Sinikiwe Dhliwayo Unpacks Privilege in Today’s Wellness World

Sinikiwe Dhliwayo, creative producer and founder of Naaya, explores the privilege of manifestation, gaps of access in the wellness industry, and the need to redefine ‘well-being’ as our collective responsibility.
Sinikiwe Dhliwayo Unpacks Privilege in Today’s Wellness World

“I think having a positive mindset is very, very important – but we take for granted that ‘manifestation’ comes with particular privileges. Socioeconomic privilege. Racial privilege. Being able to move through the world more easily than others.” 

“Recent conversations about manifestation [in the wellness industry] have frustrated me. The conversation goes: ‘I wanted this, I thought about it, and then it happened to me.’ In my personal experience, I have to do a lot more to prove my worthiness. Most days, I have an abundant mindset and a positive outlook (I would have to in order for my company Naaya to be where it is after just one year), but there are systems and structures in place that are not allowing me to go to the next level.”  


Sinikiwe Dhliwayo is a creative producer, yoga instructor, and the founder of Naaya: a company making yoga and mindfulness accessible to communities traditionally excluded from these practices. Sinikiwe is on a mission to help people of color feel seen, heard, and, most importantly, welcome in the wellness world – a mission that she knows will require more than a positive mindset. 

“I’m an immigrant, and despite having two college degrees, I don’t have the luxury of having a family that can fund my endeavors. Navigating the VC and angel space is not much better. Just 34 black women founders have raised over one million dollars in funding, which is insane to me.” 

“The practices I focus on – yoga and meditation – were started by people of color. In the West, however, namely in New York where I live, you don’t see people of color practicing these things. Most classes are generally affluent and generally white. Naaya was founded in response to this gap.” 

“I’m interested in re-defining wellness; moving away from wellness as ‘self-optimization.’ I’m interested in shifting what it looks like to have a teacher who is black, like myself, leading the front of a class – particularly at events like Goop’s wellness weekend. The creative producer in me asks, what does that narrative look like?” 

“The other big part is access. Who can access classes? But also, who can access yoga certification trainings to subsequently lead a class? I recently announced a Naaya 200 hour yoga teacher training that was created with people of color in mind. We’re striving to deepen our students’ understanding of the yoga practice from a lens that understands both the beauty and trauma that exists in our experience of living in BIPOC bodies under systems of oppression. To mitigate the financial barrier, this training will cost $1200, instead of the standard training cost of $3500.”


“Finally, when it comes to Naaya, I am looking at why it often feels uncomfortable to go into spaces that say they are ‘for all,’ but don’t really feel like it. The inspiration for Naaya came when I was teaching yoga at a public high school in Crown Heights, with a nonprofit called Bent on Learning. I realized that my students didn’t have an opportunity to go to yoga outside the classroom. And if given the opportunity, they were not necessarily going to go into the studio – either because of the cost or because of not feeling comfortable; not feeling seen.” 

An element of social justice is inextricably linked to Sinikiwe’s approach with Naaya, because our individual relationship with wellness is inextricably linked to larger systems of privilege and inequity. To ignore this connection, to consider ‘wellness’ a separate conversation, Sinikiwe explains, only widens the gap.  

“A lot of the time, people use wellness as a means of bypassing what is happening in the world, but I’m focused on using the yoga practice itself to dismantle racism. Privilege [in the wellness industry] is part of a bigger conversation. Many people are able to dip their toe in and say, yes, [wellness] is not inclusive and it’s not okay, but they are not necessarily eager to unpack what that really means. They aren’t willing to go there.”

“It starts with an acknowledgment that we live in a culture where we are all implicated into white supremacy. It affects everyone. People like to think that ‘being well’ is a very individualistic thing. I come from the mindset that, in order for me to truly be well and truly liberated, I’m relying on you to help shift things. The two things don’t exist separately.” 


“I can try as hard as I want, I can have an abundant mindset, but things are different for a woman of color. If I go to the doctor and face medical racism, I can’t get the best care. That is never going to change unless other people are also looking at those issues and doing what is in their power to create a shift.”  

Today, many people feel that wellness is an individual practice, accessible only to the wealthy who can buy into the products and services that promise ‘self-optimization.’ Sinikiwe asks us to return to the true meaning of ‘being well’ and to understand how access to these practices – or lack thereof – affects our lives in a much broader sense. 

“Wellness affects everything. Your mental health affects your ability to go to work, which then impacts your ability to provide for your children or your family. It spirals out. When I talk about accessibility to wellness, it’s part of a bigger conversation. When people aren’t able to access so many of the things that fall under the wellness umbrella, that affects every other area of their life.” 

Sinikiwe uses her personal channels to talk candidly and critically about privilege in wellness. She points out that wellness brands are often tone-deaf, suggesting that the $100 you spent at Target could have been more wisely invested in therapy. But what if that money went to buying your family food for the week? If someone has to choose between going to yoga or paying their bills, she argues, they are going to pay their bills. 

Sinikiwe’s exploration of privilege does not only focus on the places where she feels held back. She has been thinking a lot about the advantages she has been given, the way ‘attractiveness’ plays out in the age of influence, and the complicated balance between being seen and feeling scrutinized.


“Despite the fact that I’m a black person living in America, I’m constantly talking about the privileges I have. The other day, I was talking to a friend about the privilege of being perceived as attractive. Growing up, my parents never talked about looks. It’s been a process of learning how to accept compliments because I didn’t ‘earn’ the way I look. I earned my college degrees. I earned my meditation certification. I earned my yoga certification. I’m much more comfortable talking about, and standing on, the things I earned.” 

“It’s been interesting to navigate how attractiveness plays into identity, especially with Naaya. On social media, people are much more apt to listen to a lengthy post on privilege if I post a picture of myself alongside it. If I post a photo of me in a yoga pose, engagement goes up. On the flip side, being too sexy is something I think about a lot, especially in the wellness space.” 

“I really struggle with how I present myself when I’m teaching in bigger arenas. I look different than most influencers or instructors in this space. People see teachers who are white and of a certain body type wearing a sports bra and it’s not an issue. Whereas, because of my race, because of the body I exist in, I’m very cautious of what I wear when I teach. I’ll wear a tank top to avoid scrutiny. For me, again, this is part of a bigger conversation about how black bodies are sexualized.” 

“Privilege is an ongoing exploration. It’s not something you talk about once and then it’s over. It’s something you have to constantly be unpacking in yourself and in your life. It’s difficult, but many people I’m close to are willing to have these conversations; to ask, ‘How can I do better?’ There are also many people who are not willing.” 

“In this upcoming decade of 2020, I think we need to move away from just speaking about racism and privilege. We really need action. Now. Conversations are a great start, but we need to actually start putting things into action.” 

Interview by Kate Mack. Article by Molly Virostek. Photographed by Stephanie Lavaggi. Styled by Emily Newnam

Tags: bodytalk , Self

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I agree with Ms Dhliwayo!!! I work for a non-profit in a rural community. We were poor when I was growing up and I didn’t thing anything about it until high school. Socioeconomics impacts a vast number of people and I applaud the path she has taken! I live around more Native Americans now and some of my friends that are Physical Therapist and health care workers want to start yoga events in our neighborhoods, more accessible. Not much has changed in moving from San Diego CA to Great Falls MT and stepping inside any Pilates or yoga studio; you are looked over for what you wear, what you drive and how you look! My insecurities creep back up, even at my age.
Cudos to the women here that strive for more ~ keep it up!!!!


Jan 2020

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