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In the first field-guide post of the series, this Report outlined how the axioms of New Age spirituality and conspiracism overlap. The second instalment looked at how some New Age and wellness practitioners are already living in the afterglow of a fascist fever dream that can make them vulnerable to QAnon.
Now we can turn to features of 1980s-onwards political economy that helped transform conspiracism into a mainstream commodity and marketing tool. There are surely psychological reasons for why New Agers, yoga teachers, and wellness professionals were attracted to the premises of QAnon and its related myths throughout 2020. But enthusiasts and practitioners alike —in America especially, where conspirituality has become a primary export—have also been groomed by four decades of globalization and deregulation into a series of dessicated attitudes that have piled up for conspirituality to ignite. They include:
- A fading trust that anything approaching a social contract could exist in a de-unionized, trickle-down, banking-and-technology oriented landscape.
- A vaguely shameful belief consumerism as a restorative in times of crisis, expressed best by Bush Jr. advising that Americans go shopping after 9/11.
- Waning interest in politics. (In 2008 I tried to organize yoga networks to phone-bank for the Obama campaign. Not because I thought he was a super option, but because I thought it was a pragmatic good and should be easy to organize. I was wrong. The majority response was not only a lack of concern for politics, but the assertion that political activism was both useless and unenlightened.)
- A fading hope that universalized and/or holistic and integrated health care was an achievable goal.
- A growing feeling that health care is primarily self-care, as the hope of universalized care evaporates. Cue the rise of supplement and essential oil MLMs. (As a researcher of injury and abuse in the yoga world, I’ve talked with countless practitioners and teachers who turned to yoga as their primary form of health care, even as their practices exacerbated injury.)
- The rise of the service and gig economy, alienating increasing numbers of people from access to medical insurance. A surge in medical bankruptcies makes the medical-insurance complex appear and feel predatory. This exacerbates antipathy for conventional medicine, and drives people towards self-care, personal development, and herbal tinctures. Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent vaccine study appears in 1998.
- A rise in the marketing of individual heroism of “Just Do It” and “follow your bliss”. Slated for further activation in the individualistic but herd-like landscape of online influence. The aspirational language increasingly obscures the ableism of societies that are responsibilizing citizens with their own health, and ignoring the social determinants of health.
- A spiritualization of the gig-worker as “flexible”, “open”, “receptive”. The absence of social safety nets is no longer the failure of the state, but now a test of character, of whether the worker can “go with the flow”, and make their precariat existence appear not only skillful, but pleasurable. There are gendered implications here, especially for the yoga teacher, now the priestess of neoliberalism.
- The exhausting necessity to form a personal brand within the gig economy. As social media becomes dominant, personal branding constellates around the archetype of the singular hero or “thought leader” who changes the world, one post or workshop at a time. But the influencer’s goal is not really social change. It’s “disruption”. Aspirational wellness content that can be spiced up with disruptive “transgression” becomes highly valued in a competitive landscape. This provides the template for the conspiritualist influencer: the solitary hero promising unique and personal salvation for body and spirit in times of crisis.
Rounding up these 9 points in a single sentence:
From the 1980s onwards, yoga and wellness consumers and producers have survived and normalized a deregulated and hyper-individualistic political economy that emphasizes self-responsibility in the absence of social care, and incentivizes personal branding with transgressive heroism in the gig economy.
The above nine points might resonate. But they might also feel a little abstact or academic. To real-world these trends, I’ll track part of my personal political-economic journey:
From 1996 to 2003, I was in two different cults. When I extracted myself from the second — Endeavor Academy, in Wisconsin Dells, WI — I had no college degree, and few job prospects. Part of what had made me vulnerable to recruitment in 1996 was a terrible employment market for someone interested in the humanities. None of my friends (they were all lower-middle to middle class) in graduate school at the time expected to find employment. My parents had been unionized teachers, but the unions had been under constant attack by neocon governments for years, and Teacher’s College was extremely competitive.
Whatever opportunity I did have was to be found in a frayed New Age network that waved the temptation of becoming a yoga teacher in front of me. It seemed to be a job that aligned with my values. I could set my own hours. I could integrate my interests with my work. It seemed “follow your bliss”-y. It would be better than washing dishes, or waiting on tables, or going back to writing novels. It never occurred to me that I should look into employment that offered union protections. Long before I came to that crossroads, the Reagan years had erased that possibility from my Gen-X brain.
It never occurred to me that I should look into employment that offered union protections.
I had access to enough cash to purchase an industry standard training —one month intensive—and then to rent and open the first-ever yoga studio in semi-rural Baraboo, WI. The building at 202 East Street on the bank of the Baraboo River had been home to a manufacturing company that made electrical coils. It had been empty for years: globalization had sent the jobs away. I had enough political and economic consciousness at the time to realize that I was renting a space that used to produce material things — and that now, oddly, I was using it to sell something intangible: the aspirational self.
Somehow, the hollowed-out shell of the post-industrial space seemed to welcome this softened new product. So did the kindly property manager, who’d been caretaking the empty building with some melancholy as he’d watched his hometown change. He had no idea what yoga was, but he was happy that someone was going to do something positive in the town. A Walmart Supercenter had just opened on the outskirts, and local businesses were struggling.
