I love a bit of woo woo.
As a former wellbeing editor, I’ve interviewed countless experts on how to achieve a work-life balance and live a life of optimal energy. I’ve practiced gratitude, had morning rituals involving oil pulling and breath work, milked my almonds (before realising they’re unsustainable and pivoting to hazelnuts) and blended hand-harvested greens.
I’m skilled enough at yoga to be able to hold arm balances and inversions, yet experienced enough in the practice to understand the asana are not the purpose.
I became deeply inspired by the work of Dr Libby and many others I was lucky enough to interview as a wellbeing editor. I travelled to LA where I did cryotherapy treatment and had colonics with the same pipes my idol Gwyneth had used.
I even reported on the practice of the jade ‘Yoni’ eggs before they became Gooped. I’ve had a life-changing experience with hypnotherapy at a health retreat in Australia, and sought solace with a spiritual healer in Ubud.
At many troubled times throughout my life, both emotional and physical, I have turned to alternate practices to find answers modern medicine could not provide.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I fucking love modern medicine.
Modern medicine is the reason I am alive. And alternate medicine is the reason I am sane.
Inexplicably diagnosed with cancer at the age of 26, when I was stripped of my breast, hair, innocence, youth and many of my friends. Modern medicine did an amazing job of diagnosing and saving me. From there, it was up to me to put the pieces back together however best I could.
Until now, funnily enough. When ‘unprecedented times’ would seem to call for it most.
Admittedly, it was a few years pre-Covid when I first started to feel disillusioned with the world of wellbeing.
While I saw myself as an eternal student on my way to uncover a range of tools in the hope everyone would find something that resonated with them, the rise of social media stars saw many (especially, it seemed, young, thin, white women) gain alarming influence over a vulnerable audience with what became apparent to me as a focus on body image.
I hold this notion that cancer is bad ingredients in the soup that is your body, and that by exploring different modalities I might find ‘the thing’ that would change the recipe and prevent my body from ever growing cancer again.
I also had a fixation (bordering on anxiety) around feeling healthy, with very little attention paid to how I looked (I was, after all, someone who had lost her breasts and hair at a young age. My obsessions were elsewhere).
But wellness and societal notions of beauty became interchangeable and those ‘experts’ who were thin, young and clear-skinned and more palatable to an increasingly rabid audience grew in influence - while I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the language they used to sell products. Most notably, themselves.
I recall doing a Power Yoga class in Melbourne once and being deeply irritated by the teacher, who told a cautionary tale during shavasana about a fight he’d had with his girlfriend. He wasn’t smart enough for the story to land and I remember rolling my third eye at him.
This was during the time when social media stars were moving from being ‘perfect’ to ‘relatable’, in order to increase engagement and defeat algorithms. For many, this meant talking on their social channels about their issues with anxiety, food and body image (always perfectly resolved, through their not-at-all-unhealthy relationship with yoga and plant-based diets, of course!)
I’ve always found this insight into a practitioner’s life tremendously off-putting. I want my teachers to be infallible. To live solely on the mat wherein they will care for my body and mind as gently as they would their grandmothers’ hand across a busy intersection.
Now I realise how naïve that is.
My initial mistrust of the wellbeing space came from how anti-female and privileged it was. As people far more articulate than me have pointed out, it was being used by a capitalist system as the new ‘woke’ bikini body. Tricking women into feeling empowered while at the same time keeping them focused on being thin, clear-skinned and above all, passive.
All number of quotes in cursive fonts on pastel Insta tiles, suggesting we hold within us the power of change, that we can manifest our own destinies and abundance if only we can control our thoughts into sunny positivity, and that we alone are responsible for any negativity in our lives.
As someone who naturally likes to question, challenge and probe (sorry mum!), I found this focus on passivity increasingly unsettling and anti-female. Wellness has been weaponised to be used against us. It demands we take accountability for our own fate, and alludes to the tools of change being within our control.
Also, manifestation programs are expensive!
