A few years ago, around the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a perplexing shift in the wellness space. Yoga teachers, holistic healers, crystal sellers — people who had never posted anything remotely political, seemed, all of a sudden, to start posting about the dangers of 5G radiation, surgical masks, blood-drinking pedophiles, and “gender ideology.” And while a few major influencers in the space spoke out against this trend, it seemed as if more and more wellness figures were getting red-pilled by the day. 

This was the seed for the creation of Conspirituality, a podcast by Derek Beres, Matthew Remski, and Julian Walker about the intersection of the wellness space and (largely, right-wing) conspiracy theories. All three had a vested interest in investigating this topic: both Beres and Walker were involved in the yoga community for decades, while Remski was involved in several self-help groups that he later referred to as “cults.” And with the rise of the pandemic, with everyone and their mother seemingly posting baseless claims about Wayfair sex trafficking children and Covid vaccines killing young people, it was an opportune time for them to launch a podcast calling them out. (Editor’s note: the author of this article appeared on an episode of the Conspirituality podcast to discuss natural childbirth influencers.) 

Now, Beres, Remski, and Walker have coauthored a book: Conspirituality: How New Age Conspiracy Theories Became a Health Threat, which documents the modern-day rise of wellness gurus and misinformation peddlers like Kelly Brogan and JP Sears while probing the age-old racist roots of practices like contemporary yoga. Rolling Stone caught up with Beres to discuss celebrity influencers (and who he finds the scariest), Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s run for office, and Oprah’s surprising role in the misinfo space. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. 

Your book is coming from a place where all three of you had some sort of personal involvement in the wellness world. Can you talk about your own ties there and how you came to observe the radicalization of the community?

I began practicing yoga in the 1990s, so I was part of the nascent wellness industry as it exists today. It has existed for generations before me, but it was a slow build in the 1990s. You really just had Yoga Journal and Yoga International starting to forum, you started to have more mainstream conversations around yoga and wellness in general, but it was not nearly monetized to the degree that it is today. And [I’ve been] watching the mainstreaming of Eastern philosophies and the yoga practice and organic food. 

The wellness industry is such a vague term, right? But it generally has to do with people who are into self care and some sort of holistic healing. I’ve watched as a lot of people started to buy into the idea that you can live this natural life divorced from many of the technologies that we use today and don’t think about. [And] as more people enter the space and want to monetize it, you’re going to find more and more conspiracy theories entering. And that is basically what happened. 

Of course, this was really kick-started because of the pandemic. I’ve been critical of a lot of what is said in yoga studios for a long time, but by the time we reached the pandemic, and everyone’s life is just thrown in every direction and people don’t know how to make a living, because they’ve invested so much in these in these in-person spaces, that just allowed so much misinformation to spread through the networks that people were using, usually to post pretty photos of themselves doing yoga postures. Now all of a sudden, you had space for people to just start to think of the wildest conspiracies, and unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped. 

The first chunk of the book talks a lot about the right-wing influences in the yoga world, which I think a lot of readers would be unaware of. Can you talk about that a little bit?

There’s a romanticization of yoga that has persisted in the American yoga community for a long time. On a basic foundational level, it’s this 5,000-year old practice that has come down from the ethers that is about self transformation. But it has gone through so many forms over the generations. What we call modern yoga began in the late Nineteenth century, early Twentieth century. It is a combination of British wrestling, gymnastics, strength training, and traditional yoga postures. Now, it does not mean that everyone who practices yoga today is interested in the ideologies that were around at that time. But at that time, there was a figure named Eugen Sandow. Eugen is not his first name. He created “Eugen” as shorthand for eugenics. He was a strongman who would go to India to do the strength techniques, but he thought they were lesser than people. He writes about this in his book, how he thinks that the white race is the master race. [So] the modern yoga form is in some way based off the idea of white nationalism and eugenics. Again, it’s not a direct influence, but it’s seeped through the characters who are leading figures in the development of the practice. And that’s what we try to draw out in the book, just to say that when you romanticize a practice, you should actually look where it comes from, because they usually are not the same story.

You guys started the podcast in the early days of the pandemic, and the book focuses largely on events that took place during and after the pandemic. What were sort of the events prior to the pandemic that you also see as laying the groundwork here, in terms of the red pilling of the wellness community?

