There are those who are great at one thing, and those who are good at a lot of things. And then there is Sinikiwe Dhliwayo. A creative change-maker whose varied skills defy a singular label or category, Sinikiwe seems to excel at anything she puts her mind to. To name a few, Sinikiwe is the founder of Naaya, a well-being company that redefines the narrative about who gets to experience wellness; a writer; a model; a creative director; a yoga and meditation teacher; and a consultant who helps businesses and brands become equitable in their space. Seemingly defying the number of hours in a day, this year, she also added professor to her list with a class on nonviolent communication at The New School in New York, where she lives. One recent weekend, Sinikiwe headed upstate to “relax-ish” and we asked to virtually tag along, learning about her personal relationship to nature, her new app Ilanga, and how she prioritizes wellness while helping others do the same.
“I look back on photos of my mom being pregnant with my sister and we were always outside in nature to some degree,” she says. “And then growing up, I was — don’t judge me — a Girl Scout for probably a little too long. We’d go on all these cool trips, camping in the Thousand Islands and upstate New York, and it was a very fun experience, even though at a certain point we weren’t getting badges any longer. And I’m always trying to find a way to get back to those times in my life. Ally Mazz and I did a Girlvana in person Re-Treat, and I was just so stoked to build a fire. Like give me the opportunity, I will build a fire. Like, I am that girl. You know the adage of always being prepared as the Girl Scout? That is me without a doubt, a hundred percent. Stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready, basically.”
Photographed by Katherine and Mariel Tyler
“You know the adage of always being prepared as the Girl Scout? That is me without a doubt.”
“Short story is, I love nature. I love being outside. Sometimes it does feel like a bit of a conflict because I am such a city person. Like I can never see myself just living in the woods and being content with that. I think a lot of that does have to do with my racial identity. One, like if I’m being totally frank, it’s not fully safe anywhere living in a Black body. And also I think putting myself in an area which is secluded from other people just really freaks me out and makes me really scared.”
Much of Sinikiwe’s work involves centering Black people and their experiences in the wellness field. Within Naaya, there are sub-programs like Black Folks Breathing, an editorial platform best described by its own site as “a no holds barred love letter to being Black,” the forthcoming app Ilanga (more on that in a moment), and The Check-In, which offers resources to BIPOC youth. In August of 2020, The Check-In donated 50 computers to young people in New York City. For 2021, their mission is offering virtual yoga and meditation sessions to young people. And next up, they’ll raise $30,000 for 300 hours of free therapy for young people who identify as Black, Indigenous, and Non-Black people of color.
It’s not an unusual question to wonder how she does it all. “I’m like the queen of doing too much!” she says. “I just have so many ideas and get excited and my brain is constantly in overdrive and being like, how can I create this? I’m just a human, having a human experience that wants to be in service,” she says. “That’s the driver in everything I do.” Her current driver is Ilanga, an upcoming well-being app that will offer yoga, pilates, and strength training “guided by the freedom of expression and joy of being alive.” (You can learn more and help fund Ilanga here.) “The premise is that moving your body should feel as good as eating ice cream,” she says. “I mean, realistically nothing is ever gonna be as good as eating ice cream! But what if you can just determine how you want to feel when you move? So you pick up the app and you can be like ‘I want to feel strong today.’ or ‘I want to feel relaxed today.’ and then your practice for that day is going to be reflective of whatever you want to feel.”
“I’m just a human, having a human experience that wants to be of service.”
Sinikiwe operates from a “people first” point of view and is always looking for ways to take real action to better people’s lives. “We’re so removed from being humans and with being actionable,” she says. “I love words, I love learning, but at the end of the day, pontificating over a panel discussion about wellness and well-being… what does that do? What is the takeaway? We had this amazing conversation, now what is the action item? I just want to do the thing instead of talking about the thing.”
People needed wellness and well-being tools long before the pandemic, and Sinikiwe’s commitment to her own well-being hasn’t been without sacrifices. Before committing to Naaya full time, she worked a variety of corporate jobs and ultimately decided the benefits of following her dream outweighed the stability those jobs can sometimes provide. “I’d love to plan for a future, but working in spaces where my mental health is not safeguarded is not worth it for me,” she says. “Like I will take the hit. Not that I want to take the hit, but in order to safeguard my well-being, I would rather be in a place where I am figuring it out financially and feeling good, mental wise. Versus being in a place where my finances are set, but I’m waking up every day and just being like, ‘Wow, I have to be at the office at 10 o’clock and it’s 9:30 and I’m still in bed because I’m dreading going to work.’ It makes me really sad that having stability in a lot of ways comes at a cost to us. It’s like, what if people felt good?”
She’s committed to creating a better environment at Naaya as the company grows. “I’m very realistic,” she says. “No one is ever going to care as much about Naaya as I do because I founded this company. And what if it’s like, I offer everyone who works with me the opportunity to just do this thing, help me build this thing, and to tap into their own humanity and their own joy? That is so important to me and that’s how I’m trying to operate.”
With so much focus on the well-being of others, we had to ask: where does Sinikiwe find joy of her own? “I’m a freak and I work a lot,” she admits with a laugh. “But I do try intentionally to have dedicated friend time in person, or even if it’s just a FaceTime or voice note — I really love a voice note. Also, a lot of the work I do is very serious and so I really do try to not take myself so seriously. Like, we could use levity, it doesn’t always have to be so deep. I’m mostly just a clown, to be honest. I just want to be silly. My sister brings me joy, she’s a savage on the dating apps and I’m like, I just want to be like you when I grow up even though she’s my little sister. And, I mean, probably not the best thing for my wallet, but like I like nice fashion looks — that makes me so happy.” She pauses and adds with a smile: “Even if I’m just wearing them on Zoom.”