being have been so whitewashed and commodified that they bar many people from participating at all, and rob the culture and traditions from so many others. But there are individuals trying to change that, and make all of us reexamine what it means to be well. 

Below, Constanza Eliana Chinea, a Latinx certified Sivananda Yoga instructor who has over 10 years of experience in the industry and over 300 hours of training in yoga, trauma, and anti-racism talks discusses how the obsession with the yoga poses in the United States has created a snowball effect of commodifying a holistic practice, and making it an exclusive one. She is also currently the Founder of Embody Inclusivity, Co-Director of Yoga Teachers of Color, and Project Manager of Legacy Trips.

Constanza Eliana Chinea—a multi-hyphenate yoga teacher, activist, speaker, and founder of Embody Inclusivity —consults for two very different types of wellness clients: white folks and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) who have historically been colonized. Chinea’s work revolves around centering communities of color in conversations and spaces that have too long been grounded in the appropriated and white-washed ideals of well-being touted in the West. You could say, in fact, that Chinea straddles two worlds in pursuit of creating one in which the word “wellness” isn’t purely understood through the lens of colonization.

“How do I create my own thing?” and “How do I take up more space so that I can get more opportunities or so that I can teach what I love?” are just two of the questions Chinea receives from BIPOC people in all walks of wellness. “I really do my best to try to give the power back to the person—because a lot of times they reach out to me feeling disempowered because of the racism that they face or the inequities that they face,” she says. “A lot of times we internalize that, as people of color, there’s something wrong with us. So what I try to do is give the power back to them. To tell them: ‘This has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with racism and white supremacy.'”

“I really do my best to try to give the power back to the person—because a lot of times they reach out to me feeling disempowered because of the racism that they face or the inequities that they face.” —Constanza Eliana Chinea, founder of Embody Inclusivity

White supremacy often dictates who gets to own thriving businesses in the wellness space. Statistics show that BIPOC-owned businesses earn 48 percent of the revenue of non-minority companies and just 44 percent of the profits. Minorities hold the CEO position of non-minority firms—including wellness-centric business—only three percent of the time. And that’s just on the business side: Wellness purveyors like yoga studios and other fitness-centric brick and mortars have other means of suppressing BIPOCs, like cost of entrance or setting up shop in predominately-white neighborhoods.

Chinea’s work deals with both sides of this coin by working with those who gain and profit from this existing white supremacist structure. For them, she says, the questions sound something like “How can I create more equity for people of color?” and “How can I diversify more?” All too often, people want to make fast-paced changes in their anti-racism and decolonization efforts—and Chinea’s response is often to slow down. “Typically, that quick change is not what is necessary. What’s necessary is a much deeper, more evolved change. So what tends to be more transformational is getting them to first look at their biases so that they can really start to think about what deeper issue has led to your yoga studio, your wellness space, your business; to not represent the community that is actually diverse.”

Because dismantling the colonization tactics that are pervasive in the wellness world requires activism and education through multiple avenues, Chinea’s business extends beyond personal consultation into a slew of course where she teams up with other BIPOC thought-leaders like Maryam Ajayi of Dive in Well and Myisha T Hill of Check Your Privilege to create online courses. Chinea and Ajayi’s course, “Pivot Into Equity,” for example, speaks specifically to entrepreneurs who want to build wellness brands that don’t fall into the paradigms of white supremacy. Chinea’s courses go even beyond the important scope of teaching anti-racism to business-owners, though. “Even in my Embody Inclusivity training, which is very much about going into wellness spaces—specifically yoga studios—and doing a full anti-racism and social justice training, I incorporate decolonization theory into it as well,” says Chinea.

Part of Chinea’s work, in courses and consultations, is helping people understand that anti-racism isn’t the only piece of decolonization. Anti-racism is a huge step, but the systemic issues that oppress BIPOC communities (and all people) extend far beyond it. “Anti-racism is very specific to understanding white supremacy and how it operates. That goes beyond just whiteness, so literally anyone can become anti-racist—whether you’re Black, you’re Indigenous, you’re Brown, you’re Asian,” says Chinea. “Decolonization theory incorporates anti-racism into it, but decolonization theory is more so understanding that we also need to dismantle all of these other oppressive systems like capitalism and patriarchy. We also need to understand how colonized we really are, and how colonization affects everyday life so that we can start to move beyond just dismantling white supremacy to dismantling all oppressive structures.”

“We need to understand how colonized we really are, and how colonization affects everyday life so that we can start to move beyond just dismantling white supremacy to dismantling all oppressive structures.”

Among many other lessons, Chinea’s businesses teach both BIPOC and non-BIPOC people to strip down the white supremacist powers appropriating and morphing the remarkably powerful practices that wellness can encompass. And her next big project is emblematic of that mission: a 2021 digital wellness conference in partnership with Rebeckah Price, yoga teacher and the co-founder of The Well Collective.

“Essentially, the idea is to put together a conference that is led by people of color, but not in a very explicit way because we want to show that typical conferences never say, ‘This is exclusively a white-led conference.’ They’re just like: ‘Here’s a conference and it’s about wellness, or it’s about yoga,'” explains Chinea. “We want to do the same thing and really show that people of color can lead, they can lead well, and they can do incredible work. The narrative doesn’t always have to be ‘Oh, look, the conference is run by people of color’ or ‘This is a Black conference’ or ‘This is a brown people conference.'”

Chinea will also soon be welcoming her third cohort of BIPOC in the wellness space to her 16-week mentorship program, Thrive. (You can click here to join the waitlist.) Chinea divides the program up into phase one and phase two, and she’s confident that the upcoming year will be the most enriching experience she’s offered her community yet. “Phase one is all about decolonization theory, so really getting into the mindset of what it takes to decolonize. It’s not just taking up space. It’s not just about diversifying. It really is a whole mental theory around how you actually take up space, how you decide to position yourself, and what it is that you do in a way that is not continuing to focus on capitalism or focus on doing things in a white-centered way,” she says.

Phase two is all about applying the principles of decolonization to your business. “We talk about collaborations and partnerships. We talk about how to effectively communicate with people and how to have a really clear vision of who you want to serve—especially if you’re wanting to serve predominantly people of color,” says Chinea. Creating community is also a huge focus of the training.

“I think Thrive is probably one of my favorite flagship programs that I offer,” says Chinea. “It’s a really nice tight container. There’s no white gaze, so people can really be open about what it is that they’re going through and they can be willing to take up space in a very different way than what they’ve been told that they can do.”

Chinea will be a panelist for our Latinx Heritage Month virtual TALK on Tuesday, October 6 at 5 p.m. EST. Please join us

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