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When Stewart Robertson, a 58-year-old statistician from Milton Keynes, received a Facebook message from his female yoga teacher* linking to an anti-vaxx propaganda video, he was shocked but perhaps not totally surprised. About 18 months before, she’d sent him a Facebook message containing 5G conspiracy theories.
While Stewart and his classmates largely brushed off the 5G email, over the past three months their teacher’s pushing of conspiracies – which she’ll post on social media or send directly to her students’ work emails – has escalated. It prompted Stewart and his classmates to confront her in an email over “content [that] really needs to be challenged”. Because of his science background, Stewart was never sold on the theories being served up alongside his online yoga class, saying: “I need a lot of evidence to be convinced of something.” But he is worried that others won’t be as discerning and could fall victim to such claims.
Conspirituality – a term coined in 2011 to describe people in the spirituality space who are also attracted to conspiracy theories – is booming online. Stewart’s yoga teacher and others in her community – some with hundreds of thousands of followers – have been increasingly using their platforms to spread disinformation via social media. Links between the yoga community and QAnon – a theory which posits that the world is run by a cabal of liberal elites – made international news when it was revealed that a “QAnon shaman” who attacked the US Capitol on 6th January was a yoga practitioner on an organic diet.
There have always been conspiritual beliefs but the pandemic has turbocharged them.
“There have always been conspiritual beliefs,” says philosopher Jules Evans, author of The Art of Losing Control, “but the pandemic has turbocharged them.” There’s even a podcast called Conspirituality dedicated to debunking these types of theories. But in the UK, the phenomenon has received altogether less attention. “In general there is less spirituality in the UK, so also less conspirituality,” says Evans. However, people who move in wellness and spiritual circles in the UK are increasingly raising concerns about the alarming rate at which conspiracies – on everything from anti-vaxx to 5G and beyond – are seeping into their communities.
Among them is Amber Wilds, a 40-year-old yoga teacher from Essex who says that while conspiracy thinking has long been bubbling away in the yoga community, it is only over the past year that she’s started to notice these types of posts popping up on her feed. Before the pandemic, certain practitioners would stay off social media. “It was seen to be ‘the demon thing’,” Amber says.
However, COVID has been hammering the UK’s yoga industry. Studios and gyms have been closed during multiple lockdowns and teachers have begun to unionise. Many practitioners have been forced to use social media as a “lifeline” to connect with their students, Amber explains. Now, many of those same teachers are openly sharing views that they might once have kept private or only shared with those they spoke to directly after class.
Conspiracy theories have long served as a coping mechanism to deal with an uncertain world. When wellness practitioners make claims of exaggerated death tolls, or that we’re being misled over how infectious the second strain is, it can offer an appealing alternative for those who’d rather not confront the painful reality of COVID-19. As Adam Curtis argues in his new documentary, people are led to conspiracy theories out of feelings of isolation, powerlessness and fear – when they feel disenfranchised by a ruling elite – an apt description of the current national mood.
The spike in conspirituality and the disinformation it spreads online can also be seen as a byproduct of QAnon, which took hold in the US before migrating to the UK last year. According to anthropologist Dr Susannah Crockford, the vast majority of the sources spreading to the UK via social media originated in the US (though there are some notable exceptions, including conspiracy theorist David Icke).
“You can imagine disinformation as this kind of monster that belches things up from America,” says Susannah, “and then latches on to the UK and the rest of Europe. But then it gets reworked into a local frame.” According to Susannah, posts in the UK tend to focus on the more everyday anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown conspiracies, as opposed to the outlandish QAnon narratives of paedophile rings and satanic rituals which have been spreading in US yoga circles.
Susannah sees the hard constraints on people’s freedom as what’s driving this sentiment in the UK yoga community. “The core of yoga and spirituality is this idea that the individual creates their own reality: they see themselves and also their environment around them as perfectible,” she explains. “They’ll think, Who is stopping me from creating this perfect environment? And then go on to read all these theories on the internet.” Amber agrees, describing how anti-lockdown and anti-vaxx narratives are often posited as a “fight for freedom”.
