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Is Any Of This Really Helping: The Cult of Positivity and the Monetisation of Mindfulness

By C. Chandrawala and R. Butt

It’s now almost-the-end of what has easily been the longest winter of everyone’s lives, and at this point, we’re all just dirt tired. On the search for viable new year’s resolutions and cut off from nearly every reasonable path to a happy-making place, we find ourselves looking for solace somewhere that isn’t termed a biblical vice, and what does that leave us with? Ah yes, Jay Shetty. A former monk whose insights are only made sharper by the clean lines of his high cheekbones. *Le sigh* and then, of course, *share*.

The thing is, we’ve all seen it happen before and it always starts harmlessly enough. You scroll through Instagram and notice your friend’s page is becoming remarkably full of “affirmations.” Positivity run wild has leaked like a 7-Eleven slushy all over her page, oozing its same unsubstantive saccharine sweetness in every direction. ‘Purpose’; ‘flow’; ‘divine,’ ‘light’, ‘goddess’. And of course, always the carelessly calligraphed words painted over top of a floral background or something with a silhouette of a remarkably peaceful looking shadow praying in anything but a temple.

In fact, her claims to be “glowing” are so regular now, you begin to worry that she might have become radioactive. Did she recently visit Chernobyl, you wonder? Perhaps. Or maybe she’s just been introduced to the Cult of Positivity. Promising health, happiness, and of course, deep inner peace, it never fails. And if it does, we can just go ahead and cover that up. Pull it all together with a nice picture of a flower, the ‘sunburst’ filter, and some vague reference to “the light” and “the dark” and voila - problem solved, right? Flipping through post after post, I can’t help but wonder, is any of this actually supposed to be about peace, happiness, or balance? Is any of this really helping anyone feel any better at all?

Toxic Positivity: The Ultimate Cure-All

A quick google search reveals that yoga can do everything from making me look like Brad Pitt, to experiencing the divine, all the way to preventing Alzheimer’s. It’s even managed to keep up with these changing times. On the International Day of Yoga in 2020 (that’s a real thing), it was suggested that Yoga could boost immune systems in the fight against Covid, and help in restoring health after Covid as well.

It’s important to remember that yoga, alongside many other Indian cultural and religious practices, was banned during British colonial rule, before its proliferation into Western culture. After the ban was rescinded, yoga’s spiritual/religious meanings and its ontology were stripped and commodified into the brand of yoga we see today. That’s why when most people search for yoga, they’ll get a white woman named Becky who charges $30 a class and throws in the word “chakras” for effect. That’s not to say that every non-Indian person who practices yoga has no idea of it’s meaning, some people surely do study its history.

But, it's one of the clearest, and unfortunately, most consistent examples of the neo-colonial commodification of wellness alongside the removal of the practice from its indigenous roots.

The 2010s saw a rebirth in spirituality - holotropic breathing workshops, mindfulness retreats, and of course, at least 3 news branches on the yoga tree. And aside from increasing the self-help section of the Amazon empire, the global share of spandex, and the number of tattoos inspired by “insert random exoticized culture here”, this rebirth has also led to one other significant increase - money. So much money.

The monetizing of mindfulness has in fact become an entire financial industry - complete with agents, PR teams, design teams, and bank accounts. And these aren’t small figures either - workplace wellness alone is valued at 48 billion dollars; “the $134 billion wellness real estate market is now about 1.5% of the total annual global construction market and about half the size of the global green building industry”; and while dwarfing both of these figures, wellness tourism came in at a whopping $639 billion dollars. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I think Jay’s a bad guy, and those baby blues could lull me into a state of meditative peacefulness (or something like it) any day of the week. But something about how ’sharing positivity and wisdom with the world’ manages to generate a net value of $2.5 million dollars while also allegedly plagiarizing content doesn’t add up for me.

But don’t worry, the monetization of mindfulness has a long and rich tradition in the West. In fact, Jay’s $2.5 mil seems like a drop in the bucket when you consider that the global wellness industry was valued at $4.2 trillion dollars in 2018.

A Three-Step Process to a whole new Wellness Trend

These aren’t new tricks. The Wellness Industry knows the game well, and they always follow the same simple three-step pattern. Step 1: Cultural Appropriation; Step 2: Reductive Filtration of Non-Niceties; and Step 3: Monetize.

The process begins small - culturally appropriating things like yoga, meditation, holotropic breathing practices, monastic chants, mandalas and mala beads, or just simply tossing the word “Balinese” to the front of a product or a “namaste” in front of a salutation. This acts as the first step on a road which serves to divorce and alienate key cultural practices away from their culture. Ironically, a good deal of this spiritual colonization is fueled by members of the South Asian Diaspora who decide to capitalize on their unique position to perpetuate exoticizations of the subcontinent. From Bikram to Jay Shetty, NRIs have long dominated the wellness landscape.

