Yannise JeanYannise Jean is a freelance writer from Brooklyn.
Images of wellness are usually represented by white faces. It gives the impression that healing is only accessible to those who can afford it (aka white people.) So what does a healing space designed for people of color look like?
That was the first question co-founders and long-time friends Darian Hall and Elisa Shankle asked themselves before opening up Brooklyn’s only Black-owned wellness center, HealHaus, last May. The 1,110 square feet space is a wellness safe haven, a place for those in marginalized communities to come together, heal, and improve their overall mental and physical health.
Their mantra is simple: healing is a lifestyle. Healing can prove to be difficult for Black people who are struggling to acclimate to a political climate that has become increasingly violent and difficult to navigate. In a way, many organizations are failing Black employees, especially when one becomes the sole example of diversity in the workplace. In January, professor Adia Harvey Wingfield of the Harvard Business Review, spoke about how companies’ “nonexistent” policies on racial diversity and inclusion can do little to address the issues affecting their Black workers. It can lead to increased stress, depression and feelings of exclusion. Similar feelings that led Shankle to quit her corporate job in design years ago.
“I got put on to holistic health early on because of my struggle with anxiety and depression. I was dealing with a lot of things in a corporate environment,” Elisa said. “ I would have panic attacks in the bathroom. How can I maneuver this space and feel like myself? What I had to do for my mental health was leave my job.”
In 2011, during the aftermath of dealing with the death of her brother and quitting her job, Elisa sought help through therapy, herbal healing, and starting her own interior design business. After years of dealing with anxiety and stress, she began seeing a naturopathic doctor who taught her the benefits of medicinal herbs and treating herself naturally.
For co-founder Hall, his journey started with a conversation with his friends. “I’ve been friends with so many of these guys for so long — fraternity brothers, guys I’ve known since childhood — and [hearing] them talking about things for the very first time and realizing how we don’t really communicate about certain things but looking for a space to be able to do so,” Hall said.
After having a conversation with Shankle about the lack of wellness spaces catered for people of color, they spent six months developing what would now be HealHaus.
HealHaus offers many paths to wellness. Yoga and meditation classes occur multiple times during the week— with alfresco classes during the summer. They offer various panels and workshops addressing specific needs. Some workshops focus on reiki circles while some panels address topics like depression, anxiety, and trauma.
Their classes are taught by practitioners, each one chosen by Darian and Elisa, who are asked, during interviews, “what is your greatest healing offering?” Their process is about exploring different models and methods for healing to offer their clients. But they also wanted to make sure that the practitioners offering their services were reflective of the clientele. Their roster of practitioners are diverse when it comes to race, age and services offered. For them, diversity isn’t just a buzzword, it helps promote community and inclusion.
“It’s a two way street. If you don’t have practitioners of color, people of color aren’t gonna come. If clients of color aren’t coming you’re going to feel isolated,” Shankle said. “We’re creating a holistic experience on both ends.”
We’ve grown accustomed to the idea of wellness as a luxury, rather than a necessity. But there are various factors that play into that idea — lack of inclusion, cost, and accessibility. Darian and Elisa are making space for people of color despite being part of an industry that is saturated with rich white energy. Although many of these meditation practices originate from people of color, they’ve been left out of the conversation or have their contributions erased. Yoga, for example, has become so exclusionary within the wellness industry that many seem to forget that the practice originated from India.
“I always think about why there aren’t spaces in our community that feel accessible or make you feel like, ‘I’m a part of this and I can learn something,’” Shankle said. “Certain foods are always catered to us, but for some reason, wellness is not something that is catered or marketed to us. We’re not seen as worthy of that. The mainstream wellness market definitely caters to a specific crowd, a specific energy.”
If you’re trying yoga for the first time, the whole concept of wellness can be intimidating. But HealHaus have tried to remedy any doubts by offering a donation program during the weekends, and even offering a week-long promotion program for new members. For $20, you can take an unlimited amount of yoga and meditation classes for a week, and ease yourself into secluded territory.
Men are not always inclined to talk about their feelings. The same way wellness has become whitewashed, it has also become feminized in the way we discuss mental health, in the way it is marketed and the language that surrounds us. Wellness is in itself a delicate matter, and the narrative that we’ve been fed is that delicate matters do not concern men, even though it is men who need these spaces just as much we women do.
Toxic masculinity does not just harm others, but is a circle of mayhem within the self. For Darian, he understands the importance of having his face in the studio and creating a space in which men are comfortable and willing to talk about healing. Everything from the neutral design of the studio, to the R&B playing on the speakers, is intentional.
“I think that it’s important that when guys come in here, that they’re not intimidated and they feel like this is for me as well,” Hall said. “By the music that we’re playing and the people that are seated here. It’s just the vibe that we’re creating in this space, it’s a big part of the reason why we do get guys who come in and get comfortable.”
HealHaus has been standing strong for the past year with grand goals for expanding their business and encouraging others to adopt a more serene lifestyle. In January they launched a corporate wellness and workplace program. The program — which has partnered with brands like Spotify, Verizon, and WeWork — prioritizes mental health in the workplace and create a transparent space for employees to have an open mind towards holistic health.
“Our ultimate goal is to shift the culture around wellness. It’s for us to get people — like kids — talking about their emotional, physical and mental health like they do Nikes,” Shankle said. “You want to feel like this shit is so cool, like ‘I can’t wait to nurture my mental health.’
But their goals don’t stop there. While their Brooklyn space will always be their physical hub, they want to go digital, in hopes of reaching a global market. Their goal is about cultivating a culture that celebrates and revels in wellness and healthy healing practices. Fortunately, outside of the space, there is a conscious shift happening within pop culture and how they approach wellness.
“It’s a movement that is happening and making guys more conscious of the need of this kind of spaces,” Hall said. “We have the stuff that Charlamange [tha God] is talking about, we have J. Cole rapping about meditating, and JAY-Z rapping about therapy. All that stuff has been happening the past couple of years and we opened [HealHaus] kind of right in the middle of that. So all these conversations are happening in hip-hop and now here’s a space where you can actually go and actually practice some of the things that are being said.”
But the real force behind HealHaus is the community that had rallied behind them. There is a substantial weight both founders place on community and the benefits to having one. They’ve watched their community take to their healing practices, even when they sound strange — think reiki circles and kemetic yoga. But self-care isn’t just about trying something new, it’s about implementing it into your daily lifestyle.
“Self-care, for me, is like a part of my survival. Our tagline is healing is a lifestyle for a reason,” Shankle said. “My self-care is about spending every single day working towards being a more balanced and higher version of myself. And if I don’t do it I’m not that.”
Over the past few years, self-care can be reduced to bite-sized quotes and avocado face masks, but in terms of people of color, it can quite literally be the difference between life and death. It is a space in which everyone is welcome, despite any reservations one might have about wellness, this space is created for them.
“We can’t all afford therapy, but have those go to people that you can call for help. And make sure they will support you not judge you,” Shankle said. We need to understand that we’re all on this journey together.”