First, they get you to the door by saying a little bit… When they’ve got you listening, they hit you with the three-hour video… And then you’re in it. It’s a form of critical thinking.
Dr SusannaH Crockford
Posts on social media tend to deploy vague or coded language when spreading conspiracies, with references to “The Great Awakening”, “The Storm” or urging people to “Wake Up”. This can make it difficult for social media platforms to detect what is blatantly conspiracy language and what is your standard spiritual wellness messaging. Posts will often appear on ethereal, aesthetically pleasing Instagram feeds alongside feminist slogan T-shirts and posts about organic beauty products – a phenomenon which researcher Marc-André Argentino has referred to as “pastel QAnon“.
Instead of making direct claims, posts will often encourage people to do their own research, which, Amber says, preys on the kind of “inquiring mind” that is encouraged within yoga teaching. “Because yoga is a fringe industry, there doesn’t tend to be a wealth of information out there about subjects we’re interested in. So we tend to do lots of research ourselves. It seems almost natural to do that… And then you’re venturing into areas where you shouldn’t be doing that, like science and medicine,” she explains.
According to Susannah, leading people to believe they’ve arrived at the conclusion themselves is all part of the manipulation. “First, they get you to the door by saying a little bit… When they’ve got you listening, they hit you with the three-hour video… And then you’re in it. It’s a form of critical thinking.”
This appears to be the case with Saffron*, a 36-year-old yoga teacher from London with over 23,600 Instagram followers, who believes she has arrived at the “truth” by her own volition. (She asked to remain anonymous because she “likes to keep her opinions to herself”, she says.) When asked why distrust in the government is so high among her community, Saffron responds: “Because we are more in tune with our bodies and natural intuition. We don’t sit around in sedentary jobs, eating processed foods, listening to whatever the government says. We spend time moving our bodies, fuelling with whole foods. It gives us clarity to think for ourselves.”
Yogic teachings encourage students to follow their intuition in order to “access one’s ‘true self’,” explains Amber. “It’s this idea that you’ll almost come to a higher state through a yoga practice.” So it can be difficult for a teacher to contradict a student if their intuition is leading them towards conspiracies.
A lack of investment in women’s health is also responsible for deepening distrust in mainstream medicine, which has in turn prompted women to seek out alternatives.
What concerns Amber is the power yoga teachers exert over their students – they’re often performing a similar role to a therapist. “When we meet our students, we do so when they’re vulnerable. You have to trust your teacher. So if your teacher starts spouting conspiracies and you’re trusting them to give sound advice, there’s a very dangerous crossover there.”
Of course, it isn’t the nature of yoga teaching in itself which is to blame for conspirituality: experts have criticised social media companies for not doing enough to curb the anti-vaxx content spreading on their platforms. According to a study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), 31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook and another 17 million subscribe to similar accounts on YouTube. The CCDH estimates that the movement is worth $1 billion in advertising revenue for social media firms.
A lack of investment in women’s health is also responsible for deepening distrust in mainstream medicine, which has in turn prompted women to seek out alternatives. It should come as little surprise, then, that research has shown the vast majority of the anti-vaxx community are women, and that the female-dominated sphere of yoga – with its promise of “natural” solutions – has become a petri dish for this type of thinking. Saffron, for example, thinks that too much focus has been placed on the coronavirus vaccine and that we should be “building our own immunity with fresh food and nature” and that the government should be providing “vitamin D shots” instead. According to Public Health England there is not enough medical evidence to support the idea that vitamin D protects people against COVID-19.
If we recognise that feelings of abandonment at the hands of government and healthcare institutions is often what draws people to conspirituality, we might be more inclined to empathise with those who fall victim to it. “Shaming and ridiculing won’t work… We could say that sometimes there are genuine conspiracies, that sometimes and perhaps even often it is helpful to be a bit wary of state power,” says Evans. “However, if you’re connecting all conspiracies into one global grand cosmic plan all run by the same family or small group of people, you’re probably being over-paranoid and ending up with a simplistic world picture.”
*Names have been changed and removed to protect identities
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