I first felt reality shift when, at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, there was a line for a class called Body Blast Bootcamp, and I worried that there wouldn’t be enough room for everyone.
The draw to this explicitly not-fun undertaking, others in line told me, was that we would be glad to have done it when it was over. We all made it in, and the workout studio was a carpeted conference room where an Instagram-famous instructor with a microphone headset was waiting to give us high fives. “The hardest step is showing up!”
Once we started working out, a person walked around apparently taking Instagram videos, and people were not bothered by this. Another brought a mini tripod to get some shots of herself in action. There was shouting and a Coldplay house remix. Someone offered me a box of alkaline water, and I drank it because no neutral water was available.
Body blasting was just one of the hundreds of classes, sessions, panels, talks, and silent dance parties at the inaugural Wellspring wellness festival. Last month some 2,000 mannequin-shaped people floated into Palm Springs, California, for what advertisements promised to be “a first-of-its-kind wellness festival, that will feature over 200 transformational workshops, treatments, and fitness across multiple categories.” The goal was to “provide seekers the tools to learn and take action in real time for a healthier mind in a relational platform.” (Relational platform was a new term to me, but people seemed less than pleased when I used the word conference.)
The scene was otherworldly from the first whiff of essential oils on the premises, the palatial Palm Springs Convention Center and an adjacent resort hotel. Almost all of the attendees (seekers) were under 40 years old, and all looked well below it. Many could not be picked out of a lineup of Lululemon models. At least one actually was. There were celebrity speakers lined up to lend their expertise, including Russell Brand, the comedian turned spirit guide whose face is the poster for the event, and Alicia Silverstone, best known for her starring role in Clueless, who currently sells a line of vitamins out of an expressed concern that all other prenatal vitamins on the market can be harmful to fetuses.
The water was in boxes because Wellspring purposely forwent wasteful plastic bottles—a half measure, after inviting thousands of people to exercise in the desert. The water was alkaline because that’s a trendy new way to sell people water, and its maker was a sponsor of the festival. The class, too, was sponsored, an Adidas logo projected onto the wall. Outside was a food truck selling Bulletproof concoctions with “brain octane oil.” In a capacious central cavern was “one of the world’s largest wellness exhibitions,” where vendors pitched cosmetics and supplements and bars and tonics. On offer were complimentary CBD-oil massages (sponsored by the seller of said oils) and a balancing of people’s sacral chakras with something called a BioCharger (trademark), “a natural cellular revitalization platform that uses a full spectrum of light and harmonic frequencies to deliver restorative energy” and that promises to help with “creativity, sexuality, and acceptance of new experiences.”
This deluge of products alternately offered to fill attendees with energy or to calm us down, but almost never to keep us as we were. The implicit allure of such products was that we were not okay, or at least could be better. Given all the ways in which most people believe we could be improved, “wellness” has become an all-encompassing concept and industry that not only eats into the territory of mainstream medicine, but that has subsumed what used to be called “alternative medicine”—that which alludes to scientific claims when convenient and also defines itself in opposition to the scientific establishment.
In theory, wellness is a democratizing movement. And yet admission to this relational platform was almost $1,000. That was the price of a ticket alone, not to mention airfare and subsequent purchases of elixirs and foams and polyester clothing.
At the opening social event, I made conversation by asking people what had brought them to the festival—which mostly featured things available in most metropolitan areas, and sessions of the sort that can be viewed online. I thought that constituted small talk. By the end, I realized it was not; many people had come for reasons that run deep. I went to the desert wary of the worst side of the wellness movement as an elitist industry that preys on the very human desire to feel like we’re getting ahead of others, but the more I talked to people, the more I realized that the attendees were largely aware of the problems, and wanted to get back to a distilled notion of why people have long come to love wellness trends and fads: the promise of connection.
Wellspring is produced by a quickly growing company called Wanderlust, “a global wellness platform” and “a multi-channel company focused around mindful living” by way of “renowned festival events, a full-service media company, and several permanent yoga centers.” Wanderlust was founded in Brooklyn 10 years ago and has since been putting on small, music-and-yoga-based festivals. But Wellspring is a new and much grander undertaking, lasting multiple days and based mostly on workshops and high-profile panels and lectures.
As it grows, Wanderlust is morphing with and redefining the many-billion-dollar industry. The gift bag seekers received upon checking in contained a spectrum of the products that have become synonymous with wellness: turmeric tea “whose yellow sustains life’s majestic glow,” probiotic capsules labeled “non-dairy” and “DEFENSE + IMMUNITY,” little light-tan-colored circular sticky patches that promise to be “your blemish hero,” hemp-infused honey called B. Chill (respectable for apparently going out of its way to avoid a very easy bee pun), a “germ-resistant” bag for yoga mats, Before You Go toilet spray, and on and on.
