For so long, mainstream media has fed us an image of what a “yogi” is supposed to be—a skinny, athletic, affluent white woman dressed in head-to-toe Lululemon. Just do a Google image search of “yoga” and count how many people of color you see (even though the practice originated in ancient India).
Like many other women of color, I've stayed away from the yoga community out of fear of feeling like “the other” and occupying spaces that were not made for us or by us. So how do you engage in the practice of yoga when you don’t necessarily fit the description? You create your own space. And lately, a wealth of people of color have made it their mission to cultivate safe, welcoming spaces for black people to experience yoga and practice self-care. Nayaa is one of them.
Nayaa is the brainchild of Sinikiwe Dhliwayo, a photo producer at Men's Health by day and yoga instructor on the weekends. Dhliwayo was first introduced to yoga by her mother, but didn't know or see anybody else she recognized attending the classes. "I kept asking myself, 'Why aren’t there students of color?' It was difficult just being in these spaces like yes, I’m here for myself and I’m here to practice yoga but it would still be nice to see someone like me doing yoga because I know the interest is there," she tells ELLE.com. "Who wants to spend R375, R450 a pop on a class to feel uncomfortable?"
Tired of feeling unseen, Dhliwayo launched Nayaa in August 2018, created "for communities who have been traditionally overlooked and excluded from those spaces. Naaya exists for teachers and practitioners of color to feel seen, heard, and, most importantly, welcome." These days, you can find Dhliwayo hosting Nayaa classes every Saturday at Brooklyn's Heal Haus (owned and operated by Darian Hall and Elisa Shankle, two black entrepreneurs), looking to bring familiar faces to her yoga classes each week.
Below, Dhliwayo opens up about how she got started with yoga, her venture Nayaa, and why therapy is so important.
ELLE.com: How did you get started with yoga?
I was training for the NYC marathon and I got injured. My physical therapist told me I can do yoga or Pilates for rehab, so I started doing yoga. Then I started working with a nonprofit called Bent on Learning in 2014--they place yoga teachers in New York City public schools--so I taught at a school in Crown Heights twice a week. A lot of these kids have never been exposed to yoga, so then to see yoga coming from someone that looked like them was just an amazing feeling.
Why did you create Nayaa?
I found myself going to studios that would focus on a specific type of yoga, like hip-hop yoga or whatever, and yes, the beats were bumping but there were no teachers of color or people of color in the class. I kept asking myself, "Why aren’t there students of color?" There are people out there that have interest in doing yoga and have the money to spend. Who wants to spend R375, R450 a pop on a class to feel uncomfortable?
With Nayaa, I think the big mission is to have classes with myself and other teachers of color and just make them financially accessible. Also, having classes in cool spots that aren't the traditional yoga studio setting, maybe doing it outside or doing it on a rooftop.
Walk me through one of your Saturday classes.
So we do proper technique, breathing. Some poses that we do are: sun salutation A, sun salutation B and then maybe throw in some poses like half moon, boat, dancer pose, retreat pose--very basic poses. I modify the class based off of who is in the room, so if there's a beginner, we'll do sun salutation b with a few simple sequences in the middle and then end in the resting pose.
How did you incorporate your Zimbabwe culture into your yoga practice?
Shona is the language spoken in Zimbabwe and Nayaa itself means healing, which I think just fit so perfectly with the message I wanted to send. I definitely think yoga heals hearts in the end.
In what ways have you seen your life change since you started doing yoga?
I have control over my life now, to an extent. I just started going to therapy and while it took me a while to even get to this point, I know it's something that I need.
You don't hear of a lot of black people going therapy.
I mean that’s the thing. Luckily, my therapist is someone that I knew through yoga. I’m not excited to say yes, I’m going to therapy today, but then he’ll ask me some really deep questions and I’m like oh shit, this is so needed and so important. It kind of started with just reflecting on the climate that we’re currently living in. If I read terrible news or hear of another black person being killed on top of all these things that are happening in my personal life, what can I do that makes me feel good? Yoga. Meditation. Therapy. I feel like people throw around "self-love" and "self-care" a lot but it's a marketing term, really. I love a face mask, don't get me wrong, but at the end of the day I needed to put the in work in to make myself better.
What has your journey to launching Nayaa taught you?
In this wellness game, there’s really no competition because there’s so much room for everybody to be successful. Its hard but like Issa Rae said, "I’m rooting for everyone black."