Discourses, Bodies, and Questions of Sharedness in Kenya's Wellness Communities

in Religion and Society
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Abstract

This article contemplates the construction of sharedness that underlies the success of alternative lifestyle communities in Eastern Africa. In Kenya, a new tourism niche market that focuses on yoga, mindfulness, and alternative medicine is flourishing. Tourists travel to East Africa to practice yoga, but also to introduce local communities to ‘alternative lifestyles’. By considering Western and Kenyan practitioners’ discourses about the benefits of alternative healing, mindfulness, and yoga, I explore the significance of sharedness to the emergence of communities that are structured around not just physical practice, but also an envisioned joint purpose. I argue that discursively constructing shared purpose, in the face of seemingly evident differences, is central to Western expats’ validation and commercialization of these initiatives. I also demonstrate that local participants equally, although along different lines, feel compelled to construct a particular kind of sharedness to justify their yoga practice to themselves and their own communities.

“They are just naturally like that, you know? If you don't have anything, you don't need to learn about detachment.” Jake sipped his foamy cappuccino before elaborating on the success of the community yoga project he had launched in a small coastal town in Kenya.1 I had just participated in Jake's early morning yoga class at Seashore, one of the most established luxury yoga retreats along the East African coast. On the top floor of the boutique hotel, nestled in between thick baobab trees, we had performed sun salutations while overlooking treetops and the endless Indian Ocean. Central in the space, surrounded by candles, was a statue of the Hindu goddess Vishnu. Drawings of the third eye looked down upon us from the ceiling and stained glass windows. The early morning class had attracted about a dozen participants, including hotel guests from Italy and the UK, a few expats who lived nearby, and one local staff member.

Jake asked if I had paid attention to the staff member and how seriously she took her practice. Yoga and its inherent spirituality make a distinguishable difference to these people, he firmly stated; their confidence grows and translates into altered bodily postures and interactions with hotel guests. It was the success of his staff training program that gave rise to the community yoga project, Jake explained, with staff eager to introduce yoga to their friends and family. And although staff training and community classes begin with the physical aspects of yoga, Jake underlined that sessions are never devoid of spiritual teachings. He offered the example of Niles, a staff member who recently added meditation to his training and who was already appropriating its concepts and practices in his everyday interactions. The way in which Niles gravitated toward this practice, Jake emphasized, shows how practices like mindfulness resonate with locals. Kenyans, he repeated once more, are naturally inclined to total acceptance and detachment. Yet nowadays, he sighed, many want to behave like Westerners, and therefore need to be reminded of what comes naturally to them.

When I later spoke to Niles about his experience with yoga, he enthusiastically emphasized the physical benefits of his regular practice. The exercises had helped with his long-present back pain, and the discipline of daily classes had given him much-needed structure, preventing idleness or succumbing to the temptation of alcohol in the local village. Plus, the prospect of teaching classes at the hotel offered potential financial benefits. When asked about the spiritual practices Jake had ascribed to him, Niles shrugged and smiled. “Look,” he reluctantly said, “it's like the statue [of Vishnu] in the room upstairs. It's just there. It doesn't speak to you and you do not speak with it. You go there for yoga and just ignore whatever that is.” Niles suggested that he selectively took from Jake's yoga trainings what benefited him most—physical fitness, improved concentration, tools for relaxation, and potential financial benefits. In doing so, he discursively erased any spiritual or religious inclinations that others (Jake, but also local villagers) might ascribe to his frequent practice. The statue of Vishnu was just there and could be ignored. Words such as namaste, a greeting commonly used with a spiritual meaning in yoga, had little meaning for him. And for him, yoga movements merely trained the physical body, much like karate. While they both engaged in a shared practice, Jake and Niles each discursively constructed its purpose differently. For Jake, the physical practice was a means to a spiritual end, enabling a ‘return’ to a more ‘natural’ disposition of detachment, submission, and mindfulness. For Niles, yoga offered a path to physical health and potential financial stability.

In recent years, yoga, mindfulness, and alternative medicine have become an increasingly important part of Eastern Africa's tourism industry, with tourists traveling to countries like Kenya to combine luxury safaris with practicing yoga on the savannah or on the country's impeccable beaches. Western expats as well as European and North American tourists, however, also increasingly promote these ‘alternative lifestyles’ among Kenya's local populations. Yoga safaris frequently include the opportunity to volunteer in a Maasai village or teach a community yoga class to a local women's organization. Indeed, part of what drives the success of this new tourism niche market is the anticipation of meditating or practicing yoga together with, for example, children in Nairobi's slums, or with a traditionally dressed Maasai on the savannah. What validates these initiatives and the driving force behind their success is an anticipated sharedness that moves these engagements beyond seemingly more evident exoticism or ‘voluntourism’.

This article contemplates the different discursive constructions of sharedness that underlie the flourishing of alternative lifestyle or spiritual communities in Eastern Africa. The success of initiatives like Jake's community yoga suggests thriving communities, but also with distinct understandings of what unites them and what exactly they share. Indeed, the opening vignette suggests a lack of sharedness rather than the conscious (and collaborative) construction of joint purpose. I argue that wellness communities in Eastern Africa flourish and succeed, not despite these different goals, but precisely because of them. I propose that the differing semiotic and discursive constructions of imagined sharedness—whether it be spiritual growth or a striving for physical health—enable both Western and Kenyan participants to validate their practice, for themselves and for their respective communities.

