Collage: Marta Parszeniew
Like many other wellness practitioners, Stuart Sandeman realised something in the midst of the global pandemic: he could help people. Not in a worthy sense, in a “I have the literal skills to help people” kind of way. His business Breathpod teaches students how to breath freely using a practice called breathwork, and here was a virus that viciously affects the respiratory system.
Sandeman says his mission has always been to teach as many people to use these tools as possible, and 2020 was an opportunity to do that: in his words, to make breathing a “mass event”.
From the beginning of the first UK lockdown, Sandeman held daily 7.30AM breathwork classes on Instagram Live, as well as longer Wednesday night Zoom sessions. And he wasn’t alone: countless workers at the intersection of the wellness and spirituality industries offered their services for a much reduced fee – or for free – this year.
As Sandeman tells me over Zoom: “There’s been a really nice shift of letting people have access, access to anything.” That mass access has extended to esoteric knowledge, group healing sessions, mental health journaling workshops and almost anything you can imagine in that realm.
From reiki to crystal healing to birth chart reading, this shift has led to expensive wellness practices becoming – temporarily, at least – inclusive or accessible. “It’s given people a chance to go, ‘You know what, I’ll give it a go,’” says Sandeman. And with that, “People can try a lot of different things and go, ‘Oh well, that wasn’t for me, I’ll try something else.’”
Over the last few years, “wellness” has come to be associated with wealth (a month before the pandemic hit the UK, I wrote about the cult of upper-middle class wellness and spirituality). The word signified having very little to worry about materially. It was boujie hotel gong baths, vegan and organic aromatherapy facials and Goop-style vaginal steams. But once the pandemic was underway, as anxiety became high(er), expanses of time needed to be filled and people focused in on a hobby or two, it became clear that wellness was beginning to mean something else entirely.
People who had barely stepped into a gym before started doing daily runs or exercise videos, or they ate terrible food and drank a lot of alcohol, and without the usual everyday distractions quickly realised the negative physical and mental effects of doing so. Self-care became something that even the most cynical of us began to understand. With external stimuli removed almost entirely, we had to live through the undulations of our own unwellness.
While there are elements of the wellness world to be respected – particularly where it crosses over with spiritual and religious practices – much of what you see is easily available to learn online. This year, more than ever, the public were realising that.
The two biggest wellness trends of 2020 saw us go back to basics, focusing on breathwork and sleep, or lack of it. Recent research from King’s College London suggests that more than half of the UK population have suffered sleep problems during the pandemic. As a result, meditation app Calm saw a doubling of downloads this year. Unusually, it wasn’t just Gen Z and millennials turning to the app (which is relatively cheap for a premium account, at £28.99 per year), but older people too.
“This is a generation who didn’t grow up thinking of meditation as a mainstream practice that you can use to alleviate stress and anxiety,” says Chris Advansun, Head of Calm’s Sleep Stories. “This year has given permission to a lot of people that they can have the challenges of anxiety or stress [and] that they can reach for these tools.”
You’ve likely seen Calm Sleep Stories ads on Instagram and YouTube this year (the new Harry Styles one felt particularly ubiquitous). This feature of the app has celebrities like Styles, Matthew McConaughey, Laura Dern and Tom Hardy reading bedtime stories, and tapped into what Advansun calls a “natural proclivity” humans have for being read to: it makes us feel safe.
“When I work with the talent, one thing I’ll do is to get them into the emotional space of performance,” he explains. “I’ll say, ‘Do you remember being told a sleep story, and how did it make you feel? Today, that’s what we’re going to make the listener feel.’ We all know that comforting, cosy, safe feeling of the voice of a loved one. All generations can connect to that.”
Whether it was breathing, self-soothing with apps, going for daily runs or something more left-field, people who engaged with wellness this year had a mini-revelation: no matter how bad you felt, you could make yourself – physically, at least – feel moderately better. I, for one, would never come out of a breathing session feeling worse than when I began.
So I breathed in the woods near my flat, I breathed along the North Circular as cars whipped past, I breathed on the floor sat against the back of my bed, I breathed before sleeping – and often would fall asleep the moment I finished performing along to a free recording. I paid Stu for a one-on-one session because, among other reasons, I felt he had given me enough for nothing.
With the grief, boredom and restlessness the pandemic has forced upon us, pockets of time have been opened up to make changes. As much as it pains me to admit, wellness, to a small but certain degree, is free to anyone who is willing.