In recent times the proliferation of QAnon conspiracy theories and white supremacy in these so-called wellbeing circles has led me to such a level of distrust I can barely find my way to the mat.
In the US it reached such a crisis point that concerned teachers signed a pledge distancing themselves from it.
Closer to home we have no such guidance. And it struck me that where once I wanted to know nothing about a teacher, I now need to know at least the very basics. Such as, am I being manipulated by people who hold opposing values to me for reasons other than my mental wellbeing?
At first it was unfathomable to me that so many women in this ‘wellbeing’ space were peddling misinformation - from yoga and meditation teachers through to food bloggers, nutritionists and natural birth advocates. But on reflection perhaps it makes sense.
From endometriosis and menopause through to autoimmune issues, women are often let down by mainstream medicine. We also make the bulk of parental decisions around household medical care such as vaccination schedules. All of this naturally leads to a level of mistrust that is now being readily exploited – by those who built it.
The same woman I interviewed about her acclaimed natural beauty line, who mentioned her use of jade eggs to me (and, later, Gwyneth), did an Instagram post in regards to Black Lives Matters saying that the number one issue facing Black people in American is their adverse reactions to vaccinations. She is now using that rhetoric to speak out against the Covid vaccine, talking directly to a population who have been disproportionately impacted by the disease (she is not Black herself).
Who can I trust? When we published our story on Lonely lingerie being run by QAnon conspiracy theorists, the few posts bagging it were from people affiliated with the wellness industry. We received a Facebook message from a woman, who a quick Google search showed to be the commercial manager from a local glossy mag, who runs ‘healing circles for women’ in her spare time and cites the chiropractor featured in the story as her mentor.
“What shit journalism”, she wrote. “I hope you get slammed legally and this whole Ensemble business goes away and we get left with quality media in this country.”
One yoga teacher I trust once noted to me that the practice appeals to those who want a platform and love the sound of their own voice, given they are literally given a stage and a captive audience.
Social media has served to amplify that platform and grow that audience. I was reminded of her observation as I watched Trump-supporting ‘lightworkers’ invade Capitol Hill and literally steal Nancy Pelosi’s podium for themselves.
Another trusted local teacher told me recently, visibly shaken, that after referencing Black Lives Matter in class, a (white male) participant came up to her afterwards and chewed her ear off about All Lives Matter.
I really miss yoga. I miss the confidence it gives me in a body I was made to feel let me down. I miss the learnings it gives me to breath through difficult circumstances, and I miss the space it creates in my body, mind and life. I miss exploring this and other modalities, the excitement of knowing a little bit of woo woo might unlock something playful or profound.
While acknowledging my white privilege, I miss ‘working on myself’. When there are so many other people facing greater crises than I, is it even justifiable? And what if I unwittingly give a misogynist white supremacist wearing lycra my money?
Feeling unsure of who you can trust? These social media platforms provide a safe, informative space (with the odd bit of light relief):
Alex Auder – described by the New York Times as "Yoga’s Instagram Provocateur", and the daughter of Warhol muse Viva, stepdaughter of Cindy Sherman, and half-sister of actor Gaby Hoffmann (Now and Then, Transparent). Alex is an amazing yoga teacher for anyone wanting to do a ‘safe’ class online, as well as an entertaining follow on Instagram, where she consistently calls out those in the industry who peddle QAnon theories. Enjoy her stories for some highlights.
Conspirituality – a podcast and online resource that describes itself as “a weekly study of converging right-wing conspiracy theories and faux-progressive wellness utopianism”. It’s hosted and led by three yoga teachers from LA and Canada, two of whom have also had experience living in cults - a fascinating insight into how these ideologies grow. They also have a presence on Instagram.
Anusha Wijeyakumar – the yoga teacher and author who wrote the excellent InStyle article We Need to Talk About the Role of White Supremacy in Yoga.
Azi Iranian – The Wellness Therapist. A great social media reference tool to help identify problematic ‘influencers’.