Turmeric lattes, facial gua sha, yoga, burning sage — the modern wellness industry in the U.S. borrows heavily from the ancient traditions of cultures from around the globe. And as wellness has continued to become an increasingly profitable industry internationally, a growing number of practitioners and experts are asking those who participate in the wellness industry to look more deeply and critically into their own practices — to ask themselves how they may be causing harm, and to work to correct it.
Some people are calling this process an attempt to “decolonize” wellness, which can be broadly understood to mean an attempt to decenter whiteness in wellness spaces; to honor the complex histories of wellness practices; and to make some form of reparations to the communities from whom the practices were taken.
All cultures borrow fashions, foods, language, and traditions from other cultures; this isn’t inherently wrong or bad. As Kwame Anthony Appiah, PhD, a professor of philosophy and law at New York University, wrote in The New York Times’ The Ethicist column, “The key question in the use of symbols or regalia associated with another identity group is not: What are my rights of ownership? Rather it’s: Are my actions disrespectful? What makes some forms of dress racist is that they display disdain or disrespect for people of another racial identity (that’s the mark of individual acts of racism), or contribute to the continuing oppression of a group (the mark of institutional racism).”
Dr. Appiah was writing specifically about clothing — the question was about a white person dressing up “in a ‘costume’ portraying a person of color.” But it's possible that the same kind of litmus test can be applied to wellness, too. “Some of what we practice within wellness spaces are the same practices that were stripped away from communities, especially Indigenous communities, and that they were vilified for and penalized for practicing too,” explains Rebeckah Price, a wellness advocate, anti-racist advocate, yoga teacher, and co-founder of The Well Collective. She points to saging or smudging. In Canada, Indigenous young people were put into residential schools that prohibited culturally significant practices like saging. Today, you’d be hard pressed to walk into a yoga studio in North America that doesn’t have a bundle of sage tucked into a drawer, and many of those studios are owned by non-Indigenous, white people.
Price’s point isn’t necessarily that white people shouldn’t ever use sage. But to her, decolonizing wellness means looking critically at this exact behavior. People should not just be aware of the history of traditional practices, they should also ask themselves whether they or the wellness business they support do anything to uplift the communities from which these practices are derived. Have they hired any Indigenous instructors? Do they donate money to causes that uplift Indigenous people, or offer free or reduced fee classes for people in need?
Another example is with yoga, an ancient Indian practice that, in North America, is often repackaged as a type of physical exercise that’s loosely derived from hatha yoga, but stripped of its spiritual core. Some people would describe this relationship to yoga as colonization — as defined by Lexico as “the action of appropriating a place or domain for one's own use.”
Decolonizing yoga means different things to different people, but it isn’t necessarily about defining who is or isn’t “allowed” to participate in the practice. Instead, it’s about identifying and repairing any harm that was caused from yoga being appropriated or commodified. Recently, for example, when India was experiencing a huge surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths (today, the daily case counts are still over 100,000), some people began questioning whether U.S.-based yoga brands were donating money to relief efforts.
Similar conversations are happening outside of wellness too, of course. “The wellness industry is essentially just a microcosm of the macrocosm of the systems of oppression that operate in the broader structure and framework of society,” Price says. “So what you see play out in wellness isn't any different than what you might see potentially in the educational system or in environmental racism.”
It’s worth noting that some people disagree with the use of the term “decolonize” as it pertains to the wellness industry, or anything that causes it to lose its original context. In a 2012 article titled “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” professors Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang pointed out that “decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools… The metaphorization of decolonization makes possible a set of evasions, or ‘settler moves to innocence’, that problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity.”
Rather than the decolonization of industries, some prefer to talk about dismantling systems; decentering whiteness, able-bodiedness, and anti-Blackness; or reclaiming traditional practices.
Price says that whatever term you use, when you’re participating in practices that involve appropriation or commodification, it’s essential to ask yourself, How can we repair that harm? “People hear ‘reparations’ and they think ‘40 acres and a mule.’ But it’s more than just that. I think it’s easy for people to stop at doing a land acknowledgment or ethically sourcing their palo santo and not focusing beyond that,” she says. She says true reclamation requires asking yourself questions like: How have I benefited from my privilege? How have I centered myself in this practice? How is my support of these systems reinforcing the oppression of marginalized or BIPOC communities? How can I make what I'm offering more accessible to the same communities that I may have harmed?
There are specific things you can do to work to dismantle oppression in wellness, including learning about the history of the practices you take part in and being picky about the wellness-oriented business you support. Are they owned by or led by BIPOC people? Do they attempt to fill the needs of a community, or do they center certain individuals? Who is being excluded from the space on the basis of income, ability, or representation?
But the first step often involves turning inward. “In order to repair harm you have to admit that you created harm,” says Snjezana Pruginic, a community justice worker and trauma therapist who, with Price, co-founded The Well Collective. “I think a lot of times there is an unwillingness to accept that you actually are creating harm. And what I see a lot is that someone will start unpacking and learning — and then stop as soon as they begin to feel guilty. And no change is made. It ends up being performative.”
“We saw that all last summer!” Price chimes in. “Just like in yoga, you get someone in a very uncomfortable pose and tell them to breathe through it,” she continues. “Sometimes you have to get uncomfortable to get comfortable. When we're on the other side, we feel better. But confronting the fact that you do benefit from privilege is confrontational. And you have to kind of sit in that discomfort.”