Meet the wellness guru next door. We all want to be her. Or do we? The lifestyle, say industry vets, may not be as glamorously om—or lucrative—as it may look. Still, there’s no question: She’s the newest it-girl on the block.
It’s a block that, incidentally, has become crowded with businesses hoping to meet the demands of a growing army of green-juice-swilling, om-chanting wellness worshipers. According to IBIS World, a market research company, Americans spent over 2 billion dollars on fresh-pressed juices and smoothies, while yoga and pilates studios took in a staggering 9 billion dollars. The Institute of Integrative Nutrition, which provides online courses in Ayurveda and macrobiotics, reports enrollment is up; the organization has minted over 30,000 health coaches since opening its doors.
Among them: Fern Olivia Langham, who left behind a high-earning job at a Wall Street bank and a social calendar packed with boozy dinners at the city’s best restaurants, to become a renowned yoga instructor, health coach and organic beauty entrepreneur. “I wasn’t connecting with people,” she said of her former hard-partying New York City lifestyle. “I was binge drinking. I wanted to sleep all the time. Doctors were telling me I was fine, but intrinsically I knew something was out of balance,” says Langham.
In an effort to release some stress, Langham began taking yoga classes in her neighborhood. Little by little she started feeling better—physically, emotionally and spiritually. “Yoga was the catalyst that began to ignite my intuitive healing power,” says Langham, who moved to Los Angeles to expand her practice teaching yoga and meditation and found Ajai Alchemy, a line of organic skin and hair serums and mists. “Two years ago I was sitting in a cubicle. Now I empower some of the brightest and most passionate wellness leaders in the world,” she says.
Similarily, Lianna Sugarman, founder of Lulitonix, a 4-year-old blended green smoothie company in Manhattan, left her job working in commercial real estate (and ordering in take out 7 nights a week) to pursue what she believed was her true life’s work. “Gradually I became more in control of my health and well-being,” she says of the lifestyle changes that led her to start Lulitonix. Now Sugarman’s blended greens (which are lower in sugar and contain more fiber than traditional pressed juices) sell in Whole Foods, yoga studios and coffee houses across the country.
Melisse Gelula, co-founder of WellandGood.com, a highly influential website dedicated to covering the health and fitness scene, pinpoints the start of the wellness revolution to the 2008 economic downturn and resulting shift in social values away from celebrating people and professions that are highly compensated to doing something that serves the greater good. “Six years ago we saw the conversation at dinner parties moving away from books and movies to workouts. These were regular people,” says Alexia Brue, Well and Good’s co-founder. “Choosing a career in wellness was no longer considered opting out,” adds Brue.
In fact, it may be this decade’s height of cool: Victorine Deych, a former merchandising manager for brands like Dior and Roberta Freeman quit her high-powered career in fashion to create botanical perfumes (the three body oils are named Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll, natch). Her goal? “To show the world that true luxury products can come from giving and receiving what our earth provides,” says Deych, who uses ultra-nourishing apricot kernel and hemp oils in her formulations. “People are starving to connect. I want to give it to them through our most powerful sense.”
But becoming a wellness guru doesn’t happen overnight. It takes hard work and long hours to stand out in an already crowded marketplace. Websites cost money to build. Yoga teacher training courses and nutrition seminars don’t come cheap, either. If you’re still working a traditional job while getting your wellness-related accreditation, that may mean squeezing in classes and networking events before and after work or on lunch hours, as Langham says she often did.
In a social-media driven world, having a strong online presence is key to building a fan base and getting on the radar of companies that might provide strategic—and highly lucrative—partnership opportunities. But maintaining those seemingly effortless Instagram feed requires hours of careful planning, staging and executing, not to mention above-par photography skills. It also helps if you’re pretty: According to a recent study from Cornell University, a blogger’s weight impacted whether readers found her a credible source of information about eating healthfully. Unsurprisingly, the skinnier, fit-looking bloggers had greater influence.
Guru Jagat, a Los Angeles-based kundalini yoga teacher and defato leader of the West Coast wellness mafia (her entourage includes actress Kate Hudson and Moon Juice founder Amanda Chantal Bacon), laments the impact social media has had on the industry, creating a disconnect between “the people who have an authentic connection to healing” and “charlatans” who just pretend like they do on Instagram.
But even looking the part is not always enough. The Internet is full of trolls just waiting to knock you down a peg. Ella Woodward, the 23-year old force behind Deliciously Ella empire, blogged about a “torrent of abuse” she’s received over social media. “I have to be honest and say it is so hard,” she wrote in a rare, public acknowledgement of her struggle.
“People underestimate how hard it is going to be,” says Well and Good’s Brue, referring not just to the potential online harassment, but the myriad of other personal sacrifices many gurus end up making. “We call them wellness workaholics. Their brand is all about meditation and living mindfully but they are so stressed out.”
“I don’t have much of a social life,” admits Jenna Heller, the 25-year-old founder of Jar Bar, a company that sells chia seed puddings and granolas to a mostly corporate clientele in New York. Between making the puddings, packaging and delivering them, managing her social media and website, and drumming up new business, Heller says she works roughly 70 hours a week. “It has taken its toll at times,” she says.
Likewise, Robin Shobin, founder of Charlotte’s Book, a 2-year old website focused on health, nutrition and beauty, finds it harder to find time to work out than when she was working as an investment banker. “I used to be on this really regimented schedule. Monday I’d go to the gym, Tuesday I’d do yoga. Now I really have to carve out the time and force myself to walk away from the computer,” says Shobin, who splits her time between New York City and her home in the Hudson Valley.
“There’s no boundary between my own personal life and the company,” says Lulitonix’s Sugarman, who says she wakes at 4:30 most mornings—not because she wants to, but because her mind is already whirring with ideas of how to expand her business.
Not everyone can make the economics of pursuing their passion work. Ellen Walker, a yoga teacher and organic farmer with clear blue eyes, works two additional jobs—as an art model on a college campus and as a bartender for an events company—to make ends meet. “Sometimes I find myself waking up and immediately wondering which day it is and where I need to be. And sometimes, as you might expect, I’m tired to the bone,” says Walker, who is based in Philmont, New York. “But it’s a good kind of tired, my body has been worked, I’ve most spent most of the day outside and I feel happy.”
But when you hit it big, so is the payoff. Guru Jagat runs three teacher-training centers in California and Mallorca, has a record label aimed at bringing yogic chanting into mainstream music and a highly anticipated book coming out in January.
Meanwhile, California-based Tess Masters, more commonly known as Blender Girl, has over 500,000 followers on social media. Her recipes for smoothies and soups have earned her a three book-deal and app with Random House. She also runs a busy consulting business with three employees, is a partner in a restaurant and a spokesperson for several brands. “Running an online business has given me incredible financial freedom to live in a beautiful home, travel the world, and put my niece and nephew through school,” says Masters.