Meet the Women Shaking Up the Wellness Industry
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everyone should have access to a healthy lifestyle.
By Molly Fosco
From the moment Christina Rice discovered yoga in 2015, she loved how it made her feel. Rice was going through a tough time emotionally, which left her feeling drained. Going to a hot yoga class increased her energy levels, and over time, she felt her mental and physical health improve. But she noticed something else too — she was the only Black woman in nearly every yoga class she attended.
For many women and men of color, that’s the reality of the wellness industry. Boutique fitness studios, yoga classes and organic grocery stores and juice bars are places of overwhelming whiteness. Health and wellness brands often market exclusively to the white, affluent demographic, creating a culture of exclusion. In some cases, it also perpetuates a lack of awareness around the life-saving benefits of proper nutrition and exercise in communities of color. African-American and Hispanic American adults have a higher rate of diabetes and obesity than white adults in the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Diabetes Association. But a group of fitness and health professionals are fighting for change.
Being visible is important.
Veleisa Burrell, yoga teacher
Black women across the country are teaching yoga, leading meditation and coaching people from all backgrounds on how to cook and eat healthfully. There’s Black Zen, an organization founded in 2016 by New Yorker Jasmine Johnson and her sister Stacey, which promotes accessibility to meditation for Black and brown people. In 2017, Rice launched OMNoire, an online wellness community to help people of color find yoga and fitness opportunities, and feel supported in living a healthy lifestyle.
A few publications are coming on board too. Self magazine recently promoted an editorial theme week on race and wellness, posting stories each day on the topic from different perspectives. And some yoga teachers, like Veleisa Burrell in Dallas, make it a point to also attend classes taught by other people of color, to help increase the visibility of nonwhite communities taking up wellness.
“Being visible is important,” says Burrell.
At the heart of these efforts is an experience many of these professionals have had: Once they took the lead, other people of color were quick to join them. After Rice realized the extent of yoga’s diversity problem, she began training to be a yoga teacher and chronicled her experiences on social media. Right away, Black women began asking when they could attend her classes. “It just clicked,” Rice says. “They felt more comfortable being taught by someone who looks like them.” That inspired her to start OMNoire. She used to feel “very isolated” in yoga and spin classes, and she hopes OMNoire will save other people of color from having that experience.
The lack of diversity was evident to Burrell too when she first began taking yoga. Burrell attributes this in part to the way fitness is often positioned to low-income, minority demographics. “Growing up in a lower middle class background, the idea of taking time to exercise seemed like a luxury,” she says. But when she started teaching yoga, she observed more women of color in attendance than she had ever seen in a class taught by a white instructor.
It’s not just physical fitness where change is afoot. After a particularly stressful day at work in New York, Jasmine Johnson came home one evening and just sat in silence. Astonished at the powerful effect it had on her, she began researching meditation. Johnson wanted to share this gift of a quiet mind, particularly with other people of color because “nothing in the meditation space was speaking to our community,” she says. With her sister and their friend, she founded Black Zen, which holds live meditation events and encourages personal growth for their community through social media. The absence of “the time and the means” to pursue wellness practices, says Johnson, doesn’t have to be a barrier for communities of color. They’re trying to show that through representation. “You have to let people who are from the community speak to the community,” she says. “You can’t mimic authenticity.”
The movement to make wellness more inclusive caught the attention of Self’s editor-in-chief, Carolyn Kylstra, last year. Kylstra says she was becoming increasingly aware the industry had an exclusivity problem, Self included, and felt the magazine needed to address the problem. “Self’s mission is to help people feel better, and that means helping as many people as possible,” Kylstra says. The health and fitness magazine decided to launch an editorial theme week centered on the ways that race intersects with physical and mental health, featuring stories from ethnically diverse contributors. It was well received, Kylstra says, but there’s still more work to do. Going forward, Self is making an intentional effort to include writers with varied backgrounds and photography that represents all ethnicities.
But including more people in wellness largely depends on accessibility. “Food access and price are big problems,” says Chelsea Williams, a health and wellness blogger who teaches plant-based nutrition classes in Washington, D.C. There are approximately 6.5 square miles of food desert in the nation’s capital — urban areas without access to grocery stores — and they’re largely concentrated in low-income and nonwhite neighborhoods. Here, processed convenience-store food is often the only option for sustenance. After discovering the health benefits of veganism, Williams set out to teach healthy cooking to communities of color but found the lack of store access a big roadblock. “If the resources aren’t there, they can’t use the tools that have been provided,” Williams says. She believes the answer lies in policy change. “We can talk about awareness and access all day, but until we actually change the policies, we’re going to be gridlocked,” says Williams.
Many of the women working to diversify wellness are targeting the issue of access by offering free or affordable wellness resources. OMNoire promotes yoga classes for as little as $5, and Black Zen provides at-home meditation guides that are completely free. And at the end of the day, a big part of promoting wellness in communities of color, says Rice of OMNoire, is knowing that one method isn’t right for everyone. “Find what makes you feel comfortable,” she says. “Find the wellness journey that works for you.”