Creating a wellness community that is inclusive furthers IIN’s mission of transforming health and happiness around the globe. It starts by celebrating our diverse community members and amplifying their stories. In this blog series, you’ll hear from IIN graduates and employees about their health and wellness experiences and why we must focus on not just inclusion and diversity but also equity when addressing the well-being of Black people.
Jasmine “Coach Jaz” Graham, NBC-HWC, is a board-certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach with additional certifications in hormone health, breath work, and mindfulness. She is also a fitness professional, a running coach, a wellness blogger, and an entrepreneur. Jaz has 14 years’ experience in wellness, including more than seven years’ experience as a gym owner (2012‒2019) in New York City.
Jaz cultivates wellness programs for women of all ages that include health coaching, accountability coaching, and fitness coaching and offers seminars and workshops on women's health. Jaz still finds time to mentor fitness professionals, speak at events, and create high-energy fitness classes for her Wednesday night group, which was created to offer “community” during the pandemic. Jaz has an intense passion for helping clients transform their minds and bodies through behavior and lifestyle changes. Her newest venture, JazzFit, is a movement empowering women ages 40+ by uplifting their minds, bodies, and souls through a Facebook group where she initiates open discussions on various topics that are relevant to this demographic.
How did you find IIN? What about IIN inspired you?
In January of 2019, I closed my boutique gym, Fitness Sanctuary, which was in midtown Manhattan, and I embarked on a journey to heal my body as I managed the severe symptoms of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. I’d started working with a nutritionist in December 2018 who specialized in autoimmune issues ‒ and between her recommendations and those of my holistic doctor, I realized that I had to minimize stress, tweak my nutrition, and reevaluate my overall lifestyle.
I looked at my body as one system and treated my mind and body holistically. As my symptoms diminished – I lost 40 pounds, and the brain fog, skin irritations, and fatigue subsided – I realized that I wanted to support other women on their own wellness journeys. Being a fitness professional was no longer enough for me; I had an urge to go deeper and do more.
I started researching and came across IIN, and I’d known many people over the years who’d enrolled in the Health Coach Training Program. I knew this was my calling, and I enrolled in the accelerated program in November 2019 and graduated in June 2020.
I learned what wellness really encompassed and the importance of primary food, the IIN concept that refers to the areas of life that aren’t food yet nourish the body and soul, such as relationships and career. Each module was like a step on the road map that would help me heal various parts of my life. I experienced the effects of positive lifestyle changes on my overall well-being, and I was excited to support clients, friends, and family.
How are you incorporating what you've learned into your life and your work?
As a fitness professional, I work in a top-down model. I am the expert; I tell my clients what to do, and they get it done to the best of their ability. I have faith in them but am aware of their capabilities, and therefore I know how hard to push them to help them reach their goals. I’m their best cheerleader, and I empower them to be their best selves. Many of my clients hate working out but enjoy their time with me because I offer positive reinforcement, I make it fun, and they see results. As a Health Coach, the client is the expert, and we work together to cocreate systems that support them in living their healthiest life.
My journey to become a Health Coach made me more empathetic with my fitness clients. I realized the effects of stress, career, family life, finances, etc. on their performance. The pandemic started while I was studying with IIN, and the skills I learned during that time allowed me to give my clients a nonjudgmental space to express what they were dealing with. I was able to start my sessions with breath work and to set intentions when needed. Some sessions included more restorative exercises and less heavy lifting or HIIT workouts. I no longer looked at fitness as just a physical response; it was the mind and body working in unison. It was my job to access the whole person and be ready to revise workouts as needed.
Because of this, at the start of the pandemic, I started a complimentary Sunday class on Zoom called Salvation Sunday. It was a mixture: strength work followed by an open discussion of how we were all dealing with life for that week. The sessions were powerful because we would sweat together and then speak freely about how this “new normal” was impacting our lives. The women in my Sunday group cherished that time and looked forward it. I felt extremely blessed to be able to offer them this weekly release, and my new skill set allowed me to feel confident as I facilitated difficult conversations. These topics included the experiences of Black women and the expectation to appear strong in every situation and the negative consequences for our mental health.
How has race played a role in your career and work as a trainer?
I started my boot camps and running programs in 2008, after being laid off from my executive position in fashion. By 2013, I had networked and put myself out there, and my business was exploding ‒ so much so that I was able to create a permanent home for my business, opening a boutique studio in Manhattan where I hosted my own classes as well as rented space to other trainers. I was growing quickly and never thought of myself as being the only woman of color in Manhattan running this type of facility.
