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How wellness became a secular new age religion

With religion in decline in the west, how are young people of today getting their spirituality fix? Enter the cult of wellness.

As reports that religion is declining in the west continue we are witnessing the profound rise of wellness adopting many of the same codes and cues of traditional faiths. From fitness to active nutrition to sleep, wellness offers something for everyone, successfully seducing its consumers by promising us happier, healthier and more fulfilled lives. While wellness seems somewhat superficial and nonsensical, it is in fact very serious business. The global wellness industry is estimated at $3.7 trillion. Critics are quick to call out the cult of wellness for its lack of scientific rigour and self-care jargon, but having spent my early twenties subsumed in this tribe, I think they are wrong to judge so quickly. I believe there is a more nuanced reason the West has so willingly adopted the wellness way of life. With exercise as a form of religious ritual and juice detoxes as kind of ascetic self-mortification, wellness offers us the sense of belonging that traditional religion once did, nourishing our deeper human yearnings for spiritual transcendence. As Jenai Engelhard notes, in 2018 “we fast to cleanse our cells, not our souls.” Wellness has become a kind of secular, new age religion.

While the reasons for young people rejecting traditional forms of religion remain largely unclear, I suspect this has something to do with The Great Awokening and the rise of identity politics. The traditionally conservative values of older religions no longer align with the ideology of left-leaning gen Z and young millennials. Just like politics and economics, religion is understood to be what anthropologists call a “social fact” - a social structure that is present in all cultures. In the absence of traditional forms of religion, where are the youth of today getting their religious kick? I believe the answer lies in Soul Cycle and green smoothies.

Loosely defined as “the state of being in good health, especially as an actively pursued goal” wellness refers to a holistic approach to healthy living, characterised by physical, mental and social well being. While many things have contributed to the rise of wellness, one notable shift is that millennials are far more lifestyle-focused. According to Eventbrite data, 78 percent claim to spend more on experiences than buying physical goods. Just like religious life, which emphasizes the importance of the religious experience – sermons, pilgrimage and prayer – the wellness economy sells us aspirational lifestyles characterized by similar kinds of individual and communal experiences. From morning meditations to Bootcamp classes and yoga retreats, the purchase of wellness promises a healthier, more meaningful and beautiful life.

"In the cult of wellness, the body is considered sacred and must avoid contamination at all costs"

I too found myself unable to resist the allure of wellness during my early twenties. Joining the cult of Barry’s Bootcamp at the tender age of 22, I (like many) first tried the workout because of the promise of a beautiful brand new body. All of the Bootcamp trainers look like supermodels and unfortunately with a history of body dysmorphia I was willing to go to extreme lengths to improve my own body. Within a few classes though, I was hypnotised by the ritualistic experience: this was no longer about being thin. I was compelled by the discipline and rigour required during the workout and found the after-class adrenaline transcending me to a realm of feel-good endorphins. I’d leave class sipping on my dairy-free protein shake in hand, feeling a sense of purity and virtue, convinced I had found my people.

In an Instagram-obsessed world, we are increasingly defining ourselves through our physical existence. Whether a body positive warrior, a beauty blogger or fitness instructor, the largely visual nature of the internet means we are made into our own marketing machines, defined by our own self-image. While some are going to extreme lengths to modify themselves with injectables and surgical procedures, many are choosing more holistic means, worshipping at the altar of wellness, and using the body as a space of spiritual transformation.

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that religion underpins society, organising our social lives through a dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. In the cult of wellness, the body is considered sacred and must avoid contamination at all costs. This is achieved through the abstinence of foods, drinks or practices deemed ‘toxic’, consuming only what is perceived to be ‘clean’ as well as performing a series of rituals onto the body as purification techniques.

At Barry’s Bootcamp the body is negotiated through diet and exercise, spoken about as a subject that is ‘done to’. The logic follows that bodies can be created (nurture not nature) and the ‘good’ ones are made at Bootcamp. Barry’s bodies are of course sacred bodies; disciplined at Bootcamp, they must adhere to very strict dietary regimes outside of class hours and avoid any kind of risk of pollution.

As a 60-minute high-intensity interval training workout, Barry’s is physically gruelling and not for the faint-hearted. “I’m not going to take anyone off the streets and push them to their limits,” one trainer told me. While I’ve exercised regularly my whole life, I struggled through each class and on the worse days I’d give up or leave early. The highly ritualistic nature of the class means the decision to leave class comes with much guilt. “We are all in this together” is shouted throughout the duration of the workout, and at the toughest points, one particular trainer would ask “what would Jesus do?” reminding us this is our “Sunday service”, our time for meditation and reflection. Leaving class early or cheating during sprints is considered sinful; with no time for confession or redemption, you are left publicly shamed in front of the congregation.

I remain mildly traumatised by the time I walked, rather than ran during a sprint “do you not think we all want to walk at 3, darling?” the trainer screeched at me “the hustle is real, fucking turn it up to 5.” While on reflection, the public shaming of this event was horrendous, it did encourage me to work harder and I often reminisce on these punitive yet rather comical words when I am approaching tough moments in life.

Those individuals who sprint the hardest and eat the cleanest are celebrated for their dedication, because after all, as one trainer explained to me “if you can’t run your mind or body, how are you going to run a Fortune 500 company?” Discipline at Bootcamp is thus symbolic of one’s ability to be a valuable contribution to the world, and this diligence endows you with a higher sense of moral worth among the Gods of wellness.

"Much like in the moral community that is a church, Barry’s Bootcamp emphasized the importance of this collective experience as a key factor in what makes this workout so special"

Much like in the moral community that is a church, Barry’s Bootcamp emphasized the importance of this collective experience as a key factor in what makes this workout so special. “You are pushed far beyond what you would achieve on your own and therefore, you reach higher levels of heart rate, core temperature and muscle fatigue,” the trainers explained. Anyone who has been to a SoulCycle or similar style class is all too familiar with the feelings of euphoria you experience once the endorphins kick in. From the lights to the music to the 40 people moving in sync, Bootcampers experience "collective effervescence", a term Durkheim used to describe the emotionality of the religious experience. It is the joyful intoxication of togetherness that makes you feel deeply connected to others.

The high priests of wellness watch over us all the time. As you enter the central London studio “Barry wants you” is written above the door; hailing in totalitarian spirit with an omnipotent force. Religiosity does not begin and end in the church, and it is the same for wellness. The famed 80/20 rule teaches us optimal physical health results from 80% diet and just 20% exercise. While sacred bodies are indeed sculpted at Bootcamp there are several cleansing practices which must take place outside class. The fundamental detoxification practices include eating “clean” which means avoiding toxicity - gluten, dairy and sugar as well as abstaining from drugs and alcohol. These practices are coded in religiosity; the meal prep akin to prayer, the denial of appetite akin to fasting and the weekend ‘cheat meal’ symbolic of feasting.

Of course, there is very little scientific evidence to suggest clean-eating is preferable or indeed healthy (as the recent Goop fact-checking incident highlights) but Bootcampers and Wellness Warriors follow this dietary advice obsessionally, regardless. You might be thinking this is nonsensical and irrational, but this goes to the very heart of religious practices. From belief in inanimate objects to transcendent Gods, by its very nature religion lacks scientific rigour existing instead within its own taxonomy of rules and rituals. While people are quick to critique, proclaiming wellness as superficial and fatuous, it’s important to look beyond the surface. In an increasingly polarised and fraught world, young people are searching for belonging and meaning. As I learnt by joining the cult myself, the wellness community is helping to guide us through confused times, perhaps in the way religion once did.