RFK Jr. is the perfect example. I was writing about the anti-vax movement 10 years ago, based on Andrew Wakefield’s falsified studies [claiming that autism is linked to vaccines], which was involved in the measles outbreaks in both Samoa as well as the Somalian community in Michigan, as well as the moms’ community in Brentwood, Los Angeles between 2015 and 2017. So you already had this idea that vaccinations were a problem, and then you had the resurgence of things like measles in these communities and deaths when it comes to Samoa. Some of the figures [like RFK Jr. and Wakefield] who are still key figures in this community were doing this work. So I really think that the anti-vax movement is the groundwork for everything we’ve seen. 

The podcast originated because of [the viral anti-vaccine documentary] Plandemic. The week it was released is when I reached out to Matthew and Julian to discuss this pseudo documentary, but it didn’t just come out of nowhere. The groundwork had been laid for decades before that. It was just an opportune time. And of course, there’s the intersection with QAnon that occurred at that time too, which is what basically gave it steroids.

How conscious are these influencers that you write about in this book, of what exactly they’re doing?

The question of intent is one that I’ve struggled with this entire time. I personally believe that some of these influencers truly believe what they’re saying. I would identify [former New Age guru and current anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist] Christiane Northrup, as someone who I believe is along those lines. I also believe that some people are just opportunists, and they see a community that they can monetize and radicalize, and they’re just taking the opportunity to do that to raise their own star. There are examples of anti-vaxxers who were not so red pilled, but then you watch when they start to talk about anti-vaxxer talking points, all of a sudden, they gained tens of thousands of followers on social media. And so you can actually watch the indoctrination process happen. Now, whether or not they believe it, unfortunately, that’s something we can never prove. You can’t tell what’s in someone’s heart, you can only go by the public record and what they say. So it’s a very difficult question. But I think there is a spectrum across the wellness industry, ranging from people who really believe this stuff to people who are just happy to monetize it.

I couldn’t really get a sense from the book about how much actual influence guys like [Austin based influencer turned far-right guru] JP Sears have in terms of dominating the public discourse. Is he echoing far right talking points, or is he leading the conversation?

I really think JP is a follower. I don’t see any new thoughts coming from what he says. He, to me, is very much that junior high school jock that likes to snap people with a towel in the locker room. He just kind of latches onto things and follows. I do think JP has a lot of influence, though. He’s tight with [Plandemic filmmaker] Mikki Willis. He’s done some speeches for [far-right politician] Kari Lake and other politicians. His influence is there. But when you actually look at the material, he just kind of repeats things that you can find on Fox News. But I also recognize that the entire Austin vector of these conspiracy theorists are very influential. And he is one of those players.

What is Austin’s role as a nexus for conspiracy theorists?

Austin has become the [center of the] New Age spiritual community. You used to have San Francisco as the tech sector and L.A. as the wellness sector. They’ve both converged in Austin. So you have this very strange mix of futurists and transhumanists now working in this space where Elon Musk dominates and then you have the wellness community who just kind of follows that, and there’s a lot of money, there’s a lot of influence there right now. They’ve all just decided that’s a place to collect and gather, and I think that they will continue to influence the national conversation because of so many of the players who are spreading their networks out from that space.

A lot of celebrities have also moved there. Is that significant at all?

Some of the celebrities, I don’t know their involvement, [but] celebrity culture is something we’ve always had to contend with in America. It’s not different from someone like Paul Saladino [aka the Carnivore MD on Instagram], who’s a psychiatrist, but he writes a nutrition book about an all-meat diet, and then partners with [the Instagram influencer who admitted to steroid use] Liver King and they start a supplement company. They’re using knowledge from one domain and then they’re applying it to others. I mean, celebrities have always done that. People automatically think that their level of knowledge in other fields must be elevated because they’ve reached the public gaze, they’ve ascended to some level of celebrity, and so people are willing to listen to them even when what they’re saying is completely ridiculous.

Yeah, speaking of celebrities, Oprah makes an appearance in the book. She interviewed Christiane Northrup, and [author and Covid misinformation disseminator] Charles Eisenstein and at various points. How much of a role did Oprah play in giving these people a platform?

