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California’s Yoga, Wellness And Spirituality Community Has A QAnon Problem

Laura J. Nelson Los Angeles Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Laura Nelson takes a look at how, "A world that has long embraced love, light and acceptance is now making room for something else: QAnon."

Los Angeles

It seemed like the end of a typical reiki attunement: A group of women wearing yoga pants and flowing floral skirts, gathered in a healer’s home after a course in the alternative therapy of balancing chakras, clearing auras and transferring energy.

But it was the early days of the pandemic and COVID-19 was spreading fast. The women in the room stood so close that their bodies touched. No one wore masks.

Kathleen Abraham, 61, saw that the Facebook photo of the group had been taken in the Orange County home of one of her dearest friends, a woman she had known for 15 years who had helped her recover from breast cancer and introduced her to the world of New Age spiritualism.

Weeks later came another jolt. Her friend announced on Instagram that she had been red-pilled, a term used by QAnon adherents to describe their conversion to belief in the conspiracy. Another old friend, Abraham’s first reiki master, was also growing more extreme, writing that the COVID-19 pandemic was a conspiracy and face masks were toxic.

QAnon’s conspiratorial belief system has now pulled in at least a dozen people in Abraham’s spiritual social circle, including two of her closest friends and two friendly psychics who always claimed the booth next to hers at New Age trade shows.

“I realized that I had to release them with love,” said Abraham, an energy healer and certified crystal practitioner from Trabuco Canyon. “It’s hurtful — it’s a deep, painful heart hurt. It’s just really sad to lose so many people. But it just got to the point where I had to let them go.”

A world that has long embraced love, light and acceptance is now making room for something else: QAnon.

More commonly associated with right-wing groups, the conspiracy theory is spreading through yoga, meditation and other wellness circles. Friends and colleagues have watched with alarm as Instagram influencers and their New Age peers — yogis, energy healers, sound bathers, crystal practitioners, psychics, quantum magicians — embraced QAnon’s conspiratorial worldview and sprayed it across social media.

The health, wellness and spirituality world has always been primed for that worldview, followers say. Though largely filled with well-meaning people seeking spiritual or physical comfort, the $1.5 trillion industry can also be a hotbed for conspiracies, magical thinking, dietary supplements with dubious scientific claims and distrust of institutional health care, including vaccines.

“It’s always been the water we were swimming in,” said Julian Walker, 50, a Mar Vista yogi, ecstatic dance teacher and co-host of the “Conspirituality” podcast, which tracks the marriage of conspiracy theories and spiritualism. “Now we’re seeing what happens when the water rises.”

Once a fringe movement, QAnon exploded in popularity during the Trump administration, gaining more believers in the U.S. than several major religions. Two recent polls have found that about 1 in 6 American adults believes its key tenet: that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles are trying to control the country’s government, mass media and financial systems.

Just how deeply QAnon has penetrated the wellness world is difficult to quantify, but its effects are tangible: broken friendships and business partnerships, lingering sadness and frustration, and a growing number of spiritualists who are speaking out against the spread of the false conspiracy theory.

Several New Age spiritualists in Southern California interviewed by the Los Angeles Times said they knew a total of more than a dozen former friends and colleagues at the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol with ties to yoga, meditation, energy healing and dietary supplements hawked by multilevel marketing companies.

Jake Angeli, whose face paint and horned headgear during the Capitol riot earned him the nickname “the QAnon Shaman,” carried a sign at earlier protests that read, “Q Sent Me,” and successfully petitioned a federal judge on religious grounds to receive only organic food in jail. One of the best known of the rioters is Alan Hostetter, a ponytailed former police chief, yoga teacher and sound healer from Orange County who spoke at a QAnon conference and was indicted by federal officials this month.

Vocal QAnon support has dwindled since the insurrection, New Age watchers say, but some of the extremism is calcifying into something equally concerning: long-term conspiratorial thinking that encourages radical autonomy and sows distrust in vaccinations, elected officials and institutions woven into the fabric of American life.

Much of that thinking has been on display in Southern California, the heart of U.S. wellness culture, where many people with enough disposable income to pay for raw, organic diets and $250 chakra realignments are also disengaged from their civic responsibilities, said Derek Beres, a tech worker who lives in the Westside neighborhood of Palms and co-hosts the “Conspirituality” podcast.

When public health orders closed L.A.'s yoga studios, meditation rooms and other spiritual hubs in spring of last year, those privileged wellness seekers were told, “some for the first time, that they can’t do something,” Beres said.

“Since they don’t have any public health knowledge, since they don’t have any civics knowledge, the only place they have to turn is their Instagram feeds.”

As the number of yoga studios soared in Southern California and rents rose, studio owners realized that offering $3,000 teacher trainings was more lucrative than charging students $25 per class, Walker said. Those classes created a glut of newly licensed teachers, some of whom turned to Instagram to build a following and secure sponsorship deals.

In behind-the-scenes marketing trainings, aspiring wellness influencers were told that “being controversial, taking definitive positions that make people love you or hate you, is a great way to build your brand,” Walker said.

That proved true for many spiritual influencers and platforms: A Venice kundalini yoga teacher who has worked with pop star Alicia Keys interviewed a conspiracy theorist for an hour on YouTube. A Sacramento yoga teacher who posted, then deleted, an abbreviation for the popular QAnon slogan, “Where we go one, we go all.” And on Gaia, a kind of Netflix for spiritualism, subscribers can watch a 13-episode series by British conspiracy theorist David Icke, who popularized the claim that the world is run by shape-shifting, blood-drinking lizard people.

Holding influencers accountable for spreading those beliefs has proved difficult, as the vast majority of the industry is unlicensed and unregulated. “It has fostered an enormous amount of mistrust,” said Seane Corn, an L.A.-based yoga instructor and co-founder of “Off The Mat, Into the World,” a nonprofit organization that bridges yoga and social activism. “It has ended friendships.”

Corn was among the wellness leaders who shared a statement in September warning that QAnon’s tactics resembled cult psychology and that the ideology would sow confusion, division and paranoia. Corn estimates she knows at least 10 people who embraced “hardcore QAnon,” including two people who participated in the attack on the Capitol — and is aware of more than 30 colleagues and peers who subscribe to some forms of the ideology, as well as a “countless” number of yoga students.

Corn said she has watched bots and real-life QAnon devotees try to harness her social media comment sections as a recruiting ground, using “wellness language and nonviolent communication” in an attempt to lead her followers toward more conspiratorial thinking.

Her criticism of QAnon also triggered a flood of homophobic and violently sexual messages in her inbox, she said, and her Facebook page was hacked. After the failed insurrection at the Capitol, QAnon is now something of a “damaged brand,” said Matthew Remski, a cult researcher and co-host of the “Conspirituality” podcast. Corn said some of her acquaintances who have fully embraced the conspiracy theory would be embarrassed to be described that way.

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