I was on my regular lunchtime run when I started questioning the very nature of consciousness.
I should explain that I was listening to a Deepak Chopra podcast at the time, in which the spiritual teacher talked about the limitlessness of the soul. I was into it. As someone who customarily rolls my eyes at anything woo, this was very surprising.
Afterwards – my laptop out for another long, lockdown night – I went down the rabbit hole. I found other spiritual teachers, such as Eckhart Tolle, and subscribed to Oprah’s Supersoul Conversations podcast.
I found a world of communities on Instagram, where the witchcraft hashtag has more than 5.5m results, astrology 7.7m and crystals 17m. I found corners of TikTok where crystal ball emojis and lip syncs about Mercury being in retrograde are inescapable. I discovered that Lizzo is a manifesting fan, and that Bella Hadid is into crystals and karma.
I had stumbled into the so-called ‘new New Age’, where ancient practices meet the £3 trillion wellness industry – and I’m not alone. These days, inspirational quotes are designed to be shared and, in this brave new online world, spirituality influencers are just as likely to have amazing teeth and HD eyebrows as their fashion counterparts.
From Gabrielle Bernstein’s Spirit Junkie app, which lets you share your favourite affirmations with friends, to Sahara Rose’s ‘Find Your Dosha’ quiz, which identifies your Ayurvedic mind-body type, online spirituality is a field where its creator-gurus are fluent in the language of internet marketing. And, since the pandemic has seen many more of us looking for guidance and meaning, these social media stars are seeing their followings boom.
Sah d’Simone is a former fashion magazine creative director with corkscrew curls, tattoos and blue nail polish, whose online brand Spiritually Sassy feels very now. ‘I felt there was no home for POC and queer people,’ he says. ‘I needed to bring irreverent energy back. So this was a sweet f*ck you to the old paradigm of spirituality.’
Sah explains that he overcame his own demons while studying with gurus in India and Nepal, then became a teacher to clients including Kanye West and Google. His visibility has grown ‘in all areas’ during the pandemic, from his Spiritually Sassy School (membership from $9.99 per month) to TikTok (4.5m likes), where tongue-in-cheek videos include twerking away anxiety attacks.‘This stuff is really landing,’ he says, ‘because people are realising that mental health dictates the quality of their lives; they are getting aware that they can try to feel more relaxed even in the chaos.’
Before the online boom, says Sah, only a vanishingly small number of rich people saw gurus. At the same time, the downsides of online spirituality, he says, are ‘massive’. Many approach his work with ‘an insatiable consumer mindset of scrolling’, without ever pausing to practise, he warns.
‘There is a weird paradox with “quick fix” spirituality, which actually becomes more focused on the ego,’ agrees Ruby Warrington, who launched an alternative spirituality media platform, The Numinous, in 2012. Realising that she did not feel good competing with zodiac-themed click bait, she recently relaunched the company as ‘a place to help people self-publish books, to have more in-depth conversations’.
Beauty journalist Anita Bhagwandas, who practises elements of witchcraft with Hinduism, points out the racial biases that are at play. It is all too common for ancient Eastern practices to be commercialised by white entrepreneurs, partly ‘because [on many social media platforms] the algorithms are geared against people of colour, and partly because many will only take these practices on-board once they have been, for want of a better word, whitewashed,’ she notes. In this way, she says, spirituality becomes hijacked as ‘a new wealth signifier’.
Clearly, there are further risks inherent in the fact that anyone with an internet connection can set themselves up as a healer to vulnerable people looking for answers. Online spirituality is a huge world, some of it deeply murky: recent worrying reports have even found links between some online yoga teachers and QAnon and Anti-vaxx conspiracy theories.
Yet, approached with a discerning eye and a reluctance to part with money, there is also a lot to learn, says chef, author and wellbeing expert Jasmine Hemsley. She recently gave a sound bath to listeners of Fearne Cotton’s popular Happy Place podcast and thinks the Western mainstream is becoming increasingly open. ‘Growing up, we had these ideas that even having therapy was an embarrassing, American thing. But now it’s mainstream. There’s a growing acceptance that even a placebo is powerful, because that’s your mind telling you that something works.’
Jasmine believes it all comes from the same human desire ‘for oneness, wholeness and interconnection’. That’s powerful in this moment of existential crisis – and certainly my own tentative explorations have shown me that. I doubt I’ll ever buy Goop’s Psychic Vampire Energy Repellent Spray or put crystals in my bra, but a time when our lives are so very small, it is comforting to think that I could be limitless.
Hannah Marriott is fashion editor at ‘The Guardian’