This event goes well beyond the initial vision of Wanderlust’s CEO, Sean Hoess, who sat down with me one morning by a hotel pool in running clothes. Hoess is 48, but like many Wellspring attendees looks a decade younger. He just renovated a house in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and is openly “not a wellness buff”—he prefers tennis. After graduating from Columbia University, he went to law school, but quit practicing to start a record label with a college friend, Jeff Krasno. Krasno’s wife, Schuyler Grant, ran a yoga studio above their office, and the three of them had the idea to start a festival combining the two fields.
Wellness is in many ways a counterpoint to the inefficient and inaccessible and alienating elements of the U.S. health-care system. While it may have antiestablishment origins, the industry is now subject to criticism as a new elite establishment, and one that profits off of serious insecurities and medical problems. Marketing for the festival alludes to the opioid epidemic that killed 72,000 Americans last year: “With our world being affected by addiction and mental-health issues, the Wellspring festival couldn’t come at a better time.” At a time when millions of Americans bear medical debt or are doing jobs they would otherwise quit, because they need health insurance, Wanderlust offers monthly payment plans (“rates from 10–30 percent APR”) to afford a ticket.
Elitism was a hot point of contention and discussion among attendees. The convention center was literally divided into two camps: One wing held the expo, with its many aforementioned products, while some 100 yards away a separate wing housed stages where speakers condemned wanton consumerism.
“A significant cost is the association of wellness with money—thinking you need something external, tinctures and potions and balms. Its, you know, it’s the stuff that’s here,” said the Zen priest Angel Kyodo Williams, the second of only four black women recognized as teachers in the Japanese Zen lineage, during a talk in the latter wing as she gestured in the direction of the expo. “And there’s nothing wrong with those things, but we have a psychic connection that wellness equals something I can purchase, something I’m in competition for, something that I have to acquire because it’s not intrinsic to me.”
Williams instead defined wellness as self-determination: “being able to determine my gender, who I love, who I sleep with, having housing I can afford.”
In one early-morning session of “mindful running ”—sponsored by Adidas—the only two other men in the group were there to accompany their wives. Indeed, this was a heavily female event, the “feminine energy” being celebrated at multiple points and the role of men in wellness debated. Should we men be allowed at all?
I went to one interactive session on masculinity, and I was asked to do eye gazing for several minutes with another man while answering prompts like “Something I’m afraid to tell you is” and “Something I love about myself is.” It is meant to teach men to be expressive, and to see that it can feel normal and good. The only strange thing for me was the uninterrupted eye contact at abnormally close range, about a foot. The women in the session watched us do the exercise and shared their reactions afterward, and many seemed genuinely moved because they hadn’t seen men talk to each other like this before.
Wellness isn’t just gendered. Most of the products and services that define the industry are clearly marketed toward young, thin, toned, ambulatory women who are white. Some speakers were blunt about the fact that wellness is often synonymous with—and sometimes a proxy for—whiteness. One panel was literally called “Wellness Beyond Whiteness,” in which it was decided that wellness needed to be totally reconciled into something for everyone—not to simply be “inclusive” or “bring people to the table,” but to demolish the table and, as with any growing movement, keep building new tables.
The old “bring people to the table” metaphor rang especially egregious to the artist and writer Anasa Troutman, who had a similarly revelatory vision for wellness: “Unless we’re willing to make a commitment to community, we will never be well. Even if you wake up every morning and drink your juice and do your yoga, without that commitment to each other we will not be well as a country and as a world,” Troutman said.
For a wellness festival, there was an unexpected amount of talk about the importance of suffering and pain. In one panel about addiction, the ultramarathoner Charlie Engle, who ran 30 marathons in his first three years of sobriety, told the story of his first son being born. “He was gonna save me,” Engle recalled, “and then six days later, after a crack binge, the police are searching my car, and I had to choose between living and dying. And I chose running ... I wanted to pound that part of me out and never visit it again.”
Engle has since run across the Sahara desert, among other death-defying feats that go well beyond what could be considered good for the joints. This was not a passing hobby or a way of dropping a few pounds. It was, rather, a purposeful blasting of the body. The running community provided for him fellowship and camaraderie, as it does for many people struggling with addiction. It also helped him realize that he didn’t have to give up being intense and passionate and obsessive; he just needed to channel these features in less destructive ways. “Do I run addictively? I’ve been accused of it,” he said. “But I’ve never lost my car after a run.”
