Did Nazis love yoga?
That is the provocative title of one chapter in the recently published book Conspirituality: How New Age Conspiracy Theories Became a Health Threat. As the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic crashed into North America in March 2020, three long-time yoga teachers and writers noticed a shift in their community’s discourse online. A certain paranoia had exploded on social media, with accusations that the crisis was actually a secret plan to bring about world domination. Messages of health boiled over on these platforms, but they were not endorsements for mask wearing or physical distancing. They were a fetishization of personal health. The way to protect yourself from whatever was really happening, they read, was by keeping your body fat low and embracing downward-facing dog on your yoga mat.
The three yoga teachers witnessing this topsy-turvy interpretation of a major public health crisis—Derek Beres, Matthew Remski, and Julian Walker—had been aware of each other’s work pre-pandemic and they came together to start a podcast, Conspirituality, which premiered in May 2020. (Disclosure: I have been a guest on their show and have blurbed their book.) They have since explored this modern hybrid of grand conspiracism and spirituality from different angles, and the result is a tome that makes sense of the bizarre situation we have seen unfolding these past few years, where yogis in search of personal enlightenment stand hand-in-hand with armed Trumpists.
Don’t worry: these authors are not coming after your yoga. But you will appreciate this physical discipline from a much larger historical perspective after reading their book.
Nothing is as it seems
I have written before about exactly what conspirituality is, but here’s a primer. Two worlds which we usually conceive of as being mutually exclusive—those of the typically feminine sphere of New Age spirituality and the typically masculine territory of conspiracy theories—actually have a lot in common.
Think of the grand conspiracy theory that a shadowy cabal of elites secretly controls the world and read the following: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected. It makes sense, right?
Now think of New Age spirituality and read this credo again: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected. It also gels here.
The idea that there is a movement that fuses these two worlds is not new, and it was in fact given voice in an infamous 2011 academic paper co-written by demographer David Voas, but really helmed by Charlotte Ward. What Beres, Remski and Walker would go on to find is that the paper itself was not what it seemed and had not happened by accident. Charlotte Ward would later be exposed as a propagandist for conspirituality. She was a double agent, seeking to grant the movement to which she belonged a certain academic legitimacy. Her paper even launders a quote from David Icke, the British conspiracy master who popularized the theory that reptilian aliens have secretly hijacked our planet. That paper by Ward and Voas is now tainted by this hidden motivation, but luckily, Beres, Remski and Walker have grabbed hold of this torch and are continuing the work in a more transparent, diligent, and earnest way.
Their book shines a spotlight on the central figures of the conspirituality movement, which was energized by the public health measures of the pandemic.
There’s the “holistic psychiatrist” Dr. Kelly Brogan and her (now-ex) husband Sayer Ji, who uses his Bachelor’s degree in philosophy to curate the scientific literature for his fans. They were the “it” couple of the pandemic—beautiful, smart, enlightened—and in a video entitled “Love in the Time of Covid,” they framed “the rejection of science on COVID and public health as a sign of spiritual maturity,” as the authors of Conspirituality put it.
There’s Dr. Christiane Northrup, women’s medicine icon, who uses her grandmotherly charms to scare her viewers on Facebook about the worldwide conspiracy unfolding during the pandemic, before soothing them with her harp and telling them they are sleeping lions whom Providence will save on the eve of the Age of Aquarius. Northrup has become a Scheherazade for the conspirituality age, each day narrating to her “warriors” what is just about to happen yet never does.
And there’s Mikki Willis who shot Plandemic, the viral interview with so-called whistleblower Judy Mikovits. The authors of Conspirituality noticed something interesting watching the video. “There’s a particular way,” they write, “in which Willis listens intently to Mikovits’s shaggy-dog persecution story, gazing into her eyes like a therapist with boundary issues. […] Willis’s eyes go moist as she recounts her story of being ignored and abused by the mainstream scientific community. He bears witness, forges solidarity.”
But how does yoga, you may ask, play into this strange concoction of grand conspiracies and spiritual enlightenment? What the authors of the book report is that yoga was reborn in the 20th century, inspired by ancient exercises now slanted by fascist leanings.
Weeding out the weak
You may have noticed a lot of fat shaming coming from certain corners of the Internet these past few years. People with excess fat were often derided for having failed their own health, and whatever complications they got from COVID was blamed on their behaviour. “If only,” the thinking went, “they had taken care of their body, COVID would have been as mild as a cold.”
This ill-informed shaming has roots that predate the pandemic, and the story exposed in the book Conspirituality helps us understand how the wellness world, often understood to be progressive to the point of being hippie, came to be entwined with more regressive and dangerous politics.
In fascism, a nation’s past is glorified and mythologized. This golden age was upended, its citizens are told, by corruption and there’s no shortage of people to blame: journalists, academics, immigrants, minority groups. The fascist solution is to make the nation great again by endorsing a strongman leader who will, as the book puts it, “expel the degenerates, bring law and order, and glorify our culture.”
