By Ben Machell
Yoga retreats, mindfulness apps, superfoods and juices - what started as the alternative lifestyle for hippies is now worth a whopping $3.7 trillion. But has the fad gone too far? Ben Machell investigates.
It's a hazy Sunday morning in Los Angeles and a group of 30 or so people are hiking through Runyon Canyon, an arid city park that rises steeply into the Hollywood Hills. The hikers are all young and lean and attractive to the point of parody. A good number of the guys are shirtless, all six-packs and pecs, while the girls wear leggings and crop-tops. If many of them seem as if they could be models or actors, then that's because many of them are, in fact, models or actors. They meet every Sunday morning to hike through Runyon, take beaming group selfies and then post them to Instagram.
But there's more to it than that. These people form what might best be described as a "wellness collective". As well as hiking and chatting, these Sunday mornings include meditation, guided breathing exercises and qigong. At one point, halfway up the valley, everyone stands in a circle with their arms outstretched, eyes shut. In the centre is a man in skinny black jeans with a rose tattoo on his temple. He instructs everyone to embrace, rather than resist, the growing discomfort they feel as their arms begin to ache. "What we're seeing if we can do," he says slowly, "is if we can place all of our tension in those areas of discomfort and perfectly relax. Release into it."
This is Bryan Ellis, one of the four founders of the Wildfire Initiative, a quartet of Zen-like alphas on a mission to help us become the best possible versions of ourselves. A yoga instructor and musician, he had the idea for this weekly get-together following a 30-day water fast on Mt Shasta, a potentially active volcano north of San Francisco. He does these water fasts every few months - consuming only water - and raves about the results.
"After seven to 10 days, you feel something you've never felt before," says Ellis. "It's a clarity and an energy. The scientific explanation is that our digestive system uses up 60 to 70 per cent of our energy at any given time." (It actually uses about 10 per cent.) "So when it's no longer running, all of that energy goes to healing and becomes usable. You sleep much less. Your strength is unreal."
Standing near Ellis with his eyes shut and arms outstretched is Crosby Tailor, another of the Wildfire Initiative co-founders. Tailor is a 32-year-old actor/model who has a sideline producing sugar and gluten-free "fat-burning" desserts for clients including Gigi Hadid.
He is tall, with a smooth, athletic physique. Tailor met Ellis at an organic market and the pair hit it off. Ellis asked Tailor if he had heard of breathwork - controlled breathing exercises - and he said that no, but would love to learn more about it. So Ellis gave him a crash course.
"I never realised how much my breathing controlled my day-to-day levels of stress, anxiety and emotion," he explains, wide-eyed. "I realised I hold my breath in so many situations. And that clenches you up. And then the stress hormone kicks in. And that's how we age," he says. "It's one of the main ways we age fast. It's proven science."
Ellis had a friend called Netic Rebel, another well-toned musician who had already been taking people on hikes through Runyon, engaging them in philosophy and leading them through gratitude rituals. So he became part of the gang. They became a quartet when joined by Abraham Wolke, whom they met back at the organic market. "Abe came up on a bike and started talking about cold-plunging. Submerging yourself in ice-cold water for inflammatory and immune system reasons. I was doing cryotherapy at the time, so he sat down and we all started vibing."
This vibing - followed by Ellis' water fast epiphany - led them to create their group. I tell Tailor that it all seems really interesting, but I'm not sure it's for me. I am, I explain, someone who absolutely needs to eat at least three meals a day and who doesn't look spectacular with his shirt off. "And that's very okay with us," he says slowly, reassuringly. "We do not judge. There are no beliefs required in this whole thing."
Interest is booming. The free Sunday morning sessions are just the start. They are teaming up with wellness brands, including a health drink. They have held events in New York, and there are plans for branded retreats and summits as well as a subscription-based online lifestyle portal, which will feature livestreamed classes, meditation, meal plans and pretty much everything you might need to look and feel as good as Ellis and Tailor and their LA acolytes.
Why is this happening? How is it that a bunch of dudes armed only with Instagram accounts, rock-hard abs and an evangelical enthusiasm for alternative health practices can arrive from nowhere and then, just a short time later, be on the verge of creating an international business model?
It's a question we can answer in one word: wellness. We live in the age of wellness. Of good health - of mind, of body, of soul - as a full-time lifestyle choice, a form of conspicuous self-improvement that, over the past five years or so, has become the dominant cultural trend among middle-class Westerners. It's downloading mindfulness apps and booking yoga holidays. It's clean eating, drinking homemade green juice and coconut water. It's going sugar and gluten-free, or fasting altogether. It's the reason you can now buy "holistic" dog food. The wellness industrial complex is estimated to be worth US$3.7 trillion ($5 trillion), and it's a bubble that shows no sign of bursting.