For Jake, the shared spiritual devotion, in addition to physical changes, that he sees in staff members’ yoga practice and everyday comportment validates his initiative and is, in a way, essential to its success. The embodied signs Jake identifies as indicative of altered states demonstrate that employees welcome and benefit from his beneficence, while their regular presence in yoga classes simultaneously consecrates his initiatives with an ether of authenticity that applies not only to Jake but also to tourists partaking in (community) yoga classes. Niles equally needs to validate his engagement with yoga, albeit along distinctly different lines. When explaining his practice to family and friends (and to me), and when promoting community classes in his village, Niles discursively erases precisely those spiritual elements that Jake draws attention to. Instead of identifying a search for a more authentic self as what attracts him (and others) to a dedicated yoga practice, Niles speaks of a shared striving toward physical health and underlines how his commitment to yoga has prevented late-night socializing and drinking. For Niles, his lack of back pain and his markedly improved posture are evident signs of yoga's physical benefits. Rather than being central to participation in this wellness community, spirituality and mindfulness are rephrased as either irrelevant or just “relaxation” and “rest” (kupumzika). Precisely the ability to discursively construct a shared purpose along these lines permitted Niles's own commitment to and locals’ active participation in yoga training and teaching, refuting skeptics’ claims that practicing yoga was counter to their (Christian or Muslim) faith.

By considering different practitioners’ discourses about the success and benefits of alternative healing, mindfulness, and yoga, I contemplate the significance of sharedness to the emergence of communities structured around not just physical practice but also and especially an envisioned joint purpose. Specifically, I consider the discursive and semiotic work that goes into constructing the assumed sharedness that unites and gives credibility to these communities. Through a range of ethnographic vignettes about wellness communities in Kenya, I explore how organizers and participants differently identify practices, vocabularies, and embodied signs—visible marks on the body (such as cupping marks) or bodily postures (such as straightened shoulders)—as supposedly indicative of a shared purpose that brings them together. I thus illustrate how practitioners discursively and semiotically construct connections between perceived embodied practices and mindfulness, health, or spirituality to performatively establish shared purpose and subjectivities, thereby validating and maintaining their communities (Austin 1963; Butler 1990, 1993; Day 2011).

Research Methods and Ethnographic Caveat

The data around which this article structures its argument derive from ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Kenya primarily in February 2020, although I also refer to informal conversations held during exploratory research in July 2019. The ethnography mainly draws on observations of, and informal conversations with, guests, owners, and staff in yoga-focused boutique hotels along Kenya's coast, as well as interactions with local and international participants at a yoga festival, held yearly on Kenya's Lamu island. Data also include semi-structured interviews with owners of those boutique hotels, staff members participating in yoga initiatives, and founders of wellness-focused initiatives in Kenya's coastal communities.

The ethnography in this article, however, is admittedly somewhat thin. The questions that it raises are part of a large, multi-year research project that ethnographically explores the encounters between yoga-practicing tourists and Kenyan communities that form part of Eastern Africa's ‘yoga as development’ trend. In February 2020, I had just begun research for this project, but the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March put an abrupt end to what was meant to be a six-month fieldwork period. As Canada and Kenya both closed their borders, I begrudgingly canceled all scheduled interviews and site visits (including engagements with Yoga Initiative Kenya and Skills of Happiness workshops, mentioned later in this piece) and returned to Canada. A subsequent research leave, scheduled for January 2021 to August 2021, was also postponed due to Canada's ongoing travel restrictions and my home institution's ethics board's stop to all research activities involving face-to-face interaction.

While I expanded my data set through digital ethnography and by analyzing online testimonials from yoga practitioners in Kenya, further ethnography will be needed to corroborate and deepen the argument that I propose here. In particular, the voices of Kenyan participants themselves are sparse, despite the fact that this article aims to draw attention precisely to their participation in, and active negotiation of, yoga initiatives. The focus of this article is therefore a strongly theoretical one. Despite this caveat, I remain convinced that the data I do have support my theoretical claims and signal the timeliness and ethnographic potential of the larger project to which this article contributes.

Wellness Voluntourism: Imagining Communities

Long a popular safari destination, Kenya is rebranding itself as the wellness destination of Africa. Wellness tourism is one of the fastest growing tourism niche markets, according to the 2018 Global Wellness Tourism Economy report (Yeung and Johnson 2018). In Kenya, the wellness tourism strategy is to create high-quality facilities while promoting a culture of African-inspired knowledge-sharing and offering opportunities for community engagement. For example, promotions for yoga safaris, generally crafted by expat operators, portray meditating white tourists looking out over a virgin landscape, accompanied by photos of luxury resorts, images of giraffes, and depictions of clients practicing yoga with traditionally dressed Maasai. Program descriptions clarify that this is not just any Maasai; rather, it is the Maasai warrior from whom tourists will learn about ancient healing rituals, with whom they too will practice yoga, and to whose community development the tourists’ financial donations will contribute. While the Maasai warrior appeals to potential customers because he embodies authentic knowledge and connection with the natural landscape, the yoga-practicing Maasai simultaneously suggests an exchange—of knowledge and expertise rather than a mere financial one. The Maasai will learn from the yoga-adept tourist, as they too are in need of wellness and mindfulness in the contemporary context of financial hardship and marginalization.2 Indeed, it suggests a moment of sharedness and connection despite perceived radical difference. The Maasai warrior is simultaneously an exotic other and a potential equal. While undoubtedly informed by ideals of exoticism, the attraction goes beyond mere touristic voyeurism to an anticipated community, formed around a supposed shared, renewed connection with the spiritual and the untouched landscape. For both parties, the exchange is presented as offering an experience “in proximity to … radical others” (Lucia 2020: 9), potentially resulting in shared identifications with each other's spiritual practices and possible subsequent lifestyle changes for all.

