More Ways to Be Well

diversity in wellbeing

Wellbeing is pretty simple. It’s the experience of feeling healthy, happy and safe. But in a world where many of us barely feel one of those things at a time, let alone all three in conjunction, the quest for wellbeing has created a $4.2trillion industry.

There are huge benefits to our increasing interest in looking after our wellbeing. Health and specialist foods are more readily available than ever before and companies are innovating in order to help us be well; we can now seek treatment from therapists without leaving our homes, exercise with top trainers through live video, learn to meditate with an app and have healthy ingredients delivered to our door complete with recipe and cooking instructions.

But as the wellness space becomes more and more commodified, it leaves people behind – in more ways than one. The dangers of making wellness elite by putting huge price tabs on things like boutique gyms, yoga studios, even the humble smoothie, to name a few, are obvious. Important, but already well understood. And cost isn’t the only barrier to making wellness more accessible. Diversity in the space is also often discussed – but we don’t only need to make the image of wellness more diverse. We also need more diverse wellness practices in the mainstream.

Wellness Personalities

The combination of social media, a growing mistrust of corporations and our love for a proverbial ‘rags to riches’ story has caused an explosion of wellness stars who look different to the experts of yesteryear.

There’s surely some good in the fact that our favourite celebs, sorry influencers, of today are more likely to be juicing than binge drinking, and endorsing yoga pants instead of (ahem) carbonated ‘fruit’ drinks. But the wellness industry faces the same diversity problem that has been ever present in the Western mainstream. The top Wellness Personalities telling us what to eat, how to exercise, how to change our thoughts and how to connect to God / the universe / source are overwhelmingly white with a slim build and conventional good looks. The saying goes ‘you need to see it to be it’ so how can the rest of us be well if we don’t see versions of ourselves sharing their expert knowledge?

Of course, this is changing, and there are some amazing personalities like Jessamyn Stanley, Sahara Rose, Shaman Durek and Kelechi Okafor sharing life-changing wisdom which is accessible to all – and will especially help those who may not have seen people who ‘look like’ them sharing this kind of wisdom in the public sphere before.

The amazing Jessamyn Stanley ♥️ Photo credit: Instagram – @mynameisjessamyn

But the diversity problem isn’t only with insta-famous and the Amazon Bestsellers. Wellness Personalities also includes the teachers at your local yoga studio, the trainers at your gym, the massage therapists and the health food store owners. Walk into any of these wellbeing and alternative health spaces in the UK (I can’t speak for other countries but I’m willing to bet this is the case across Europe and parts of the US) and not only will the clientele not be diverse, but neither will those leading the classes, making the products, sharing information etc.

Many wellness practices feel inaccessible to people because they see who is teaching, promoting, and consuming them and think 'must not be for me'. Click To Tweet

Why is this important? Because of access. Many of these wellness practices feel inaccessible to people because they see who is teaching, promoting, and consuming them and think it must not be for them. As a built black man, if you walk into a yoga studio full of white women, you may not feel entirely at home. As a plus size Asian woman, a visit to a wellness festival run by and attended by almost exclusively white, slim men and women, you may not be wanting to return in a hurry. It’s not that anyone has done anything wrong – it’s just that you will instantly feel ‘othered’ simply by being you. And that’s in the best case scenario. In the worst case scenario, the organiser or a fellow customer may ‘other’ you with their words or actions. Staring at you as if you don’t belong, assuming you’ve never practiced yoga before, assuming you know everything about yoga because you’re Indian, telling you your English is really good…the list goes on.

This is the experience of those who venture into the wellness space. But there are so many who never even make it to the front door. Because through marketing images, marketing language or even just walking past the space, they can already see that it’s ‘not for them’. And this is a huge shame. There are people missing out on knowledge and practices that could have profound health benefits because there are not diverse enough spaces and voices to entice them. This is exactly why myself and 2 other yogis started Looks Like Yoga – a space for yogis of all levels (and all backgrounds) to come and practice in a diverse, judgement-free environment, taught by yogis of colour. The response has shown us just how needed these kinds of spaces are – we need to make wellness more accessible by having more diverse Wellness Personalities. Whether that’s yoga studios having more plus size, non-white and LGBTQ teachers, or wellness magazines publishing stories and writing from more diverse voices, it’s essential – and also really easy to do if it’s important to you. The experts / teachers are already there, they just need a platform.

Wellness Practices

A less talked about barrier to wellness for many is the lack of diversity in Wellness Practices. Ironically, considering the whitewashing of the wellness industry, most of the popular practices are from the East. Though most ancient cultures practiced a version of meditation, the styles which are most popular in the West today are closely related to Buddhist meditation and Indian vedic meditation. While a form of yoga was practiced by the Ancient Egyptians, yoga as we know it in the West comes from India. Our popular HIIT form of fitness is just repackaged Tabata training from Japan. Most popular alternative therapies also hail from the East; Reiki and Shiatsu from Japan, acupuncture from China, Ayurvedic healing from India.

