Photo: The Tyler Twins
“Who is allowed to be well?” That’s a question Sinikiwe Dhliwayo often asks herself. As the founder of Naaya, a well-being company that lies at the intersection of social justice and wellness, Dhliwayo is redefining what it looks like and feels like to practice wellness. Typically, wellness looks like a thin, white, able-bodied woman with financial privilege—but not anymore. We chatted with Dhliwayo about her vision for an inclusive wellness industry, how she’s empowering other BlPOC women to prioritize self-care and what’s next for Naaya (spoiler alert: something v exciting).
Can you tell us a bit about your journey to Naaya?
For four years (November 2015 to February 2020), I worked at Men’s Health where both the audience and staff were primarily white and male. I was also teaching yoga and meditation in spaces where I was often the only Black person (or one of few). This felt like a major disconnect given that the practices themselves stem from cultures that are not predominantly white [Editor’s Note: What Dhliwayo calls “Bodies of Culture”]. With Naaya, I became determined to shift the paradigm of who is allowed to be mentally, physically and spiritually well regardless of the status quo.
How do you define wellness?
In some way, wellness has always been intrinsic to who I am. Although I never dubbed it “wellness.” It started with my love of the outdoors, which I cultivated in Girl Scouts, then it was the three sports I played growing up (soccer, lacrosse and cheerleading), which progressed into practicing yoga and meditation. I took my love of these practices and the frustration of being the “only” in wellness spaces to create Naaya
Wellness for me is a combination of agency and community care. It’s about having the agency to seek out physical, spiritual and mental well-being, and having the resources (finances and time) in order to seek out what I need when I need it. Community care is another tenant of my well-being practice. Caring for and being in the community makes my heart so happy.
How are you making space for other Black women in the wellness space?
Being honest has been integral to how I am creating space. Often, social media can create a false narrative of how things are. It has been imperative for me to share my challenges in order for others to not feel as though they are alone.
What would you like to see change around conversations about wellness?
A lot of wellness culture helps to further perpetuate white supremacy. I want to see honest discourse and action. Summer 2020 was filled with an onslaught of white folks “listening and learning.” We are two years later, and not much has transpired in the way of action.
What does an inclusive wellness industry look like?
An inclusive wellness industry is one where people in positions of power are not just white folks. It is not enough to solely be included in marketing campaigns and non-decision-making roles. In order to disrupt the status quo, the wellness industry needs to have more semblance of the world we live in.
What’s next for Naaya, and for you?
I am so elated to be building Ilanga, Naaya’s new platform and soon-to-be app which is dedicated to the physical well-being of Bodies of Culture. The word “Ilanga” is Ndebele for the sun. I chose that name because moving your body can feel as good as being kissed by the sun. Building this product will help to further center access, equity and joy into physical well-being. We’re currently crowdfunding and would be grateful for any support we can get.
Now let’s get into some rapid fire questions… Who are you inspired by?
How do you unplug from work?
By falling into the comfort of shows I can watch over and over again and they never get old: Gilmore Girls, Grey’s Anatomy and Sex and the City.
How many unread emails do you have right now?
Too many to disclose. I used to be so stressed about not having an inbox of zero. However, I have now learned that emails are a never ending battle that I am ok not winning.
What do you look for in an employee?
I want someone who aligns with my values. So much of the work I do intersects with social justice, so it is imperative to work with folks who are like-minded.
Best piece of advice?
What is for you is for you.
Worst piece of advice?
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
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