Squashing Toxic Positivity and Getting Honest about Being Well

Squashing Toxic Positivity and Getting Honest about Being Well


Photo courtesy of Katherine and Mariel Tyler for Naaya

Naaya founder Sinikiwe Dhliwayo is sick of being told to think positive when it seems like all the news is bad news. You can’t think your way to positivity, she says, when you can see clearly that the world around you is a dumpster fire. But that’s what she sees from a lot of her peers in wellness: blinders on, pretending they can’t see anything but love and light. She finds it’s been especially prominent since COVID began: “A pandemic is still killing people,” Dhliwayo says. “The people it’s killing are disproportionately Black and Brown. Yet I see people selling this one version of what it means to be well and then refusing to acknowledge other ways we are deeply unwell. It feels very off.”

That’s what drives Dhliwayo’s mission in the wellness industry: honesty. “Because of the body I exist in, I don’t have the choice to ignore a pandemic and forget about racism,” she says. Her first wellness brand, Naaya, hosts conversations about race and wellness that don’t skip over the difficult parts. And her newest project, Ilanga, will put those conversations into motion: It’s a movement platform—currently in its crowdfunding stage—that will offer yoga, Pilates, and strength training and center a genuine experience of living in the world. That is, you don’t skip to positive vibes. You move through whatever hurt, dread, and grief you’re working with in the moment and emerge on the other side feeling some sort of shift. You might experience some joy in the process. But that platitudinal love and light? Not here.

How did you get into wellness?

I got injured training for the New York marathon. I never really liked running—I wanted to do it as a bucket list check-off thing. When I got injured, I was like, Yeah, I don’t need to force this. I started practicing yoga as a means of getting my strength back. What got me into it is that yoga isn’t only about the physical motion. I think practicing the eight limbs of yoga would move us away from individual self-care and into more collective care.

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What’s your longest-held wellness ritual?

I’ve been meditating for four years. I do a Buddhist meditation called Theravada. The basic belief is that you can attain liberation—super heady, I know—through your own efforts of meditation and concentration. It’s based on the idea that you are going to suffer to some degree in your life, regardless of any privileges you hold. But if you can be present to your life and less attached to your suffering, you don’t have to operate from a place of suffering. If I’m angry, I can be angry, and I can still operate from a place of compassion.

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Your comfort watch?

I don’t even know how many times I’ve rewatched Gilmore Girls.

Favorite wellness treatment?

I love acupuncture.

A wellness practice you’d like to explore?

I’ve heard good things about cupping.

How do you like to get moving?

Other than yoga, I think going on a walk is a great way to move without getting in front of a screen, and there’s no cost to it. I was doing a lot of Reformer Pilates for a while prepandemic, which I really liked, too.

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What’s your biggest takeaway from your yoga practice?

So much of what is done to Black folks goes against yoga. Ahimsa, one of yoga’s eight limbs, means doing no harm. How radical and liberating it would be for Black people if we all practiced ahimsa. A world without the threat of violence just for being Black. A dream.

Go-to takeout?

I try to keep it healthyish. Sometimes it’s Sweetgreen. Sometimes it’s pasta.

What’s hard about building a company from scratch?

That there are limits to what you can do living under capitalism. I want to grow Naaya and hire people and do right by them. But there have been many times where my sister has been like, “Hey, I know you want to hire people and pay them fairly, but you also need to eat and survive.” So you end up doing a lot of stuff yourself. And there’s only one of me.

What inspires you?

Not to be cheesy, but love. It’s spiritually and mentally challenging to be constantly going against people who have a lot more resources and power than you do, and it’s hard to speak up for yourself unless it’s something you love. And I do love it: I wanted a space where we could teach movement and meditation rooted in social justice for people like me to feel like they have somewhere they can cultivate well-being.

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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