Why do I believe that the yoga, wellness, and spiritual ‘world’ is really scary? And what, on earth, am I doing here?

I’ve been missing in action. Not only from writing, publicly, on my blog and on Instagram, but from the digital realms more broadly. I stopped using WhatsApp. Started leaving my phone in a drawer. I have made my screen time, beyond briefly checking in with friends and family, to be reserved solely for work.  

The reason why was initially very simple. I wanted to take a little time off to clear some clutter. Literally and figuratively. And that I have. 

Beyond that, though, I needed space to think about what the fuck I am doing with ‘this’. I love the universe I have crafted in how I present my yoga offer online. It is fun. It makes me happy. Me.



But what am I doing with the presentation of myself, in my magical and mystical kingdom of tigers and colour, as I call myself a yoga teacher and sit down every week to tell people how to breathe…?

What the fuck am I doing here? 

I believe in the value of stretching and breathing as a means to help regulate emotion and release stress and tension. 

Sharing tools I have learned, with humans who are walking a path through things like anxiety or addiction, or just modern life, is cool. 

I believe they do help and I believe that because: 

a. I believe that they help me 

and  

b. because what I teach, in essence, are simple embodiment practises that hopefully help us to become more aware of how our body (and mind) respond to emotional triggers and the environments that we find ourselves in. 

That’s it. I will not, now, make any claims beyond that. I hope I never have.

Such practises are studied scientifically and, broadly speaking (and not always entirely), considered in such study to be helpful. 

The mind–body connection exists. Our understanding of how they interact is not conclusive and new theory, thought, research and study emerges all the time. I read as widely as I can on what comes up, and I do my best to be well informed, but, essentially, all I have to offer is based on the simple premise that breathing consciously and stretching your body will help you soothe yourself. Repeating such actions regularly, when you notice you’re anxious, or notice you’re stressed, or just because you like them, can quite probably help in creating longer term change in how you feel. 

I bring in other practises I enjoy, like affirmation, and I have taken time recently to reflect more on the validity of that for me. In the personal, I enjoy and value them. The value of using them has been studied, relative to concepts such as their ability to activate the reward centres in your brain, and, by degree, shown to be interesting from a psychological perspective. In how I use and present them, and please say if you believe or have experienced otherwise, they are harmless and brought in as nothing more than another (optional) way we can consider our relationship to the present moment.

Whether I re-evaluate the role of affirmation in my classes or not, the core of what I do is breath and stretching based. 

How helpful is any of it? 

In therapy, through the NHS, diaphragmatic breathing was the thing that first worked well for me in extreme anxiety. To be able to share such practises is, when well boundaried, I hope, helpful. 



It helps quite a lot. That’s my informed opinion. Not as a cure for such states of being, but as something that can help us in supporting ourselves as we deal with them. 



What I have struggled with, though, what I have been surprised by, offended by, challenged by, and had to take time to reflect on my position with, is how absolutely ghastly and exploitative I believe the yoga, wellness and spirituality world to be. OK, hang fire… not entirely. But not only in the darkest corners, either. 

Some caveats to my fiery rant… 

As I have begun to put down more of my own safety states, working on things such as the courage to be disliked and a predisposition to endlessly fawning as a means to keep myself safe, a kinda fiery and feisty aspect of myself has been given permission (by me) to make itself known publicly. And if I am feisty about anything, right now, it is about this… 

…the yoga, spirituality and wellness world’s teachers, gurus and guides need to stop making unqualified claims, to vulnerable people, about what they are offering. They need to stop selling conscious lies, and more often notice and acknowledge where they have unconsciously misled.

They need to be held accountable. And more of us, from within this world, who can see, who know, that the emperor’s homeopathy tablets are as curative as Tangfastic Haribo, need to say so, more often, as he posts another nude selfie on Instagram, brandishing his oscillococinum tablets as a cure for Covid with the hashtags #healingjourney #vulnerablepost #linkinbio

Before I go on I would like to caveat what I want to say with the following: 

One: This whole topic is nuanced. Extremely so. I have no intention of pouring scorn on every single individual who creates a business, an income, or who finds community for themselves, in these realms. 

