Is The Wellness Industry Helping Us Or Hurting Us?

In this excerpt from Brigid Delaney's new book, Wellmania, the journalist explores our obsession with yoga and self care.


Churches used to be important. It’s hard to understate just how central they were a mere generation ago, particularly if, like my people, you lived in a country town. They were where you made friends, socialised, met your partner, networked for jobs and got assistance when times were tough. If you were poor you could get food, clothes and money; young couples went there for marriage counselling; refugees came for English language lessons. You were born into a church, educated by it and you were buried in it. You kept the cycle going by bringing your children into the church through the sacrament of baptism, and the habit of weekly mass.

Christianity’s decline is so sharp as to have fallen off a cliff – in Australia anyway. But just because religion has almost disappeared, it doesn’t mean we don’t need it. Regardless of whether or not you believe there is a God, organised religion can provide a sense of meaning, ritual and community. We’ve picked up some threads from old religions but the fabric is now pretty threadbare. So we go off searching.

We might try a few different sorts of yoga at a few different studios and see which one suits us, where there might be a good community (it’s no coincidence that yoga studios explicitly talk about community when advertising classes). We go to India and find gurus to study under. Like modern monks – but with wi-fi and wheelie suitcases – we go on retreat where we meditate, eat simply, go to bed early and reflect on where we are and where we have to go. Yoga is part of this ‘religion-lite’ offering.

It’s not all bad. The nuggets of truth in many of the Namaste Dudes yoga classes were vital in steering me through this troubling winter. They provided a counterbalance to the grim politics of the year, the disappointments in love, the stress of trying to buy a house – as well as being a way of imparting wisdom, information and a value system that resembled an old-timey church sermon.

We’ve thrown out most of the old-timey church stuff – yet in its place is a yearning for something bigger and more powerful than ourselves. In the last few years, the public appetite for guidance from the amorphous beast known as the wellness industry has become almost like a mania. I don’t think it’s too big a call to say that for many young people (mostly young women) yoga and meditation have replaced church as their main form of spiritual sustenance.

For the children of secular baby boomers, born into nothing – no religious tradition, no rituals, no catechism, no theology, no sacred texts – yoga fills a gap. You pay your twenty dollars and you submit to a form of spiritual teaching. What else have we got? Our society is so impoverished that all it can dish up to satisfy our hunger is entertainment and distraction. We gorge ourselves on it. It’s not so much satisfying as numbing – and profoundly fucking sad. It’s no surprise that a yoga class is the best the mainstream can offer on the spiritual front.

The yogic way of life (physical practice, meditation, self-knowledge, a philosophy, spiritual practice) is definitely not a cult, and definitely not a religion, yet, like fasting, it can have the rigour and the discipline of religious devotion. Yogis in training have to submit to this way of life. To get there fully you have to change not just your body and what you put in it, but also your habits, how you structure each day, your social life, your mentality, thought patterns, your inner life, your intellect, your spiritual beliefs, your friends, your worldview. In other words, you have to change your world.

Instagram has thrown up a whole generation of patron saints who demonstrate how it is done. You follow them. ‘Fall in love with taking care of yourself. Mind. Body. Spirit,’ they write over a picture of themselves doing crow pose on the sand at sunrise, as the sky flames and water laps. You don’t desire the person in the photo. That’s not the aim any more. The desire, more carnivorous and impossible, is to be them.

The result of all this work on yourself is a feeling that might be described as vitality or some sense of optimum health, fitness, calmness and strength. Your body is humming along tickety-boo, but so are your spirit and your mind. After all, yoga in Sanskrit means ‘to yoke; join together, pull along’.

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But does yoga yoke us together in a broader, collective sense? American writer Judith Warner notes a disturbing social trend. Just as the women of the mid-1970s took flight into consciousness-raising groups, the work force, divorce and casual sex, their daughters are also taking flight, but that flight is inwards. ‘They’re fleeing to yoga,’ she writes in the New York Times, ‘imitating flight in the downward-gazing contortion called the crow position. They’re striving, through exquisite new adventures in internal fine-tuning, to feel more deeply, live more meaningfully, better inhabit each and every moment of each and every day.’

Warner glumly concludes, ‘There’s no sense that personal liberation is to be found by taking a more active role in the public world.’ In fact, ‘such interiority seems to be a way to manage an unbearable sort of existential anxiety: a way to narrow the scope of life’s challenges and demands… to the more manageable range of the in-and-out of your own breath.’

As a result of this dereliction of public duty, the world then turns a certain way, and not another. What was the election of Donald J. Trump except a manifestation of this abdication of a sort of collective ideal?

In the wellness industry we can self-actualise: follow our bliss and find individual contentment, be the best version of ourselves we can be. The collective has collapsed in favour of the individual. We can’t do anything about inequality or the ruined environment or the heating planet – but we can get really, really good at these poses and master all the potential shapes that our body can make. Before Trump we had long stopped marching, and taking our issues to the streets; instead we took them to our mats.

Carl Cederström and André Spicer, authors of The Wellness Syndrome, argue that obsessive ritualisation of self-care comes at the expense of collective engagement, collapsing every social problem into a personal quest for the good life. Writing in the Baffler, British commentator Laurie Penny agrees:

‘The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and ‘radical self-love’ – the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns.’

In yoga, when we talk about structural problems it is our bodies that we are referring to – the way having short arms might make triangle pose difficult, for example. As for the other structural problems – the patriarchy, income and housing inequality, Indigenous recognition and a profit motive that is destroying the environment – we prefer to look away.

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Social change and self-care do not have to be mutually exclusive but I wonder if a greater engagement with the collective could come at a studio level. A good yoga instructor won’t necessarily be a political teacher, but the values of love, compassion, kindness, inclusivity and respect that yoga instructors talk about – these are becoming political values in the age of Donald Trump.

Yoga means ‘to yoke.’ We need to yoke these values found in the studio to politics and public conversation. That’s where we start.

But what about the practice itself? Will doing yoga change your life? Or at least give you a lean body? Well, yes. It can.

It’s easy when most of our work is so sedentary to become disassociated from our bodies. It’s easy to let the disassociation become the dominant way of being. It’s there in how we unwind after work – television, boxset binges, large glasses of wine, a beer or tumbler of Scotch, a joint before bed, a trashy novel, hours spent scrolling Facebook or Twitter, getting lost down the internet click hole, all the entertainment, all the numbing, all the distractions. These distractions are the way we push away darkness, sadness, doubt, a nagging sense of meaninglessness or pain. But they also mean that we are not really in our bodies much of the time. I mean, our bodies are there, stretched out on the couch, the heat of the MacBook warming our lap – but it’s all happening in our heads. Everything else is numbed.

An hour of yoga a day brings you back to your body. Not only that, you tune in and become aware of what seems like another body in your own body. This other body is complex and subtle: one side moves more easily than the other; some days it’s all-powerful, other days there’s no juice in the tank; some days are full of energy, other times you just want to stretch out and rest. In yoga, where awareness is drawn everywhere – even to the breath – this disassociation falls away. At least, that’s what it’s like for me. And yoga and meditation have been effective in fighting this disassociation. In short, they make me feel more alive, even if feeling more alive means feeling more pain, sadness, loss and anxiety – and, yes, also during the six weeks, joy. And that’s a good thing.

From the book WELLMANIA: EXTREME MISADVENTURES IN THE SEARCH FOR WELLNESS, © 2018, by Brigid Delaney. Published by Greystone Books Ltd. Reprinted and condensed with permission of the publisher.