While wellness destinations previously were mostly linked to luxurious spa retreats, tourism studies now describe ‘wellness’ as a more integrative phenomenon, where the spiritual dimension is equally important as the physical one (see, e.g., Lehto et al. 2006; Smith and Kelly 2006; Smith and Puczkó 2017). Wellness tourists are in search of extraordinary experiences that will allow them to get back in touch with their ‘true’ selves. This search for authenticity increasingly includes an interest in holistic healing and an emphasis on social responsibility (Voigt and Pforr 2014). Wellness destinations in India, Bali, and North America appeal to tourists by highlighting indigenous healing and spiritual practices with rich histories, such as sweat lodges, to evoke “the impression of ancient secrets of lifelong health and happiness” (Voigt 2014: 31). Studies of wellness tourism also underline that destinations selling wellness should assume environmental and social responsibilities: wellness tourists prefer organic food and alternative modes of energy, for example (ibid.: 32). Most importantly, wellness discourses now reframe ‘luxury’ as having time to experience personal fulfillment by helping others rather than engaging in conspicuous consumption (Yeoman 2008). A search for wellness is thus not only about changing oneself; it is also about bringing change to others. ‘Wellness in Africa’ taps into these trends: it offers the infrastructural provisions of luxury retreats, the fantasy of authentic experiences in a ‘primordial’ landscape, and the humanitarian aspect of transforming oneself by ‘helping’ others. Both the volunteer tourists’ desire for an authentic encounter with host communities and the latter's assumed needs are thereby commercialized, commodified, and sold (Gray and Campbell 2007).

Jake's Seashore hotel has acquired an international reputation, and his community classes draw large crowds, with local bibis (elderly women) and international tourists practicing yoga side by side. In Nairobi, Yoga Initiative Kenya (YIK) has received international recognition for its efforts to bring yoga to children in the city's biggest slums. Having received a range of humanitarian awards, Canada-based Lululemon Athletica now sponsors YIK's initiative to provide yoga teacher training to underprivileged Kenyan youth. Young people from different parts of the country (and the continent) travel to Nairobi to receive a yoga teacher certification and then return to their home communities to share what they have learned. International volunteers, mostly from the United States and Canada, travel to Kenya to teach yoga to Nairobi youth, to Maasai, or to Muslim women in coastal Swahili communities. These are flourishing and growing communities, presumably built around a shared belief in mind-body connection and how it benefits individuals’ well-being.

This popularity of ethical wellness tourism in Kenya reflects broader trends in alternative and ethical consumerism in the Global North focused on sustainability, fair trade, and ethical production practices (Butcher 2003, 2008; Mowforth and Munt 2009; Wearing 2010). The last two decades have witnessed a growing literature on these kinds of ‘moral’ or alternative tourisms that links the behavior and purchasing habits of consumers to development outcomes in the Global South (e.g., Buckley 2008; Fennell [1999] 2020; Mostafanezhad and Hannam 2016; Patullo 1996; Patullo and Minelli 2009; Scheyvens 2002; Wearing and Neil 2009; Weaver 2008). Perceiving such initiatives as closely entangled with the imperial project and colonialism (Pritchard and Morgan 2007: 21), these studies have described the relationship between tourist and local ‘other’ as “always inherently colonial in nature” (Tucker and Akama 2009: 510). Similarly, studies of the white (mainly North American) appropriation of indigenous healing practices and yoga have used ‘exoticism’ to describe the relations between these ‘spiritual but not religious’ groups and the supposed radical others whose practices they appropriate (Lucia 2020; see also, e.g., Altglas 2014; Driscoll 2015; Jenkins 2004). Scholars have argued that such forms of spiritual or religious exoticism not only construct the perceived other as ideal but also presuppose a sense of entitlement to their practices, which “aligns easily with neocolonial logics of white possessivism” (Lucia 2020: 10). Others, however, urge us to take these tourists’, volunteers’, and practitioners’ intentions more seriously and suggest that a careful analysis of practices and encounters (e.g., between wellness-seeking tourist and local) could reveal intentions to be “altogether more complex and fractal than a portrayal of them as straightforwardly colonial and insulting could allow” (Tucker 2016: 199; see also Lucia 2020).

Echoing similar objections to the perceived neo-colonial tendencies of these kinds of exchanges, literature on voluntourism has objected that development initiatives’ benefits to host communities are often assumed, while the voices of community members remain absent from discussions (Guttentag 2011). Indeed, one might question what development needs are met by offering yoga or meditation sessions to village residents along Kenya's coast, and whether wellness initiatives are more about volunteer tourists seeking to develop their own identity (Favero 2000; Harrison 2003; Matthews 2008; Suvantola 2002; Wickens 2011). However, Ferguson (2006: 20) has long called on us to question our rapid rejection of Africans’ supposed uncritical appropriation of Western practices, and to take more seriously their “aspirations to ‘likeness’ with real and imagined Western standards” (see also Burke 1996; Weiss 2004).

This article takes up Ferguson's call, not by examining Kenyans’ striving for likeness with Western standards, but rather by taking seriously the communities that emerge from wellness initiatives in Eastern Africa. After all, Jake's staff regularly attend the yoga classes offered to them at the hotel, and YIK's community classes are always fully booked. However, in the opening vignette, Niles does not strive to be ‘like’ Jake. On the contrary, there is an explicit distancing from the spiritual inclinations Jake ascribes to Niles and his body. One way in which to take seriously both tourists’ and locals’ goals and experiences, I suggest, is by considering the different discursive construction of sharedness that enables these communities to flourish.