It would be extremely hypocritical if that were my position. I am ‘one of them’… I have been there, on both sides, as both an extremely eager (and, in my case, dysfunctional) thin, white, financially privileged, yoga student, sucked into the grandiose quest toward some kind of awakening or enlightenment, and as a teacher who, having invested hugely both financially and energetically, in training to share something I love, am working toward seeing if I can make it a career. It’s definitely not easy to do.

Two: The important and valuable line of enquiry on the appropriation and capitalisation of yoga as a practise is relevant to this topic. And is something I will write more on. For the purposes of today’s post I am considering the dangers of big promises, specifically, and whilst I acknowledge the privilege issue in this post, I am aware there is much more to be said. 

Three: I am not perfect. Loads of what I have done to this point is not what I would do now. I have said things that I wish I had not.

I have cited or quoted people I did not do my due diligence on, in terms of what those people stand for. I get things wrong. 

Four: I am also a marketer, by trade. And a good one. I know that using the fear and then soothing it is a marketing ploy used far beyond yoga and spirituality… and an effective one. Almost every time we decide to pay someone for something, as humans, it is based not just on need, but also emotions.

I find it distasteful in all realms to use fear to sell and, actually, more exploitative than ever in this one. 

The terror isn’t necessary…

I used to be the Digital Manager for a relatively large education publisher. When I took on the role, the marketers that were already in the team had learned from other arms of the publisher (one of those was sports science where marketing was often framed around avoiding injury, for example) that creating fear and anxiety sold. 

Our audience were education professionals, teachers, head teachers, governors, people who worked in special educational needs…

To scare them was pretty easy. New legislation came out all the time in their professional world, so we could hang marketing messages on that, for example. Ofsted was the enemy. Our expensive subscription newsletter, or book, or conference, could simplify endless, new, complex, information that they needed to know for the enemy to be kept at bay, their job security intact, their reputation safe. 

Early in my role, I did some in-depth analysis on the marketing messages that were best working. Those that were increasing engagement markers. It became apparent that, actually, the fear based model wasn’t the way to go. Indeed, after some initial testing, pretty quickly, we realised that our audience loved to be reminded of why they fell in love with being a teacher to begin with. About their passion for their role. About the joy of igniting a love of learning. Flipping our message, we made the business more profitable whilst making our roles within the field less offensive. 

I mention this as an example because the fear used in the yoga and wellness space is often particularly gross. 

Here, the offer is so often about love, care and belonging. So often about human stories of loss and trauma and vulnerability. Because here there is a huge amount of suffering, and, in that, a huge amount of opportunity for exploitation, boundary violation, and untruth. 

This world is almost entirely unregulated

Despite the government being supposedly  ‘out to get us’, huge numbers of people are signposted to things like yoga, mindfulness and meditation to support them on their path for all kinds of experiences ranging from mental health support to physical injury recovery, by services like the NHS. 

And, of course, most classes, in isolation, will be lovely. The teachers kind and well informed. But then, having had that positive experience, many move further into the spirituality and wellness world… led either by a teacher they meet or by the algorithms. And then, there, things can very quickly change. 

That is what happened to me. I went to classes called ‘Yoga For Health and Well-being’ as someone who had no real experience with the spiritual universe, wearing my running gear and in a vulnerable place emotionally. 

It was cool. It happened to be run by a Kundalini Yoga teacher. 

Less than two years later I was chanting Sikh mantra for hours a day, covering my head, speaking differently, dressing differently, obsessed by organic, crystals, oils and Malas. My mind was completely fucked up and my body was malnourished. This was confirmed after multiple investigations in hospital as to why I could suddenly feel many of the lymph nodes in my body and why my blood markers were off. I was nothing more than deathly thin as a result of not eating properly. Despite doing everything I was told to do to be happy, healthy and holy. 

Here, in these realms, when fear is used, it is exploitative, often, because what is being sold is so regularly a lie. And, in extremis, puts people at risk of harm. 

