Corporate Yoga, Luxury Ayurveda and the Wellness Craze in India

Dec 15, 2021


In this podcast, Meher Varma, writer and cultural anthropologist, breaks down what’s behind the rise of the wellness craze in India, and how this trend is redefining a new Hindu middle class.

Full episode transcript:

About ten years ago, burnt out by my precarious job as a freelance writer, I started seeing the physical and mental effects of life in the volatile gig economy. The cure though was none of the staples – you know, the ‘try a new face wash, go on a date, or even just the good old, rest it out.’  Many urged me to ‘change my lifestyle’ or embrace wellness. Some of my fancier friends urged me to go on a wellness retreat. 

I had never googled ‘wellness retreat’ before. But this moment marked the beginning of a decade-long dive into wellness: a world equal parts alluring and bizarre. It led me to spa holidays in Bali, week-long detox plans, online meditation sessions, professional gigs with wellness businesses, and a promise to spend time with my jade roller every evening.

Fair to say, I got pretty sucked in. 

But soon I started noticing something strange about this world of wellness in India. The more ‘wellness’ normalized,  and became something that middle and upper class Indians felt like they had to define themselves by, the sharper this strangeness became.

Currently, the Indian wellness industry is worth 490 billion rupees, and millennials spend an average of 4,000  rupees a month on wellness services and products.

But in the echoes of everyone chanting to do the yoga and ‘juice cleanse’ that’s good for you, is a more sinister message:  wellness isn’t just about your mental and physical health. It is an industry that commodifies historical and spiritual traditions like yoga and ayurveda. Wellness re-packages these as a negotiation between modernity and tradition, science and luxury, and sells them to consumers as if they were brand new.

And crucially, the people drawn to wellness in India are not only uber elite,  but also  aligned to the moralities of a new Hindu-loving India. Thus, this is an India where to be elite, well, and Hindu is the most idealised form of citizenship.

I am Meher Varma, and in this podcast, I break down the rise of the wellness craze in India, and how it is redefining the Hindu middle class.

At the turn of the millennium, Indians began capitalising on ancient Hindu traditions to create a wellness industry that would appeal to an international audience. Spas, Hindu gods, and holy cities came together. 

Ananda in The Himalayas is one example of a wellness property that helped India make its claim as the world’s primary global wellness hub. On their website, visitors are shown a pristine view of the Himalyan range against which healthy, young people perform asanas. To market a luxury room, a i remarkably fit middle-aged blonde woman rests on a garden chair.

When I finally went there, as a writer commissioned to cover the property for an American travel magazine, I was of course, stunned by the beauty of the palatial property, but also, quite cognisant of the steps that the staff were taking to ‘update’ practices like yoga and ayurveda that many of their other Indians guests and I were very familiar with. This was necessary to justify the then 20,000 rupees a night room rate. 

Most of us had done these very same asanas  and received some of these ayurvedic treatments at much lower costs before, but now, they were presented to us as if brand new. Sanitizing them was key to this process: they were for one, referred to as therapies, and performed by special wellness consultants who frequently checked in to see if their pressure was okay, as they worked on our stress points. Traditional ayurvedic oils were traded in for lighter lavender-esque concoctions, more palatable to a western audience. And  in the plush rooms where we inhaled the ephemeral fragrances of 100 dollar candles, we were convinced that this was not just ayurveda, this was wellness ayurveda.

Sneha: It was an old house turned into a wellness centre. It had a lot of emphasis on the natural stone in the architecture. There’s lots of greenery. A very thoughtful blending of steel, glass, chrome with stone and natural lighting with a lot of wood and off white shades. There’s a lot of emphasis on creating this sort of ‘natural’ look. 

That’s Sneha Annaparavu, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. Sneha did fieldwork on the wellness industrial complex in Chennai, at a fieldsite she calls Wellcare. Not as fancy as Ananda, but still far from affordable to most of Chennai’s citizens. This center offers everything from luxurious ayurvedic treatments to mindful chanting sessions. She tells me more about which Indians spent their time and money at Wellcare.

Sneha: So, software professionals, generally English-speaking crowd, are the new consuming “middle” class. Through their consumption practices they are trying to distance themselves from “mass consumers.” There was this emphasis on, you know, like, ‘We are better knowing consumers.’ Again, I could guess but everybody in that space seemed to belong to the upper class/caste category.