The emerging theme was that sitting with pain was integral to finding one’s path to wellness. Yet none of the products in my complimentary tote promised pain. I checked.
The centerpiece of the weekend was a keynote by Russell Brand. I got in early as a member of the media and grabbed a seat in the front row of the enormous multipurpose convention space. I was sitting watching stagehands and audiovisual technicians bustling around when, about 10 minutes before the crowd was to be let in, Brand came onstage and appeared horrified at the layout of the audience seating. There was a 12-foot aisle in the center, directly in front of where Brand was to stand at his microphone. “This is death,” he scolded, pointing at the space. “I’m supposed to perform into this?”
He asked and then demanded that the 200 or so chairs in the middle of the auditorium be rearranged. This required summoning the fire marshal (as the aisle was a matter of code) who insisted that no changes could be made. Brand held his ground. Event planners gathered around him trying to talk him down. Even if it weren’t for the fire code, moving the chairs at this point would have to be done by union workers and would take time. The audience was waiting outside baking in the sun, Hoess, Wanderlust’s CEO, reminded Brand. But he was insistent. I sensed he was willing to threaten to not go on at all when the organizers finally broke down and agreed to move the chairs.
What at first seemed petulant, though, was actually a vital objection. The importance of spatial connection with the audience wasn’t a note from just a seasoned comedian, but from a person with experience in 12-step meetings and giving counsel to others going through addiction. Once the audience was finally inside and seated in the newly arranged chairs, Brand put his finger directly onto a nerve. “You’re all here because you’re misfits,” he opened, stifling the residual energy from his introduction. “You wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t something you’re trying to fix, now would you?”
Brand’s talk veered only more earnest, about his own trials with addiction to crack and heroin and how 12-step programs helped him “get the keys to his life back.” Drugs are a symbol, he implored. “The craving isn’t for drugs. All yearning and desire are inappropriate substitutes for what you want, which is to be at one with God, which is connection.”
It could have been confused for a sermon had he not been dressed in black-leather pants and cursed so much. And like many people, he’s not exactly aligned with Alcoholics Anonymous’s religious tone and bent, and so he has rewritten the 12 steps in more colloquial terms for anyone who wants to change, whether the addiction is to “eating badly or to bad jobs or to pornography.” Brand’s own 12 steps, projected on a slide, are:—Are you a bit fucked?
—Could you not be fucked?
—Are you, on your own, going to unfuck yourself?
—Write down all the things that are fucking you up or have ever fucked you up, and don’t lie or leave anything out.
—Honestly tell someone trustworthy about how fucked you are.
—Well, that’s revealed a lot of fucked up patterns. Do you want to stop it? Seriously?
—Are you willing to live in a new way that’s not all about you and your previous, fucked up stuff? You have to.
—Prepare to apologize to everyone for everything affected by your being so fucked up.
—Now apologize. Unless that would make things worse.
—Watch out for fucked up thinking and behavior and be honest when it happens.
—Stay connected to your new perspective.
—Look at life less selfishly, be nice to everyone, help people if you can.
After breaking this down, Brand took questions from the audience. The first was from a person in the third row who said her brother is an addict who keeps coming to her for money. What should she do? Brand moved to the very front of the stage and looked into the back of her eyes and told her she knows what she has to do—which is cut him off, let him hit rock bottom. She said, yes, she knows, and she cried.
He asked the room, “How many of you have had to detach from a loved one because of addiction?” About half of the people raised their hands. He told them they were right and to never second-guess themselves. Some people don’t make it, but no one does when enabled.
The emphatic takeaway is that the opposite of addiction is connection. Beating the disease is fundamentally about preempting the point where you lose the freedom to choose: Don’t hold the drink in your hand; don’t go to the party where you know exactly what will go down. In the moment before the bad decision, Brand urged, “you have to make the commitment to call someone who can be your North Star. Someone who is not spellbound in that moment. Someone who can tell you the problem you’re trying to escape is still going to be there, and it’s not going to work, and you’re gonna feel like shit afterward. This is why we need people further down the path, so they can hold our shit as we grow.”
For the rest of the hour, Brand was holding the shit of the entire Palm Springs Convention Center.