Huge, huge. The Decoding the Gurus podcast, who are friends of ours, recently did a two-hour episode on Oprah and went through her influence. She’s such a complicated figure, because you know what? Her book club got a lot of people to read. Awesome. I love that. But when one of the books is [self-help book] The Secret, and then you’re inviting [author] Rhonda Byrne on to talk about it, and she believes that your thoughts will dictate and create your reality, is a very dangerous idea. Because it sets up people to fall for the life coaches, or the public speakers who are out there doing that.

It also creates a sense of guilt in people. Because if people are following these stars, and they’re like, “Well, I’m thinking the right way, why isn’t it happening for me,” it just sets up this vicious cycle of guilt and feeling less than enough. The Medical Medium story in Vanity Fair [which accuses a prominent wellness influencer of being indirectly responsible for the death of follower Stephanie Tisone, a claim that he has denied], that same mindset was addressed. [She thought], “I’m a raw foodist, I’m doing everything I should to heal my cancer naturally, but I’m not doing it, why not?” And it’s really sad. That’s really what breaks my heart about this entire industry is that not everyone can be a celebrity. Not everyone can be a millionaire. But this mindset perpetuates that if you listen to these people, if you buy their courses, or believe what they’re selling, that you will get the same thing. And it’s just not true.

Can you speak to RFK, Jr., and his presidential run? Having observed his influence over the past decade, do you think he actually poses a threat? Not in terms so much of the nomination, but just in terms of his ability to influence the national discourse?

[I] do think that he can shift the discourse in a way that could siphon off part of the Democratic and the Republican vote right now. First it was the environmental crusades that he was doing, which I actually agree with, that raised his star, but then the anti-vax stuff, which he’s been on for so long. He just said that look at all the mass shootings in America and every one of the mass shooters was on an SSRI. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but he said that, and so he’s shifting the conversation away from gun reform or gun legislation to talk about pharmaceutical companies. This is a right-wing talking point. And that’s very dangerous. [Because] of all of these disparate communities that he’s bringing together, I actually think he can have some influence.

I was a little surprised by how little you guys mentioned Gwyneth Paltrow, in terms of the role that she’s played in platforming wellness influencers. There has been sort of a shift in her public persona from people making fun of Goop to people being like, “Wow, Gwyneth Paltrow, props to her.” What do you make of that shift? And how do you see her influence now?

The reason we didn’t write about her is because we felt she’s so well-covered already. We have talked about her in a number of episodes. [People] have such short attention spans and I don’t think they really understand the damage that something like Goop has done in mainstreaming these ridiculous ideas. I believe both Gwenyth believes a lot of what she says but also just comes from an elite family, she comes from wealth. And this is a marketing opportunity. And she has owned that space for so long. 

A recurring theme throughout the book is how wellness influencers sort of co-opt the language and traditions of indigenous folks. Can you talk more about the cultural appropriation aspect of conspirituality and who you see as sort of the prime offender here?

We talk about “pretendians” [influencers who claim Native ancestry for clout] in the book, and that I do believe, is a problem. The way that I frame it is that yoga instructors who have done Ayahuasca once now call themselves shamans. The broader wellness community are people who are taking these terms that do actually have meaning, and do have levels of training that exist in other cultures, and they’re just assuming the name because there’s no need to credential yourself in any meaningful capacity. So you have people leading people on psychedelic trips who don’t have the credentials to understand what happens if someone actually has a mental breakdown during this experience.


I guess my last question for you is, trust in public health institutions and the media has never really been lower. So what exactly can these institutions do to combat this type of messaging from people who have millions of followers?

It’s the hardest question. I recently spoke as the keynote speaker to the Oregon State Librarians Association, and it was about disinformation in media, and how do you combat it. And the only thing that you can do is just continue to put forward good information. And it sounds so trite and basic. But you can’t fight skirmishes with people on their own turf. It’s not going to go well. I can’t create a “Derek reacts to JP reacts” video channel and expect it to have nearly any of the influence that he has. But I can take what he says, and I can break it down and continue to speak to my audience about it, to show not only that the information isn’t valid, but also to show the techniques that they’re using to indoctrinate people down this pathway. Because fighting information against information will work with some people. But if you can trigger something in people to make them understand how they’re doing it. I think that actually has utility.