While I will return to yoga in its wellness avatar later in this episode, what we see here is how wellness helps upper middle and upper class Indians mark themselves as being above other Indians; but crucially, their ability to do so, is through claiming a shared tradition. Privileged consumers can assert that while someone else is doing yoga or practicing ayurveda, the way in which these people are doing it–through the schema of wellness– somehow makes them better. Sometimes, wellness consumers can have such an elevated sense of self that they suffer from what Sneha calls a savior complex:

Sneha: There’s actually a deep seated saviour complex in that these people who are unable to get well are looked at with a certain sense of condescension and sympathy and then trying to save them becomes a project of sympathy and wellness.

Wellness is exclusionary; the people who are unable to get well and the people who are able to get well are marked by moral and economic distances. In other words, to be good at wellness, you can’t just be practicing yoga or eating vegetarian food (Wellcare, as you may have guessed, serves only vegetarian food). You must be able to perform a certain kind of value which signals your membership in the global contemporary moment; a moment in which wellness, cosmopolitan english and IT go hand-in-hand.

Many beauty influencers know how to package Indian wellness trends as sophisticated and brand new, even as the products and trends they promote may dilute and commodify deep, complex traditions. They can often pull this off in neutral, apolitical tones that can feel quite gracious. The genesis of hashtag #blessed.

This know-how is the DNA of the wellness and beauty influencer, most successful of whom on instagram are demigods with millions of followers. When I dissect some of their accounts, I see the privilege inherent in the wellness lifestyle that Sneha is talking about, and how easily it translates to their grids. Their feeds go something like:

Inspirational quote about motivation followed by skin care ritual followed by a highly filtered photo of said influencer drinking an artful cup of tea followed by something that reaffirms their global class status – like a photo of them traveling —  capped with something yoga related. All in all, what is crafted here is a beautiful, flexible life, one that moves as easily from downward dog to salabhasana, as it can from Geneva to Bangalore.

Sound Cue- option 1- flight sound element 

Surbhee: My name is Surbhee Grover and the business that I’ve launched is Love, Indus. It’s sort of a sign-off of a love letter from the Indian subcontinent. It’s a skincare, wellness brand and I’ve been working on this since 2015. 

My next guest dials in from New York; I discovered her wellness brand Love Indus while looking for a new face cream. The brand homepage promises to deliver “Ageless Practices, New Age Alchemy” through ayurvedic beauty products like an anti wrinkle cream, called freedom of expression. 

Clever name, yes, but the implication here is that age and ageing — the most natural processes on earth — will curb your liberty. 

Another product description from the Amrutini skin care collection — named to sound like a fusion between Amrud (guava) and a martini — tells consumers that the product is made from “rare” regional ingredients, which Love Indus transforms through “powerful scientific processes like biotransformation.”  

Behind Love Indus’ sophisticated descriptions of wellness is a formula I can’t help but notice. To create something that counts as a wellness product you have to take something from the East and blend it with something ‘modern’ AKA Western. While this may sound harmless, there is a cultural inequality embedded in this seemingly innocuous process. 

What would happen for example, if in Love Indus’ formulations, the ingredient came from the West, and the technology from the East? I know one thing: even if it somehow got categorized as a wellness product, it wouldn’t be one you could charge 8,300 rupees for. Nope, this is a price tag derived from perpetuating a global inequality that keeps the perception of the West being technologically savvy, scientific and advanced, and the East traditional, pure, and natural.

And this contradiction in “global wellness” products that must be taken from India only in a specific way is most evident in the most popular global wellness practice: new age yoga.

There is perhaps no better person who I can speak to about this than Dr. Rumya Putcha.  She’s an assistant professor at the University of Georgia who is working on a  project called Namaste Nation, an ethnographic account of yoga studios in the West. 

In the US, Rumya found someone who embodied some of the most critical contradictions of the wellness industry.

She calls her Yoga Becky.

Rumya: It is a particular type of White womanhood that was predicated on certain habits. A certain assemblage of White womanhood. This was a White woman who wore particular clothes like LuluLemon or athleisure wear, who felt strongly about eating clean, who probably saw herself as one of the ‘good’ white liberals especially in the political landscape that was developing after 2014. 

I.e the Trump years.

And who is just so uncomfortable if you brought her things she felt uncomfortable with.

