But believe me, the yoga and wellness industries are not all love and light. There is both light and darkness within these communities, because as humans we hold both light and darkness within our own psyches. But rather than embracing this innate duality, in the yoga and wellness community there is often a systemic repression of the dark side: the less palatable feelings, thoughts and behaviours we house.
When repudiated and fertilised with power inequalities, colonialism and capitalism, this darkness becomes refracted as harmful shards of toxic positivity, spiritual bypassing, and blatant healthism.
This works both vertically and laterally within the health and wellness spheres.
By vertically, I mean the neoliberal programming of folks who consume the concept of health as it's routinely packaged by the wellness industry. When faced with this exceedingly profitable but largely unattainable brand of wellness, those of us who value our health may find ourselves limited by an ableist straight jacket constructed of unrealistic expectations and the attendant self-criticism. A symptom of this is a certain self-monitoring and unconscious questioning of ourselves:
"What could I be doing better?
How could I be more fit and healthy?
How many more different ways can I prove myself worthy of love and attention?"
This conditioning drives the wellness industry and convinces us that we are 100% in charge of our own destinies. And that if we fail, it's our own fault. Such an attitude is classic healthism, a belief system that sees health as the responsibility of the individual and ranks the personal pursuit of health above everything else.
The less privilege a person has, the more society's demand for this kind of forced responsibility taking will cost them.
Only a thin slice of the population has the room on their credit cards to partake in juice cleanses and yoga retreats.
Instead of being normal and natural parts of existence, ageing, illness and debility are interpreted as signs of personal failure to maintain an idealised, eternal, spirulina-fuelled radiance and purity. The onus, according to Big Wellness, is on the individual, and the individual alone.
Spiritual bypass + toxic positivity
I've certainly experienced this in yoga studios I've worked in, where working for free and being told to "be grateful" for the privilege of teaching in that studio were seen as ways to gain karmic brownie points instead of recognised as the exploitation for profit it actually was.
Questioning or expression in the form of anger or disgruntlement about this injustice was highly discouraged. Spiritual bypassing ("If you have an issue with this, you need to work on yourself more, honey") and toxic positivity ("Just smile and be grateful for what you have!") are frequently used in this and other wellness spaces to gloss over and dismiss the blatant capitalisation and manipulation of employees with less privilege and social power than the people benefitting from their labour.
Of course, this toxic positivity and spiritual bypassing, as well as healthism, also show up in the wider wellness community. People often come to yoga because regular healthcare has failed them, so they adopt the "alternative" with gusto - even if it too proves to be damaging on multiple levels. When black salve and coffee enemas fail to cure a person's metastatic breast cancer, the blame is placed squarely on the individual for not celery juicing hard enough, and not being spiritual or grateful enough - rather than the charlatans spruiking fake remedies to hopeful health and spirituality aspirants.
A great deal of money is made from people feeling less than perfect, pure, whole, radiant, elevated beings. Like any other industry under capitalism, the wellness industry benefits enormously from folks just not ever feeling good enough.
And so the cogs of the wellness industrial complex keep turning.
"Good vibes only"
Experiencing hot flushes or seeing elongating crows feet because you're moving into peri-menopause? You obviously didn't drink enough superfood smoothies to look and feel 25 forever, and that fear of the imminent loss of beauty and privilege that come with youth creeps ever closer.
In the wellness world youth, glowing health, and "positive vibes" are centred. Never mind that the exclusive gym memberships, Goop products, and online organic produce deliveries that are apparently required to upkeep this level of wellbeing are accessible only to those in positions of power and socioeconomic privilege.
And no, not everyone who enjoys these privileges "worked for it".
Ageing, sickness, and feeling angry, anxious or depressed are dismissed as failings of the body, mind and spirit - rather than wise signs from our bodies that we may need rest, respite and shelter for a time to regulate our frayed nervous systems and allow our vulnerable, soft bodies and psyches to heal.
"Love and light" and "good vibes only" are the preferred thought-terminating catchphrases of the few who are able to maintain this endless treadmill of yoga and wellness consumerism - or who attempt to. Many wellness influencers, "successful" yoga teachers and self-appointed spiritual leaders construct flawless, stylised social media accounts for themselves. Every effort is made to make them seem relatable yet untouchable at the same time.
