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Growing up in Denver, Colorado, with three brothers, Nielah (pronounced Ny-ee-lah) Burnett got used to being challenged. “Resilience is in my DNA,” she says. Burnett put those childhood skills to the test when she faced personal and professional trials on her way to opening InnerG Juice & Yoga in Tennessee’s North Nashville community.
A Beginning (InnerGrow)
“Smothered pork chops,” Burnett responds when asked what her favorite dish was growing up. “Any day that included smothered pork chops was a good day.” However, as an athlete on the track and field team at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia, Burnett began having conversations with her coaches around eating healthier and ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into her diet. “I wanted to eat more high-performance foods that would support a busy, active lifestyle,” she says. So, Burnett stopped eating meat.
North Nashville (InnerGrip)
North Nashville is home to Tennessee State University, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College and the Watkins College of Art and Design. The area, which borders downtown Nashville to its south and the Cumberland River as an outer boundary to the north, is approximately eight square miles in total. It is described in the North Nashville Community Plan (last updated August 2017) as “primarily urban residential in character with walkable neighborhoods that offer a variety of housing choices.”
This neighborhood, rich in history and academic credentials, has also been described as a food desert. Food deserts are characterized as areas having “poor access to healthy and affordable food … that may contribute to social and spatial disparities in diet and diet-related health outcomes,” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control.
When Burnett moved to Nashville after college, she realized that North Nashville is underserved when it comes to access to health and wellness opportunities. She says, “This neighborhood gets so much bad press for things that are lacking … and we have so many gaps in services [that should be provided] on the preventative side of health and wellness.”
This affected Burnett directly. When looking for ways to continue the healthy eating choices she began in college, she found limited options in Nashville. This led to making fresh fruit smoothies for herself and selling them at events in and around the city, including the Hot Chicken Festival, Celebrate Nashville and the Tennessee State University (TSU) Homecoming. Burnett says, “I learned a lot from that experience. It taught me to focus on what people needed, not just what I wanted to give them.”
Life and Strife (InnerGrind)
Burnett knew she had something. She says, “The number one question people asked was always, ‘Do you have a storefront?’” At the time, Burnett was selling smoothies part-time while working a full-time job. Then life changed.
In 2013, she had her first child and moved in with her then-fiancé, now-husband, Trey Roberts. In addition, she relocated her mother from Colorado to Nashville to help during her recovery from stage 4 breast cancer. “I started experiencing new levels of stress,” she recalls. Recognizing the threat to her overall wellness, she says, “I began attending yoga classes offered at my place of employment.”
Burnett first tried yoga in college as a way to stay healthy after an injury. Now she leaned into yoga to manage some of the stresses associated with the life events she was experiencing. When the opportunity to earn a Kemetic Yoga Certification came along, Burnett took it. “I choose Kemetic Yoga because I wanted something that felt more connected to my identity and who I am,” she says.
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Kemetic Yoga centers around the interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Many of its practitioners appreciate the African origins of this type of yoga. Burnett describes the practice as “connecting and unifying your body, your mind and your soul by using breath and meditation.”
The practice also helped her transition from smoothies to juices. “As part of my yoga certification,” she says, “I had to have a green juice each day.” When she could not find a juice bar in Nashville, Burnett set about creating her own juices. “I got into the fun of mixing to meet the daily requirement,” she says. “Some of those recipes are still on the menu today.”
After receiving her yoga certification, Burnett committed herself not only to her wellness journey but sought to find a way to promote wellness within her community. She started teaching yoga and envisioned opening a wellness center/yoga studio. Meanwhile, she began operating a juice subscription service, InnerG Juices, while pursuing investments for her larger goals.
Burnett also went back to school and earned an MBA. She says the motivation came from an internal drive and a desire to improve the health of her community. “I truly and firmly believe that a lot of the challenges we see in our [Black] community when it comes to health, stems from [lack of] accessibility and representation. I am the living example of what a change in your diet can do for you.” Although several investors passed on her vision, Burnett says, “I didn’t see those rejects as showstoppers for the business. I saw them as part of the story [I could] use as an example for encouraging people to continue their wellness journey no matter the obstacles.”
Burnett kept up the struggle even through personal tragedy when she endured the loss of a child. “Although this loss was excruciating,” she says, she used her wellness routine, juicing and yoga, to help manage the heartache and pain.
Then things changed again for Burnett. In March 2020, a tornado touched down in the Nashville area, killing at least 24 people and causing widespread power outages. On the heels of that emergency, Nashville saw its first COVID-19 case on March 8, and the governor of Tennessee ordered a state of emergency for the entire state. “COVID-19 shut our city down,” Burnett says. Like many of us, Burnett wasn’t sure what would come next. In the midst of two emergencies affecting the city, she says, “I felt like there was not a lot of runway for us to continue operating the business.” But what happened next, Burnett calls “nothing short of amazing.”
She pivoted. “In the interest of [supporting] the people being asked to care for everyone else, I made an offer to essential personnel of Nashville.” She told them, “If you have to be on the frontlines when all of these really scary things are happening, let me deliver fresh juice to you to support your inner being and your immune system.” By centering on the needs of the community, Burnett was able to continue operating her business. She says, “We would not be here if we hadn’t set aside our own concerns and focused in on the people we want to serve.”
Burnett opened her studio and juice bar, InnerG Juice & Yoga in North Nashville in July 2021. She joins other Black-owned enterprises such as Slim & Husky Pizzeria (featured on “Good Morning America”), intentionally located in predominantly Black neighborhoods to support the community.
“It didn’t feel right to take [InnerG Juice & Yoga] to a more affluent area somewhere in the suburbs or near a mall if the mission is to serve my community,” she says. Burnett was also able to secure a location in a building that once housed an old supermarket. She describes preparing healthy juices in a space that once sold fresh fruit and vegetables as “coming full circle for this neighborhood.”
InnerG Juice &Yoga offers health classes too. “For a while, we offered educational classes [such as] which fruits and vegetables to use or avoid [when juicing] for certain health conditions,” Burnett says. “We also went to libraries in and around Nashville to talk with people about keeping up with juicing.” She says additional classes are being planned, such as mindfulness classes for young and adult men.
Burnett says she wants InnerG Juice & Yoga to be a place where people can find a wellness journey that will sustain them. “I want each person to ask themselves, ‘What are the things that are missing in our day-to-day that keeps us from living prosperous, happy, healthy stress-less lives?’”
Burnett continues, “I say stress-less because life…work, kids, stuff is going to happen, but how can we alleviate the stress of …hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol that are a function of how we eat. I want InnerG Juice and Yoga to be the place where people can create and achieve the right wellness balance for their lifestyle.”
If you’re in the area, visit InnerG Juice & Yoga at 1807 9th Avenue in North Nashville. You can also follow them on Instagram at @innerg_juice_yoga.