The need for white expats to validate their efforts through a construction of sharedness might seem most evident. Identifying shared purpose and welcomed beneficence counters potential accusations of neo-colonialist tendencies or a form of ‘white guilt’ that these expats might be experiencing (cf. McIntosh 2016). Yet local participants equally justify and validate to the wider community (and to themselves) their participation in what are often perceived to be distinctly strange practices. To many of my local interlocutors (and their families), yoga appears inherently connected with Eastern religions, which makes the practice immediately suspicious. The distinction between spirituality and religion, which many of my expat interlocutors referred to when discussing both their own practice and its introduction in local communities, is culturally distinctive and only recently emerged in the West. It is a distinction, however, that does not resonate or translate immediately in many Kenyan communities, including coastal Swahili communities or, in Niles's case, the Giriama community.3

People like Niles, therefore, also need to discursively and semiotically construct a particular kind of sharedness that validates their engagement, preventing their own form of guilt (for adhering to practices often perceived as counter to their faith or as distinctly foreign) and averting skepticism from their broader community. By making this claim, I do not intend to underplay the difference (and hierarchy) in these discursive assertions of sharedness. I do, however, aim to demonstrate that participants like Niles are not passive in this process, nor are they blindly appropriating practices to be more ‘like’ the West. Rather, the seeming disjuncture in imagined sharedness shows how different participants actively identify what benefits them most, enabling differing identifications with a practice like yoga to co-exist, and permitting these communities to thrive.

Whereas joint practice enables the emergence of communities, participants’ differing discursive and semiotic identification of distinct signs—on the body, in language use, or in practice—as indicative of a shared purpose performatively establishes an imagined sharedness that validates and authenticates their experiences. By examining such ‘performative sharedness’, this article responds to Ferguson's call to critically explore the objectives of both Kenyans and wellness-seeking and promoting Westerners. Specifically, I do so by analyzing the discourses through which shared meanings are created, focusing on the ways in which embodied and sensory experiences are discursively constructed as “phenomenal objects that animate the work and discourse of their specific communities” (Goodwin 2018: 327). In other words, I consider how embodied knowledge, expertise, and authority are calibrated through discourse and practice so as to validate communities.

Performative Sharedness?

Scholars have long contemplated what holds (or brings) people together as a society or a community. The fact that members of a community, at a bare minimum, have something in common—that they share something around which a sense of unity forms—has long seemed agreed upon. Considering the workings of society, Durkheim ([1893] 1984) underlined the significance of ‘solidarity’ for a society of individuals to stick together, with social cohesion deriving either from members’ ‘likeness’ or shared values (‘mechanical solidarity’) or their mutual needs (‘organic solidarity’). Yet Durkheim's solidarity was pre-existing and assumed rather than co-constructed or agentively created by a community's members. For Benedict Anderson (1983), national belonging or national consciousness was not pre-existing, but emerged out of participation in print culture. The act of reading the newspaper allowed one to ‘imagine’ the nation, and thus to believe in national unity. Anderson highlighted the significance of imagined sharedness, of a belief in the fact that others were, at regular intervals, participating in a similar practice. According to Anderson, it is this imagined sharedness that allows individuals collectively to imagine themselves as participants in local, translocal, and national communities.

In a more recent reconsideration of scholarly conceptions of ‘belief’ and its relation to notions of community, Abby Day (2010, 2011) focuses on practice and performance as strategic means for individuals to belong and integrate themselves into social institutions or communities. She emphasizes the importance of narrative and practice in making shared belief a social reality for individuals and allowing for a sense of cultural homogeneity. Focusing on ‘belief narratives’ and their performative quality, Day (2011: 49) argues that shared belief can be created, performed, and embedded through linguistic acts and events (cf. Austin 1962; Butler 1990, 1993). In other words, through discourse and practice, belief acquires a performative quality, whereby statements such as “I am Christian” establish belief and its associated belongings. She thereby decentralizes belief as such to focus on discourse and practice in the formation and maintenance of (religious) communities, underlining that belief can be performed solely in order to belong.

I take from Day her attention to performativity in thinking about belief and belonging, and the role that discourse and practice play in the formation and maintenance of communities. My question, however, is not so much what people (proclaim to) believe in, but rather what unites them and authenticates their experiences when shared belief or purpose seems absent. Whereas I don't focus on “the what, the content of belief” (Day 2011: 192), I am interested in what performative belief pushes us to reconsider with regard to sharedness in community formation. I suggest that discursive and semiotic practices can be strategic means through which individuals identify a shared purpose that resonates with them. Rather than highlighting performative belief, I thus pay attention to performative sharedness and the ways in which shared purpose is brought into being through individuals’ narratives, so as to validate their differing experiences. In doing so, I take up linguistic anthropological critiques of the use of performativity as too often drawing upon prediscursive ideas. In Day's case, while belief may be performatively proclaimed in order to belong, statements such as “I am Christian” draw upon already established ideas of what this belief entails and thus what needs to be shared in order to belong. Challenging this prediscursive sharedness, I suggest that sharedness itself is often emergent and performatively established through members’ discursive identification of connections between practice and purpose.

Shared Purpose through Discourse

Sipping her mango juice, Martha enthusiastically explained to me her newest project—a Skills of Happiness institute in Lamu for both tourists and Lamu residents. Over the last few years, this European owner of a yoga and wellness center had immersed herself in Skills of Happiness (SOH), an India-based organization led by Guru Shankar that focuses on mindful living and happiness through breathing techniques, yoga, and meditation. With the new institute, Martha stated, she wants to bring the SOH philosophy to Lamu. Tourists could participate in workshops and connect with the local community through volunteer work, including teaching yoga and meditation in local schools. By focusing on schools, the institute would empower local Muslim youth, helping them find their own voice and overcome stress and anxiety. Martha suggested she could use my help promoting this idea since she has encountered difficulty convincing Lamu youth, who “associate yoga with religion.” Frequently linked to Eastern religions, yoga and meditation are indeed received with much skepticism in the local community, and young people's reluctance to participate did not come as a surprise to me.