Trust is the enemy 

If you pay attention to the captions under posts and in emails that flood your inbox, very much of the spiritual and wellness offer relies on us to not trust our realities. And then on selling us an alternate one. 

Not trusting yourself and your reality is what anxiety is. So, to put that another way… 

Much of the spiritual and wellness offer relies, entirely, on creating anxiety and then soothing it for you. At a cost.  

A few examples I have seen today… 

Someone tells us that if we don’t deal with our karma now we will come back and play out the same stories with the same people again and again. “But if you pay me to work with you, through hypnotherapy, we can deal with all your past lives and you can live from here with the promise of an afterlife of bliss.”

Imagine telling that story to someone with a sex abuse history… if you don’t pay me for this you will be fated to play it all out again! 

Countless more suggest that the food supply is tainted. That what and how we eat is wrong. So, of course, the answer is to buy this organic, juice, detox. Or those supplements. Or to follow them through a ’30 Day Journey’ to some kind of digestive-holiness. 

The one that upsets me is the guru that tell us that western medicine is self-serving and out to get you. At some point, of course, you need to come to my seminar that will tell you how you can heal yourself with the power of your thoughts. 

In all cases, if you just do this, or buy that, or drink this, or take that supplement, or meditate this specific way, every day, for an ultra specific amount of time, you can create the agency that the distrust they have introduced you to, or shone a light on for you, removed. 

Some people, many people, really believe in what they sell. Be it essential oils or tarot readings or past life regression. And what’s wrong with that? 

I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. It can be lovely. My own belief system is unimportant in any of this, but I can see how very many of these practices are tools for being more present to the moment. I love oils. I like crystals. I even did a course in reading tarot cards. It becomes problematic when someone is harming others with it. By making false claims. When it is sold as fact with grandiose testimonials about healing cancer or curing COVID I begin to feel uncomfortable, and when it is sold in direct opposition, as an alternative, to known, scientifically studied, and regulated modes of treatment that are considered best practise (and, in the UK, with the NHS, largely free) I do get angry. 

The spiritual and wellness world very often creates distrust that takes any existing sense of agency away because ‘they’, those outside, are not telling you the truth (the government, the doctors, the lizard people etc.) 

… And, the wonderful thing is, If you do what they do instead, what they sell, you will not only save yourself but make yourself separate as part of a new gang of people who know ‘the truth’. 

It’s not always fear that is used. Sometimes it is love. Love Bombing. The promise of being a part of something special. Or of being special yourself. Sometimes it is more subtle forms of science denialism. Sometimes it is just utter insanity. Indeed, often it is that. 

Be a part of our community… 

It’s the sense of belonging to this new, ‘knowing’ community that is perhaps the most enticing aspect of all. Particularly over the last few years, as we were all ‘locked’ away. 

But the communities are so transient and, in my view, usually fake. 

Yoga communities, in particular, are insanely fragile in terms of holding shared values. 

Many of us may be aware of the term ‘spiritual butterfly…’ the ’seeker’ who flaps their sparkly wings from one guru to the next, to uncurl their magical proboscis and drink enough sweet nectar from each to satisfy their need for one specific type of ‘healing modality’, before taking flight down the Spiritual-Bypass to elegantly land at the lotus feet of the next. 

If you do a teacher training, a retreat, a workshop, you can meet interesting people and can come to ‘love each other’ or be ‘family’ through bonding experiences and powerful practices that make you feel… well, high. This does create, initially, a sense of community. 

Cacao and Crying 

But the industry, the field, is largely about the personal. However much it loves the word community. We sign up for a workshop about dealing with our ‘shadow side’ and we feel we have made some big leap during it because of all it stirs up, but when the group bonding experience of cacao and crying has become a distant memory, and we sit with all the unresolved shit and behaviour we will do anything to not really think about, we don’t seek out a trained therapist but, instead, scan the crowded room of the wellness space for the next guru with the next big promise on the latest buzz phrase. 

Along the way, many will now talk about their experiences of their life and emotions in a completely open way online. The wellness, yoga or spiritual Instagram feed has widely become about oversharing. As an aside, I question how healthy this is. Social media has really changed the way we think about our private information, and how we negotiate our own privacy boundaries is important but very, very, easy to become unconscious of.