We're at a point where you can be engaging with the latest wellness trends without even realising it. According to Arianna Huffington's book The Sleep Revolution, simply going to bed is now an act of self-care.
And because the idea of wellness is so all-encompassing and in such a constant state of flux - a merry-go-round of new trends, treatments and advice - it has powered the rise of a new kind of public figure: the wellness guru. People who, like the guys from the Wildfire Initiative, now exert a direct influence on what thousands of people are doing to their bodies.
Typically, these gurus are slim, attractive, happy-looking women with huge online followings, who will cheerily dish out dietary and nutritional advice - ditch gluten, ditch dairy, ditch sugar - despite rarely having anything in the way of formal qualifications. So think Ella "Deliciously Ella" Mills. Or any number of nice-looking girls on Instagram who spend a lot of time smiling at salads and dispensing cutesy homilies. ("You are always one step away from a totally different life"; "Inhale avocados, exhale negativity"; "Gratitude and coconut oil change everything.") But the archetypal wellness guru remains Gwyneth Paltrow, who, through her lifestyle website Goop, has brought a whole slew of wellness practices and ideas to mainstream attention. She's urged people - well, women - to put jade eggs into their vaginas in order to cultivate sexual energy. She's enthused about a healing treatment that involves being stung by bees, and is big on crystal therapy. Goop has wondered aloud whether there is a link between underwired bras and breast cancer. And while you may roll your eyes or gnash your teeth, hundreds of thousands of people hang on her every word.
June saw the inaugural Goop summit, a day-long wellness expo, the tickets for which cost between NZ$680 and and $2000 a pop. In March, Paltrow launched her Goop Wellness brand of vitamin supplements. She shifted more than $100,000 worth of orders on the first day.
"Just because you're alive and breathing doesn't mean you're having the most exalted version of yourself," says Amanda Chantal Bacon. Bacon is the woman behind Moon Juice, a company that sells a variety of plant-based drinks and powdered supplements, including a range called Moon Dust. These are made from various herbs and other organic ingredients - goji, rehmannia, ho shou wu, cacao, shilajit, rhodiola, ginkgo, lion's mane, stuff like that - and are called things like "Brain Dust", "Beauty Dust", "Power Dust" and "Sex Dust". You add these powders to your smoothies or juices, then marvel as your brains, beauty, power or sex life all improve. A 42.5g jar of this dust costs $44. Paltrow is a fan.
Bacon is 34 years old and airily beautiful, with clear skin, grey-blue eyes and thick brown hair. Her mother was a fashion company CEO and she lives in a large house in West Los Angeles. Six years ago, she was running a smoothie shop near Venice Beach. Now she has Moon Juice stores in Melrose Place and Sunset Boulevard, and a thriving online business, shipping jars of Moon Dust all around the world.
Bacon says she was drawn into wellness when she discovered that certain foods seemed to have a negative impact on her health. She has not eaten gluten since the age of 4 and, to be honest, it's remarkable just how many wellness gurus claim various intolerances. Wheat, in particular, doesn't seem to have much luck.
Bacon senses a growing dissatisfaction with our "habitual reliance" on modern Western medicine. "There is this movement of people who perhaps have tried different medications, whether it's for physical ailments or mood stabilisation. And maybe it's worked to some degree, but they're not seeing the results they would like, or the side effects are not ones they're willing to live with."
With the rise of social media and digital communication, she continues, people are now faced with a whole pick 'n' mix of wellness possibilities: a series of boutique lifestyle options "People are no longer stuck with whichever company has enough money to put up a billboard or buy shelf space in your store or buy adverts on television," she says. "We're witnessing this across the board, whether it's sneakers or supplements. You don't need the same kind of money to communicate, and people are out there looking for another voice. A person who speaks to them and who seems to be trustworthy."
The thing is, I say, it seems that all these trustworthy people also happen to be really good-looking. Which just seems like a bit of a coincidence. "I think there is an element of truth to that," she concedes. But then, she continues, we make decisions about who to trust based on physical appearance all the time. "If you go to a doctor or a psychologist or a trainer and they don't look balanced and happy and healthy, you're probably not going to take their advice." Plus, she adds, if she looks good, then it's at least in part because of all the Moon Dust she's been necking. "The reason I look the way I do is that I'm taking all of these things," she says brightly.
Dr Benjamin Voyer is a social and evolutionary psychologist and a professor of marketing at the London School of Economics. He is fascinated by wellness. He explains that when we're talking about wellness, we're talking about the psychological concept of self-actualisation: the idea that once all of our other human needs have been met - starting with food and shelter, then personal safety, social belonging and self-esteem - we reach a point where all that's left to do is to fully realise our potential. Literally, to become the best possible version of ourselves. Our most exalted.
"The ultimate goal in our modern society is to become someone and create some meaning around ourselves," says Voyer. "And this idea of self-actualisation is playing a big role in understanding the massive attraction towards wellness."