A few weeks later, photos posted on Facebook showed a successful workshop led by Aarev Kaur, an India-based SOH leader who had traveled to Lamu to work with local Muslim youth. The pictures showed, for example, veiled young women participating in yoga, breathing, and role-play exercises. A post by Aarev accompanied the photos, lauding the young people's participation: “It makes me feel very proud, happy, and emotional to see immense transformation in all of them who are like a family to me now. Their innocence, sincerity, and commitment has won my heart. They have love and gratitude to Gurudev Shankar, and all of them want to be SOH teachers.” When I later asked Martha about the workshop, she glowed and enthusiastically told me about its impact on this group of youth. Her focus in particular was on a young woman, whom she described as initially subdued and quiet—too shy to speak up, “like a typical Swahili woman.” Her transformation had been remarkable: through affirming meditation and breathing exercises, this young woman had found her own voice and even delivered a short public speech at the end of the workshop. “She even looked different,” Martha added, suggesting that the young woman's changed posture exuded confidence rather than shyness.

Following my conversation with Martha, I sought out the young people who had participated in this workshop to hear from them what had motivated their participation and what they had learned from it. The small group of approximately 15 Lamu youth belong to a local organization that focuses on mobilizing vulnerable youth to become leaders in their communities. Although scheduled interviews, including with the young woman Martha refers to above, had to be canceled due to the abrupt end to my fieldwork, I was able to briefly discuss the event with several of the participants. When asked what they took away from the workshop, the youth mentioned the practical skills they had acquired—in particular, strategies for public speaking. Breathing exercises, for example, showed them how to calm their nerves when speaking in front of a crowd. Others referred to the certificate they were given at the end of the workshop, a token that could be added to their CVs in an otherwise education-poor environment. Some young women mentioned the physical benefits they had gained from learning particular yoga poses, including those that could reduce menstrual cramps. In summary, most of the young participants I spoke to highlighted the acquisition of concrete skills that supported their envisioned leadership roles or helped manage physical pain. None, however, spoke of an altered outlook on life, a changed disposition in terms of personal development, or happiness as an active state of mind.

For Martha, however, this successful event demonstrated that the SOH philosophy resonated in Lamu, and that her institute could be a success. She enthusiastically explained that she was now working on bringing Guru Shankar to Lamu, so he could experience the wonderful community they had built and offer his blessings to the institute. Moreover, she stressed, he would be able to connect with local religious leaders. Martha's plans to bring the guru to Lamu eventually fell through, mostly due to strong objections from local imams.

Martha resided in Shela, a town situated on Kenya's Indian Ocean island of Lamu, and neighboring the town of Lamu itself. Previously in ruins, Shela was ‘discovered’ in the 1970s by the owners of Peponi hotel. Swahili for ‘heaven’, Peponi overlooks impeccable beaches and the lagoon on the Indian Ocean, and attracts wealthy tourists from across the globe. Over the years, the rich and famous bought property, transforming Shela into a resort-like town where more houses are now owned by Western expats than by Swahili locals. Shela's luxury contrasts sharply with the town of Lamu, a UNESCO World Heritage site that, despite its title, is dealing with rapid transformation, decay, and rising poverty.

Expats living on this remote Muslim-majority island promote Lamu to tourists as a location for rejuvenation, spirituality, and wellness. The discourses on their hotel websites draw upon tropes of the remote, the untouched, and the authentic. Lamu Yoga Festival promotions, for example, appeal to potential participants by describing a town where “time stands still” and where participants will practice in the midst of “a century-old Islamic culture.” Besides history and nature, the “magic” includes absolute peace: “We don't have cars, just plenty of donkeys and boats. Without the stress and rush of modern life, it's easy to feel a million miles away.”4 Who the ‘we’ in this statement stands for is not entirely clear, appearing to extend beyond a claim to geographical belonging to include a shared outlook on life—relaxed, simple, authentic. This is then not a (white) ‘we’ that is transforming the unique space of Lamu, nor does it suggest that the place has transformed ‘us’ to be more like ‘them’. Rather, there is a discursively constructed community that participants will tap into when visiting Lamu. Photos accompanying these promotions illustrate the claims made: veiled schoolgirls meditating with intently closed eyes, hands in prayer; a mix of yoga practitioners on an impeccable beach, with donkeys strolling by. Karibuni! All are welcome. These promotional discourses present a shared outlook, shared practice, and shared language as the basis of this unique community, to which interested participants could also belong. Like the Maasai practicing yoga on the savannah, the appeal seems to be these communities’ unlikely nature: despite a range of differences, participants find common ground around a shared practice, in this case yoga, which will result in a shared connection, a shared outlook, and shared transformations.

These discursively presented communities bring to mind linguistic anthropological research on ‘communities of practice’ (Eckert (2006). Rather than suggesting that pre-existing social identities (such as social class) shape ways of speaking and thus form ‘speech communities’, linguistic anthropologists have long been interested in how a shared engagement in a particular practice can give rise to notions of community. Rather than formed around rigid, pre-determined categories, communities emerge out of a joint practice and can be identified by participants’ shared engagement, shared vocabulary, and joint purpose. The question to ask is not how do particular social identities give rise to certain communities, but rather how does shared practice create a sense of community (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1992).

A concept like ‘community of practice’ can help us understand how, in Kenya, notions of belonging emerge out of different participants’ perceived shared engagement, shared vocabulary, and, indeed, shared purpose. However, the ethnographic examples included in this article thus far reveal that what is shared among participants (beyond practice) is not necessarily agreed upon, nor is it self-evident. Joint practice far from entails joint purpose, nor does it signal shared belief. While Jake and Niles might jointly participate in yoga and meditation, the purpose of this practice and the beliefs that inform their engagement are not evidently similar. And whereas the Lamu youth who had joined Martha's SOH workshop told me that they appreciated the practical skills they had acquired (like public speaking), Martha and Aarev identified changes in posture and manners of speaking as indicative of these young people's deeper spiritual transformation and a shared respect for Guru Shankar.

