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An unsettling CBS News article I read recently—“How conspiracy theories ‘infiltrated’ the wellness community”—reminded me of the inherent kinship between such seemingly divergent believers as, say, crystal clutchers and Bible thumpers.

Profound truths and transformative powers are widely and loudly proclaimed, without solid evidence, for both New Age-y silliness (crystals) and ancient texts (The Good Book), yet neither claim is objectively verifiable.

And the shared wariness of “others” embedded within the mindsets of spiritual and physical wellness buffs — the idea that all other worldviews are inherently suspect — helps explain why a tsunami of misinformation and disinformation is currently soaking and convincing adherents of both during the Time of Coronavirus.

“I was shocked, because people I knew, friends, colleagues, other yoga teachers, were starting to jump on the bandwagon of these conspiracy theories. … Why are they sharing this misinformation?”

Susan barkataki, los Angleles yoga instructor

The yogically inclined (aka, crystal clutchers), as do religious true believers, often tend to instinctively reject or rationalize all information critical of their assumptions before fully comprehending it.

In the CBS News article, Los Angeles, California, yoga instructor Susan Barkataki muses about the fraught interplay between social media, the physical practice of yoga, and religious spirituality:

“It was so fascinating, because [social media sites] were using words that spoke to me and people like me,” she told CBSN Originals’ Adam Yamaguchi. “They were saying phrases and hashtags like, ‘Where we go one, we go all.’ That’s like, OK, yeah, that sounds very yogic, right? … Or the ‘Great Awakening.’ I mean, that’s samadhi, that’s enlightenment.”

That kind of subtle cultural embedding, like a drumbeat, is what widely disseminates and perpetuates ideas in societies and even broader regions, particularly religious ones (consider the super-dominance of European Christianity in the Middle Ages, when virtually everyone was Christian, whether they wanted to be or not).

CBS reported:

“[Barkataki], whose influence spans beyond her studio to over 68,000 Instagram followers, quickly realized those phrases stemmed from QAnon, the conspiracy theory that started as a fringe movement among supporters of former President Trump. She also noticed people questioning whether COVID-19 was a government conspiracy or a ‘plandemic’ — echoing a notorious video that was banned from Facebook and YouTube for spreading dangerous falsehoods about the virus.

I was shocked, because people I knew, friends, colleagues, other yoga teachers, were starting to jump on the bandwagon of these conspiracy theories. And I thought, ‘Wait, these are people who I know and who I respect. Why are they sharing this misinformation?’”

Religious ideas among non-yogi evangelical crowd enjoy the same viral capacities, and they often overlap and contaminate more secular bogus extremist messages because a huge proportion of right-wing Trumpists are evangelical Christians.

And whereas the yogic community tends to be rather liberal, also, as Barkataki warns above, their naivete leaves them vulnerable to wolfish intent swaddled in sheepish context.

This is why dis-ingenuity (the Right knows how to camouflage much of its democracy-poisoning agenda), disinformation (it’s all lies, basically), and discontentment (grievance is the rocket fuel of the so-called Alt-Right movement) are coins of the Alt-Right ecosystem.

What’s happening is that right-wing U.S. conservatives are currently trying through a slow-motion political coup (on Jan. 6 it was temporarily fast-motion) to gain enough power to remake American culture the way it supposedly used to be (white supremacy, two cars in every garage, a chicken in every pot, women only in the kitchen and boudoir, power totally vested in men, everyone’s knees on a Christian pew and abortion outlawed everywhere).

Liberal yogics, and other proponents of New Age-y arts, are using similar flim-flam (the unverified healing power of crystals, some questionable “natural” medicinal remedies, burnt sage and sweetgrass smoke, and widely debunked homeopathic treatments) in an attempt to change changeless reality to their own liking, as does the conservative juggernaut.

In a 1993 New York Times article, titled “Spiritual Seekers Borrow Indians’ Ways,” journalist David Johnston spoke to how social, political, and religious trends overlap.

“At a time when members of the baby boom generation are returning to religion, many are not going back to the faiths of their youth,” Johnston wrote. “Instead some are turning to vision quests, trips into the wilderness to commune with themselves and nature, or using sweat lodges, where the heat is used as part of a purification ritual.”

Barkataki contends that the current cross-fertilization of mis- and disinformation in the so-called New Age realm is greatly enhanced “by the fact that some members of the yoga and wellness communities were already inclined to question and diverge from mainstream authorities on health and science.”

And, I should add, this tendency undoubtedly is further influenced by political and spiritual ideologies (remember crystal clutchers and Bible thumpers) that also question mainstream authorities on health, science and, increasingly, objective truth, morality and even common decency.

Wellness consultant Anusha Wijeyakumar, told the Times’ Johnston that yoga practice in the West, which she stresses is markedly different from the ancient subcontinental Asian practice, has “spawned a subculture that has become a ‘hotbed’ of misinformation.”

“In many ways, yoga and wellness have become a place of anti-science,” she laments, pointing, for example, to the avalanche of wellness substances the industry hawks that lack any substantive scientific verity.

Wijeyakumar claims that the wellness industry helped “triple the amount of growth that the pharmaceutical industry had done in the last three years up until the point that COVID happened.” 

This is how quasi spirituality contaminates politics by applying ill-advised public opinion to a huge industry (pharmaceuticals) that plays an oversized role in American politics.

So today, huge swaths of the American public are opposed to anything science has proposed to save lives in this coronavirus pandemic — among them, treatments whose historically robust safety and efficacy science has exhaustively proven.

In the meantime, more than 700,000 Americans have died of the virus and its more virulent new strains, 100,000 after vaccines became widely available.

And, sadly, the reason is not because citizens are honorably claiming their constitutional freedoms but because they’re arrogantly embracing their ignorance and their resentment against the so-called elite who, in truth, understand far, far more than they do.

The wholly avoidable tragedy is that people unnecessarily die in the process.

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...