Yoga influencers are battling to weed out QAnon conspiracy theories that have infiltrated their world of wellness

  • QAnon, the baseless far-right conspiracy theory, has jumped from anonymous message boards into the mainstream — it's even found its way into the world of yoga.
  • Yogis' interest in the conspiracy-theory movement, which is focused on the notion that a "deep state" cabal of child traffickers runs the world, comes amid QAnon's shift to an anti-human-trafficking "save the children" guise.
  • While the yoga-QAnon intersection may be surprising, a confluence of factors, including the rise of medical misinformation amid the pandemic, has made it possible.
  • "People are drawn to yoga and spirituality who have felt marginalized and let down by the medical system. For many women, it's that they've felt patronized," Julian Walker, a yoga instructor who's researched cultism in wellness, told Insider.
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It started small and subtle, in early spring, with Facebook and Instagram posts questioning how much we really knew about COVID-19.

Jennifer Davis-Flynn, a yoga instructor and freelance journalist, noticed yogis expressing doubts about the severity of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, challenging government-mandated lockdowns and mask-wearing regulations, and positing whether natural medicine and meditation could best protect us from the viral threat. Their claims have been proven false by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as both agencies have repeatedly asserted that the best defense against the virus is social distancing and mask-wearing. 

Then, in late April, the tone of the posts became increasingly ominous, Davis-Flynn told Insider. Yogis she followed suggested baseless conspiracy theories, including that the virus might be a hoax caused by a shadowy high-tech influence of 5G, or a cover to inoculate every citizen with a vaccine hiding a tracking device.

Suddenly, accounts that previously served up "fitspiration" or glossy messages about light and love were peppered with posts baselessly referencing an insidious underworld of child exploitation, sex crimes, the devil, and a coming war between good and evil. 

"All of a sudden Satan would come in and I was, like, 'What?!' I've never seen a yoga teacher talk about Satan before," Davis-Flynn said. They had been red-pilled, and had fallen down the QAnon rabbit hole.

QAnon has long been focused on Trump, but some yogis consume the theories without the politics

QAnon is the baseless far-right conspiracy theory that alleges Trump is fighting a deep-state cabal of Satanic pedophiles. It has seen huge surges in popularity in recent years.

It originated on far-right message boards. The anonymous "Q" figure has been leaving cryptic messages (or "Q drops") for followers since the fall of 2017, pedaling conspiracy theories linked to dozens of alleged crimes in the US.

The FBI said in 2019 that the movement posed a domestic-terrorism threat. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter have announced attempts to shut it out of their platforms.

And yet it has entered mainstream culture, fanned by flattering comments from the president himself. Now it has taken hold of less politically charged communities, such as the yoga, wellness, and lifestyle influencer spaces, where it's becoming more appealing to women.

Some experts question whether the movement could begin to dissipate post-Trump, with President-elect Joe Biden having won the election. But the spread of QAnon in the yoga community suggests not.

While QAnon's core is made of Trump-loyal followers who are posting baseless theories of voter fraud, yogis who espouse QAnon messages have adopted the movement's general posture without any mention of the president.

Yogis use veiled language about 'the awakening' and human trafficking to spread QAnon

The phrase "Save the Children" has been part of QAnon's successful pivot into mainstream culture. It started with QAnon believers spreading false claims that Hillary Clinton trafficked and abused children and consumed their blood.

Now, though, it is being used in captions on pastel-colored Instagram posts by yogis, who write about their "awakening" — another QAnon phrase — to the movement against human trafficking. But they do not espouse the conspiracy theory explicitly.

One yogi, Jane Allen Chaisson, posts about "the truth" and "the awakening" on Instagram. She told Insider she did not identify as a member of the QAnon community, despite having recommended "The Fall of the Cabal," one of QAnon's top recruitment videos, to her 1,450 followers.

She wrote in a post in July: "Some extremely dark, horrific and unspeakable things have been coming into the light recently. Information regarding our precious children. If you don't know what I'm talking about, be courageous and get informed."

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Stephanie Birch is a yoga influencer with 56,000 followers. On August 24 she posted a picture of clouds in front of a dark-blue sky.

"We are experiencing a spiritual warfare against mastery manipulating puppets that go back years," she wrote in the post, "through kill tactics of separation, delusions, safety, and survival." She added the hashtags "great awakening" and "purpose over popularity."

The post previously included the now deleted phrase "wwg1wga" — a QAnon slogan which stands for "where we go one, we go all," according to screenshots obtained by Conspirituality, a podcast that traces the rise of QAnon in the yoga and wellness world.

Buti Yoga founder Bizzie Gold, who has 56,000 Instagram followers, has shared videos about a "Satanic agenda" in the US, mentioning "adrenochrome," a chemical related to the human stress hormone adrenaline. In QAnon's fictional lore, adrenochrome is consumed as a recreational drug by Satan-worshipping elites who harvest it from the fear of children. 

Gold told Insider that she doesn't identify with the QAnon movement, and that attempts to categorize people as such "feels like a witch hunt." 

Chaisson, Birch, and Gold were featured on Conspirituality's list of yogis endorsing QAnon. Birch did not respond to a request for comment.

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Marc-André Argentino, a doctoral candidate at Concordia University who researches extremism, has dubbed this phenomenon of women spreading QAnon in the wellness world "pastel QAnon" because they use pastel colors and softer language in their social-media posts.

"We're in a different phase now, kind of a second wave" of QAnon, said Marc Tuters, a lecturer in the University of Amsterdam's media-studies program. He researches radical political subcultures online.

Tuters said that in the "pastel QAnon" world, people aren't looking for Q drops on fringe forums. They're discussing the movement among themselves. "As far as I can tell, it's become something else now," he said.