Purpose or belief is not what apparently brings these different practitioners together. What participants share needs to be discursively constructed in order to validate their experiences and enable these communities to flourish. For Martha and Niles—and the international donors and participants their promotions aim to reach—it is crucial that their communities come together around more than ‘just’ practice. Rather than acquiring mere physical strength through sun salutations, their goal is both a physical and a spiritual transformation. For local participants like Niles, however, it is important that yoga is ‘just’ about physical exercise instead of some form of spiritual practice. Yet what makes these communities appealing to (potential) members is precisely the notion of a shared purpose and orientation. This discursive presentation of sharedness to outsiders, potential participants, and members themselves is what enables this community to thrive. For Martha, this means establishing connections between bodily practices (like straightened shoulders) and inner transformation. For Niles, it entails discursive erasures, whereby folded hands and closed eyes are not signs of prayer, but mere tools for relaxation.

Semiotic Imaginings: Bodies and Their Interpellations

I started contemplating notions of sharedness and their semiotic construction when I first heard about a European expat offering cupping therapy in Shela, including in popular free community clinics. The practice, whereby glass cups are placed on specific points on the body to promote blood circulation through vacuum suction (using heat), is part of both Chinese and Islamic traditional medicine (the latter known as hijama). The popularity of the cupping clinic among locals had confused me. Since hijama is part of Islamic medicine and a Sunnah, a recommended following of the lifestyle of the Prophet, “why would locals search for them with a mzungu [Western person]?” I had asked a local imam. “If not looking to fulfill a Sunnah or to follow Islamic healing practices, what are they in search of—muscle release, detox, Western medicine?” Recognizing my confusion, the imam chuckled. He confirmed that the European expat practiced dry cupping rather than drawing out ‘bad’ blood, which is customary in Islamic hijama, and that she did not follow (and did not know about) the Sunnah days—the specific days of the moon cycle on which hijama was recommended. Despite this and despite his own amusement, the imam suggested that he too would be interested in getting treatment.

In Lamu, there were no local clinics devoted to hijama during my fieldwork. However, there are plenty in Mombasa, Kenya's largest coastal city. Hijama Holistics, for example, owned by a Kenyan Muslim woman, offers Islamic hijama together with acupressure and ear candling, promising to promote energy flow and detox. Appropriating the vocabulary of alternative and holistic medicine, the clinic links Islamic cupping to contemporary popular discourses on healthy and holistic living. In doing so, it does not erase the Prophetic nature of hijama. Rather, the parallels with dry cupping and its medicinal benefits justify and confirm hijama's Islamic value: even in the absence of faith, the practice works.

Most remarkable to me is the fact that hijama clinics promote their services by noting cupping marks on the bodies of famous athletes. Holistic Hijama (based in the UK), for example, has shared photos of basketball player Derick Rose with the subject line “those hijama marks on Derick Rose.” It has equally highlighted Michael Phelps for having been spotted with cupping marks on his upper arms. While both athletes likely received Chinese dry cupping, hijama was discursively ascribed to these athletes. The identification of these marks as traces of hijama interpellated these bodies as particular kinds of bodies—bodies that confirm and demonstrate the medicinal value of and thus the scientific wisdom behind the Sunnah practice. Indeed, the athletes’ non-religious motivation made these signs even more powerful: the marks perfected the athletic body and showed the inherent perfection of the treatment. Cupping marks were thus not signs of an adherence to a supposedly superstitious or disproven traditional medicine, but rather became indices of healthy modern bodies. In these promotional discourses, the imagined community of ‘cuppers’ includes world-class athletes to motivate the Muslim community to embrace hijama, in turn interpellating them into the wellness community.

Just as hijama practitioners referred to signs on non-Muslims’ bodies to validate the medicinal benefits of their practice, so did some Lamu residents draw on science to validate their interest in yoga as a physical rather than religious or spiritual practice. The imam whom I had asked for clarification about cupping, for example, had previously shown a curiosity about yoga and had, in fact, participated in a few yoga classes himself. However, criticism from the wider community—objecting to both his engagement with this particular practice and the mixed-gender setting in which classes were taught—had discouraged him from partaking further. When I asked about his motivations for trying yoga (and for encouraging his wife to continue the practice), the imam gestured to several books spread out on his library's floor. The titles of the readings he pointed to all addressed mental health and aspects of physical well-being, topics he often covered in his Friday sermons. There is plenty of scientific evidence, he stated, that shows the importance of exercise, both for physical and mental health. The Lamu community, he elaborated, is struggling with diabetes, obesity, and mental health issues. “So why shouldn't we then explore the benefits of physical exercise like yoga?” he asked. Yoga's focus on regular practice, relaxation, and breathing has long been proven to be beneficial to one's mental and physical health.

The imam validated his interest in and engagement with practices—be it dry cupping or yoga—by discursively linking bodily practices to scientific or medicinal evidence (and erasing spiritual inclinations). Similarly, hijama practitioners validated Islamic healing by identifying signs on the body as evidence of the medicinal benefits of the Sunnah practice. These discursive links between bodily practices and purpose made me think about the communities Jake and Martha were envisioning—communities in which bodies were equally central. Just as shared purpose was ascribed to bodily signs in the imagined community of hijama practitioners, discourses promoting Kenya's new wellness communities required ascriptions, erasures, or conflations of meanings to depict a shared purpose that united (potential) community members. In his conversation with me, Jake described Niles's altered bodily posture, interactional habits, word use, and aura as signs of his staff member's commitment to spiritual transformation. For Jake, these embodied signs and his discursive depiction of them performatively created a shared purpose and thus gave credence to his wellness community. Niles, in turn, referred to his altered posture and increased alertness as signs of physical health, drawing comparisons between bodies that practice yoga and those that do karate. He discursively erased spiritual meanings from closed eyes, sounds (like ohm), or folded hands by describing them as mere tools for concentration. Through discourses like these, Niles performatively made real a shared purpose of physical health that justified the practice to him and enabled its promotion among the local community.

