For Naaya Founder Sinikiwe Dhliwayo, Wellness Means Having Agency and Access

Photo: Katie McCurdy / W+G Creative
When she was growing up, creator, speaker, and entrepreneur Sinikiwe Dhliwayo knew wellness as the three sports she played. It was the healthy foods her mother gave her (and her strict avoidance of high-fructose corn syrup). It never needed a title and certainly wasn't a buzzword standing for a $4.5 trillion industry; it was just a part of life.

But over the years, particularly after an injury in her early 20s led her to first practice and then teach yoga, Dhliwayo watched as wellness became increasingly commodified—and how, more often than not, that meant it shut people out—particularly Black, Indigenous, and people of color. "If you are like myself and other Black and brown people, [yoga and wellness] studio spaces often aren't welcoming if you don't fit the mold of being white and affluent and skinny," she says.

With Naaya, an organization Dhliwayo founded in August 2018, she's working to decolonize wellness by centering BIPOC folks and their experiences. To be truly well, Dhliwayo says, you must have agency; and with Naaya, she's providing BIPOC with the tools needed to support their well-being. Naaya does this by taking practices like yoga and meditation out of the studio to friendlier, more accessible spaces (both brick-and-mortar and digital), using social imagery to change the narrative that wellness is only for white people, and offering anti-racism consulting to wellness companies.

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Carving out space within the wellness industry

When it came to creating Naaya, Dhliwayo (who spent nearly a decade working in print media photography before focusing on Naaya full-time) says her first thought was to open a yoga studio. "But then, all of the things that prohibit Black people—Black women in particular—from founding businesses really came into play," she says.

Renting a physical space in New York City is expensive, for one. And while she was working full-time, the highest salary Dhliwayo made in 10 years was $58,000 (which was far less than her white colleagues and doesn't get you very far in NYC). Plus, she had an immense amount of student loan debt. It was barrier after barrier—an experience that's hardly unique.

The ability for BIPOC folks to live well is impacted by limiting ideas about what they can and can't, do and don't do.

Naaya's most recent venture, The Check-In, is therefore designed to help support young people so they can cultivate the tools needed to face these systemic inequities earlier in life. The first phase, completed last month, was to secure 50 computers to give to students in the NYC metro area. "These devices will help equip students for distance learning and mitigate barriers to access," the Naaya website says. Phase two, beginning in mid-September, is to offer free virtual meditation and yoga classes to young people (the practitioners are paid by Naaya). The third step is to cultivate a network of therapists who would be available to young people, again at no cost to them.

"[Yoga and meditation are especially useful for] young people who don't have the emotional maturity to deal with being angry," Dhliwayo says. "Especially if they are in a challenging family situation, or maybe they are trying to learn at home and they have no one who's able to support them because their parents are working."

The ability for BIPOC folks to live well is also impacted by limiting ideas about what they can and can't, do and don't do. Like the ideas that Black people don't hike, meditate, or swim ("What? This is crazy. Have you asked us if we have interest [in swimming]?" Dhliwayo says). These societal perceptions can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, keeping Black and brown people from finding pleasure and delight in these activities that appear to be exclusively for white people. Dhliwayo uses her background in photography to change this narrative by increasing visibility of Black and brown people practicing wellness.

"I try to curate the [Instagram] feed for Naaya, as much as possible showing Black and brown people just doing things," she says. "And not just doing anything, but more specifically, being active and finding joy in being active. That representation to me is very, very important."

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Naaya means healing

Though Naaya holds space for BIPOC in wellness, Dhliwayo doesn't assume that it is a one-stop shop for all of one's wellness needs. Part of the work Naaya does is ensure other wellness spaces and brands are ready to meet BIPOC with full equity and inclusion. And that requires brand leaders to sit with, examine, and work to dismantle their internalized racism.

This anti-racist work is often viewed as tangential to wellness, but Dhliwayo says, in reality, it's at wellness's core. And it's through this work that BIPOC can find healing, which is what naaya translates to in Shona, the language spoken in the majority of  Zimbabwe, where Dhliwayo is from.

"Sitting to meditate and listen to your own mind and getting confronted with all of your nonsense, that's getting well," she says. It's recognizing the privilege that comes with being a white person walking freely without wearing a mask when COVID-19 is disproportionately killing Black and brown people. It's reading anti-racist books but not stopping there—you need to actually have conversations about them with others and implement knowledge learned into your life.

"If you're doing all of that [internal anti-racist] work, then by nature, your business is going to change and your outlook on who gets to be well and how they get to be well is going to change." —Sinikiwe Dhliwayo

When this work is done on a personal level, it influences the ways businesses operate. But with this current racial reckoning, Dhliwayo has seen many people try to skip over the real work: Too often, it's all hashtags and no substance.

"The shift that now all these companies are trying to profit off of voices that they for so long suppressed is interesting and also sad. Splashy statements, black squares, that is cute. But how are you showing up for the Black and brown people who you interact with on a regular basis?" Dhliwayo says. "If you're doing all of that other work, then by nature, your business is going to change and your outlook on who gets to be well and how they get to be well is going to change. If you're not doing that work and you're just changing things for optics, then you're not really changing anything."

That's performative allyship. Dhliwayo recently detailed one example that shows how this is harmful. In an Instagram post from August 12, she explains that a wellness brand (which she originally left anonymous but then revealed to be The Class by Taryn Toomey) reached out to her to do some anti-racism consulting work. Through a series of emails, "I was made to feel like I should be grateful that they were paying attention to my work," she writes, and then they stopped responding to her emails altogether. When Dhliwayo sent a final email (shown in her Instagram post) explaining her disappointment in their actions, she got an immediate response and was asked to hop on a call that day.

"So now I'm supposed to drop everything because you feel called out?" she says. "If I hadn't emailed, that would have been it. That would have been the end of the conversation. I literally was just like, 'Actually, it's very apparent to me that y'all have a lot of work to do internally. Not just in your company, but actually internally doing work to not be racist or anti-Black."

Staying grounded

The past few months have brought a mix of emotions. In February, Dhliwayo quit her full-time job to focus completely on Naaya. Then, COVID-19 hit, and as someone with asthma, Dhliwayo has been diligent in her efforts to protect herself from the coronavirus, barely leaving her Brooklyn apartment. "The first two months of self-isolating in my apartment were so difficult, but by May, it felt like a fog was lifting," she says.

To stay grounded and energized, Dhliwayo leans on her work with young people. "Young people give me so much hope," she says. "They are ready to unlearn white supremacy and the violent racist tropes that help vilify Black folks. My greatest gift is being in service to young people and providing them with tools to sustain the work."

The work is tough, but incredibly rewarding. In August, Naaya celebrated its second birthday, and Dhliwayo is excited about its future. "My biggest hope for Naaya is that BIPOC folks can define what well-being is for themselves. Our well-being as Black, Indigenous, and people of color will never look like everyone else's," she says. "Until we unlearn and dismantle [oppressive] systems and structures...I don’t believe that anyone will truly be well. Because there's nothing well about living in a society that considers continually brutalizing its citizens on the basis of their racial identity."

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