In the early days of the pandemic, I was idly scanning social media when an Instagram story by a yoga teacher I followed appeared in my feed. It depicted a cartoon syringe with the message: “Thinking of having the vaccine? Ask yourself some questions.”
As a yoga teacher in my spare time, I’m part of an online community of wellness enthusiasts. But in my day job, as a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, I monitor the spread of online disinformation and conspiracy theories.
I had always thought of those two interests not only as separate, but opposite – my yoga practice and interest in meditation was an antidote to the intensely political nature of my work, a form of escapism from the news cycle. But over the last year, the lines have become blurred.
The same conspiracy theories I was tracking at work began appearing in my personal Facebook and Instagram feeds, shared by accounts I followed, by influencers suggested to me, and sometimes by acquaintances.
The researcher in me became curious – I started digging. Instagram and Facebook’s algorithms took me to new corners of the yoga, wellness and holistic health world. In the early days of lockdown, I saw posts about how juices, miracle cures and turmeric could boost my immunity and ward off the virus. As the pandemic intensified, disinformation became darker, from anti-vaxx content and Covid denialism to calls to ‘question established truths’ and wilder conspiracy theories.
At the same time, QAnon, the conspiracy which claims Donald Trump is – or was – fighting a deep-state cabal of Satanic paedophiles, was spreading in Europe. Protesters waving QAnon signs demonstrated in front of Buckingham Palace, similar scenes took place in Germany. In my homeland of France, conspiracy theorists exploited pre-existing anti-vaxx sentiment to propagate misleading and false claims about vaccination.
Some yoga influencers and new age spirituality leaders saw the pandemic as an opportunity, and began providing a platform to conspiracy theories. Guru Jagat, a Kundalini yoga teacher with 67,000 Instagram followers and 21,000 YouTube subscribers, invited QAnon conspiracy theorist Kerry Cassidy for an hour-long interview on YouTube. Jagat’s posts about astrology and spirituality are interspersed with attacks on ‘cancel culture’. “In a Time where facts aren’t factual & truths aren’t true, may you walk a path of your own Truth,” reads one of her Instagram posts.
Buti Yoga founder Bizzie Gold stated in an interview that we ‘should stop being poisoned through vaccines’ while yoga influencer Stephanie Birch used QAnon-related hashtags such as #greatawakening on her Instagram account, interspersed with posts about motherhood and inspirational quotes. “We are experiencing a spiritual warfare against mastery manipulating puppets that go back years”’ she wrote, alongside a picture of a blue sky.
Prominent pandemic deniers include a number of keen yoga practitioners, such as alternative health proponent Sayer Ji, who runs the website greenmedinfo.com, and his wife Kelly Brogan, who describes herself as a ‘holistic psychiatrist.’ More recently, the links between yoga and conspiracy theories came to public attention after the ‘QAnon shaman’ who stormed the Capitol on January 6, was revealed to be a yoga practitioner who is reportedly on an organic diet.
It’s hard to tell just how much conspiracy theories have infiltrated the wellness and yoga space. Researchers have tried to document the recent revival of ‘conspirituality’ – the intersection of yoga, spirituality and holistic health with conspiracy theories. The Conspirituality podcast, co-founded by cult survivor and yoga teacher Matthew Remski, lists figures in the wellness industry who have shared conspiracy theories and aims at exposing ‘faux-progressive wellness utopianism.’
The trend stretches beyond influencers. Conspiracy content shared by yoga and wellness enthusiasts, or what researcher Marc-André Argentino calls ‘Pastel QAnon’, also appears in various forms in spaces which are difficult for researchers to access, including private Facebook groups, or in the form of short-lived content such as Instagram stories.
This content uses coded language, talking of ‘awakening,’ ‘enlightenment’ and ‘seeking one’s own truth.’ It appears alongside posts about veganism, meditation and acupuncture. Users bypass content moderation efforts by tech companies by adapting their language, making them difficult to dislodge, and giving themselves an air of semi-plausible deniability.