But the problem is that, at least when it comes to wellness, we can never quite get there. There's always someone telling us that we could be doing just a little bit more. This should be annoying, but Voyer says we love it.
"Wellness is something very aspirational, but something that one can never really grasp. We're so used to getting the things we want. Look at plastic surgery. You want a perfect nose? You can get one. But the genius of the marketing surrounding wellness is that it's something you can never quite have. It's something that isn't tangible, yet very desirable. People keep wanting to achieve it. This is why it keeps moving forwards."
There are other factors at play, too.
"The role of the guru is interesting, because you can see people who are very rational suddenly dive into the irrational," he says, meaning your sensible, high-achieving friend who one day starts putting jade eggs up her vagina or ordering big boxes of Sex Dust. "And you wonder why. The reason is that, at some point, it's just nice to have someone who tells you what to do. We're in control of everything we do in our lives, curating every single minute on social media. And suddenly having a moment where we can say, 'Stop! From this point onwards, for this two-day trek across the desert or whatever, I'm not in charge.' I think people find that very liberating."
And there is, says Voyer, something incredibly appealing about the irrational in 2017. "We live in a world where we've lost a lot of the magic and mystery. Everything is about science." But on some level, we're kicking against this. We want more mystery in our lives. Bryan Ellis - the guy who spent a month on a mountain not eating - understands this, and it's no coincidence that the Wildfire Initiative explicitly promises to reveal the magic that has been hidden all around us.
"I think we embraced science to such an extent that people no longer really had terminology for the things they can't explain," he says. "Now everyone wants to be a wizard."
Which sounds harmless enough. But there is a problem. Wellness gurus are, by definition, influential. They can say more or less what they like. During a chat show interview last month, Paltrow was quizzed about "earthing", which her website said could cure insomnia.
"So, earthing ... I don't actually know that much about earthing," she admitted. "They say that we lost touch with sort of being barefoot in the earth, and there's some sort of electromagnetic thing we're missing. It's good to take your shoes off and walk in the grass." She was winging it. Eventually, laughing, she gave up. "I don't know what the f*** we talk about."
It's this lack of accountability that worries Voyer. "With traditional advertising industries, there are very strict controls in place," he says. "But you can't control Instagrammers. If someone dies because they have been following a silly diet, who is responsible?"
Both Bryan Ellis and Crosby Tailor are at pains to point out that they never instruct their followers to do the same things they do, whether fasting or avoiding certain foods. "I'm not saying, 'I'm doing this so you should be doing this,"' says Tailor.
"But I want to be an example of someone who is trying to find the best things for myself. The only thing we can really do is be the best example possible, so that people can look up to us."
Which feels like a bit of a cop-out: "Be like me but don't do what I'm doing, unless you think you should." But the biggest problem caused by this new wave of wellness gurus isn't that people are keeling over dead after attempting a fast or a wacky new diet. Instead, it's something more subtle but more pervasive: a creeping neuroticism powered, ironically enough, by the very unattainability of perfect wellness. Fatigue in the face of never-ending health possibilities. Exhaustion.
Nicky Clinch lists herself as a transformation and life coach, a macrobiotic counsellor and a macrobiotic chef. "I always say that I'm a mixture of seeing a Chinese doctor, a nutritionist and a therapist all in one go," she says when I visit her in East London.
Clinch says that when she first began treating people, she would be contacted only by those who had specific ailments or health issues. Then, she noticed that people who had nothing wrong with them were asking for her help, simply because they'd got the wellness bug and were looking for new ways to feel even better. Now, she says, she's increasingly seeing a new kind of client. "Over the past year and a half, I've seen people who are so obsessed with their health that it's become a problem. People who have been driven to me by the wellness industry."
These are people who are, on paper, very healthy. Who have done everything that has been asked of them by every guru. Who seem within touching distance of self-actualisation. But in reality, they're in bits. "They're struggling with amazing amounts of anxiety and stress. They don't know how to trust themselves any more. They don't know what's right and wrong, because everybody is saying something different and there's this mass of confusion."
In other words, in a world of wellness gurus, people are forgetting what it is to be autonomous.
"I had a student on one of my cooking courses and every night she would obsessively cook dinner trying to get every possible superfood in. She'd have three different screens in front of her, watching three different food bloggers, and she'd be getting more and more anxious. By the time she ate, it would be 10pm and she'd be so stressed. I asked her, 'What is it that you want to eat?' And she literally had no idea."
So we can, I think, anticipate a new health trend on the horizon: wellness burnout. A growing number of people who just want some respite from the hamster wheel of superfoods and gratitude and moon dusts. As Voyer says, wellness is something we can never quite achieve. And I think, in dribs and drabs, more and more people are slowly beginning to understand that.
