How wellness got whitewashed
“I like your ‘namaste’ mug – but can you tell me about the ancient history behind it?” Anita Bhagwandas delves into the murky world of cultural appropriation in wellness
01 JAN 2020
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Is your house filled with the soothing scent of incense? Perhaps you dabble in acupuncture or reiki. You might even enjoy the clink of a few crystals in your bra (so their healing properties are closer to your skin, obvs). These are just some of the ways we’re finding moments of calm, away from all of life’s BS. But what if I told you that all of the above are practices that have been appropriated from their origins by the West? And the bigger shocker is that you – somebody who might even describe themselves as woke – could have been culturally appropriating, without even realising it.
Even though we’re all aware that appropriating cornrows, feathered headdresses and bindis is abjectly wrong, when appropriation veers into the wellness sphere, we just seem to care less. But I, a British-born Indian and Hindu, care a lot. And, honestly, I’m fed up with seeing my culture’s practices appropriated on a daily basis.
The girl next to me in the coffee shop ordering a turmeric latte; a sacred ‘Om’ symbol on a water bottle; the press releases telling me oil pulling is the new ‘thing’ (thanks for that, I’m well versed in Ayurvedic health practices) – it doesn’t feel like there’s much respect there at all. Perhaps because we’re all thinking deeply about so many global and eco issues, adding self-care to that list doesn’t seem like another cause we can take on. But it does matter. It’s time to start caring about where our wellness practices come from – and what appropriating them means.
MONEY OVER MORALS?
I always eye-roll when anyone tells me they, like, love yoga. Because how many of the 460,000 people who currently practise yoga in the UK (or the two billion worldwide) actually know that it dates back to around 2700BC? And though you don’t have to be Hindu to practise it (yoga came before Hinduism, technically, though both are now linked) having a mind/body/higher source connection is crucial.
Yet, this higher purpose may have been muddied along the way. The global wellness industry is now worth an insane $4.2trillion. The Headspace app (started by a former Buddhist monk) has 30 million users, and SoulCycle – where mindfulness meets spin – has been valued at more than $180million. The promise of a wellness fortune is proving hard to resist, with people leaving their corporate jobs in droves to train as reiki masters, yoga teachers, and healers. But has the true message of these ancient wellness practices become lost?
Will Williams, the founder of Beeja meditation centre in London, thinks it’s a fine line. “It’s not a bad thing that people are trying to help others and share knowledge, but when money is prioritised over the wellbeing, integrity or history of a practice, there has to be a dedication to that culture.”
Ravi Dixit, an Indian yoga teacher in west London, agrees. “You can find yoga training led by teachers who’ve never been to India or don’t really understand the basics, like the Sutras of Patanjali or the Eight Limbs of Yoga. There are online courses to become a yoga teacher in three weeks. It takes years of study to master it all – how is that possible in three weeks?”
The new elite
Shaman Durek Verett, a spiritual guide and gifted healer, whose devoted fans include Gwyneth Paltrow (more on that later), was very clear about the issue: “Every person in wellness is taking from the cultures of indigenous people, whether it’s India, Africa or Indonesia.
But the Western world takes these practices and glorifies them into a narcissistic version. You don’t see the Indian, African, Asian or Latino person represented at all.” And sadly, most spokespeople fit the ‘wellness white girl’ stereotype, too – we rarely see people who look like shaman Durek; a loin-clothed Indian yogi; the fifth-generation Chinese acupuncturist; or a real Buddhist monk, giving us time-honoured advice.
Instead, they’re embodied by women such as Gwyneth, founder of lifestyle brand Goop and, more recently, target of online ire for her claim to have popularised yoga (in a recent interview she said: “I went to do a yoga class in LA and the 22-year-old girl behind the counter was like, ‘Have you ever done yoga before?’ And I was like, ‘You have this job because I’ve done yoga before.’”)
For me, that’s one of the biggest issues with commodifying wellness – who it’s been taken from, and who it’s being marketed to. Lululemon’s British yoga website has only one visibly non-white ambassador in 11, while luxe leisurewear Lucas Hugh has only two pictures of people of colour in 112 photos on its website. Looking at the way yoga, in particular, is packaged and sold, you’d easily think it was primarily for Caucasian, able-bodied, thin, rich women able to do headstands in designer Lycra – the exact opposite of the ‘oneness’ true yoga seeks to bring.
