“Who is Wellness For?: An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who It Leaves Behind” is a memoir by Fariha Róisín, an acclaimed poet and novelist who identifies as a queer Bangladeshi Muslim. Róisín suffered abuse throughout her childhood. When she sought healing in meditation and yoga, she found herself traumatized again by the commodification of South Asian practices marketed as wellness. These experiences led her to explore the role of colonization and capitalism in the wellness industry.
The descriptions of Róisín’s childhood will be triggering for some readers. Her mother was demeaning, sexually abusive and violent. “I was scared my mother might kill me in my sleep,” Róisín writes.
In her family, Róisín played two roles, both almost equally damaging. She was the object of her mother’s abuse and also the family member expected to comfort her mother. Her father was emotionally absent and intervened only in extreme situations, such as when her mother threatened Róisín and her sister with a knife.
Róisín felt isolated throughout her childhood and teen years. She longed for closeness with her peers. At age 14, she shared thoughts of suicide with a group of girls at her school. “When the bell rang for class, everyone got up like I had done a presentation and walked away. No one talked to me about it again.”
Even when she told a school counselor about her mother’s abuse, Róisín found no support. When the counselor brought her father in for a meeting, Róisín relates that she was uncomfortable speaking and “undermined” herself. Sadly, the counselor does not appear to have followed up in any way that helped.
As a young adult, Róisín moved from Australia to Canada. Geographical distance was one step toward healing. Róisín worked with a therapist and came to understand that many of the problems she had with relationships were related to her abusive home life.
When Róisín turned to the healing modalities of her South Asian heritage, she felt traumatized in a new way. “It deeply concerns me that whiteness and capitalism have co-opted wellness, relegating caring for oneself as a privilege when wellness should be for all.” Wellness should not belong only to the rich. “Who deserves rest and relaxation? If we say those who work the hardest jobs—such as laborers, teachers or civil servants—that would make sense, but that’s not the reality,” she writes.
Meditation, separated from its roots as a South Asian spiritual practice, has become a lucrative commodity in the West. She notes that the annual revenue for the app Headspace is estimated at $50 million. Repackaging a spiritual practice is “another way the West gets a claim on its colonies, stealing not only resources, but filling museums with looted goods, books with stolen information.”
When the British colonized India, they relegated yoga into a practice palatable to their own sensibilities. They valued the meditative Hinduism favored by the upper caste and wealthy, while banning wandering yogis, who were associated with the poor and lower castes.
Currently, yoga in the West is dominated by white practitioners. “When I lived in Montreal, I volunteered at a white-owned yoga studio. I can’t remember encountering one South Asian person in a class in the years I worked there,” Róisín recalls.
The tradition of yoga encompasses meditation, self-study and other disciplines, but, in the West, yoga has often become equated with thinness and fitness. Róisín recalls a white teacher critiquing her body during a yoga class. “She approached me and poked my belly. ‘You have a weak core,’ she told me coldly. ‘I know,’ I said, embarrassed. That was it. She had no advice, no help—she decided it was completely normal to target the one South Asian (let alone only Brown) person and humiliate them rather than give constructive feedback.”
Róisín urges white teachers in the West to take an inclusive approach to yoga. “All Black, Indigenous, and other people of color deserve your respect and humanity.”
Furthermore, she proposes that the Western yoga industry give back to the communities that have been depleted by colonization. “If you are a white person who profits off yoga, what we need now is your action, your commitment.” She advocates for white yoga teachers to donate at least one quarter of their earnings to organizations that support Indian farmers, land, water and culture.
In the end, despite her dispiriting encounters with the wellness industry, Róisín finds ways to approach healing from trauma that work for her. “To love yourself when others have loved you so poorly is a reminder that anything can be shifted into something meaningful.” One place she finds solace is in nature. “My gratitude for this Earth is endless. What a privilege it is to be with her in this lifetime and to have her guidance and care.”
Can wellness be affordable?
Yes, if you look for it. While some private studios in Seattle charge $22 or more per yoga class, free and low-cost options are out there.
Free yoga and meditation classes in Seattle
Eventbrite and Meetup websites list free yoga and meditation classes in the Seattle area.
Seattle Parks and Rec
Find yoga classes for less than $10 per class at community centers throughout the city. Scholarships are available.
If you’re familiar with or, especially, if you practice the Westernized version of yoga, consider widening your understanding of the historical practice.
Take classes with South Asian yoga teachers
Tejal Yoga studio (tejalyoga.com) is founded on the principle of diverse representation for all people of color in yoga. Its offerings are inclusive and accessible for all body types, income and experience levels. Free yoga and meditation classes are also available on the Tejal Yoga youtube channel.
Read about yoga’s history
Learn about the origins of yoga in “Embrace Yoga's Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice” by Susanna Barkataki. The e-book is available at Seattle Public Library.
The e-book “Original Godmothers of Yoga” tells the stories of South Asian women from a variety of regions, backgrounds and points in history and aims to bring these “Original Godmothers” the global recognition they deserve.
Listen to podcasts that critique the yoga industry
“Yoga Is Dead” discusses the current state of yoga in the United States with episodes including “Vinyasa Killed Yoga” and “White Women Killed Yoga.” Find more at yogaisdeadpodcast.com.
Read more of the Sept. 14-20, 2022 issue.