Next, we remove any ugly aspects that might not sit well with an unfamiliar audience. Is the clothing not sexy enough? Let’s change that. Are the meanings of the chants too hard to remember? No longer necessary. Is the average person unable to turn off their phone for a ten-minute meditation? No problem, let’s make it an app. Temples get replaced with beachside retreats, and seamless robes get replaced with bikini tops.

Last but not least, it’s time to monetize that ish. We take centuries of freely available practices and make it a paid course, for which we can offer a “life-changing” guarantee. Because of course, there’s a way to measure that. We’ll also pitch it at a price level that caters almost exclusively to a white, cis-hetero, able-bodied woman from an upper-class background, all while managing to completely exclude any member of the original host community as well. Because who wants to go to an ashram in Kerala with actual Keralites in it? (Don’t even get me started on Rishikesh.) And once we’ve run out of newbies to take the course, let’s charge people to learn how to train others. And then naturally, comes the product line too. T-Shirts and coffee cups, water bottles, and daily planners. Even a special wellness coffee, because it can’t go viral if there isn’t a hash-taggable drink to go along with it. The point is, if it’s not yet a product, the industry will find a way to make it one and a million ways to make money from it.

To be clear, the problem here isn’t the promotion of better self-awareness. The problem is the promotion of self-awareness through the use and abuse of centuries-old communities and practices solely to provide a vehicle for mass production, exploitation, and the collection of boatloads of money for a few key people. All while operating under the guise of benevolent charitability.

The Problem(s):

Now we know you’re reading this, and thinking to yourself, ‘So what’s the big deal? Especially after the shitshow, that was 2020, why must we not indulge in micro-doses of spiritual awakening?’ So before we go ahead and break that down, let us just start by saying: yes, it is a good thing that wellness celebrities like Jay and other pseudo-monks are raising people’s awareness about the idea of mental well-being. And yes, it’s genuinely fantastic that in an era of world-wide anxiety, there are people out there putting out daily reminders to pause, reflect, and take care of yourself. And no, these issues don't change the utility and importance of the practices in their original form. Now, having said all of that here goes:

Problem 1: Cultural Offensiveness

Suggesting that soulfulness can be bought or sold for a monthly fee of $12.99 or even $1,299, cheapens the spirit of these cultural traditions and the places from where they stem, while at the same time pricing them high enough that they remain inaccessible to the very people they stem from. The beneficiaries of the wellness industry are so far removed from the original practitioners, using “chakras” to get their cheques but having little awareness of their contribution to a form of cultural neo-colonialism. And we’re really not sure if all that baggage can fit in the cute affirmation-declaring tote-bag that comes along with your subscription.

Problem 2: Mistaking “Progress” for Progress

The reason this industry is so popular, adaptable and easily monetized is that it creates the false illusion that all these things that we pour money into are the key to “inner peace”, and the more you invest in them the closer you are to becoming a master of self-care. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not saying you shouldn’t invest in things that improve your physical and mental well being, that’s definitely necessary. But the wellness industry's quiet co-optation of spiritual languages guides people into believing the only way they can do that is through continually throwing money at the Jay Shetty’s of the world.

It disproportionately puts the onus of progress onto individual responsibility, masking the deeper, structural reasons why so many of us are tired, burnt out, have mental health problems, and seek wellness in the first place. 2020 has shown us more clearly than ever that our system, even in a pandemic, prioritises economic profit and reduces us to little worker robots rather than taking proper care of ourselves and others around us. So as we continue to work for our survival, the wellness industry booms at our expense, making you think your progress to peace is divorced from the larger systemic issues that structure our lives.

Problem 3: Those that actually need help aren’t getting it

If the house is burning down, tossing a packet of sage on the fire and calling it a cleanse isn’t going to help. Sometimes, when things are not okay, it’s okay to identify it as such. Problems won’t often be solved with a personal rebranding, and assuming they can be is an exercise in privilege. By ignoring the systemic issues which have contributed to a global mental health crisis, or choosing to not address them because it's easier to just get on with it and accept that this is what life is, we leave those who really need the help to fend for themselves. The wellness industry can’t chime away the most pressing problems we face as humans in a society that only values our health if they can make a profit out of it.

Although we’ve been pretty cynical throughout, our aim isn’t to make you feel guilty if you do yoga or meditate, but instead, we want to gently nudge all of us into confronting these issues and re-evaluate what we should be investing in.

Opening up a critique of the wellness industry is a step towards devaluing it, but ultimately it's just one of the many by-products of mass consumption capitalism which operates to keep us in a position where we feel like we need the fixes of the wellness industry.

These concepts are within reach for each of us without the aid of tickets, subscriptions and other such corporate tomfoolery. I know a billion-dollar industry can’t be dismantled overnight, but we can divest from it and the idea that our peace and wellness is somehow housed by the official gatekeepers of inner peace - Jay and the other jays.

So here we are, just one voice in the dark, shedding a little light on the industry of “light and love” and reminding you - you are capable of finding what peace is available to you. If you need help, seek it from places and people that are genuine in their concern and their regard for you. And sometimes, it’s okay to just not be okay, because here’s a little secret - sometimes, we’re not okay too.

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