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The wellness world’s conspiracy problem is linked to Orientalism

East and South Asian medical traditions have been appropriated and misinterpreted in the West, sometimes for political gain.

A spacious and empty yoga studio with mats laid out.
The Western wellness world loves to reference East and South Asian traditions, often without historical context and based upon an Orientalist framework.
Westend61/Getty Images

There is a type of “all-natural” Instagram influencer who, at first glance, appears to be all about living her best, healthy life. She is an avid proponent of meditation, clean eating, yoga, and a vague form of Asian spirituality. Her approach to life — and health — is “holistic.” And her social media feeds are a whiplash of content, ranging from the benefits of gua sha and ayurvedic diets to her skepticism about the effectiveness of masks and vaccines.

Over the past year of the pandemic, the wellness space — a blanket term used to describe practitioners and promoters of noninstitutionalized Western medicine, from crystal healers to yoga teachers — has grown rife with politically motivated misinformation on QAnon, Covid-19, the prevalence of child trafficking, and election integrity.

Media coverage has largely centered on these New Age-type influencers as peddlers of a libertarian, anti-science ideology that refuses masks, social distancing, and vaccines. “California’s yoga, wellness and spirituality community has a QAnon problem,” read a recent Los Angeles Times headline. “Wellness influencers are spreading QAnon conspiracies about the coronavirus,” declared Mother Jones. In March, the Washington Post wrote about “QAnon’s unexpected roots in New Age spirituality.”

These articles explore a concerning facet of American life, a phenomenon researchers call conspirituality, or how conspiracy theories have found a home in spiritual circles that are skeptical of Western medicine and established institutions. The observations stop short of implying that certain practices, like yoga, are a direct pathway to radicalization. Blame is generally assigned to the wellness communities where these fringe, anti-science ideas comfortably fester. Still, while most coverage identifies the prevalence of these dangerous, unfounded beliefs accurately, there is often little context on the wellness space’s relationship with Orientalism (or the West’s tendency to romanticize, stereotype, and flatten Asian cultures) and libertarian individualism.

For decades, many health and medicinal practices have been exported from Asia to the West, including yoga, ayurveda, reiki, and aspects of traditional Chinese medicine such as cupping, gua sha, and acupuncture. Such traditions are often categorized under the “alternative medicine” or “New Age” umbrella — vague terms that conflate different philosophical and medical systems into a uniquely Western mishmash of ideas. The nuance and history of these traditions, however, don’t exactly get first billing when they go viral.

Cultural exports are a complex, inevitable result of globalization, and cultural appropriation doesn’t always carry negative effects. As Asian-inspired practices and treatments edge toward the mainstream, the problem isn’t necessarily appropriation. It’s what appropriation can produce: an Orientalist perspective toward non-Western practices that can be misrepresented to further a political agenda.

The process by which this happens is likely familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, although this type of appropriation predates the brand by decades. It usually begins with an influential (usually white) Westerner who encounters a practice with origins in East or South Asia. The person integrates the tradition into their lifestyle, publicly touts its benefits, and helps disseminate a version of the practice to their own community. (Such was the case for acupuncture in 1971, after a New York Times reporter wrote about the benefits of his treatment in China.)

It’s “New Age capitalism” at work: A robust system of knowledge is taken apart piecemeal, divorced from any philosophical or religious roots, and transfigured into a commodity, something that can be bought and sold to improve consumers’ lives. For example, gua sha is a traditional Chinese treatment that has recently gone viral online. It is intended to be a scraping treatment for a person’s back and body, rather than the face. Yet, the beauty industry markets gua sha stones and jade rollers, another Chinese-inspired facial tool, as beautifying gimmicks — a way to contour one’s jawline and mimic the results of a facelift — instead of contextualizing their traditional use.

Social media has, for better or worse, popularized these once-niche practices to a broader American audience. And the pandemic has facilitated this consumer interest. Stuck at home in the event of a novel disease, millions of people took to fretting over their health and well-being as the American health care system buckled. People turned to yoga, meditation, and essential oils, in addition to spiritual practices such as astrology, reiki-inspired crystal healing, and manifestation. Amid this social upheaval, some gravitated toward the alternative and sought out unorthodox theories to explain their uncertain reality.

“The thing about the spiritual ‘East’ or the ‘Orient’ is that there’s a history of Westerners cherry-picking customs, traditions, and practices to serve their needs, that they can tie to a particular political agenda,” said Shreena Gandhi, an assistant professor of religion at Michigan State University who researches yoga and its history of appropriation. “There are multiple aspects of Orientalism at play here. There’s the romantic approach to Eastern wellness and alternative therapies, and its hysterical counterpart, which is fearful or distrustful of traditional beliefs.”

