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When I found yoga, everything changed. Instead of fixing and controlling, I started to let myself feel. The yoga mat was more like a wrestling mat—the place where I faced my pain and my fear and my loss. And it was messy. But something was happening and the more I moved and breathed through it, the more my grief changed. The practice wasn’t just healing me, it was revealing me, this new version of me, so much so that I quit my job, moved across the country, became a yoga teacher, and vowed to change the world.
I arrived in San Francisco in 2002, just as wellness was taking off. On any given day, you would either find me at the yoga studio, the Whole Foods, or the Lululemon. I was as woo-woo as they come: adorned in mala beads and $100 yoga pants with my tried-and-true yoga mat slung across my back. I would lecture my friends and family on the benefits of meditation and recite sutras to anyone who would listen. I felt like I was a part of something magical—people were waking up, eating organic, buying green everything, piling into yoga studios like it was Coachella. We were hungry for meaning and hope and connection, and I was obsessed… I would hit my mat, stalk organic food, and seek exotic retreats like my life depended on it.
The post-yoga glow was real. I would emerge from Savasana cleansed in sweat and liberated from whatever weight and worry I had carried onto my mat. There are lots of words used to describe that feeling—bliss, ecstasy, contentment—when you come back to yourself and know it is going to be OK, when you feel hopeful again. I would savor that glow in the sanctuary of my studio for as long as I could. And then I would blissfully step out onto Folsom and Fourth with my green juice in hand and walk right into the same group of homeless youth who took shelter in that stoop every evening. Clad in piercings and punk gear, they were inconspicuous in how they blended into their surroundings. And yet they demanded to be seen. At first I would plow by, too busy to notice. Then I started to look. Eventually I just stopped, unable to ignore what was right there in front of me.
The world outside of my wellness bubble was different. Really different. From domestic violence to ongoing wars, from chronic illness to medical trauma, from starving children to food apartheid—people were struggling to survive, much less be well.
I realized that my yoga practice wasn’t just revealing me, it was revealing the real world in living color. And no matter how much I tried to meditate it away, I couldn’t unsee the suffering all around me. I used to think it was enough to have good intentions, to be a healthy and compassionate citizen. But then I wondered if that was just a myth that enabled me to escape. And I began to grapple with why I got to be well when others didn’t. How well-being had somehow become a privilege afforded to people with access and time and money. People like me.
What I couldn’t see in my yoga stupor is that while the wellness economy soars, so does inequality. Inequality has been a staple of the so-called American Dream for as long as we’ve had one. It’s why the US is both the wealthiest and the most unequal country among industrialized nations. While one part of the country is making choices about organic and GMO- free food, the rest of the country is trying to figure out how to pay their bills and feed their families. The irony of wellness is that behind its promise of unity is a deep divide.
The well-being gap is the unequal conditions that determine who gets to be well and who doesn’t. It is the gap of all gaps.
But I didn’t want to “look” at the truth of our suffering. I wanted to stay in the comfort and ignorance of my yoga bubble. I wanted to be right about wellness—that we could be saved by meditation and mantras. But I was in for a rude awakening. No amount of green juice and yoga poses is going to get us well as long as many people around us are suffering. And while it is tempting to try to find ourselves through personal practice and a healthy lifestyle, in happiness apps and expensive supplements, we only become more lost and isolated. When we tie our well-being to something that can be purchased or achieved outside of ourselves, it hooks us in a never-ending cycle of accumulation that only further perpetuates the gap.
Looking back, I wonder if what drew me to wellness was not so much the desire to be well but the desire to be purified. The world is a toxic mess full of suffering and violence and injustice, and I didn’t just want to escape—I wanted to transcend it. The promise of purity and the seduction of hope gave me a way out, a bypass to the discomfort of both my suffering and my privilege. Wellness promised to make me better, to absolve me of my toxic ways and deliver me anew. These self-righteous protocols to eat clean, to avoid inflammation, to think positive thoughts imply that we can rise above it all. But there is no such thing as purity in a world polluted by separation, scarcity, and supremacy.
Thus began my reckoning with wellness. On one hand, I had discovered in wellness a way of being and belonging that felt true and right on so many levels. On the other hand, that very culture was reinforcing the very illness and imbalance it was intended to address. I felt betrayed by the very thing that had offered me refuge and healing when I needed it most, leaving me only more isolated and unwell. No longer could I reconcile my personal pursuit of wellness with the suffering that was all around me.
Inevitably (and ironically) I discovered the truth on my mat. I was hips-deep in a yoga class in San Francisco, moving through confusion and sweating through my discomfort. Our teacher, Seane Corn, was leading us in an excruciating flow that alternated between passionate instruction and prophetic inquiry. Her classes were like a rite of passage—an invitation to confront our demons and connect with our higher self. And in the middle of what seemed like an unethically long pigeon pose, she asked a question that would change my life forever: “What if you took your yoga off the mat and into the world?” Those words landed so fully in my body. And I realized that yoga and wellness weren’t about feeling good or escaping the truth, they were about turning toward the truth and asking “How can I be of service?” Soon after, I would end up running an organization that was committed to bridging personal transformation and social change.
It wasn’t until I discovered what yoga isn’t that I truly understood what it really is. Yoga is not an escape from the harsh realities of our world. It is not a blissed-out bright-siding of the truth of who we are and where we come from. And it is not the exclusion of any part of our experience or history. Yoga means “to yoke,” to unite all the disparate parts of ourselves without exception. It invites us to confront the personal and collective obstacles that are in the way of our liberation. Yoga is rooted in an ancient principle called ahimsa in Sanskrit, which means “non-harming,” a concept that can be found in South Asia’s karmic religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. In other words, any expression of yoga or wellness that contributes to the suffering, exclusion, exploitation, or oppression of others is not yoga at all, it’s just more suffering. The real yoga is off the mat. It is how we show up in service and action for the well-being of everyone.
Adapted excerpt from American Detox: The Myth of Wellness and How We Can Truly Heal by Kerri Kelly (North Atlantic Books, 2022).(Photo: Courtesy of North Atlantic Books)
A community organizer, wellness activist, Kerri Kelly is the founder of CTZNWELL, a movement that is democratizing wellbeing for all. Kerri is recognized across communities for her work to bridge transformational practice with social justice. She has taught yoga for more than 20 years and is known for making waves in the wellness industry by challenging norms, disrupting systems and mobilizing people to act. American Detox is her guide for people who want to know how to make change; it offers a pathway to deepening the practice and expanding our impact.” You can learn more about her work at kerrikelly.co and ctznwell.org.