While yoga doesn’t belong to Gwyneth, wellness is becoming elitist because of the people it shuts out. Shaman Durek says: “It’s made to seem like wellness comes from the upper classes and that you have to be rich to live this lifestyle, but you don’t – if you look at ancient yogic traditions or the West African shamanism that I practise. It doesn’t come from wealth. But now it’s become based on whether you’re rich enough to be part of this club.”
There’s also a little-known historical element here that really matters and needs to be talked about. In the US, Sephora was called out for selling a Witch Kit with spells and ‘cleansing’ sage, which appropriated both Wiccan and Native American Indian cultures for profit. White sage is a sacred (and now in decline) plant used in indigenous medical and spiritual practices, but at points in history indigenous people were even banned from these practices themselves. Similarly, the British attempted to wipe out Ayurveda in India during colonial rule. “Officers would chop off three fingers on Ayurvedic doctors, so they couldn’t do pulse diagnosis and, after the British left India, Ayurveda was nearly wiped out,” claims Will. That history looms so closely for anyone of Indian origin – and it’s why it feels so deeply offensive to me to have anything Indian appropriated in this country. This colonisation of wellness also extends to the removal of anything secular or ‘offensive’ to the Western sensibility.
“I know an Indian yoga teacher who teaches at a studio where they are not allowed to use Sanskrit or chant ‘Om’ in their classes,” says Ravi. “If you are a studio owner and you feel like this about yoga, you should just call it an exercise class and run a fitness studio instead.”
Shaman Durek agrees, railing specifically against what he describes as ‘hybrid wellness’ and the rise in these so-called practices: “You can’t mix traditions as you wish. Shamanism is its own thing. It’s not shamanic reiki, shamanic meditation, shamanic dog walking. You’re not observing the devotion of where that practice comes from if you’re turning it into a gimmick to make money.”
Ravi tells me: “When I first moved to the UK, I was shocked to see a Ganesha statue by the door of the studio, where people put their shoes, and a Buddha statue in the toilet. In our culture, that is considered very disrespectful.”
2, 4, 6, 8, do we culturally appropriate?
So, the burning question: is there a way to appreciate another culture’s wellness practice, without appropriating it? I’d argue that, if you’re not going to do it authentically, with respect for the culture by researching it, you don’t deserve to be doing it at all. I’m happy for a non-Indian person to use Sanskrit in yoga, as long as they know what it means, pronounce it properly and believe it. But for me the bottom line is: if you can’t just accept and embrace another spiritual practice without having to embellish or alter it, you need to consider taking up something that is more functional, such as Pilates (created by a German in the ‘20s, FYI) instead.
One brand that I believe has the balance right is Triyoga, a yoga business with five London locations. “The origins of yoga are very important to us. We have visiting philosophy teachers, as well as specialist training for our staff. We do kirtan [chanting] in four of our centres; in our training, there are modules on philosophy and the history of yoga, and we host yearly fundraisers for the Odanadi Foundation [against human trafficking] in Mysore and the preservation of ancient manuscripts,” says Jonathan Sattin, MD of Triyoga. They’re mindful of making sure it’s for everyone – not just the wellness elite – offering discounts for seniors, students and people who are unemployed, as well as weekly half-price community classes. They also have yoga classes for refugees and yoga for cancer patients, both of which are free. But Jonathan says that it’s wider than that: “We’re trying to get this right – and we know there’s more to do – so the pictures on our website and the teams we hire are inclusive of race, sex, age and sexual preference. People are wary of going into a yoga studio for a number of reasons or preconceptions, and we want to break that down because we believe yoga is for everyone.”
I’m not saying that being ‘wellness woke’ is easy – it involves research to have your eyes fully open. And, perhaps controversially, I do advocate continuing with the things you love, but led by people who are from those cultures, where possible. Shaman Durek argues: “If you’re not from that culture, you’re never going to have the generations of ancestral energy from centuries of lineage that’s tied to that bloodline – and it’s powerful, you can feel it.”
So, the next time you go to a health retreat or class that uses another culture’s practices, ask if they give back to those countries. If you’re thinking about doing a traditional Chinese medicine course, how are you going to pay homage to its heritage culturally – and financially, as you’ll be taking business from local TCM practitioners? When you go to a class, look around you – is everyone white, what are they promoting and to whom? When people from different cultural backgrounds are excluded, it’s a sign that something is probably off. If you’ve circled back to thinking, ‘I just want to do my fricking yoga in peace,’ think of this research as an extra dose of good karma with your turmeric latte and kundalini class. All it takes is a quick Google and a couple of questions to honour an ancient cultural wellness practice without appropriating it. Don’t be that basic wellness bitch – you should care.