Capitalism and the Wellness Industrial Complex

Capitalism & The Wellness Industrial Complex

The wellness industry is a 4.5 trillion dollar economy. Over the past fifteen years, wellness trends have risen with an explosion, leading to multi billion dollar markets in wellness tourism, CBD and cannabis, sexual wellness and many more. As the trend to ‘be well’ increases throughout the global north, there is a stark discrepancy in who actually has access to the industry. The commodification and appropriation of practices results in an unequal distribution of power across the economics, involvement and optics of the White-dominated wellness industry. 


If wellness involves the holistic healing of the mind, body and spirit, then, the lack of ethics and exploitation inherent in capitalism automatically means the wellness industry replicates and contributes to the proliferation of the status quo, existing within the realm of spiritual blackout that is needed in order for the post colonial, new colonial world to thrive. Delving into the widespread gravitation towards yoga and interrogating the value of plant medicine, highlights the sidelining of Indigenous knowledge and practitioners. This violence conditions those on the margins to believe that in order to ‘be well’, one must be engaged in a wellness practice that is ‘civilised’, commodified and ultimately, colonised. 


To understand the need to decolonise an industry or market, one must first think about the notion of racial and gendered capitalism. Speaking to the hyper-exploitation of Black labour and culture, Cedric Robinson, Black Marxist theorist, coined the term racial capitalism to describe how capitalist society has relied on the invention of race, the marginalisation and dehumanisation of Black people. This concept can be extended to the way Indigenous people and their land have been treated as property and more generally, how non-White, ‘foreign’ and ‘exotic’ history has shaped mainstream culture. Considering gender, Silvia Federci writes “At the core of capitalism there is not only the symbiotic relation between waged contractual labor and enslavement but, ltogether with it, the dialectics of accumulation and destruction of labor-power, for which women have paid the highest cost, with their bodies, their work, their lives”. 


Put simply, capitalism is a socio-economic system that relies on sexism and racism to thrive. Holistic wellness cannot be achieved inside such a system.


Yoga is a prime example of how racial capitalism operates within the wellness industry. The widespread appropriation of yoga began in 1960s America as countercultures arose particularly in resistance to the US’s involvement in Vietnam. As collective consciousness arose, so too did interest in foreign practices that promoted ideals of loving kindness. Today, the yoga industry is valued at $80 billion and rapidly growing. Practitioners with access to resources and time spend hundreds of hours in training to become ‘yogis’ and establish studios with weekly memberships and branded yoga gear. The violence in the appropriation of yoga is two fold. When the actual practice of performing asanas does not accompany a deeper, intentional Ayurvedic understanding of cleansing and clearing energy, when it becomes purely about the body and not the mind or spirit, yoga is considered simply a form of exercise, erasing centuries of cultural knowledge and insight. An asana practice that is void of dharma teachings lack ethics and does not foster sustainable healing. But when packaged beautifully, when a trend, it sells and makes money. 


Additionally, a lack of historical awareness leaves western practitioners unable to scrutinise the inherent supremacy that was embedded into the proliferation of yoga. Throughout the history of Hinduism, yoga has been used by upper caste Brahmins to further isolate the Dalit community through the warping of dharma purity teachings. In India today, the practice is being used to spread Hindu nationalist and supremacist teachings. If practitioners are unable to acknowledge this history and Indigenous reality critically, the engagement in Western forms of yoga does not promote healthier societies but rather reaffirms the status quo and creates a dangerous dissonance.


Similarly, while the wellness industry boasts nutrition through the consumption of herbs and plants, mainstream relationships to Earth medicine must be altered to sustain holistic healing. Capitalist society has plundered the Earth and her resources for profit while herbalists and traditional Indigenous medicines are looked on with skepticism. Decolonising wellness centers the notion that the Earth cannot be claimed like property but is a living spirit. One’s relationship to the earth must be respected, honoured and prioritised. For many Black, Indigenous and People of Color, one’s connection to Earth is shaped by socioeconomic and political realities embedded into migration, displacement and colonisation. These realities impact not only how one relates to Earth, but what is considered sacred and how we see each other. Decolonising wellness involves moving away from a trillion dollar pharmaceutical symptoms based industry and towards a preventative, holistic Earth based medicine. Reclaiming this connection to Earth means letting go of the human ego, understanding that we are not separate from but one with nature, codependent on each other. 


At the start of the pandemic, a collective anxiety was in the air with folks unable to truly grasp the precarity, who while isolated began to see themselves for the first time. One has to wonder how a trillion dollar wellness industry is basing its success, if the mental and physical health of its people cannot be sustained throughout a crisis. 


The issue ultimately rests in capitalist consumption and belief that healing can be bought and sold. Sustainable healing practices only occur when the mind, body and spirit are equally cared for. The wellness industry’s position in the market automatically cancels out an ability to be truly spiritually healing as capitalism relies on exploitation. Decolonising the wellness industry means divesting from beautifully packaged self-care and investing in understanding one’s own nuanced needs, developing a community with local preventive healers who center individual healing as a pathway to societal transformation. It involves connecting with one’s ancestors to fully understand the historical implications of healing and refraining from adhering to the status quo. 


Decolonising wellness involves the facing of collective trauma to understand the ways in which we are absolved in systems of oppression. It may not always be regram worthy, and it will often be uncomfortable. In order to transmute collective suffering, society cannot dissociate from the pain with flashy marketing but instead must sit with it in order to transform it.


Prinita Thevarajah

Prinita Thevarajah (she/her) is a Tamil artist and educator working at the intersection of political education and socially engaged art, grounded in a pedagogy of hope and change. Drawing on experiences as a displaced settler and survivor navigating healing, unlearning conditioning and confronting white, caste and religious supremacy, Prinita is interested in expanding what is traditionally understood as ‘being well.’

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