I knew of Black male gym owners, and they always gave me great advice, but I never encountered a Black female counterpart. I joined various groups for small business owners in health and wellness and hosted events, and that’s when it became evident that I was a trailblazer. By 2016, I had both women and men of color reaching out to me for advice and stewardship. At that point, I understood my responsibility to the community: I had to continue to be successful and thrive so that Black people, especially women, would see that surviving in this market is possible.
I was honest with the trainers I was mentoring. I told them the good, the bad, and the ugly of being an entrepreneur and stressed the importance of building a brand that people respected and trusted. We discussed the importance of being professional and extremely detail-oriented because as Black people, we have to overcome negative stereotypes. I would tell them: You must be prepared to handle microaggressions, negative reviews, racist comments, and bigotry as part of your day-to-day life because you’re dealing with the public.
Many of them were skillful in their role as trainers but had no concept of how to run their business successfully. They had the aspiration to succeed but needed support, and I was always happy to assist when possible. Representation matters, and some major companies still lack diversity in management. Black people have a tougher time acquiring loans to start a business: Some 44% of Black businesses use their own cash; only 18% get assistance with filling out loan forms, and Black owners receive less funding, at higher rates.
Inclusion in the fitness space has become a priority, so we’re seeing diversity in race and body type on digital platforms and apps as well as in gyms and studios across the country and around the world. It’s important to see Black people on every tier of the fitness industry ‒ and though there’s been a lot of positive change since 2008, when I first started my journey, we still have a long way to go.
You mentioned feeling a sense of responsibility as you gained awareness of being one of the only women of color you knew running a fitness business. How did you harness that felt responsibility into action?
A few years after I opened my space, I joined a popular digital platform that allowed anyone in the city to book a class at my studio, which meant a lot of exposure for me and my business. I started to encounter microaggressions from first timers coming to the studio – they’d be shocked that a woman of color owned the gym. At times, the shock on people’s faces made me angry, but it also fueled my determination to succeed. If there’d been enough representation, they wouldn’t have been surprised. I had to develop extra-tough skin as the bigoted reviews, racially insensitive comments, and ignorance of those who obviously didn’t know better became a part of my daily routine.
In 2017, I had the opportunity to rebrand and move into a bigger space, which is when I opened Fitness Sanctuary. I was able to offer in-house classes and rent out various rooms for personal training, group fitness, massage, and physical therapy. Around this time, the fitness market in New York City was becoming oversaturated with boutique fitness studios, and I started to see a rapid decline in business.
I fought hard to stay open because I felt an obligation to my Black community to sustain my business and continue to be an example to others. Failing was not an option, so I stayed the course much longer than I should have. In January 2019, I made the difficult decision to close Fitness Sanctuary. At first, I was very disappointed in myself because I’d worked so hard and now had to walk away before I lost everything.
Those feelings of defeat dissipated after a few weeks, when I leaned into my meditation practice and gained clarity. Through my journey, I inspired and empowered so many, whether they were my personal clients or independent trainers or entrepreneurs, and those experiences can never be erased. As a Black woman, I made a positive impact in the fitness world by opening doors, erasing stereotypes, and flourishing in spaces that were predominantly white before I arrived.
How are you honoring or celebrating Black History Month?
I honor Black history month by making an extra effort to support Black businesses especially those owned by Black women. Many have been hit hard due to the pandemic, and I understand what it feels like to have your business struggle, so I’ll be paying it forward.
How do you feel the wellness world can work to amplify Black voices and contribute to the health and well-being of Black people?
I think there need to be more programs that focus on mental health and stress management for Black people. The socioeconomic disparities for Black people have led to deteriorated mental health, which became evident during the pandemic. Poor mental health is equated with weakness in our community, so work must be done to eliminate those stereotypes.
I’d like to see the introduction of meditation and breath work in urban schools. I’d also love to see some type of farm sharing in low-income neighborhoods so that highly processed foods can be swapped out for healthier options. There’s so much information available, but people don’t know where to start. Education that starts focusing early on movement, nutrition, and stress management techniques would be amazing.
How can the IIN community work to make the wellness world more inclusive?
Through outreach, partnerships, and collaborations with Black people who are already in the wellness space, trying to make a difference. It’s not always the practitioners with thousands of followers but the grassroots people who are impacting their communities in a positive way.