Terror, disgust, sadness, frustration and distrust, it can seem, are not emotions to regulate but something to use to help sell the story we all love from our gurus in 2022 of ‘I’m human too… look at this picture of me crying.’ 

In my opinion, there is a danger, a real danger, in gurus who paint themselves as the gal pal next door. With them we develop curious para-social relationships that feel safe and feel personal… they really can feel real. So when they tell us that they can help us in overcoming experiences that range from sexual abuse to suicidal ideation on retreat, with them, for thousands of pounds, we feel we can trust them because they, through our eyes, are a friend. 

Today I saw the offer of a retreat that was sold as being for such things, for those with stories of trauma, abuse, depression… the facilitator’s qualifications were a 220 hour yoga teacher training and a degree in Media Studies.  This, in my opinion, is not right. The extremes of human suffering, to explore them, to say you can work with them to heal the other, it is to invite the other to be extremely vulnerable. And if you do not have the training nor the supervision to do so, it feels, to me, a dangerous and scary thing.

Is it all about the money?

The humility inherent, and the self-reflection required, to be in this world and not take any kind of a guru position, or make big claims, as a teacher, is a thing. A job. An effort. 

You have to hold yourself accountable. Because no one else will. The world of yoga is almost entirely unregulated. Unsupervised. And, as more and more mainstream sources signpost those in suffering to things like yoga and meditation, the seduction of positioning oneself as a hero or saviour can be alluring. And I think it can be done unconsciously, in trying to help, in doing what is asked of you. At least initially.

People often want you to tell them what to do. 

People ask me… 

…for meditations for their depression

…for a ‘Kriya’ to help them through toxic divorce

They ask me about awakening their Kundalini and they ask me about healing their trauma. 

Me! A self proclaimed maniac who spent 36 years in constant anxiety, who once chanted appropriated mantra for an hour in her shed to a dead pigeon she felt compelled to ‘help’ pass over, and, having woken up to how cultish my thoughts and life were, now spends much of her time doing laundry and wandering up and down a busy polluted road in a West Midlands suburb to ‘hunter gather’ Wotsits from the local Sainsburys for my insatiable offspring, 

I will never give you an answer. But I can see, have felt, how easy it would be to do so. Not because you think you’re a saviour, but because we are so programmed to be amenable, helpful, friendly. And I want to be friendly, generous, kind. I do. But it’s about having edges. Clear boundaries. A line. The reflection, always, on if a question would be better suited to a mental health professional or a doctor instead.

I will never be your guru, soz

If you have depression, go to your doctor. Any breath based meditation (which is the only kind I teach), and you will find millions on Google, could potentially help you feel softer and more present. But none, in my opinion, will ‘heal’ you. 

To take this stance, for me, is a vow… I will never, ever, tell you what you should do about anything … beyond the remit of using my training (which was excellent) to offer ways of approaching a specific yoga posture or breath comfortably… and even then with the caveat that you know your own body best and if you have a health issue, to check with your doctor about what is appropriate for you and what is not. 

I will never, ever, be your guru. It is hilarious to me to consider anyone would want to make me one. But just in case… that’s my edge. I’m not for you. 

Abusive?  

There is a loop, for the western guru, between scaring (or creating distrust) and then consoling people… which is similar, I believe, to abuse cycles. 

It appeals so much to those who already lean toward not trusting themselves and their reality, to anxiety, because of their trauma history. And if you look around in wellness and spirituality, it is filled, overflowing, with people with a trauma history. 

It is all built around privilege and entitlement too. You have to have a certain amount of privilege to fully engage. Wellness is expensive. Spirituality has a price tag. It is all largely able bodied. Largely straight. Largely white. Largely thin. To be able to feel ‘part of’ the world is a privilege. To be able to afford to go along with what they sell is a privilege too. 

On each individual quest for spiritual enlightenment there seems to be some tie to a really weird concept of manifesting success and purity, where wealth and health is a reflection of our spiritual accomplishments. 

