CAP Insider: Sinikiwe Dhliwayo of Naaya


Sinikiwe Dhliwayo is the founder of Naaya, a space set out to democratize wellness, offering yoga and mindfulness programming for communities who have been traditionally overlooked and excluded from those spaces. Naaya exists for people of color to feel seen, heard and, most importantly, welcome. The growth of her brand and the launch of her recent campaign with Adidas shows the shift is in motion. 

What does the word Naaya mean and what sort of power does it hold?

Naaya is the Shona word for Healing. Shona is the language spoken in Zimbabwe where I was born. Despite leaving when I was two and only being back a handful of times, I feel intrinsically drawn to my African heritage. It informs all that I do and was imperative for me to include when building my company. The power of the word Naaya is all that healing can entail. Naaya as a company seeks to make evident that you are enough. Naaya uses of the practices of Yoga and Mindfulness to bring this to light. We want to get away from the idea of wellness as procuring things. The essence of both of these practices are you and I’m hoping to bring people back to that.

What’s going on at the Naaya studio? Will you tell us what you guys are all about and what you are up to?

Naaya actually isn’t a studio. The initial vision was for it to be housed in a physical space. However, when I started considering that I don’t have an investor (Naaya is self-funded) and that maintaining a physical real estate in New York is a lot. I started to shift the idea. I’m very interested in how to innovate in this space. I’m so intrigued by the fact that Uber and Lyft don’t own any cars and that Airbnb owns no properties. Yet they have dramatically changed the transportation and hospitality industries.

At the core of what Naaya is we are shifting how knowledge is disseminated in the yoga and mindfulness space. We are shifting the visual narrative to include people of color and we are passionate about emboldening people of color to cultivate their personal relationships with wellness.

How did you arrive in the fitness and wellness world?

I’ve always been a bit “sporty” if you will. I played Lacrosse, Soccer, and was a cheerleader growing up. I was never good at soccer despite playing for forever, I was decent at lacrosse and cheerleading really made my heart sing. I was a base despite my deep desire to be a flyer.

I got into yoga after being injured while training for the NYC marathon. I was doing physical therapy and started the practice as a means of rehabbing my body. In conjunction with that injury I was working in a terrible job. I cried at least once a week if not more. Yoga came into my life at just the right time. I’ve also been entrenched in the world of magazines on and off for the last 9 years. With my most recent stint being at a fitness magazine. Working in that climate I really noticed the lack of diversity both from an employee standpoint and also from a storytelling component. Working in this environment has really driven me to want to change “what wellness looks like, who is deemed well and what wellness is from a cost perspective”.

What would you like to see happen next in the wellness space?

I would love to see less of wellness as optimization. For me wellness and yoga particularly came into my life when I was seeking a respite from my job. I wasn’t financially abundant, but I made the practice a priority. I would work the front desk at studios in exchange for the ability to take free classes. I think we’re currently in this mindset (with social media and influencers) that are telling us how to optimize our bodies. What I mean by optimize is by buying x this will happen or that you need this type of smoothie or that facial to truly be well.

True wellness to me is agency. Having the ability to discern what it means for you to be well. Maybe that means doing yoga and going to therapy. Maybe that means having the ability to access doctors and maintain your physical well-being. Maybe it’s the ability to have a spiritual practice in conjunction with a physical practice like yoga or some other type of work out.

Who have been some of your teachers? And how have they informed your teaching?

This question is tricky. There are so many teachers who have informed the ways in which I have learned these practices. That said I try and see the teacher student relationship from the perspective that these people were placed on my path to teach me what they know. I try to not approach my teachers from a guru mentality (idolizing them). I also think that my teaching is largely informed by how I move in the world. Namely my heritage, my upbringing and what I want to impart when I teach. I’m just a conduit of information the practice is the participants own. Maybe what I’m saying resonates with them in the moment and maybe it will not. My emphasis is for the participant to leave feeling good in their body and that they have taken time for themselves.

How do you engage in self-care?

The word self-care is so buzzy and often one that really trips me up. Truthfully the things that I would consider self-care are really basic. I started going to acupuncture weekly to help mitigate my terrible periods. I have taken to the practice of dating myself. After living in NYC for nine years I’ve had some less then desirable experiences with dating and so I’ve made it a practice to court myself. I buy myself flowers generally on Monday to help myself ease into the week. I like to take myself to dinner at least once a month and sit unencumbered by my phone. I try and see one  friend a week and I’m making my meditation practice more sustainable. I’m trying to relinquish the pressure I place on myself to be good, actually to be great. I often want to be so good at things that I’m scared to attempt them. I’ve reached a consensus with both my yoga and meditation and yoga practices that they are both just that a practice. That I will never be good at them and that’s ok. 

What are you reading right now?

In preparation for the 5-month meditation teacher training that I’m currently embarking on. I made sure to read a pallet cleanser if you will. I read The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory and it was delicious. The perfect romantic novel. Prior to that I got partway through Roxane Gays Not That Bad which was really heavy. Its essays on accounts of sexual assault. I put it down because it made my heart too heavy. I then made my way through Tahiri Jones an American marriage which wasn’t exactly light but a great exploration of marriage.

I’m presently reading Start Here Now by Susan Piver. We had to read an excerpt from it for my training and I decide to pick it up. The language is very simple and it’s a been helpful to me to create a sustainable meditation practice.

Next after that will be the Monkey is the master by Ralph De La Rosa. I’ve heard great things and someone in my training is on her third reading of the book.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d offer to someone who’s interested in creating space for change.

It’s not going to happen tomorrow. I’m impatient by nature and I want things to happen yesterday. However, big change happens over time. There is an indigenous saying which is this thought of the next seven generations. So, the foundations we build now will transpire in the next seven generations. Change takes time and most people aren’t amenable to it. So, patience would be my advice for anyone wanting to bolster change.

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