Yoga influencers who have amplified anti-vaxx or QAnon conspiracies have denied endorsing them, and have instead embraced the well-known rhetoric of ‘freedom of thought’ and self-exploration. “My job is to help people to find freedom of thought,” Jagat says. “I have a talk show and I interview people. It doesn’t mean I agree with them.” Both Gold and Birch have also denied subscribing to QAnon.
It’s not a coincidence that conspiracy theories have taken root in the yoga and wellness communities. The pandemic has hit the industry hard. In the US, a survey showed that 2020 saw a 23 per cent increase in yoga studio closures, depriving thousands of teachers of income, and encouraging many to capitalise on content which generates traffic and cash.
For modern day influencers, the motivations for sharing QAnon content vary from cynical opportunism to ideology. Yoga entrepreneurs have become adept at seizing the opportunities the pandemic has presented and preying on the vulnerabilities of their audiences.
Contemporary yoga is an $80bn global industry that has built itself around the notion of ‘self-care’ and the individual pursuit of self-improvement, encouraging its followers to rise above the political while encouraging individual realisation. The nature of modern-day yoga, Remski believes, makes it susceptible to right-wing politics.
The historical links between yoga and New Age pursuits and extremist politics are well-documented, including Nazi Germany’s interest in astrology and alternative medicine and the way yoga has sometimes served as inspiration to fascist ideology, including in Britain. Yoga, in addition, has embraced a ‘transgressive’ vision of itself, with the figure of the ‘rebel yogi’ a potent symbol in collective imagination.
The yoga and wellness online communities are largely female, educated and middle-class – seemingly unusual candidates for the spread of conspiracy theories. Yet, research has shown that women are more likely to believe anti-vaxx disinformation, with female-dominated yoga and wellness groups a gateway to these beliefs.
Lack of investment in women’s health has created a yearning for ‘natural’ and ‘alternative’ responses to painful problems, with disbelief in conventional medicine in the wellness industry sometimes resulting in tragedy. The anxiety caused by the pandemic has allowed yoga influencers to whip up fear while selling the solution in the form of food supplements, individualistic fixes, and guidance.
Wellness and yoga influencers already had products to sell before the pandemic – be it guidance material or just time with themselves. The pandemic “validated content they already had” Remski says. Some of the influencers who embraced QAnon saw their engagement rates skyrocket online. Krystal Tini, a yoga teacher and owner of a yoga mat business, gained thousands of followers in the early days of the pandemic after posting long videos in support of QAnon, becoming one of the movement’s most successful wellness representatives.
The yoga industry, which has shied away from political engagement and built itself around ‘self-care’, has had a hard time responding to the problem, but awareness has grown. Influencers and active community members are advocating for the industry to get into the fray. Seane Corn is the co-founder of the California-based not-for-profit ‘Off the Mat and Into the World’ aimed at translating the principles of yoga into progressive civic engagement.
“After the pandemic hit, I started seeing a lot of misinformation going back and forth in the community about Covid being a hoax,” she says. “The anti-vaxx stuff was not new, but this time the tone was different. There was hostility and paranoia, and it was attached to other beliefs about a deep state conspiracy. I felt like I had a responsibility to speak up as a member of the community. I hoped that by interjecting, I would help some of the students that were getting drawn into this rhetoric.”
Corn has used her social media platform to debunk QAnon and shown the role of influential community voices in addressing disinformation and conspiracy theories beyond content moderation. While regulation policies are needed to ensure content moderation is enforced, conspiracy theories cannot be fought without a social effort to build trust with online and offline communities of interest by enlisting credible voices.
Following President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the QAnon movement has splintered as its predictions have failed to materialise, leaving many supporters at a loss. Online yoga communities can drive their supporters further down the rabbit hole or provide a space to disengage from conspiracies. “My job is to figure out how we go back to the community and, as teachers, give people tools and a safe space after they have been manipulated,” Corn says.
This article was originally published by Wired.
Cécile Guerin is a Research Coordinator at ISD, working on digital analysis projects related to disinformation, hate speech and extremist content online. She holds an MSc in International History from the London School of Economics and an MA in English from the École Normale Supérieure in France.