Words by Robert Ito.
At the dawn of the pandemic, Los Angeles–based yoga and fitness instructor Derek Beres began noticing an uptick of tweets and Facebook posts pushing a variety of conspiracy theories related to QAnon and COVID-19. The messages weren’t coming from the radical right and its malcontents, however, the sorts of folks one might expect to believe that a cabal of blood-drinking, Satan-worshipping pedophiles is trying to take over the world, or that COVID-19 was caused by 5G.1 No, these tweets were coming from leaders and influencers within the yoga and wellness community, people not unlike himself, some of whom Beres personally knew.
In 2011, sociologists Charlotte Ward and David Voas coined the term “conspirituality” to describe this weird blend of New Age spirituality and the shadowy world of the conspiracists. The burgeoning web movement, wrote Ward and Voas, was based on two core convictions. The first was that a secret organization, whose members may or may not include Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, is trying to control the world’s major political and social institutions (or already does). The second belief was that humanity is undergoing a paradigm shift in consciousness—an essential step toward combating the evils wrought by the aforementioned cabal.
This sort of thing wasn’t entirely new to Beres. For years, he and Julian Walker, a yoga teacher and fellow Angeleno, had written about grifters and scoundrels in the wellness community.2 There were yoga teachers blaming the 2011 tsunami in Japan on bad karma, cashing in on bogus 2012 Mayan prophecy courses or running lethal sweat lodges. But COVID-19 ramped up the conspiracy talk in unprecedented ways. David Icke, a longtime presence in the New Age self-publishing world, began claiming on Twitter and his YouTube channel that 5G mobile phone networks, alongside Bill Gates and unnamed “Jewish cults,” were somehow behind the pandemic. In May 2020, Mikki Willis, an Ojai-based filmmaker, released Plandemic, a 26-minute video alerting people that vaccines were making them sick and that face masks could actually “activate” the virus. Within a week of its release, Willis’ video was viewed more than eight million times. “Here’s this guy who we trust, who’s been a liberal activist, who made a film traveling with Bernie Sanders,” says Walker. “He’s not some crazy right-winger. And that thing took off like wildfire in the yoga and wellness space.”
“These were people who were susceptible
to a kind of quasi-religious tonality that
the QAnon material had: this sense of
a great awakening.”
Beres and Walker teamed up with Matthew Remski, a Toronto-based yoga therapist and author, to launch the podcast Conspirituality. As longtime observers and critics of the worlds of yoga and wellness, the trio could understand why the sorts of things they had been observing for years were accelerating at such a pitch during the pandemic. Many in these communities were already distrustful of the government and wary of traditional medicine and doctors. When it came to mysterious pandemics, a number of them were more inclined to believe in homeopathic remedies and “natural” cures than in some vaccine cooked up by Big Pharma. “There was an audience who had been primed over many years to be receptive to these online conspiracy theories,” says Walker. “These were people who maybe didn’t know how to think critically about these sorts of claims, and were susceptible to a kind of quasi-religious tonality that the QAnon material had: this sense of a prophecy and a great awakening.”
For the influencers themselves, the pandemic created a strong financial incentive to chase the latest and weirdest conspiracy theories. Yoga instructors had long supplemented their incomes by selling a variety of products with questionable efficacy, from the relatively benign (essential oils to combat stress) to the downright charlatan (cancer-curing crystals). “When the pandemic happened, suddenly there were no more public classes,” Beres says. “So these instructors had to figure out how to make a living.” Some tried to support themselves in questionable yoga-adjacent multilevel marketing projects, or by selling online courses or life coaching to get folks through these uncertain times. Some would draw in the curious with posts about the latest and weirdest conspiracy theories, then solicit money from them through memberships or PayPal donations. Others chased views and potential followers by posting QAnon and anti-vax messages.3 Still others claimed that spirits or aliens were talking to them about the pandemic, and for a price, they could talk to you, too. “Influencers found that the more inflammatory they could make their content, the more visibility they would have,” says Remski.
“Influencers found that the more inflammatory
they could make their content, the more
visibility they would have.”
The ranks of the conspiritualists include some of the most recognized names in the yoga and wellness community. There’s Kelly Brogan, a self-described “holistic psychiatrist” and former Goop contributor, who believes that it’s not a virus that’s causing all those COVID-19 deaths, but the fear of the virus. There’s Christiane Northrup, an OB/GYN and author of the bestseller Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, who claimed that getting injected with the COVID-19 vaccine would make us the property of the patent holders (untrue) and that she was a former resident of the lost world of Atlantis (unverified). “Northrup is a revered and trusted expert, who seemed to be doing a reasonable kind of integration of holistic medicine and more, shall we say, science-based medicine,” says Walker. “Then she gradually became someone who had gone completely into QAnon.”4
For many, says Remski, the conspiracy theories fill in for medical and political systems they feel have failed them. It’s no wonder, he says, that QAnon exploded in the US, with its enormous income inequality and lack of universal health care. “The QAnon people are fantasizing about government officials being publicly executed on television,” he says. “Where could that bloodlust come from, other than some deep-seated feelings of neglect?” Combine profound feelings of disenfranchisement with the economic uncertainties brought on by a global pandemic and it’s not hard to understand why people would be desperate for a bit of clarity.5
Many didn’t fully trust the politicians, who were all disagreeing anyway, or the doctors, whose stories kept changing as more was learned about the virus. The conspiracy theorists, however, had simple-to-understand explanations for all that was going on, and stories that never changed. It’s the government! It’s a cabal! And a lot of the people most susceptible to these ideas were getting all of their information from limited news and social media sources that were just echoing back what they wanted to hear. Given this environment, one can see why otherwise-rational people might begin having some really irrational thoughts.
And it’s not like the conspiritualists are creating this stuff out of whole cloth. “First of all, conspiritualists are right about a lot of things,” says Remski. “They’re right that Jeffrey Epstein ran a well-hidden, well-financed sex trafficking ring that implicated many powerful people. They’re correct that medical institutions have been responsible for terrible, terrible tragedies like Tuskegee.6 So the bias towards cynicism is absolutely valid.”
What is to become of the victims of these conspiracy theories? “There’s a couple hundred thousand people on the QAnon casualties subreddit, talking about how they’ve lost family members or friends to QAnon,” says Remski. Every day, he says, people write dozens of notes to him or to the podcast describing, say, a significant other who’s fallen down the rabbit hole, and asking what can be done for them. Or, I’m slowly starting to recover, can I give you a call and chat? He lets them know that, no, none of us are therapists at the podcast, but here’s a list of therapists you could call. All of them, he says, are overbooked. “I think there’s going to be a huge therapeutic challenge coming for the people who are the hardest core of QAnon and conspirituality indoctrination,” he says.