COVID adds to California yoga and wellness QAnon problem

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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 healthcare, 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-worshiping 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 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.

Derek Beres, co-host of the “Consprituality” podcast, in his Los Angeles office.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

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, a 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.

When the world shut down in March of 2020, Eva Kohn of San Clemente created a group text to stay in touch with nine other women in the area. Niceties about families and lockdown hobbies devolved over the months into false conspiracy theories: that Democratic elites were harvesting adrenochrome from tortured children to use in satanic rites, that the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was perpetrated by antifa, that the COVID-19 vaccine causes infertility.

Kohn, who studied engineering, pushed back again and again. What’s the evidence? What are your sources? Here’s a scientific study that disproves the theory.

“I have a pretty analytical brain,” Kohn said. “No matter what evidence I would present, they would not hear it. They have gone through a rabbit hole and they won’t come out.”

By the end of the year, seven of the 10 women in the group chat had embraced QAnon. Kohn eventually excused herself, but one of them still texts her anti-vaccine propaganda. She estimates that she knows of more than 30 people who’ve embraced Q-related conspiracies. For some, she said, “the influence of natural wellness is what has driven them to this type of thinking.”

Last spring, extremist researchers began to note with alarm that bigoted, far-right ideology was being laundered through vivid sunset photos and slickly designed “educational” slides on Instagram. That recruiting tactic, aimed largely at women, has since been dubbed “pastel QAnon.”

“Instagram is the platform where yoga and QAnon intersected,” said Cécile Guerin, a yoga teacher and extremism researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London. She said the ideology was a clear fit for a community that has long been taught to search for and decode hidden meanings and patterns.

Federal officials have classified the conspiracy theory as a domestic terrorism threat. An intelligence report released last week suggested that while some adherents will pull back as false prophecies do not come true, others will shift from “serving as ‘digital soldiers’ towards engaging in real world violence.”

The theory’s promised “Great Awakening” echoes the yogic views of ascension and consciousness. The anti-mask and anti-distancing rhetoric focused on bodily autonomy and sovereignty, themes embedded in New Age practices, too: that you are your own guru, that you know your body better than anyone else.

Those who have embraced the conspiracy belief and search for hidden clues often describe themselves as having been “red-pilled,” a reference to the 1999 film “The Matrix.” In a famous scene, Keanu Reeves’ character is offered a choice between a blue pill that will keep him in a clueless but contented dream state, and a red pill that will reveal the world’s harsh realities.

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Yoga teacher Laura Schwartz saw that rhetoric rear its head last year, when one of her acquaintances in the yoga community in Alexandria, Va., began to rant on Instagram that the COVID-19 vaccine, which was still in development, contained aborted fetuses.

Then came a flood of even wilder conspiracy theories: that Bill Gates was using the vaccine to depopulate the world, that the Rothschilds were controlling the world’s banks, that Donald Trump would expose and arrest a global ring of elite pedophile Democrats.

“Every talking point QAnon had, she checked them off,” said Schwartz, 41, who has a master’s degree in public health and watched in horror as the posts piled up.

Schwartz eventually severed ties with the acquaintance and moved to Carlsbad in San Diego County. Over the next year, as she watched more New Age clients, peers and acquaintances venture down the rabbit hole, Schwartz coined her own term for the phenomenon: “Woo-Anon.”

Laura Schwartz, seen through an open door, practices yoga on a yellow mat.

Laura Schwartz at her yoga studio in Carlsbad.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“People aren’t taking QAnon as seriously as they should, given how pervasive it is in these worlds — evangelical Christians, yogis — that otherwise have very little in common,” Schwartz said. “They’re creating a world where truth is whatever you feel like it is.”

The extent to which influencers are consciously embracing QAnon belief systems, or just picking and choosing the types of details that will do well online and attract a wider following, is “still a mystery,” Remski said. “Nobody will give you a straight answer.”

Jen Pearlman, a certified life coach who has dabbled in holistic healing for years, also watched the conspiracy theories growing last year.

First, theories that COVID-19 was caused by 5G wireless technology. Then an explosion of posts sharing the viral anti-vaccine movie “Plandemic,” coupled with criticisms of mask rules. In the summer, the embrace of the “Save the Children” campaign, an anti-sex-trafficking campaign co-opted by QAnon. By November, Pearlman said, people were talking about their 2nd Amendment rights and Trump’s reelection campaign.

Most alarming, she said, was that many of the posts seemed antisemitic, she said, with allusions to a New World Order and comparing the United States’ public health shutdowns and vaccination policies to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

It felt “terrifying,” Pearlman said — a reminder that “even though as a community we’re really peppy, we love everybody, and it’s all very ‘kumbaya,’ there is a dark underlying worldview.”

Abraham, the energy healer from Trabuco Canyon, is Jewish. She said she struggled to reconcile the creep of extremist ideology into her inner circle, especially among people whom she had “put on a pedestal” when she first entered the New Age world.

She unfollowed her dear friend and her reiki master, removed their photos from her home and took down her own training certificates from her walls.

“I had to let go of really close mentors,” Abraham said. Her heart hurt so intensely, she said, that she designed and began wearing a bracelet made of crystals that are supposed to cure heartache.

Ultimately, she realized that both women had been key parts of her journey into the metaphysical world. The certificates bearing their signatures are up on her wall again — this time, in a less prominent place.





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