people meditating in a yoga class

We’re falling for wellness, but some things aren’t right

Nikki Richardson

The global wellness industry has scaled to a booming $4 trillion and is only expected to grow.

With self-proclaimed wellness gurus, prominent influencers, and big businesses set on selling for consumer benefit, an already difficult-to-regulate market is raising alarm bells for issues not commonly explored in the discourse of mainstream dominant societies.

Recent docuseries highlight the trends and pitfalls of wellness including tendencies like favouring marketing over health.

From high-priced fitness studios and luxury retreats to skincare, cleanses, and cold-exposure therapy, wellness is paving the way for an overwhelming desire and dedication to self-care.

A growing voice on behalf of marginalised communities, who for years have faced oppression, stereotyping, and discrimination, are speaking up of the ways in which their culture and traditional practices are being exploited and appropriated in the pursuit of monetary gain.

While a universal consensus of the definition of wellness cannot easily be identified, particularly across communities with many cultural and linguistic differences, wellness in traditional and Indigenous cultures often prioritises spiritual and cultural gratification, integrating a holistic approach of the concept.

Indigenous business owner, keynote speaker, and co-founder of Moccasin Trails, an Indigenous tourism and educational organisation, Greg Hopf explains the importance of this.

“The holistic approach to living, that’s in our blood, it’s in our daily life.

“Then everything else follows…Physical wellness, financial wellness, emotional wellness, whatever it is. But spiritual and cultural are at the forefront.”

Contrary to this outlook, wellness in dominant western cultures and mainstream societies predominantly focuses on wellness of a physical and mental nature, however holistic and spiritual concepts have gained significant traction in recent years.

Journalist Neelam Dajee, along with many others taking to online platforms to voice their concerns, speaks of the way she recognises cultural appropriation in the wellness industry.

“I personally have experienced it most when going to tranquil places, so if it’s a spa, or yoga or meditation studio,” Neelam said.

The practice of yoga has a significant history dating back several-thousand years in India, its country of origin, and goes far beyond the physical practice many Western studios promote it as today, instead embodying connection between mind, body, and universe in liberation or complete awareness.

The now $88bn worldwide industry is dominated by images of thin, white, able-bodied and middle to upper-class women often featured in apparel by companies that further perpetuate this ideal, contributing to a toxic cycle surrounding accessibility and equality in wellness.

Both Neelam and Greg speak into the importance of intention when engaging in traditional cultures and not assuming a right or sense of entitlement to a practice from another culture.

“That intent is not for financial gain, [it’s] not just to complete a report for your book. The intent is all about personal growth,” Greg explains.

Neelam also suggests ways you can respectfully be involved in practices from a culture that is not your own, such as yoga in Hinduism, which is “all about sharing” she says.

“Go to the country, pay your respects, learn from the source, do it authentically.”

She also notes where that is not always financially viable, there are ways around such obstacles in the 21st century.

“There’s so many ways now with the internet that you can connect to other people and places, that there’s no excuse for you to be existing in your own ecosystem…benefiting from another culture without giving anything back.”

Onsen Hot Pools: Spa in Queenstown New Zealand

While the age of the internet can bring about benefits such as drawing together people from different corners of the world, it can also have adverse effects in the realm of wellness.

Social media, and in particular some of the trends and challenges it promotes, has a dark side that can be amplified in wellness.

Dietician and habit researcher Dr Gina Cleo shares how this is sometimes cultivated through online platforms.

“I think the wellness industry, in a way, is trying to sell us this ideal of happiness. Like ‘If you do this, everything in your life [will] fall into place and you’re going to be your best self’.”

She suggests thinking critically when scrolling can offer a more conscious approach to being mindful of what we see online.

“Is this evidence based? What’s the source? Is this person credible? Critical thinking is important. And self-awareness is very important,” Dr Cleo said, also noting the importance of ‘intrinsic motivation’.

“[Doing] something because you want to do it for yourself…rather than doing something because everyone else is… or because this influencer said that it was a good idea.”  

As such a vast industry, wellness is littered with social issues that need to be considered given its extensive reach and influence.

As consumers of wellness, we have a responsibility to ask questions, educate ourselves, and consider the potential harm of our individual behaviours, as Neelam suggests. “It’s easy to point at the big corps and go, ‘you should do better’…But it’s all the consumer’s free will at the end of the day.”

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