The West has also contributed to our wellness practices with Swedish massage, Alexander Technique, pilates and more. So what about Africa? As the birthplace of humanity, you would expect the continent to have unparalleled knowledge of all things health and wellness. And, indeed it does. But somehow the wellness practices of Africa are yet to make it into the mainstream.

Even when it comes to wellness tourism, Africa trails behind the rest of the world. A land so rich in fresh fruits & vegetables, so-called superfoods, unspoiled nature and blessed with sunshine should be a wellness paradise – but the mainstream image of Africa is still one of poverty and lack (that’s a blog post for another day!).

Source: Global Wellness Institute, Global Wellness Economy Monitor, October 2018

Again, change is happening but there’s work to do. (If you’d like to come and experience the real Africa some time soon, I’m running some wellness retreats on the continent this year.)

There’s more than one way to be well. But you would be forgiven for thinking that all wellness looks the same. The practices of Africans (and other indigenous peoples) don’t yet have a place in the mainstream. This needs to change. Not just because there’s a huge amount of knowledge to be shared – but because they show people who might not feel drawn to what’s currently available that there are other paths that can still lead you to health, happiness, and connection with the creator.

Sitting in silence isn’t the only way to meditate. Many African and indigenous cultures use intense dance and drumming as their meditation. Raw food or veganism isn’t the only way to eat healthily. African and other ethnic foods seem to have been placed in the ‘too rich’ or ‘unhealthy’ category but this isn’t always the case. The simple fact that a dish is a curry or a stew doesn’t automatically make it less healthy than a ‘buddha bowl’ (which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with the actual Buddha). Working out in a gym and running aren’t the only ways to exercise – in fact, they’re some people’s version of hell. By drawing on other cultures, we can create versions of exercise that make fitness more accessible to all. Zumba achieved this by combining aerobics with Latin music and dance.

When it comes to the more spiritual side of wellbeing, African Traditional Religions and practices, like – dare I say it – voodoo (😱) continue to be demonised. Take animal sacrifice for instance. At its root, to sacrifice means to make sacred – so as well as acting as an offering to the divine, whatever is sacrificed also becomes, itself, sacred or blessed. When practiced by Muslims, the food is called halal. When practiced by the Jewish, the food is called Kosher. When practiced by the African, it’s barbaric and ‘backwards‘. I’m yet to get my head around how killing an animal in a spiritual ceremony then using the (now sacred) meat to feed your family and local community – as is usually done after a ritual sacrifice – is less acceptable than killing animals purely to be sold and eaten 🤔

When it comes to food as medicine more and more people are seeking out natural remedies for ailments, visiting Naturopaths, Shamans and doctors of Traditional Chinese Medicine. But when the African starts mixing herbs they’re dismissed as a ‘juju’ man / woman or ‘witchdoctor‘.

And speaking of the word ‘witch’ there’s an awesome movement of people (men and women) reclaiming this title and wearing it proudly. But we can’t avoid the fact that the type of magic you practice seems to be automatically assumed by the shade of your skin. When a white girl says she’s a witch, we all think of our beloved Sabrina or the Charmed sisters. When a black girl says she’s a witch, you’re more likely to imagine her sticking pins into a doll.

And in this age of the divine feminine, there are goddesses all around – but we need to celebrate Yemonja and Xochiquetzal as much as Devi and Brigid. I’ve seen tarot and oracle decks with fairies, unicorns, and blonde princesses a-plenty but had to search high and low to find one with some brown faces.

We don’t only need to see diversity in the teachers helping us to be well, we need to see diversity in the practices they are using to do it. Through Adinkra Yoga, I hope I can have some part in this by ensuring everything I do has an African flavour – whether through invoking Goddess Isis in a healing circle or teaching a yoga class to Afrobeats music. I’m excited to see others doing the same with African and other indigenous cultures and ancient knowledge, and I’m excited to learn from them.

The wellness industry is booming with yoga retreats, juicing detoxes and essential oils galore all backed by influencers and gurus alike. But there are more ways to be well – and we have a duty to share as many of the paths as possible, through diverse voices, so that everyone might find the right path for them.

The wellness industry is booming with yoga retreats, juicing detoxes and essential oils galore...but there are more ways to be well and we have a duty to share as many of the paths as possible, through diverse voices, so that everyone… Click To Tweet

What do you think? Are there any practices from your culture you would like to see getting more attention? Or any teachers / experts you think should be more well-known?

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