“I started a yoga hub for Black women”: This entrepreneur found a way to make wellness affordable and inclusive

“I started a yoga hub for Black women”: This entrepreneur found a way to make wellness affordable and inclusive

Shanelle McKenzie started a wellness collective for women of colour with free talks, walking clubs and a yoga program that runs on a sliding scale. When the pandemic happened, she moved all her services online. Here, she tells us how it all works.

—As told to Natalie Harmsen

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“Yoga is intimidating for women of colour. We walk into these studios where the pictures don’t look like us and the yogis don’t look like us. In the past, when I attended yoga classes, I was often the only Black person in the room, and I felt uncomfortable. That’s why I started the Villij, a wellness collective for women of colour, with my colleague Kim Knight in 2017; she runs the Montreal chapter, and I run the one in Toronto. In June of that year, the Villij held its first pop-up TrapSoul yoga session in Montreal. It was beautiful, because 60 per cent of the women who joined were doing yoga for the first time. The wellness industry is expensive, but we make sure our programs aren’t hitting people’s pockets too much. We offer free talks and walking clubs, and our yoga program runs on a sliding scale from $18 to $30 a month, with unlimited classes available online.

“When Covid hit in March, we moved our other services online too. We had a therapist on Zoom discussing coping methods for anxiety, and a finance coach talking about how to budget during a pandemic. A lot of people said, ‘Okay, well, this week was terrible, but this Villij talk was the highlight.’ When the Black Lives Matter movement came alive, a lot of us were traumatized and didn’t even know it. I was tired and anxious just from watching the news. I saw people who look like me, who sound like me, and they were bleeding out on TV. We brought in a therapist to talk about healing from racial trauma. One member said she was crying every single day, and another said the news footage made her sick. Facilitating that talk helped me understand why I felt the way I did, and that other women were in the same place.

“Now that the Villij is exclusively online, we’re able to connect with people all over the world. One member lives in the Virgin Islands. She was juggling her corporate job and parenthood, and the TrapSoul virtual yoga classes gave her a chance to slow down. As people of colour, we have a lot of guilt about taking care of ourselves and investing in ourselves. We need to realize that caring for our communities can help us care for ourselves.”