Enter Friedrich Wilhelm Müller, a German strongman born in 1867, who changed his name to Eugen Sandow to echo the concept of eugenics. Through the lens of eugenics, the human species can improve itself by deciding who gets to make babies, thus breeding out traits that people in power have judged to be undesirable. When combined with notions of racial purity, eugenics has led to some of the worst human acts in recent history. Sandow, who became the father of modern bodybuilding, believed that weakness of body and spirit was caused by what we inherited from our parents, but that strong discipline and the right kind of breeding could improve our stock, until we humans became living deities.
Sandow would tour India in 1905, and his self-centred, disciplinary and eugenicist philosophy resonated with yoga innovators at the time. Yoga, whose ancient origin is mired in speculations, was revived in the time of Sandow, inspired by his physical feats. Much like traditional Chinese medicine was repackaged and politicized by Mao Zedong during China’s Cultural Revolution, yoga was reconstructed by merging gymnastics and Sandow’s European physical culture with Indian exercises popular in the Middle Ages.
India in the first half of the 1900s was administered by the British, and in the lead-up to World War II, the Germans were threatening Great Britain. Thus, as Conspirituality points out, some Indians started to admire Germany’s budding fascism. Proto-nationalists in India created a paramilitary body called the RSS, which still works to promote yoga as India’s national exercise. There is something in yoga that resonates with fascism. As the book summarizes in eloquent prose, “Through discipline, purification, restoring virility, and weeding out all sickness, disability, and sexual deviance, a transcendent identity would emerge.” Yoga’s harsh regimen makes your body strong, and your nation needs strong, healthy bodies, goes the message.
To this day, we see echoes of this sentiment, which focuses on national pride and personal responsibility. In 2021, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, touted the protective properties of yoga against the coronavirus. “When I speak to front-line warriors,” he declared on International Yoga Day, “they tell me they have adopted yoga as a protective shield in their fight against coronavirus. Doctors have strengthened themselves with yoga and also use yoga to treat their patients.” Putting aside the general benefits of regular exercise, this is a baseless and dangerous claim, but it canonizes yoga as India’s secret weapon against COVID. Unfortunately, a few months earlier, one of the worst superspreader events had taken place in India… at a religious festival showcasing, among other things, yoga.
I want to be clear: taking a weekly yoga class does not make you a Nazi. Physical exercise is great (even if the data on the benefits of stretching for the average person are not particularly convincing). The message here is that there are misguided political notions buried inside yoga’s history, and these notions can bubble up given the right circumstances. Keeping in mind Sandow’s influence on modern yoga, we should not be surprised that some yoga influencers saw the pandemic as a result of evil forces which could only be toppled by a focus on personal fitness and a rejection of public health.
Conspirituality cannot be casually dismissed as an esoteric yet harmless online phenomenon. As the team behind the Conspirituality podcast has recently underscored, this hybrid system of beliefs is now part of the American political system.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., has thrown his hat in the ring to become president of the United States in 2024. Kennedy is one of the leading figures of the anti-vaccine movement, braiding conspiracy theories around vaccination and religiously-inflected language about humanity’s impending doom and possible salvation. His director of messaging for the campaign is Charles Eisenstein, a New Age pundit who riffed on the word “coronavirus,” explaining the “crown” of “corona” must mean “a new coronation for all,” an opportunity for us to reject the “medicalized world” we live in. Beres, Remski and Walker refer to him as “a kind of COVID mystic for conspirituality intellectuals.” His first published book was called The Yoga of Eating.
Kennedy is running against Marianne Williamson, who famously championed the spiritual psychotherapy book A Course in Miracles, who once called vaccine mandates “draconian” and “Orwellian,” later apologizing for misspeaking. Williamson tweeted out during the swine flu pandemic of 2009 that “God is BIG, swine flu SMALL. See every cell of your body filled with divine light. Pour God’s love on our immune systems. Truth protects.”
Conspirituality promotes the idea that the world is possessed by evil powers and those who see this clearly are called to foster a new spiritual paradigm. That some of its prominent influencers are running for the highest American political office—against a disgraced former president whose ideas around science and public health have been shockingly foolish—should send a shiver down our spines as we stand on our yoga mats in mountain pose.
- The book Conspirituality explores the modern movement of the same name, which combines belief in grand conspiracy theories with New Age spirituality
- The authors report that modern yoga was influenced by bodybuilder Eugen Sandow’s view that health was a matter of personal responsibility and that undesirable traits should be weeded out of the gene pool
- Notable figures in the conspirituality movement are now embedded in American politics, including Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Charles Eisenstein, and Marianne Williamson
Correction: previous version of this article stated that Marianne Williamson authored the book A Course in Miracles. She did not write it, but heavily promoted it. The article has been corrected.