Yoga Becky is the goddess of American Yoga Studios, the altar of wellness living, who in some ways shapes the global ideals of wellness. To be Yoga Becky you can’t just be fit. You have to also be able to afford to work out in the middle of the day, and in brands like LuluLemon which can cost about eight or nine thousand rupees for a pair of tracks. 

And while the sartorial markers of privilege in the US are different, the identity of the Indian Yoga Becky Indian also rests on the ability to exercise privileged class and caste positions, while ostensibly doing nothing but eating organic food and practicing the latest, most commodifiable form of yoga.

What makes the Yoga Beckys possible, Rumya points out, is not just the global inequality perpetuated by the wellness industry, but also a certain kind of apolitical morality assumed by this position.  You can’t quite engage with Yoga Beckys about the race and class biases the wellness project might have been built on. The right to gloss over politics is in fact, key to the wellness consumer’s privilege.

Rumya: The glossing over is rooted in a belief that health is an apolitical enterprise. It’s emptied, evacuated of any racialised potential. I found myself thinking: if it’s for my health, it can’t be that bad, right?

And when you’re deep into wellness, it is possible to completely depoliticize yourself.  A recent conversation on Twitter about Yoga Beckys not being politically apathetic but progressive, raised new questions. A writer, Nolina Minj, tweeted what she called an unpopular opinion: “white women taking up yoga have de-brahminised the practice, and also make it somewhat accessible,” she stated.

In the discussion that ensued, some agreed, suggesting that they could finally just get some non-triggering exercise, sans mantra chanting and right wing gastronomy. 

While I think Minj’s point that White women inadvertently challenge the rigid casteism that lies behind Yoga is fascinating, maybe what comes in place of a brahmanical Yoga idealism that is confined to the Indian nation state is  more pernicious. What we have now, thanks to the globalization of wellness, is a global high casteism, premised on capital, that connects everyone from the elite Hindu at wellcare to the Yoga Becky in LA. 

Rumya: It lends itself to highly individualistic tendencies. Yoga Beckys, in India and abroad, are privileged and individualistic, but these qualities are occluded in their dedication to wellness. Unsurprisingly, the neoliberal ideals that they reproduce are welcomed by the global corporate work culture that increasingly folds wellness into its narrative. 

Now success at the modern workplace is no longer signaled by just a healthy bank account or professional skill, but also a healthy mind, body, and spirit – the pillars wellness claims as its own. An article in the 2019 Financial Express credited Indian wellness tourism’s 20% growth to things like work sanctioned CXO wellness retreats.

This sounds good, but what doesn’t is it puts even more pressure on professionals who even if numb, get the inkling that things are not about merit, as promised. 

Rumya: More and more employers are turning to these slightly virtue-signalling tendencies of telling you they’ll give you an hour-long wellness break to improve productivity. I think if they call it that it lends itself to a belief that they’re being generous and they’re encouraging you to take care of yourself. 

It’s not just that wellness translates seamlessly to the recreational and corporate space, it’s that it is actually intrinsic to the making of a modern Indian national identity. In fact, to be well is increasingly what it means to be part of a new, globalized Hindu India. And this is what makes wellness different from fitness — its 80s and 90s ancestor. Wellness is about being able to perform your privilege via a healthy body and mind at leisure and at work. Sneha’s Wellcare informats relied on this distinction between wellness and fitness to cement their superiority, their evolution as more knowledgeable Indians. 

Sneha: Very often, my interlocutors would point to gyms in the city or fads around dieting to be like that’s about ‘fitness’ not about wellness. Wellness is more about syncing your body and mind. And fitness is actually a Western obsession with body image. They were always trying to make this distinction and it is in making this distinction that the term wellness came to be employed generously.

And this distinction is key to the way in which a new India announces itself.

Since 2019, Prime Minister Modi has been promoting yoga and Indian wellness as a global panacea with remarkable vigor. 

In disseminating this message, however, the class inequality upon which wellness rests is reproduced. His explicit support and funding of Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali — which sells yoga and wellness products to Indian consumers at cheap prices, and tacks on the word ‘wellness’ sporadically, as an unimportant suffix — targets the domestic middle class, the real wellness India is repositioned as a luxurious for international audiences and the Indian elite. 

In a recent wellness consortium, targeted to the international audience, he was quoted saying: 

“If your life’s deadlines and timelines are stressing you out, it is time to tap into the timeless culture of India. Whenever you want to treat your body or retreat your mind, come to India.” 

