It Takes a Villij: A Chat With Shanelle McKenzie, Co-Founder of the Wellness Community for Womxn of Color
As wellness spaces continue to grow in popularity and borrow practices from Asian, South Asian, and Native American cultures, the common and easily accessible places of practice generally tend to cater to white audiences. Because of this, women of color often feel out of place or unwelcome. With the lack of diversity and cultural understanding in many wellness spaces, a place where we can truly feel comfortable has been in need for a long time, in many parts of the country. That was until The Villij.
The Villij is a wellness community designed specifically for women of color. Founded in Toronto, Canada, the community has expanded with participants from all over the world after going completely virtual in 2020. Kim Knight and Shanelle McKenzie founded The Villij in 2017 to fill the void that they were missing from the wellness community.
I “sat down” (spoke over the phone) with co-founder Shanelle McKenzie to get the full story on how The Villij came to be and where it’s headed.
How It Started
As far as safe spaces go, Knight and McKenzie felt a strong need to create one for women like them to be among like minds and bodies. McKenzie described a particular moment in her wellness journey when a yoga instructor rubbed her head during class, completely oblivious to the cultural etiquette of not touching Black women’s hair.
“I was shocked. It really threw me off,” said McKenzie, who is also The Villij’s head of strategy. “I don’t want any women of color to feel that embarrassment.”
After meeting in the corporate world, Knight and Mckenzie hit it off almost immediately after talking in an office bathroom. It’s a rare occurrence when you can connect with someone instantaneously, and that’s exactly what happened with these two. The women bonded over their love of travel, self-care, and how they saw the world. Their click was so strong that only six months later, The Villij was born.
“The beauty was that we were so aligned,” McKenzie said.
What They Offer
Fast forward three years: their business has blossomed into an inclusive and diverse community with outposts in Canada, the U.S., the United Kingdom, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That’s something that they are really proud of, especially since the expansion came after having to go virtual due to COVID-19. Their goal to create a real community is not only happening, but it is growing.
“Support was always really amazing; we had our people. We were very blessed,” McKenzie said.
But what created the loyal base of The Villij was everything they had to offer. The community offers TrapSoul Yoga, which is described as an “experience for womxn of colour to connect with themselves and their community through shared breath and movement.” The playlist for this virtual yoga class plays R&B jams from artists like H.E.R., Jhene Aiko, and Summer Walker. Very much living up to the name of TrapSoul—something never done before in yoga, and honestly, it’s a dream come true. Who knew we could have both?
Other experiences offered include Villij Walk (which is on hold for now due to COVID-19) and Villij Talk. Villij Talk has evolved enormously since going 100 percent virtual. This experience brings in experts and professionals from all aspects of wellness such as nutrition, meditation, skincare, and more. It’s become a recurrent (and complimentary!) event online that they plan to continue even after after the pandemic.
“COVID made us get our shit together,” Mckenzie laughed. “We’re 100 percent staying online after this is over.”
Before 2020, The Villij had pop-up classes and experiences in Canada only. But with everything this year has presented, it became clear that the need for wellness in this particular community was imperative. Especially now.
Advice In Today’s Climate
It’s no secret that the Black Lives Matter movement, COVID-19, and the presidential election have put things in high gear and have raised the anxieties of people of color. When seeing our community targeted in every aspect, it’s understandable that personal wellness and self-care are put on the back burner in the attempt to get the world in order.
“I don’t feel well watching the news, Trump making a mockery of people of color. My parents are in the states and I’m worried for their wellbeing,” McKenzie said. “How can we invest in our wellbeing when we see our people being harmed? How?”
After getting through the election, we can now have some positivity and hope for the future. McKenzie has advice for young women of color still in the battle between politics, the world, and their own self-care: “It’s okay to feel. It doesn’t matter if you’re African American, Filipina, Latina—we’re all told we have to be strong, but we don’t need to be strong all the time. And through that realization is healing.”
McKenzie ends the conversation by mentioning that she and Knight work off of intuition. “If we need something, we think someone else may too.” And that’s how ideas on how to evolve The Villij are formed. With two founders so in touch with their emotions and willing to get others to the same point, The Villij can only continue to go up.
To support The Villij in providing a safe wellness space and services to women of color, please visit thevillij.com/support to donate.
–Amanda Davis, Content Creator