With their manifested wealth (I do often wonder where all the money comes from) people keep going on, and putting on, more and more workshops and trainings, diversifying what they offer into ever increasingly questionable territory (the ‘childhood trauma’ realms are such a territory that makes me uncomfortable when not coming from someone with appropriate training and supervision) as a means to keep the machine going. 

The work is never done

It seems that to be a yoga, meditation or mindfulness teacher is never enough any more. The payoff of all that fluttering around the spiritual bypass is that you can tack on all kinds of additional labels to do with healing and guiding, releasing trauma, and holding space. 

Be fucking accountable…

I will go back again to the word accountability. Where is the accountability in any of this? No one is looking out for the vulnerable person on a mental health journey who starts at yoga and is quickly being sold the promise of being healed from trauma by those with no appropriate qualifications and no regulatory body.

It terrifies me. And I am not at all hesitant to admit that. And I wish more yoga teachers, and others from related fields, were held accountable through measures such as supervision.

As a teacher I am supervised. Once per fortnight I meet with my supervisor and I hold myself accountable as a teacher. We may take a look at why my classes aren’t as diverse as I would hope, (I once pondered why I never had men in class, only to say in the next sentence that I feel terrified when they appear!) We may discuss the times I felt uncomfortable with something I said in class, we may discuss something I did that, on reflection, was a marker for my boundaries needing more work. It may be that I have hit uncomfortable feelings about the projections put on me. It may be that I sent out a marketing message that, on reflection, didn’t sit well with the ethos of who I aim to be as a teacher. 

This, to me, is invaluable. My supervisor will challenge my thinking, notice aspects in what I say, the stories I tell, that I would not. And they can help me put in place edges and boundaries in my role that help me keep myself and others safe. 

But this is not something widely offered in yoga. I am lucky to have trained with someone who knew, and felt passionate about, the value and importance of supervision, who had spent decades in the field of yoga and knew that yoga teachers should be supervised because a. as I said, they have spent decades in the field so they know what it is like and b. because it is fundamental to their own role as a therapist. 

Supervision was put in place for us from day one. I wish it was in place across the board. 

I do prefer science

As I mentioned at the start of this post, many scientific studies do support, by degree, the mental and physical benefits of things like yoga, pranayama, mindfulness or meditation. 

And some don’t. 

How do you feel, if you are someone who is certain of your own experience of the benefits, by the statement ‘and some don’t’? 

It is interesting to notice. 

I believe this is a cool thing. 

Whilst those who choose to separate the scientific from the spiritual may retort that science is just ‘catching up with’ what yogis have known all along (I have used that line myself!) when a supportive study comes out, or be horrified by claims that something they have experienced as beneficial is not backed up by what scientists suggest from study or research… and claim “big pharma don’t want you to know…”

Consider flipping that thinking into how important it is that this research and study is happening and that the scientists are open minded enough and curious enough to study it and then test the findings of that study again. 

Scientists, researchers, and those who approach the world with a scientific ethos, test thoughts, claims, and beliefs in a quantitative or qualitative way, always acknowledging, as they do, margins for error. 

Such study can get to a place where the probability of something being the truth is so high that, until new information emerges, science may not be too concerned with a certain topic for a time. They are not debating or studying, right now, if birds have wings, for example… nor, because it does, if Covid exists. Despite this, science always leaves room for new ways of thinking and new ways to look at reality.

The scientific ethos is actually a commitment to values that are extremely open minded. About not wanting to be immovably certain of one’s own view but taking any view, hypotheses, and testing it against nature. 

Science can be thought of as a field with enormous humility. It is so much about cooperation. Supervision. Peer review. About collaboration, about working with others to test thinking and notice blind spots. Science isn’t about proof and certainly, despite many thinking of it in this way. It is not about being perfect and infallible. And it is highly competitive. If someone is making a grandiose claim you can be certain, extremely certain, that other scientists are testing that claim, and putting forward alternate possibilities that could challenge it.

