When Wellness Was Weird

weird wellness

NataliaPetrzelaMeet Well+Good's fitness historian, Natalia Petrzela, Phd, a history professor at The New School in New York City and a premier IntenSati instructor, who'll be sharing the sweaty past with us in this new column.

In a sun-splashed room, in the famed hippie enclave of California’s Marin County, about thirty women and men sat cross-legged on the floor, looking like they might be about to embark on a meditation or yoga practice. But the mood was tense. Rather than chanting or breathing peacefully, the group was angrily defending themselves against charges of being a cult. Why?

For practicing “wellness,” the familiar feel-good label that in 2015 is used super commonly, for everything from smoothies and school lunch programs to swanky real estate developments.

But the year was 1979, and as (a much younger) Dan Rather explained to his 60 Minutes audience, “wellness” was an unfamiliar “word you don’t hear every day.” (Though sports like tennis were fine and unrelated to conversations at the time, hence the rise of women players like Chris Evert.)

Although the Oxford English Dictionary first officially recognized the word in 1654, three centuries later, participation in a program like the Wellness Resource Institute that Rather profiled (watch the video!) would have seemed “woo-woo” at best to a huge swath of Americans and dangerously cult-like at worst.

Unlike today, people used to have to defend their interest in wellness, lest they be thought of as weirdos. It’s ironic since the first group of wellness-adopters in the early 1960s weren’t exactly wheatgrass-championing revolutionaries. Most people cited their disappointment with mainstream Western doctors to help them with specific injuries or illnesses, which drove them, reluctantly and skeptically, to explore wellness as a last resort.

But what they uncovered was a new holistic philosophy, which sparked a giant wellness wave that many would find compelling, if not life-changing, by the late 1970s.

Concepts such as preventative health and the mind-body connection were newly introduced. And more people started to discuss the potential to achieve “positive health” rather than just the absence of illness.

Wellness advocates in the 1960s (and into the ‘70s) gushed enthusiastically about what’s become an enduring concept of “self-care,” the idea that our own minds, bodies, and nature (rather than experts and chemical treatments) hold the keys to optimizing health and happiness.

These concepts were considered so radical that you often had to visit secluded retreats such as Esalen or the Kripalu Institute, both founded in the 1960s, to explore them.

Interestingly, these ideas that made wellness revolutionary forty years ago are now so mainstream it almost feels clichéd to hear your boot camp instructor demand you “use your mind to get your body in the game!” or your doctor recommend meditation to stave off stress and sickness.

And our multi-billion dollar wellness industry today makes it clear how ingrained these once-fringe ideas have become. Green juice and yoga class, anyone?

(Photos: Chris Evert by Spokeo; Natalia Petrzela by Claire Holt Photography)

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