The people at Wellspring were easy to talk to. They were into eye contact, and open about how what Brand had said was true: Beneath the good vibes and aerial-yoga acrobatics, many attendees at this conference told me they were sober or currently dealing with addiction. The ultra-runner Engle was not alone in the conscious replacement of substances with wellness. But addicted or not, many of the people I met had turned to wellness to explicitly fill some space previously occupied by a substance or behavior or person, so as not to relapse into self-destructive habits.
“I don’t do anything a little bit,” said Nadia Bolz-Weber, a speaker whose recovery from addiction led her to become an ultraprogressive Lutheran minister. “I think that whole ‘balance’ thing is just another thing society made up to make me feel bad about myself. I’m not going to be someone who’s not intense, that’s not going to happen. So I was intense about the way I drank and did drugs.”
There are evident parallels between the isolated, secular American lifestyle and the sale of identity, community, and guidance on how to live. The festival’s speakers were called “guide leaders.” Wanderlust’s slogan is “Find your true north.” When I asked Hoess how he thought the festival was going, he said it was great because everyone looked “totally blissed out.” The idea kept coming up that we all worship something, and that God is a necessary construct if only to have something to conceptually subordinate the self.
This is at odds with the consumerist bent to wellness. If the movement indeed rejects the quick-fix products, which seems infeasible, it’s unclear what wellness is to become. If wellness is actually essentially the inverse of consumerism, and nearly synonymous with connectedness and wholeness and feeling complete, then the industry will need a new way to monetize.
Connection itself can be monetized, of course—in ways that create factions and cliques, or in inclusive ways that bring together people of various socioeconomic strata. That actually may look something like Wanderlust. The market is flooded with things we can consume alone on our couches or at the gym with headphones in. But we are hungry for connection—to hear the same things said but to have a person speaking directly to us (and to a few hundred other people).
The last time I was in Palm Springs was a year ago for the TEDMED conference (relational platform?), and at the time I was mystified. It was a full house at the price of $4,950 a ticket, even though TED Talks are available for free online. The videos can be sped up if the speaker is boring, segments can be skipped, and tabs can be opened to keep the talk running in the background while getting some email done or shopping for shoes. There would seem, then, very little reason to need to go to the actual conference, to sit through marathon sessions where a fair number of speakers mess up or forget their lines (as I did).
Yet people attend. In the same vein later this month in Los Angeles there is a conference called Summit LA, which features a “wellness” track and includes speakers like Wim Hof, “the Ice Man” who teaches people how to be cold. The price including a “medium” room at the Ace Hotel is $9,100.
The consumption of commodified connection doesn’t need to require a small fortune, though. In fact, it can’t, by any of the new, woke definitions of wellness. Hoess would like to get Wellspring up to 4,000 people or so, he tells me, in order to keep the price down. I met two seekers who were there on scholarship, and four who had won a ticket through an Instagram giveaway (people actually do win those things). Hoess contrasted his model with smaller events like the Aspen Ideas Festival (which The Atlantic has long been a partner in producing), which tend to be more expensive at least partly due to scale.
The other way to make such things accessible is to inundate attendees with advertising—which can undermine the concept by making us feel inadequate without this product or that, rather than by affirming our wholeness. Poolside, Hoess told me that he believes there can still be profit in a less consumerist direction, but that it’s necessary to “redefine capitalism to where it’s not just about pure profit, it’s also about social profit. If we can merge those things, I think business becomes a force for good.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Hey, you can roll your eyes, and I know there are bad [companies],” said Hoess, likening wellness to the health-care industry. “Obviously the system is fucked up, and it causes weird incentives, and eventually people get jaded and maybe lose their passion for doing good.”
So how does the wellness movement keep perspective and stay focused on what matters? It’s not about just finding one’s true north but following it, day after day, year after year. Straying happens as more of a gradual slide than as any single decision to go down a bad road. You start off doing what you think is right or helpful or normal, and then it feels good to make some money, and then it feels necessary, and you have an obligation to grow and to be seen as flourishing and successful. Then before you know it, you’re running a huge company that’s preying on seekers and begging them off course.
Everyone strays; everyone tries to avoid pain instead of learning from it; everyone has ways of escaping anxiety that aren’t productive. At its best, wellness offers habits and practices around which to build a community that will help you feel whole, or at least distract from the sense of inadequacy that drives people to self-injurious behavior—whether it be substance abuse or gambling or mistreating others or spending three hours a day on Instagram despite knowing it makes us feel bad.
Once I understood this, Wellspring’s lingo and the community signifiers and the products over which people bond and become “obsessed” and build rituals seemed a lot less silly or predatory. I did leave the desert in a better state than I arrived, though with nothing that—at least hypothetically—couldn’t be had for free.