Navajo breath-work facilitator Deoné Newell aims to decolonize wellness

For life coach and breath-work facilitator Deoné Newell, who grew up traveling between her mom’s Diné family on the Navajo Nation and her dad’s Black/Creole family in Northern California, her Black/Native American culture has infused every bit of her work in the wellness space.

“I’ve really been digging in to traditional Navajo storytelling and going back to stories that my grandmother told me when I was very young,” Newell told In The Know by Yahoo, explaining how those stories have strengthened her relationship with the land around her.

Deoné Newell, Diné life coach and breathwork facilitator
Deoné Newell, Diné life coach and breathwork facilitator

“When I bring that into my coaching and my breath-work sessions,” she added, “I continue to remind people of how, as a woman, I would relate to these things in my life.”

For the uninitiated, breath work is a mindfulness practice that helps control breathing to reduce stress and overwhelming feelings. Multiple studies have shown its efficacy in “both immediate and long-term stress reduction.” Newell incorporates a box breathing technique, which can include Navajo stories and language, into her wellness sessions.

What’s particularly important, as a citizen of the Navajo Nation herself, is Newell’s ability to bring that cultural authenticity to her work, which, she said, has been “really grounding for a lot of people who maybe have no ties to ancestral stories.”

Creating a ‘decolonized’ path to healing

While in recent years, the term “wellness” seems to have become synonymous with far-flung retreats featuring price tags as hot as the yoga classes on offer, Newell seeks to offer a “decolonized” path to healing — that is, one that offers authenticity and diversity instead of just buzzwords and concepts learned via “an Instagram post.”

“Colonizing is really an act of taking something that doesn’t belong to you and reclaiming it as your own,” Newell said, adding that the process inflicts harm on the original cultures.

There are many spiritual practices, including yoga, smudging and ayahuasca ceremonies, that have been appropriated by people outside the practice’s original culture who have since sold what wasn’t meant to be for sale.

Newell is looking to change that.

“Traditionally, our ancestors would not sell things like ceremony,” she said. “They wouldn’t sell things like medicine or specific blessings or songs or experiences.”

However, first contact and colonization changed all of that.

“When we think about when [colonizers] first took the land, it was for profit and to really start to create money out of the systems that were in place,” Newell explained. “So when we think about wellness, I think a lot about these spaces that are starting to commoditize and commodify different practices.”

When these traditional practices are essentially for sale by people outside of the original Native culture, Newell argued that it can be alienating, especially when it comes with a hefty price tag.

“It’s very harmful for us to then start putting, or for certain people to put, paywalls in front of these experiences, because now it means that you are tying the experience to money when it really should be passed down traditionally.”

Taking action in the wellness space

To decolonize the wellness space, Newell seeks to do a couple of things. First, the wellness advocate wants to see more BIPOC facilitators in leadership roles.

“When I talk about decolonization as an action, we really have to do more than just check a box,” Newell said. For Newell, that means hiring more Indigenous leaders and people of color in wellness spaces.

“We’ve experienced those spaces, and we’ve seen that these spaces are usually run by people who don’t have the Indigenous ties,” she added. “They may have been learning about some of these concepts on an Instagram post.”

The lack of representation, she added, leads to a kind of “spiritual bypassing,” meaning certain traumas are ignored simply because of the lack of experience in that cultural or family history.

“It’s really important for us to create spaces where we feel like a facilitator has been through the trauma,” or the experience of being a person of color.

Newell also wants to make sessions more equitable, meaning incorporating a donation-based system or one involving mutual aid. In fact, giving back to the original community is a large part of what Newell says is missing from many modern wellness spaces.

“I think a lot of people are not focused on what they can do to give back to the communities that they’re extracting from,” she said. “They’re going to Peru for an ayahuasca retreat and learning all about the medicine and sitting under a shaman and then going back to wherever in L.A., creating a retreat in Joshua Tree and charging thousands of dollars.”

They’re commodifying an experience, sometimes in an exorbitant way, she said, that was never meant to involve money. And to not give back to the organization or individual that they learned from is contributing to the problem.

Giving back to the people and to the land is an essential part of many Indigenous traditions.

“Reciprocity,” she said, “is an essential part of this work.”

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