My argument here is that these communities flourish and succeed because of these differing purposes, not in spite of them. Central to this success, however, is the discursive and semiotic work that constructs and makes real a shared purpose to participants. Different members discursively establish connections between embodied practices and mindfulness, health, and spirituality to performatively create shared purpose and subjectivities, thereby validating and maintaining their communities. The notion of performativity (Austin 1962; Butler 1990, 1993) enables us to think through the work that discourse does in lending credibility to these communities, and making them real for different participants. By drawing attention to sharedness as emergent rather than prediscursive, however, I complicate more conventional understandings of performativity as drawing upon established ideologies. Rather than merely proclaiming shared belief, the examples discussed thus far reveal the semiotic work that goes into identifying signs of what is supposedly shared among participants. This performativity, I suggest, gives space to a variety of purposes and helps to maintain these communities. In other words, my claim to performative sharedness does not invalidate these communities but rather highlights how differing purposes and beliefs can be given space through discursive and embodied constructions of sharedness.

Conclusion

Kenya's wellness communities are flourishing and continue to grow. The trend is expanding across the African continent, with yoga and mindfulness being promoted as both part of a tourism niche market and a new humanitarian effort in countries like Ghana, Uganda, and South Africa. How do we understand the success of such communities, where seemingly different participants come together with apparently different purposes? What unites them? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we take seriously the communities that emerge from these exchanges and the intentions of their members, rather than straightforwardly discounting them as neo-colonial?

This article attempts to offer an ethnographically informed answer to these questions by reconsidering the notion of sharedness that is often assumed to underlie the formation of communities. By examining discourses through which embodied experiences are identified and constructed as indicative of shared purpose, it critically explores the objectives of both wellness-seeking Westerners and Kenyans. The examples illustrate how members’ narratives discursively erase the seemingly neo-colonial nature of interactions by identifying a shared purpose, thus authenticating both individual experiences and the communities to which they belong. Rather than assuming a prediscursive sharedness that can be performatively drawn upon, however, I show that sharedness itself—the purpose that participants see as bringing them together—needs to be discursively and semiotically established. Emphasizing the performative nature of sharedness does not invalidate these communities, nor does it intend to make a reference to the supposed ‘real’ intentions of practitioners. Instead, it recognizes the co-existence of conflicting or different purposes in communities structured around practice by drawing attention to the discursive and semiotic strategies that enable notions of sharedness to emerge, thereby lending credibility to communities.

Acknowledgments

Field research in Kenya on which this article is based was supported by the University of Toronto, Mississauga. An earlier draft of this article was presented at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting held in 2019 in Vancouver, and I want to thank all panel participants for their helpful comments and suggestions. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and encouragement, and to the journal's editors for their guidance. A very special thank you to everyone in Kenya who generously shared their experiences and thoughts with me. All remaining shortcomings and omissions are my own.

Notes

1

To protect the anonymity of my interlocutors, all names in this article are pseudonyms, including those of hotels and organizations.

2

As one of the anonymous reviewers pointed out, this discourse of mindfulness, with its focus on individual experience and personal development, is part of a long history of Western self-focus, although merged here with Asian Buddhism. The larger project of which this article forms part explores precisely how concepts like these are received by Kenyans, including Maasai (who are frequently portrayed in promotions of yoga initiatives) and Swahili communities (where I have conducted the majority of my research). Based on preliminary conversations, concepts like mindfulness appear to be quite odd to most people in these communities, as they are generally less accustomed to contemplating experiences self-consciously—or to consider happiness or suffering as individual states of mind, for that matter. The broader question explored in this project is how contrasting ideologies of selfhood are negotiated (or translated and given meaning) in encounters between yoga-promoting tourists and local communities.

3

I thank one of the anonymous reviewers for suggesting that I include this point.

4

See the Lamu Yoga Festival website at http://lamuyoga.org/.

References

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  • Tucker, Hazel, and John Akama. 2009. “Tourism as Postcolonialism.” In The Sage Handbook of Tourism Studies, ed. Tazim Jamal and Mike Robinson, 504520. London: Sage.

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    • Export Citation
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  • Voigt, Cornelia, and Christof Pforr, eds. 2014a. Wellness Tourism: A Destination Perspective. New York: Routledge.

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    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wearing, Stephen, and John Neil. 2009. Ecotourism: Impacts, Potentials and Possibilities. 2nd ed. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

  • Weaver, David. 2008. Ecotourism. 2nd ed. Brisbane: Wiley.

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  • Yeoman, Ian. 2008. Tomorrow's Tourist: Scenarios and Trends. Oxford: Elsevier.

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Contributor Notes

SARAH HILLEWAERT is an Associate Professor of Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Her ethnographic research focuses on Kenya and the Indian Ocean world, where she engages questions of religion, morality, social change, and embodiment. She is the author of Morality at the Margins: Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya (2020), and has published articles in leading anthropological journals, including American Anthropologist, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, and Africa. E-mail: s.hillewaert@utoronto.ca

Religion and Society

Advances in Research

  • Altglas, Véronique. 2014. From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage. New York: Oxford University Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

  • Austin, John. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • Buckley, Ralf. 2008. Ecotourism: Principles and Practice. Wallingford: CABI Publishing.

  • Butcher, Jim. 2003. The Moralisation of Tourism: Sun, Sand … and Saving the World? New York: Routledge.