This "normiefication," as University of Amsterdam researchers have dubbed it, has made the movement easily digestible to folks whose beliefs aren't quite so extreme.

The 'Plandemic' video was hugely popular in the yoga community

Judy Mikovits, an anti-vax doctor, in "The Plandemic."
Elevate/YouTube

The QAnon community was instrumental in the spread and popularity of "Plandemic," the debunked "documentary" that fueled misinformation about the coronavirus.

"The video spread from YouTube to Facebook thanks to highly active QAnon and conspiracy-related Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members, which caused a massive cascade," Erin Gallagher, a social-media researcher and multimedia artist, wrote in an article sharing her findings based on data from CrowdTangle, which tracks public Facebook interactions.

For many in the yoga community, it became an entry point into QAnon.

The filmmaker, Mikki Willis, was well known among yoga and wellness influencers, particularly in Los Angeles. The film drew on undercurrents of mistrust for mainstream medicine that have long been present in yoga, according to Julian Walker. Walker is a yoga instructor who has researched cultism in the wellness world and co-created the "Conspirituality" podcast earlier this year.

"I would say the anti-vax sentiment is really strong in the yoga community already," Walker said. "It's not super fringe for people [in yoga] to be doing a raw vegan diet, or juice cleanses or fasts, or not 'believe' in Western medicine."

Within mainstream medicine, many people struggle against medical biases, lack of access to care, and other systemic problems.

"People are drawn to yoga and spirituality who have felt marginalized and let down by the medical system. For many women, it's that they've felt patronized," Walker said.

But seeds of doubt from legitimate complaints can bloom into more extreme beliefs and opposition to established science.

Anti-vaccine thought, for example, is based on the incorrect notion that vaccines are risky. It is rooted in conspiracy theories and ignores established evidence showing vaccines to be safe and effective.

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Schuyler Grant, a prominent yoga instructor with decades of experience, said she appreciates that the community offers a forum for skepticism. But Grant, who describes herself as vaccine-skeptical, said she has now found herself in the unexpected position of defending legitimate advice and guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization.

"I think skepticism is valuable, when it's questioning the people in power in a functioning democracy, but not when the endgame is dangerous and militarized, leading to the dissolution of our democracy," Grant said.

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'Horseshoe theory' may help explain why QAnon and yoga intersect

The isolation and extra free time brought about by lockdowns have driven many to search for a sense of community online. There, algorithms can drive people toward more and more extreme ways of thinking.

As a far-right conspiracy, QAnon might seem an unlikely endpoint in the stereotypically left-leaning yoga community. But it's an established phenomenon that extremes of ideology can curve so far into their respective philosophies that they end up intersecting, according to Jeff Taylor, a professor of political science at Dordt University.

"We usually think of the ideology running from left to right in a line," Taylor told Insider. "Horseshoe theory is that if you go far enough to the left or the right, you almost cross that boundary between the left and right."

QAnon demonstrators protest child-trafficking, in Los Angeles on August 22, 2020. A 2019 bulletin from the FBI warned that extremists driven by conspiracy theories were a domestic-terrorism threat.
KYLE GRILLOT/AFP via Getty Images

Horseshoe theory is controversial in political science, with some theorists arguing that the intersections of far left and right are superficial, with few true similarities in underlying ideologies or political goals.

According to Taylor — who ran for and won a seat in Iowa's state senate in last week's election — populism and mistrust of those in power are the major points of connection between the far left and the far right.

"This combination of big money and big government, whenever these things collude with one another, you'll have skepticism," Taylor said. "So despite differences on social and even moral issues, you'll have far-left and far-right people agreeing on some of these things."

The result is people on the far left end up questioning the establishment, protesting mask mandates and shutdowns with as much vitriol as their conservative-leaning counterparts.

Pressure to reopen yoga studios and resentment of regulations can fuel conspiracy thinking

For many wellness professionals, this tendency toward doubt and extremism is exacerbated by the fact that the boutique fitness industry — of which yoga studios are a part — is facing serious challenges amid the pandemic. Businesses have struggled to pay rent or have been forced to close permanently. Many studio owners have clashed with government officials, arguing that regulations are overly restrictive or unwarranted.

For yoga instructors hustling to make a living and pay health insurance, the threat of continued restrictions on studios spells disaster, Walker said.

"For the most part, you're on your own. The drive to get back to work and start bringing in money again is pretty strong in this community," he added.

In this environment, theories that the coronavirus is a hoax could seem very appealing.

"For a lot of people there is intense impatience and intense resentment," Walker said. "We want to open back up and don't want to be told what to do. If you combine that with the urgency of not having something to fall back on, that's a piece of it."

Prominent yoga instructors are uniting against QAnon

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In September, Instagram's wellness community started circulating a statement in opposition to QAnon ideology. It was created by top wellness figures including Seane Corn, the cofounder of the yoga activism group Off the Mat, Wanderlust festival cofounder Jeff Krasno, and highly influential yoga instructor Susanna Barkataki.

Using the hashtag #unite2stopq, they urged fellow yogis to be aware of the exploitative, chameleonic nature of QAnon claims, and to resist sharing misinformation related to sex-trafficking, child abuse, and the pandemic.

A key strategy is pushing back against the idea that yoga should stay out of politics.

The yoga turned QAnon front argues that being engaged in politics is to uphold the elites who, they believe, corrupt the world. The yogis fighting QAnon insist that pretending to be wholly disconnected from politics is futile.

"There's a tendency in the spiritual community to want to be apolitical, and above it all, which I don't agree with," Davis-Flynn said. "I think yoga is inherently political if you care about other people and making their lives better. You have to take a stand."

Whether Davis-Flynn and her peers are having any success in curbing the spreading influence of QAnon in yoga remains unclear. It's a "work in progress," she said.

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