How We Replaced Religion with Gwyneth Paltrow, Yoga, and 'Wellness'
A new book examines the modern spiritual devotion to clean living.
Illustration by Ashley Goodall
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Perhaps it's superficial and stupid of me, but I tend to associate the wellness trend with superficiality and stupidity. With lithe blonde Byron Bay mums, juice cleanses, and people deluded enough to believe turmeric lattes can cure cancer. It's an approach to healthfulness and mindfulness with little scientific or medical basis, and yet requires significant emotional and financial investment in Lululemon yoga pants.
But studies have shown smart, intellectually-curious people are the ones most likely to join cults. And Brigid Delaney—a successful novelist and journalist at the Guardian—has been involved with the wellness movement for years.
Her new book Wellmania details her many experimentations with dubious "health" trends, including but not limited to an attempted 101-day fast where she ate only Chinese herbs and bits of cucumber, an emotionally scarring colonic, and a lot of yoga. Ambitious, accomplished, and not averse to a long night on the piss, Delaney doesn't fit the bougie Instagram mummy stereotype at all.
"Wellness is for Type A personalities," she says. "It's people for whom it's not enough to have a really good job. They also have to look really good, be healthy. It becomes a competitive thing."
And Delaney has been a willing competitor and even winner at times (read: weight loss, good skin). Her book serves as a kind of reverse addiction memoir that details how she, perhaps wisely, tried to replace an extreme love of food, booze, and partying with a similarly over-the-top self-improvement routine.
The enemy here isn't wellness itself, per se. It's the wellness industry, which is worth billions of exploitative, Gwyneth Paltrow-endorsed dollars. A corporatised movement that makes health in the form of detox programmes and yoga retreats and $9 juices a privilege accessible to the very few.
"The wellness industry sees that we have all these insecurities and they come in offering a cure, but at such a great price....it's an example of an industry seeing a problem, creating an anxiety around that problem, and offering a very expensive solution," she explains.
But even I know the wellness movement is corporate bullshit, and yet remain the proud owner of more than one healing crystal. The thing that's cool about Wellmania is it irreverently assesses our devotion to health trends below the "late capitalism sucks!" surface level. What Delaney is interested in is the idea that we're searching and replacing—seeking the sense of guidance and control that religion once offered. Without actually having to commit to a church.
A key manifestation of this are those incredibly expensive group yoga classes you've probably attended in slick suburban studios, far-removed from the Rig Veda.
"The ones where yoga teachers casually drop Sanskrit while correcting poses on $100 mats."
"They slip these quasi-spiritual messages in at a certain point when you're physically really drained, you're on the ground covered in sweat, and the messages do kind of sink in. And for a lot of people I started thinking that this is the only dose of spirituality they get. It's in the yoga studio. And they need it, you know?" Delaney says. "There's no one else giving them moral instructions. We live in a world where Trump can be president! People are really searching for a guide, and they get it with yoga.
"I wonder if these retreats are filling a hole that people have? People need nurturing and they need almost to be told to have early nights, given permission to have a day of silence. You're essentially paying to be looked after."
But some holes don't need to be filled, so much as cleaned out. Take another wellness staple—the colonic. A chance to purify your colon, and perhaps your soul too. For the purposes of the book, Delaney tried it out, just once. "Never again. It's weird to go to a facility: There's a woman there who does the procedure, and you're just standing with her watching your shit come out of a tube. I felt very white in that situation. I was in the Philippines with a Filipino nurse and just felt really dirty and really strange.
"There's also absolutely no medical evidence that colonics are any good! I know some people are really obsessed but I think it's a sexual thing."
That sense of purity and control pops up again in Delaney's failed attempt at a severe 101-day fasting program, which once famously helped Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull drop 15 kilograms. She did lose an enormous amount of weight, but that may have just been because it gave her severe diarrhoea. Sure there were occasional bursts of energy, increased mental capacity, and glowing skin. But mostly she just felt hungry.
Delaney says there's one key difference between religious devotion and devotion to wellness, and it's where we all went wrong. While one is community-minded, the other is just incredibly self-centred. We're worshipping ourselves.
"I hope the next phase is resistance and political awareness and political engagement. Oh and the first step of the revolution is burning down the yoga studios. Or maybe having some socialist yoga. But at the moment, it's going completely the other way."
Wellmania is available now from Black Inc Books.
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