In our efforts to emulate those few upholding the Successful, Spiritual, Sexy Woman Ideal, we naturally fall short and may feel as though we have failed... just because we got COVID, or ate at McDonalds, or didn't own a yoga studio by age 21 or whatever.
If you're exhausted trying to keep up with this insanity, I feel you. It's a recipe for failure - but it sure as hell is profitable for some who have managed to spin the perfect illusion of health, wealth and spirituality. The same people who repeatedly espouse "love and light" and create a mirage of being above ever feeling anger, injustice, fear, anxiety, depression, poverty, chronic illness.
But yoga teaches us not to be love and light all the time. We need the sharp sword of discernment or prajna to cut through the healthism, spiritual bypassing and toxic positivity that permeate the new age wellness industrial complex.
In those times we feel disconnected and irritated, debilitated and downtrodden: instead of disowning the shadow parts of ourselves, imagine if we honoured where we were instead of feeling less pure, or less of a yogi/yogini?
Fear of menopause: Rejection of darkness manifested into physicality
Studies in shamanic womancraft have taught me that menopause is energetically equivalent to the time of day as dusk, the end of daylight and beginning of the literal dark time, and the season of autumn where daylight hours are shortening. It's a time of great potential and power, of harvesting the fruits of the seeds sown throughout our younger adult years.
But this life phase has been generally medicalised and stigmatised. As they move from their 30's into their 40's and beyond, women are increasingly made invisible - as if our worth as humans solely corresponds with our reproductive capacity.
Despite claiming to be radically alternative to anything mainstream, most of the wellness world echoes this sentiment. In much the same way people with chronic illnesses are made invisible at best and directly blamed for their health problems at worst, women are indirectly told that their menopausal symptoms are "their fault".
That their burnt out adrenals are a result of lack of self care and savvy, and that they should have self-cared harder by going vegan and taking off to Costa Rica twice a year to train under a shamanic yogi instead of working full time for 40 years to support their growing children and ageing parents whilst gaining 30 kilograms. That societal socio-economic pressures have nothing to do with their failure to be perfect, ageless goddesses, and the fault lies with the individual alone.
Well fuck that.
In my latest podcast episode I speak with naturopathic doctor Caitlin O’Connor, about taking the emphasis off of weight and appearance and onto health at all stages of life, especially menopause. That this phase in a woman's life is a time of great growth and potential, and that we need not fear the darkness. That in fact, we can embrace the dusk, and embrace the darkness that follows - and the mystery, richness and wisdom it brings.
Embracing the light and the darkness
Rather than teaching us to sweep any "negative" feelings and situations under the carpet, our yoga and meditation practices show us how to skilfully navigate our lives by recognising that we are not fragments but integrated, complex, multi-faceted human beings in and of ourselves, as well as an integral part of the whole.
When we connect to and work with our shadow, our darkness and the parts of ourselves that we may have been encouraged by the yoga and wellness industry to disown, we actually begin to "see the light" - in ourselves, and in others as well.
Some of my favourite ways of working with the shadow self:
- embodied movement (including but not limited to traditional yoga)
- recognising trauma responses and what yours may be
- learning how to regulate your nervous system to step out of sympathetic nervous system dominance
- simple pranayama or breathwork - not the packaged "transformative breathwork" coupled with culturally appropriated ritual and brain-rattling loud rave music - another topic for another time!
- being in nature
- crying, yelling, shaking, punching pillows etc. in a safe, contained space to release and express emotions
- avoiding any teachers, guides, studios, or high demand groups who encourage you to disown the angry, sad, despairing, "unpretty" parts of yourself and instead apply spiritual bypass, toxic positivity and/or thought-terminating clichés to quell cognitive dissonance. Examples of thought-terminating clichés:
- "It's all perfect and happening as it's meant to happen."
- "Just breathe through it."
- knowing how to recognise spiritual bypassing and toxic positivity, and protecting yourself from the very real damage these can cause
- confiding in trusted friends who validate but don't try to offer solutions unless asked
- working with a skilled counsellor, psychologist, or somatic psychotherapist who can help you acknowledge and understand long held patterns of thought and behaviour.
So instead of bidding you farewell with the oft-repeated "love and light", I invite you to embrace the darkness - the disowned parts, the scrappy parts, the lopsided, heavyhearted, confused, irrational, infuriated, "ugly" parts - and marvel at the spiritual lessons these parts can offer us, if we let them.
Love and darkness,