In this evocative invitation, an invitation to a place that appears to be unaffected by the ills of Western modernity, everyone is welcome. While in India, consumers who are sold wellness, are convinced that it is precisely because of too much westernization that they are unwell.

Sneha: There was this very loud and convincing understanding that India is seeing a crisis in wellness because of its uncritical embrace of western civilisation or capitalist modernity. There was an implicit understanding that modern social ills like feeling alienated, or depressed, obesity, like anything and everything got pushed under the umbrella of being  a cause of urbanisation, industrialisation, and a general embrace of cultural modernisation. 

So we have this contradiction, right: Indians are supposedly unwell because of westernization. Yet, in marketing wellness, India is seen as a place largely free of the ills of westernization. But who benefits from the highest forms of wellness the most? Like, who is it that the spa retreat is actually targeted at? It’s the people who are assumed to be the most modern. So not just any Indians,  but elite, cosmopolitan Indians. Indians who we endow with as much cultural capital as an international, high spending audience. 

In their paper, “Incredible India, A Critical Analysis of India’s Nation Branding,” scholars Lee Edwards  & Anandi Ramamurthy argue that the Incredible !india campaign, which is one of the primary ways through which post-liberalization India marketed itself to the outside world as a ideal tourist destination re-inscribed colonial hierarchies while fostering an ethic–particularly Hindu nationalism. This became evident when the campaigns started relying on marketing India as a wellness destination.

Rumya: I noticed and pay attention to beauty and wellness trends in India and part of what’s happening is related to ideal body types and certain ideas of what the new cosmopolitan Indian woman looks like. There’s of course colourist pieces to that story. I was tracking the Incredible! India advertising campaign because it tends to use light-skinned models in the images. I’ve been tracking it for five or six years and she’s just gotten lighter and lighter and lighter.

Rumya too, has been paying attention to how the discourse of global Indian wellness perpetuates both Hindu nationalism and neo colonialism.

Rumya: Of course in Delhi, I saw a lot of images of Modi and his promotion of yoga. How could that not point to other things like infrastructure, practices of alienation and discrimination? As if it’s not something that’s being positioned as uniquely Hindu? 

The Incredible India! campaign was executed in 2002, the BJP’s first year in government. Projecting “Global Indianness” was the mandate, and one that the advertising agency interpreted as showcasing India as a natural paradise, characterized by “beauty, warmth, spirituality,  unfettered sexuality and the exotic.”  A survey of the ad imagery shows brilliantly colored tigers, gushing backwaters, the Taj Mahal, and rural Indian women in passive, smiling stances, in contrast to white women in active yoga poses.

As someone analyzing this campaign from the outside, and trying to think of what the advertising agency discussion around it would have been, I’m thinking these images were chosen because they would most appeal to the elite Hindu consumer and the neo colonial traveller at once.  

In 2003, one India-as-a-new-wellness-destination ad featured a Caucasian woman lying against a scenic background, in the middle of what appears to be an ayurvedic treatment. The copy tells us that ayurveda is an ‘ancient science’ that “outsmarts illness.” In a gentle, rhetorical probe it asks: “where else will you find mystic wisdom that refuses to grow old with time? 

A few diagrams accompany the soft copy, introducing the viewers to basic Sanskrit terminology, translated to English. These position Vedic knowledge, found in ancient Hindu scriptures, as an alternative, globally legitimized science. 

In this campaign, and all the rest, including the 2006 campaign that was based on Nehru’s “unity in diversity” ideology, there are notably no explicit Muslim or Christian cultural influences. Encoded within this messaging then, is the idea that Hindus who are mentally, physically and spiritually well can rediscover their ‘ancient’ country through a modern lens. Modernity, we see, is premised on a sharp  editing out of minorities.

Over the years, The Incredible India advertising did evolve, but not for inclusivity. What happened instead was that while the representations of rural Indians remained the same, the non-secular bias continued. The imagined, ideal wellness audience became lighter and lighter in their skin. Now, many of the models look half-Indian, half Caucasian. Or just light skinned Indians with so much global mobility and privilege that we can only assume they enjoy dominant positions across the multiple hierarchies of class, caste and race that converge in the ideal wellness consumer.

And this is what lies behind the often touted idea that wellness is for everyone. These are the layers that are concealed beneath the spiel of wellness lifestyle messaging that tell you, softly, to just buy the natural cream or take that yoga class. 

To be well is a national and political identity. And to join the wellness club is to join a social location.


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