Still, for the time being, they will remain a small minority. Before I go, Clinch and I have a counselling session. She asks about my life. My emotions. My diet. I tell her that I can't stop eating - mostly Shreddies and toast with jam - and that I spend a lot of time rushing about in a state of hunched-up anxiety. I tell her my back hurts and I wish I had time to play football more.
She suggests that I might want to eat more whole grains, because they'll fill me up and I won't eat so many Shreddies. She says I should get a massage. She says that, according to Chinese medicine, I have the kind of body type that requires me to run around a lot, which is a considerate way of putting it. She suggests I allow myself to make the time to play football.
And it all sounded totally reasonable. Plus, it was definitely nice just having someone telling me what to do. I've booked a massage and have bought a load of barley, which I'm adding to pretty much everything. I'm eating less jam. I may not be ready for Sunday mornings in Runyon Canyon or 30-day water fasts, but I'm inching down the road to the best possible me.
I'm thinking about wellness. To be honest, these days it's hard not to.
NEW ZEALAND'S WELLNESS GURUS
The queen of the New Zealand wellness scene, Dr Libby describes herself as a nutritional biochemist: "My mission is to educate and inspire," she writes on her website, "enhancing people's health and happiness, igniting a ripple effect that transforms the world"
In November, she will host the Beautiful You Weekend: "Cultivating a beautiful you begins with a journey inward to observe your current relationship with yourself ... Examine the intricate play between nutrition, biochemistry and emotions and glean powerful information that will help you to transform your health and your life."
Also available is a nine-week online course "Weight Loss For Women" and upcoming is a six-week Australasian tour of her two-hour "Food Frustrations" seminar ("what to eat when food is confusing"). One of her cheaper online courses is the $26.95 "Understanding the Mysteries and Magic of the Female Body".
She's written 11 books, including Women's Wellness Wisdom, Rushing Woman's Syndrome and Beauty From the Inside Out and she sells a range of supplements under the brand name "Bio Blends By Dr Libby", including options like "Liver Love", "Cycle Essentials" and "Sleep Restore".
Megan May, Little Bird
After spending two years in her 20s sick with adrenal fatigue, hormone troubles, melanoma and parasitic infection, Megan May switched to a predominantly raw diet and went vegan, subsequently turning her health around. She then began to experiment with making her own wholefood products. She scored a hit with her raw organic, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan macaroons, and the Little Bird empire was born.
"I think there are a lot of people that are not feeling great," May says, "and the conventional way of approaching health, especially in a Western context, there's a real lack of prevention. Essentially, eating healthy, or wholefoods, is a really good prevention strategy."
The company has two Auckland cafes serving predominantly raw food. Their online shop also stocks a range of food options, including raw juices and milks, cakes, tarts, bags of macaroons and granola, and "wellness cleanse" packs with all the food you'll need for 1, 3 or 5 days.
Little Bird runs semi-regular classes in raw cuisine and good nutritional health with names like "Raw 101" and "Fermentation is Fun". They also run occasional corporate sessions and specially organised events.
Ben Warren, Be Pure
Ben Warren describes Be Pure as having "probably New Zealand's largest natural health clinics." Two clinics, in Auckland and Havelock North, have a combined clinical staff of 22.
The company mission is described on its website as: "to help build a new future of personalised health. A world where individuals and their families have access to the knowledge, nutrition and support they need to live with optimal health in an environment free of chronic disease and illness."
Warren says, "We work on a spectrum of optimal health. That's where the new model of
health is going. We're not healthy one day, then diseased the next day."
The company sells a wide range of Be Pure-branded health supplements, including multivitamins, fish oil and an adrenal regenerator.
Be Pure offers three clinical programmes to help customers achieve their health goals, the cheapest being the $650 foundation programme and the most expensive the Vitality Longevity Programme, the cost of which varies depending on the testing and nutraceuticals needed, but which start from a base level of $5995. It's described as "the ultimate plan for uncovering and addressing your specific, individual needs and health concerns".
Julia and Libby
Formerly self-described "party girls", sisters Julia and Libby Matthews started to change their lives when Libby completed a degree in holistic nutrition in 2011. They began putting recipes online, starting with a green smoothie, and now have a successful wellness blog and a large-scalesocial media presence that includes 65,000 Facebook followers.
"We love educating people," says Julia, "helping people to be the best versions of themselves."
On their website, they write: "beauty starts from within and food can be used as medicine in order to keep us healthy".
Products and programmes
Still more a blog than a wellness empire, the pair don't yet have much to sell, but their first foray into publishing last year resulted in the best-selling cookbook, Julia and Libby's Wholefood Kitchen, published by Penguin Random House, and they also toured the country with a series of events called "Takes A Village" - including presentations and a panel discussion around the topic of motherhood and parenting.