This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Two years ago I took a mirrored hotel lift with three bored and ageless Russian women, wearing a cascade of furs, silk scarves and matte lipstick. Up in the penthouse – featuring faded peach upholstered furniture, a bed surely built for orgies and a swimming pool masquerading as square bath – a man greeted us (picture a Johnny Depp lookalike back from a gap year spent discovering the golden ratio). He started to cleanse the space by burning Palo Santo – endangered sacred wood. A brunette woman began an impromptu photo shoot in the bathroom without a note of interest on her face. “Who is keeping us waiting 15 minutes?” another woman scoffed, from a cushion on the floor.
We were gathered at central London’s five-star Mandrake Hotel – named after the hallucinogenic, mystical plant – for a gong bath, now running slightly behind schedule. It’s one of several services you can book through the hotel’s in-house spiritual concierge service. That entails meeting with the concierge to pick from a series of healing treatments, organised for your specific needs – likely a culmination of physical, emotional and spiritual ills. Some menu examples: a £40 weekly gong bath; a similarly priced “sound healing”; a £375 or £475 (duration-dependent) “soul retrieval” therapeutic service, promising to “restore your body, mind and spirit into an alignment and the state of immense soundness”.
When the Mandrake opened in London, its owners were smart enough to cater to a new subset of working-age adult: the wellness-hunters with significant disposable income. They are the new vanguard of luxury spirituality. Alex Holbrook who runs Otherness, a site that curates all the trusted spiritual and wellbeing events in London in one space, tells me the hotel owners contacted her to help build their spiritual offering. “Spirituality is not just a niche thing anymore,” she tells me over the phone. “It’s reaching big brands who realise that we’re all looking for a connection now, and how to slow down.”
Whether you opt for elaborate crystal healing facials or pay £80 to breathe for an hour in a roomful of strangers, most luxury spirituality offerings are in fact spruced-up versions of the basics. Scratch at their glowing surface and they all pretty much promise peace, quiet and focusing your self-awareness on your body. It may be difficult to measure how the price of these experiences and products may improve your life but as with so much of what we buy, we’re meant to assume higher cost means better quality. What’s the endpoint of that logic when you’re assessing spirituality?
In 2015, academic studies and lifestyle media began telling a story about Western millennials: we were continuing to move away from organised religion, as previous generations had, but becoming attracted to spirituality as a concept. “As the political and economic landscape becomes more anxiety-inducing, people are looking to spirituality as a form of self-care and to find more purpose and meaning,” Harriet Kilikita, associate editor of lifestyle & interiors at trend forecasters WGSN, tells me. “Ancient practices such as crystal healing, meditation and yoga have become central parts of wellbeing routines as the younger generation in particular seek to go beyond physical wellness and connect to something bigger.”
Quickly, spirituality and wellness attracted those with high salaries, merging aspiration with the now-debated concept of “self-care”, stripped of its radical meaning since being coined by Audre Lorde. In May 2017, Brooklyn's William Vale Hotel in New York offered an "energy hygiene and deeply immersive sound experience" and a "full-moon + chakra healing event" with THINX, the period underwear brand. It took another three years for a similarly branded event to hit London: a “lunar cycles” book launch sponsored by Lululemon. Prestige upper and upper middle-class brands like Lululemon and Selfridges have joined with gurus, astrologers, psychic mediums and spirituality authors to show they acknowledge what women’s lifestyle brands must now to survive: the ‘soul’ aspect of total mind, body and soul wellness.
The women who go to these events – or stay at wellness hotels – believe they live in “alignment” or “consciously”. They tend to be in their thirties and early forties, successful executives, designers, older fashion bloggers and entrepreneurs; the sort of women whose careers are very much visible on, or even facilitated by, Instagram. Their feeds become a blur of charcoal chai lattes, large crystals on tabletops, expensive athleisure or workwear: a vision board for integrating yogic ideologies with a highflying Mumpreneur lifestyle. Bios read things like: “creative director with a free spirit” and “conscious girlboss”, claiming “intuitive entrepreneurship” and “business and conscious wealth”.
This trend coalesces in the form of urban members’ clubs hosting gong baths or crystal bowl healings. In mid-March, east London’s Ace Hotel branch is due to hold a £50 “Project Woman: Set Your Body Free” event, promising a canape, drink and some form of movement. Sandra*, a successful author and speaker in her thirties, recalls a recent gong bath she attended at Shoreditch House (she is a member). “We were all crammed in the room, barely stretched out for how many people were there,” she says, deeming it “honestly one of the worst healings I’ve been to” where she “left more stressed than when I arrived”.
But luxury spirituality doesn’t deny modern life or sit awkwardly opposite it. By becoming a recognisable lifestyle, its biggest proponents (brands and people), have not only decided that work and spirituality exist together harmoniously but can enhance each other. Spirituality is a capitalist venture now as everything else is; a personal brand, a business, a luxury lifestyle, a commodity. A late 2018 report by WSGN, on spirituality as consumer habits, states: “Spirituality is the new luxury: as the lines between faith, fitness and wellness blur, consumers seek serenity and an escape from the woes of everyday life.” It’s easiest this way – no one has to shun money, designer clothes, success and plenty of it – and was always an inevitable consequence of a growing interest in everything spiritual.