Nazi leaders, for one, were proponents of yoga and its spiritual philosophy; they were obsessed with purifying and elevating an individual’s body as a microcosm of the nation-state. Modern-day wellness communities appear much more focused on the individual (without mentioning the state), but according to Matthew Remski, journalist and co-host of the Conspirituality podcast, there are lingering fascist undertones in New Age beliefs.

“New-Agers are not secretly Nazis,” Remski wrote in a four-part blog on yoga and conspirituality. “It’s more like: fascist ideas of the perfected body and earth [have] generated enduring cultural memes for holism, embodied spirituality, and health. Those memes, sanitized of their explicit politics, carry jagged edges of perfectionism and paranoia about impurity. And that double message — your body is divine but it is also under attack — has become standard in the commodification of yoga and wellness.”

It’s common for believers of conspirituality to reference South or East Asian religions and teachings. “It lends to the appearance of gravitas, history, and authority,” Remski told me. “It’s a positive Orientalism that has nothing to do with the actual practice or history involved.”

In February, for example, a holistic facialist in Miami Beach made an Instagram post suggesting that wearing a mask blocks the flow of “Lung Qi,” borrowing language from traditional Chinese medicine on qi, or energy, that flows through the human body. This claim, while false, relies on a Western tendency to approach Eastern medicine erroneously, from a universal perspective. It’s a type of medical Orientalism that exoticizes non-Western practices and caters to New Age notions of mystical, “natural” healing.

The onset of the coronavirus in Asia has polarized perceptions of Eastern medicine and alternative therapies, hardening a sense of scientific dualism in Asia and abroad — that people, particularly its practitioners, are either pro- or anti-science. (Government officials in India, for example, have received backlash for encouraging the treatment of Covid-19 primarily with traditional medicine.) At the same time, souring US-China relations have fomented sinophobic distrust and paranoia toward Asian Americans, regardless of their citizenship status and ethnic heritage. Some believed these attitudes were fueled by Asia’s, specifically China’s, initial association with the coronavirus outbreak.

“It becomes political. It’s easy to associate anyone who promotes or practices Chinese medicine as a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party,” said Michael Stanley-Baker, a historian of Chinese medicine at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “My opinion is that biomedicine and scientific research is good and authoritative. That shouldn’t discredit other knowledge systems. Chinese medicine is a systematic, robust form of knowledge that isn’t static. It’s not ‘anything goes,’ and it certainly isn’t random.”

The professionalization of certain fields of alternative medicine, like acupuncture and ayurveda, has standardized such practices in the West to an extent. But these treatments have plenty of skeptics, and are often dismissed as useless at best and harmful at worst. At the same time, this standardization process in the US has marginalized and even led to arrests of Asian American practitioners, argued Tyler Phan, a lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, in his doctoral thesis on American Chinese medicine.

Meanwhile, today’s wellness industry attracts a demographic of predominantly white, middle-class adherents. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, roughly six in 10 American adults, regardless of their religious affiliations, believe in at least one New Age belief, such as psychics, astrology, and spiritual energy in objects.

This tendency toward the spiritual, according to Remski, is perhaps a replacement for community. He attributes it to a “cultural emptiness” at the heart of alternative spirituality and modern-day yoga, which coincides with the breakdown of community and health care in the US. As a result, the modern yoga studio — and by extension, the greater wellness world — became devoid of politics. Its siloed outlook focused on an individual’s religious potential and spiritual well-being at the expense of the collective. “What appears to be countercultural then becomes quite similar to libertarianism,” Remski said. “That spiritually libertarian attitude has permeated yoga culture through its boom cycle.”

And so long as conspiracy theories persist, the redpilling will continue on Instagram, in yoga studios, and in other wellness-related spaces. Yet, according to MSU’s Gandhi, there is some hysteria surrounding the stereotype of a wealthy, yoga-practicing mother who refuses to vaccinate her kids. “It’s not only wellness and yoga practitioners who believe in this ideology,” she said. “It’s more than just yoga classes. QAnon is an explicitly political conspiracy rooted in white supremacy.”

This hysteria, Gandhi added, is reminiscent of the attitudes that fueled the “yellow peril” of decades past. This sentiment isn’t entirely explicit, but the fixation toward flawed, New Age-y notions of “wellness” often lumps together alternative, Eastern therapies and practitioners into one broad group. As a result, these practices become collectively vilified and politicized for indoctrinating vulnerable Americans.

This conflation is not only unhelpful, but also dismissive of the work and history of non-Western knowledge systems that are valuable and complex in their own right. It also makes it harder for authoritative figures to debunk false information. There should be a nuanced middle ground, Stanley-Baker argued, where various types of medicinal practices can coexist and supplement one another.

“There needs to be a conversation as to what constitutes robust knowledge in Eastern and Chinese medicine,” he concluded. “We need to differentiate the Orientalists and the Goop wellness influencers and enthusiasts from serious and respectful practitioners.”

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