Take the example I mentioned at the start of this post with our Homeopath Emperor… someone could say that science dismisses homeopathy… or they could consider that researchers were able to study 1800 (!) papers that explored the validity of the health claims made on their effectiveness before concluding “…there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.”

Leaving room for doubt…

We should all, always, leave room for doubt. 

Like I said, it’s not that is see everything in western spirituality and wellness as ‘bad’ or that I want to make you think that it is all a load of bullshit. It’s really not. I love loads of it myself. What I do believe is that with any big claims made, there should always be room for doubt. And there should always be accountability. 

Uncertainty is a strength and not a weakness of science because it keeps the field open minded. 

Too often, the yoga, spiritual, wellness, fields, those who sell within them, are too certain of themselves and the claims that they make.

Too often, anyone who questions the validity of grandiose claims in the spiritual world is called a sheep or a blue pill or not ‘open minded’. 

To be open minded is not about the total abandonment of critical thinking to accept outlandish health and wellness claims with no due diligence done on ways in which those claims have been backed up in any meaningful way. To be open minded is not about never calling unregulated products into question. To be open minded is not to always have to choose the unpopular, or little known, alternative.

I truly hope that I am open minded as a teacher. But I am extremely open to hearing I am not. I would adore for a scientifically minded person to come to class and tell me where I may be miss representing something, in the role specific hormones or neurotransmitters are at play in our stress system, in how I explain the mechanisms in our body and mind we are playing with as we work through the things I do share. I would adore it. And I would use it as a springboard for challenging myself to learn more and look again at what I say or had come to believe.

Curiously, though, that has never happened to me. What does happen, instead, is that I am questioned on what is not in what I say. On why I don’t make certain claims. What does happen is that yet another email lands in my inbox, suggesting the reason I feel cold in my drafty Victorian House in January, which I mentioned in passing in class, is likely a hormone imbalance that they could sell me a supplement for (no thanks). Or challenging me about why I didn’t mention the New Moon in class last week and why I have nothing currently listed in the form of workshops or circles to mark a ‘Lion’s Gate Portal’ opening… 

… the answer to that is simple, my friend. 

It is because I am not interested in it. Not at all. And there is no logical reason why I should be. To pretend to be interested would be (and has been… I have done it) a lie. But, hey, if that’s what you want? There may just be one or two others you can find over there. 

I reach the end of this gargantuan post, in which I have managed to articulate only a small fraction of what I want to say, wondering how best to close. 

All I can think, right now, to say is this… 

I may not be the teacher for you

As I said at the start of this post, I don’t get it perfect. I haven’t got it perfect to here. 

I look at my own homepage and am itching to make edits. Itching to make change. Itching to challenge my own claims. 

Because, although this reflection is not new, for me, what is new is my willingness to truly make my position clear and stop being scared of alienating others in being louder in explaining it. 

I am committed to being open about the limits of who I am, what I offer, and how it can help. 

I am extremely happy to be the wrong teacher for you. 

And, at the risk of over-sharing in the realms of my emotional landscape right now, I have had a some sleepless nights lately, wondering if I should step away from it all. 

‘Is it worth it?’ 

‘By being a yoga teacher at all do I just feed this terrifying machine?’ 

Who I am as a teacher today? That is a question that was asked of me in supervision. It is the only question pertinent to my role in this world that I need the answer for, today. 

I am a kind teacher. I am a fun one, I hope. I am an educated teacher. And, here’s MY big claim, I am a teacher who can commit to never knowingly selling you a lie. 

I enjoy teaching, I enjoy the chats we have before class, I enjoy posting you the cards I make and I enjoy all the artwork and writing too. 

For now, what I said at the start is what I have, and it is enough.

Sharing tools I have learned, with humans who are walking a path through things like anxiety or addiction, or just modern life, is cool. 

I believe they do help. 

If you want to come to a class with me, you can see what you think (and challenge what I think!) for yourself. But no pressure. I am really nothing special at all. And you know what? I think that’s the best thing about me!

Thank you for reading my post and if you have comments to make I’d love to read them. You can also email me.

With huge love

Sara-Jayne xxx

 

 

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