The current matriarch of this world is, of course, Gwyneth Paltrow. In 2018, the New York Times Magazine cited a “source close to the company” valuing Paltrow’s infamous lifestyle brand Goop at $250 million in vagina eggs, “inner beauty” powders and “psychic vampire repellent” sprays. A quick Google of the experts and retreats used in her recent Netflix series, The Goop Lab, finds that some of the featured experiences cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Seamlessly Paltrow will speak, as other entrepreneurs of this field do, of garden variety “wellness” topics like diets and fasts in the same breath as energy healing and psychics. In just a few episodes, Paltrow’s attractive, successful Goop staff undergo the treatments in the office to exhibit the spiritual-Botox promise: that if you throw enough money at something, you can get closer to enlightenment on your lunch break and come back a healed CEO.
I’m at witch and author, Semra Haksever’s flat in north London to learn about the balance between money (the ego) and spirituality. Her intention with her first book, Everyday Magic, was to make a magic handbook for anyone from any background to use. “Everything for these spells is available in your kitchen, or in Tesco. All the herbs are very cheap, there’s nothing that’s too out there,” she says in a living room full of tarot cards, crystals, and altars. She mentions another of her favourite spells, one that costs nothing at all – drawing up a “sigil”. You write out an intention, condense the letters until it makes a personalised monogram. “I’ll draw it on a pad, I’ll draw it in the sand, I’ll draw it in the steamed-up mirror in the shower, wherever. I know that’s my symbol I pull in – it’s very powerful.” She adds with a straight face: “I got my free holiday from my holiday sigil.”
This bargain approach turns out to be an enjoyable counterpoint to luxury spirituality. I find the ingredients for a self-love spell, as per Haksever’s instructions, for about 20p. Rose for love, lavender for happiness, cinnamon for personal blessing, thyme to connect to inner voice, cloves for courage, and frankincense and myrrh as an offering for your spirit guides. Bit by bit I sprinkle the particles onto a hot coal in my bedroom and watch small fragrant clouds of smoke billow. I don’t know if I’m doing it right but Haksever promises the spell will banish the negative voices inside my head.
Haksever noticed an influx of money and “ego” in the luxury “scene” over the past few years. Part of that is to do with influencer culture and social media (“You go through Instagram stories and healers and spiritual leaders are all on there, filming themselves meditate or taking a photo of their ritual. I understand you’re showing everyone what you’re doing but how into your ritual are you right now?”). She runs some slightly pricier group events with brand involvement but sees clients on a sliding scale basis and does pro bono work. “If you’re a healer and you’re only healing people for £250 a session, you understand you’re only allowing your healing to a certain type of person. So what kind of healer are you? It feels like an exclusive club and it becomes a very white, middle class world very quickly.”
'Luxury' spirituality hinges on repackaging and marketing basic products for a different audience. Sephora felt the brunt of an online backlash to this, when they backtracked on releasing a $42 “Starter Witch Kit” (some crystals, tarot cards and other bits) in 2018. New spiritual wellness brands continue to sell crystals at multiple times the wholesale or Esty/small store price. This doesn’t seem to bother the average person delving into spirituality. As practicing spiritualist Alexandra Clifford says, “I definitely feel like there’s too much middle-class bullshit around the ‘public face’ of spirituality and [religions like] Paganism. Perhaps because there’s little to no organisation with spiritual faiths, it’s easier to commodify.” But ultimately, she says she isn't forced to buy more expensive products. Haksever, conversely, voices what many say on the internet: “You can buy a crystal for 50p and the same one for 50 quid and they’re both going to do the same ‘thing’. Neither will be any better.”
The followers of luxury spirituality probably understand this, in theory, but the trend's momentum isn’t slowing down. The Goop website continually adds to its bulging black book of new healers and alternative apothecaries. A wellness backlash that threatened to come in full force last year never materialised, and I doubt it ever will. Because for an overworked, anxious and spiritually undernourished individual there's some truth in the necessities of breathing, community, and letting someone rub shiny gunk on your face. This trend feels like a modern disease but it's been a long while coming.
The momentum of luxury spirituality isn’t slowing down, neither is it entirely new. Before Paltrow, there was “wellness It Girl”, Audrey Kitching. Her lifestyle seemed painfully cool to me when she was a Myspace famous model-blogger in the 2000s, and only more so when she rebranded as an energy healer/model influencer in the early 2010s. We were emailing just two months before she was outed for fraudulently claiming she hand-made and sourced the products on her website, when they came for a few dollars from China. In December 2018 she wrote an irony that rings true: “Money is great because it can make your earth life easier in some ways, but you can’t buy inner healing. Even working with spiritual professionals, they can guide you and give you advice, but they can’t do your inner work for you. Only you can heal yourself.”