  • Butcher, Jim. 2008. “Ecotourism as Life Politics.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 16 (3): 315326.

  • Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

  • Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge.

  • Burke, Timothy. 1996. Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption, and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Day, Abby. 2010. “Propositions and Performativity: Relocating Belief to the Social.” Culture and Religion 11 (1): 930.

  • Day, Abby. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Driscoll, Christopher M. 2015. White Lies: Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion. New York: Routledge.

  • Durkheim, Émile. (1893) 1984. The Division of Labour in Society. Trans. W. D. Halls. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Eckert, Penelope. 2006. “Communities of Practice.” In Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd ed., ed. Keith Brown, 683685. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 1992. “Think Practically and Look Locally: Language and Gender as Community-Based Practice.” Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 461490.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Favero, Paolo. 2000. “‘O’ Sole Mio’: Italian Charter Tourists’ Experiences of the Midnight Sun in North Cape, Norway.” Anthropological Quarterly 73 (1): 119.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fennell, David A. (1999) 2020. Ecotourism. 5th ed. London: Routledge.

  • Ferguson, James. 2006. Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Goodwin, Charles. 2018. Co-Operative Action. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • Gray, Noella J., and Lisa M. Campbell. 2007. “A Decommodified Experience? Exploring Aesthetic, Economic and Ethical Values for Volunteer Ecotourism in Costa Rica.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 15 (5): 463482.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Guttentag, Daniel A. 2011. “Volunteer Tourism: As Good as It Seems?Tourism Recreation Research 36 (1): 6974.

  • Harrison, Julia. 2003. Being a Tourist: Finding Meaning in Pleasure Travel. Vancouver: UBC Press.

  • Jenkins, Philip. 2004. Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Lehto, Xinran Y., Sally Brown, Yi Chen, and Alastair M. Morrison. 2006. “Yoga Tourism as a Niche within the Wellness Tourism Market.” Tourism Recreation Research 31 (1) 2535.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lucia, Amanda J. 2020. White Utopias: The Religious Exoticism of Transformative Festivals. Oakland: University of California Press.

  • Matthews, A. 2008. “Negotiated Selves: Exploring the Impact of Local-Global Interactions on Young Volunteer Travellers.” In Journeys of Discovery in Volunteer Tourism: International Case Study Perspectives, ed. Kevin D. Lyons and Stephen Wearing, 101117. Wallingford: CABI Publishing.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McIntosh, Janet. 2016. Unsettled: Denial and Belonging among White Kenyans. Oakland: University of California Press.

  • Mostafanezhad, Mary, and Kevin Hannam, eds. 2016. Moral Encounters in Tourism. New York: Routledge.

  • Mowforth, Martin, and Ian Munt. 2009. Tourism and Sustainability: Development and New Tourism in the Third World. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Patullo, Polly. 1996. Last Resorts: The Cost of Tourism in the Caribbean. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.

  • Patullo, Polly, and Orely Minelli. 2009. The Ethical Travel Guide: Your Passport to Exciting Alternative Holidays. New York: Earthscan.

  • Pritchard, Annette, and Nigel Morgan. 2007. “De-centring Tourism's Intellectual Universe, or Traversing the Dialogue between Change and Tradition.” In The Critical Turn in Tourism Studies: Innovative Research Methodologies, ed. Irena Ateljevic, Annette Pritchard, and Nigel Morgan, 1128. Oxford: Elsevier.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Scheyvens, Regina. 2002. Tourism for Development: Empowering Communities. Harlow: Prentice Hall.

  • Smith, Melanie, and Catherine Kelly. 2006. “Wellness Tourism.” Tourism Recreation Research 31 (1): 14.

  • Smith, Melanie Kay, and Lásló Puczkó, eds. 2017. The Routledge Handbook of Health Tourism. Abingdon: Routledge.

  • Suvantola, Jaakko. 2002. Tourist's Experience of Place. Aldershot: Ashgate.

  • Tucker, Hazel. 2016. “Mind the Gap: Opening Up Spaces of Multiple Moralities in Tourism Encounters.” In Mostafanezhad and Hannam 2016, 199208.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tucker, Hazel, and John Akama. 2009. “Tourism as Postcolonialism.” In The Sage Handbook of Tourism Studies, ed. Tazim Jamal and Mike Robinson, 504520. London: Sage.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Voigt, Cornelia. 2014. “Towards a Conceptualisation of Wellness Tourism.” In Voigt and Pforr 2014, 1944.

  • Voigt, Cornelia, and Christof Pforr, eds. 2014a. Wellness Tourism: A Destination Perspective. New York: Routledge.

  • Wearing, Stephen. 2010. “A Response to Jim Butcher and Peter Smith's Paper ‘“Making a Difference”: Volunteer Tourism and Development.’Tourism Recreation Research 35 (2): 213215.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wearing, Stephen, and John Neil. 2009. Ecotourism: Impacts, Potentials and Possibilities. 2nd ed. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

  • Weaver, David. 2008. Ecotourism. 2nd ed. Brisbane: Wiley.

  • Weiss, Brad, ed. 2004. Producing African Futures: Ritual and Reproduction in a Neoliberal Age. Leiden: Brill.

  • Wickens, Eugenia. 2011. “Journeys of the Self: Volunteer Tourists in Nepal.” In Volunteer Tourism: Theoretical Frameworks and Practical Applications, ed. Angela M. Benson, 4252. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yeoman, Ian. 2008. Tomorrow's Tourist: Scenarios and Trends. Oxford: Elsevier.

  • Yeung, Ophelia, and Katherine Johnson. 2018. Global Wellness Tourism Economy. Report prepared for the Global Wellness Institute. https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/industry-research/global-wellness-tourism-economy/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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