I was disquieted by the fact that the lights in this yoga studio were on because electrical coils, in general, were now being produced in the Global South. What seemed so virtuous and enlightened — offering yoga classes to midwesterners who were perhaps disenchanted with their birth religions, and now listless as the Rust Belt reddened around them—also seemed off in some way I couldn’t put my finger on. What was yoga going to do for people’s material lives?
Years later I picked up Naomi Klein’s 1999 post mortem of the first decades of high-speed globalization, No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, and in the first pages, something clicked. She describes being a young Torontonian (my hometown too) in the early 1990s, and moving into a converted warehouse on Spadina Avenue in the Garment District. She notes that one of her neighbours in the newly renovated building is a guy running a yoga studio. That guy was Ron Reid, who along with his business partner, Diane Bruni, operated Downward Dog, which became one of the busiest yoga studios in the city through the early aughts, and is still going.
It took me years to realize that the thing that was so attractive about yoga teaching also indicated that it was a form of prostitution.
Klein explained that it was the Garment District in name only: all of Toronto’s manufacturing jobs had gone overseas. Ron and Diane were teaching yoga in new athleisure wear that was being stitched together in Vietnam and Bangladesh. And it looked good against the bare brick and old hardwood floors still stained by machine oil. Reading that passage made me realize that the modern yoga studio exists because globalization displaced labour from the Global North, and left empty spaces in which people could practice a private, gymnastic religion. But what did this have to do with being a citizen? In what way was I participating in society?
I wasn’t, really. It took me years to realize that the thing that was so attractive about yoga teaching also indicated that it was a form of prostitution. That may sound harsh, but consider: when working in the wellness industry, your product is dependent upon your personal development, performed by your body. In the absence of any regulation or metrics for competency, a yoga teacher can only sell the image of themselves as embodying the wellness they offer. In the absence of a concrete product, charisma becomes the primary currency of success. There was nothing in my educational or class background that would have allowed me to realize that I was becoming a brand.
Gentrification isn’t just about yoga studios, of course. There are also spas, massage clinics, specialty food stores and a host of lifestyle services that rushed into the vacuum of material production to serve the big money in condo development. With all of those forces in competitive flux, Downward Dog didn’t last for long in the Garment District, where no garments will ever again be made, and yet the nostalgia of garment-making informs the décor of the cafés. The dot-com boom jacked all rents, and Ron and Diane had to move out and westward along Queen St., on the leading edge of the takeover wave that was transforming a famously depressed part of town called Parkdale. Downward Dog has survived there for twenty years now, but the pandemic has thrown moving forward into doubt.
When working in the wellness industry, your product is dependent upon your personal development, performed by your body.
Diane Bruni was my friend. She died this past January, after living with cancer. Years ago she told me a secret: that despite the apparent success of Downward Dog, the business was often on the brink of insolvency. Overhead pressures were constantly increasing. The only financial answer for hers and every other gentrification-era yoga studio was to constantly create new levels of unregulated professionalization. Trainings were the big-ticket products. A 200-hour training got you in the door of teaching, and made you eligible for a 500-hour training.
For a strong decade, studios ran as many trainings as they could per year, and quickly glutted the gig-working yoga market. The yoga bubble swelled in tandem with real estate. But while property enjoyed capital appreciation, the value of the teacher rose with her capacity to embody the solitary self-sufficiency of the age, to boldly sell the image of her success, in an urban landscape that was quickly pricing her out of reasonable living conditions.
As the influencer economy becomes glutted, how does anyone stand out? Returning to the themes of numbers 7–9 above, the solitary hero in the free-market world will often try to make their way as a disruptor. The successful brand must question something, turn something inside out, expose a new problem, whistleblow, optimize. It must have a strong personal story, such as overcoming adversity or recovering from trauma — not through social support, mind you, but through personal will and virtue.
In the yoga and wellness worlds, this competitive pressure unfolds within a zeitgeist that is already transgressive. The yoga studio and health food store are already places of elite or hidden knowledge and virtue. In the 1990s, these were the places where you’d find the pamphlets for alternative cures, promising relief from mainstream medicine, alongside pamphlets recruiting for local meditation or yoga cults. Now the pamphlets are constant in our news feeds.
Alt-health marketing implicitly or explicitly sells distrust of public health. In America, this is reasonable, given how medical capitalism abuses the citizenry. Where the state is cruel and ambivalent, it makes sense for yoga and wellness people to adopt anti-authoritarian affects, which then easily align with conservative, libertarian, or even sovereign citizen sentiments, which have played a role in the fantasies of QAnon.
So overall, the neoliberal wellness influencer vibe is:
- distrustful of institutions and public health,
- de-educated away from public policy, and disconnected from real-world political movements,
- focused on individuating the personal brand,
- invested in unregulated practices that are threatened by science and consensus building.
A year ago, COVID slammed into this and every other economy, presenting yoga and wellness influencers with a Waterloo-type moment. The only plausible social answer — a commitment to public health — would betray the very spirit of their hyperindividualistic economy. Given all of this training, and decades of preparation, how would they not gravitate towards flashy conspiracy theories that not only confirmed the premises of their businesses, but made their products that much more essential? How would they not be thrilled by inflammatory conspiratorial content that was disruptive, that made them look like insiders, renegades, whistleblowers?
In the midst of the loudest and most important public conversation about evidence-based policies in generations, how could they not use the moment to jack their personal wellness and salvation brands with even more grandiose messianic claims?
Next week, the Report will look at how this political-economic tension was super-heated by tech and social.