This is something I’ve wanted to write about for a little while now. Over the past five years we’ve seen an explosion in the ‘wellness’ scene in the UK – something that was pretty much inevitable given the ‘wellness’ industries that have sprung up in cities like LA and Sydney during the last decade. And so, better late than never, the glossy world of wellness arrived on our shores. And that can only be a good thing, right?
Well… yes and no. Given the skyrocketing levels of chronic disease and mental illness across the globe something certainly needs to be done to address this issue. But, from where I’m standing, the world of wellness is a little off centre at the moment. As legitimate science and good intentions become increasingly subverted by vested interests and corporate business, the question arises: is it time we put down our green juices and reconsider the way we view ‘wellness’?
The Wellness Explosion
The global wellness sector is now worth an eye watering $3.7 trillion (making it nearly three times larger than the $1 trillion worldwide pharmaceutical industry) – and it’s forecasted to keep rising. However, it wasn’t always this way. One of the most striking things about the wellness landscape today is how little-known practices that would have been considered way ‘out there’ five years ago, are now some of the hottest mainstream trends – the word ‘trend’ being key here. Whilst the idea of ‘wellness’ started off from humble, hippie beginnings it has slowly morphed into its current, relatively superficial incarnation (think £150 yoga leggings, £8 juices, £20 yoga classes etc). It is a huge shame because at its core, the idea of wellness is revolutionary – it just seems to have lost its way.
In order to truly get to grips with the concept of wellness – and how it can and should be supporting people (of all economic backgrounds) – we need to go back to its roots.
The Origin Of ‘Wellness’
Original wellness concepts can be found deep in history, over thousands of years ago. Traditional Eastern medicine (e.g. Indian Ayurveda) respected and aimed for balance of human body, mind and spirit and perceived human health from a holistic perspective. These traditional healthcare systems emphasised lifestyle choices – nutrition, physical activity, sleep, moderation, development of positive thoughts and emotions through prayer or meditation. It all sounds incredibly familiar, right?
Yet it took a while for these ancient ideas to cross over into modern, western society. It all started with an American doctor by the name of Dr Halbert L. Dunn who first published a book called ‘High-Level Wellness‘ back in 1961. Whilst the book received little attention at first, his ideas on mind, body and spirit were later popularised by doctors like Dr John Travis in the 1970’s. Dr Travis essentially caused a revolution in the concept of health: thinking beyond traditional medicine’s more reactive, illness-centered model, to pioneer new concepts based on self-responsibility, where the goal was a more comprehensive ‘total wellness’ of body, mind, emotions and spirit. Go Dr Travis!!!
Wellness: In A Nutshell
So, just to recap….
Wellness is basically just the opposite end of the spectrum from illness – not only the absence of illness, but the opposite altogether. Where illness is typified as an element of the body or mind not functioning properly, wellness is those elements of body or mind functioning to their optimum level. If you put sickness at one end of the spectrum and wellness at the other, ‘normalness’ would sit in the middle – not ill, but not thriving. And we all want to thrive, right?
The Problem With The Current Wellness Industry
I recently watched a documentary in which Dr Travis was interviewed and I felt as though he was expressing my exact thoughts on the wellness industry. He said in the nearly four decades of activism and authorship on the subject of wellness, he has seen the term go from being a positive, holistic, all-encompassing idea, to one that has been hijacked by corporate greed. He highlighted that you can’t really package and sell wellness – instead it’s a concept that you need to learn about and grow within.
The Elite World Of Wellness
Sadly we seem to be increasingly crafting a wellness industry that caters for the top 1% of the population. Although wellness is, in theory, accessible to all (think going for a run outside in nature, yoga at home using free online classes, free meditation apps, healthy simple home-cooked food etc), this isn’t “sexy” wellness so it doesn’t get much coverage in the media. Instead healthy living has become a status symbol, with consumers opting to flaunt their passion for wellness through boutique fitness classes, increasingly expensive ‘athleisure’ clothing, exotic ‘superfoods’, and five star health and wellness holidays.
I’ll give you an example of something I’ve personally witnessed…
The hospital I visit every few weeks is in a swanky part of London (an area I wouldn’t visit otherwise). Between my blood tests and my treatment I generally have a few hours to kill so I often head off to explore the area. In the few years I’ve been lurking amongst the glossy blondes and loafers/jeans brigade, I’ve witnessed a growing number of healthy cafes and ‘wellness centres’ (posh gyms). And because I’m nosey (and I’m a sucker for the original concept of ‘wellness’), I’ve poked my head into most of these new places. Yet I’ve never stayed more than a few minutes. This is primarily because I can’t afford to lurk for too long (well I guess I could but the idea of splashing out £15 on a slice of avocado on toast makes me like a total mug), but also because I genuinely feel a bit uncomfortable – it all just feels a little bit too fake and inauthentic. I popped into one particular wellness centre near my hospital recently (to enquire how much a drop-in yoga class would be), only to be told it was members only – and membership started at £150 a month. £150!!!!! WTF! What are they doing to people in there??
Better ‘Wellness’ For All
One of the key themes within Dr Travis’ ‘wellness’ concept was the idea of interconnectedness and wellness for all. Sadly the wellness industry has become so focused on making money that it doesn’t seem to consider the bigger picture – the way in which our nation is becoming increasingly unwell with rising chronic illness and mental health problems. The wellness industry is uniquely positioned to play a critical role in leading efforts to ensure that people worldwide have access to the best services, products, and information that promote health and wellbeing – but it needs to become more accessible for all. And we can all play a part in this. It’s not OK that we have become so focused on the “self” that we’ve lost the ability to look sideways and see how our neighbour is doing.
The Future: Heart-Centred Wellness
Fortunately there are an increasing number of ‘wellness’ social enterprises which have emerged to give to back to their local communities – and plenty of yoga studios now also offer a concessions rate for ‘community’ classes. Rather than focusing solely on profit, we need to bring more wellness to people that can’t currently afford it. After all, wellness advice hasn’t really changed that much over the years – it still comes down to eating well, sleeping well, resting well, moving well, and supporting each other – and these things should be made available to everyone. Ultimately we need to reclaim wellness from the tightening grip of big business and turn it into the act of empowerment it once was.