When people ask me what exactly wellness means, my go-to response is: “Doctors know what keeps your body functioning optimally based on research, but only you know what makes your whole being feel good.” Wellness is a personal and very nuanced thing. For some it’s competing in marathons, for others it’s daily meditation, and for an increasing number of millennial women, it’s regular sessions with modern mystics—shamans, energy healers, tarot readers and esoteric practitioners of all ilks.
In February, during a trip to Los Angeles to research this story, I was dealt some potentially life-changing news; I lost my visa, which meant there was a strong possibility I would have to uproot from New York, my home for the last four years, and move back to England. Being thrown into turmoil allowed me to serendipitously (and, I’ll admit, a little skeptically at first) experience the therapeutic work of many of the women I was in the city to interview. One of those women was Andi Scarbrough, a hair stylist who helps people shed their baggage as well as their split ends.
“So what’s present for you right now?” she asks. It’s early morning and Andi’s Santa Monica salon, Framed, is not yet open for business. The absence of whirring hair dryers and the shrill ring of appointment scheduling are conspicuously absent.
As is common between hair stylists and their clients, I find myself unselfconsciously explaining my current drama. And then my recent dilemmas. And then my ever-present hang-ups and insecurities, even as they relate to my hair. “Are you perhaps afraid of showing people your natural curls because on some level you believe they’re a representation of your wild, imperfect and untamed inner self?” Like any good therapist she listens and then excavates with uncanny accuracy. There’s a real catharsis in surfacing latent feelings, even if they are common to most curly-haired women.
In the sink, with my eyes closed, I inhale essential oils and feel cool, smooth crystals massaging my scalp. All sense of time is lost (it’s very possible I fell asleep) and I have to be gently maneuvered back to the chair, eyelids at half mast. She snips her scissors and my parched ends tumble to the floor, as in turn we both acknowledge that I am releasing what no longer serves me—on more levels than one.
“The hair itself is literally like a time capsule. One strand can tell you what you’ve ingested, what medications you were on, what your sleep patterns were like—all of that is stored,” Scarbrough explains. “If you think about it, we get six inches of growth per year, so anybody who has shoulder-length hair is literally carrying around three years of the complete limits of their life. It’s an opportunity to physically release with a hair cut.”
By the time my blow dry is complete and we’ve snapped a selfie together, I am feeling unburdened, and most importantly well cared for. Scarbrough listens and advises with warmth and understanding some of my closest friends can’t even muster. “If I can provide a space for you to express things that maybe you haven’t said before or ask a question that provokes a different line of thought, or gives you permission under the right circumstances, with the use of aromatherapy and crystals, that you’re able to stretch to a place you’ve never touched before—that’s the service I provide,” she says.
When it comes to dabbling in the esoteric, this wasn’t my first rodeo, though my previous brushes with mystics had been more entertainment based.
“Do you see her?” a tarot reader in Sedona once asked me, gesturing to the actual crystal ball on the table between us. “Do you see the fairy watching over you?” I smiled at the opaque smudge in the glass orb, nodded obligingly and glazed over.
Still, I’ve always been curious about this inexplicable world of spirit guides, fortune telling and radiant crystals, especially as it’s transitioned from fringe interest to a virtually mainstream form of self-care. According to Fast Company, Google searches for “crystal healing” have risen 40% in the last four years, and the 2016 launch of SereneBook—a U.S. subscription booking service for esoteric treatments—suggests demand is expected to continue growing.
SereneBook’s founders have been quoted as attributing this burgeoning interest to yoga, calling it “the gateway drug” to alternative healing modalities. They may have a point; according to the annual report by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal, 36.7 million (15%) of Americans practice yoga on a regular basis (up from 20 million in 2012). When you’re already acquainted with chakras—the seven energy centers of the body that specific yoga poses are said to address—it’s only a small leap to things like Reiki, a non-physical energy healing technique that originated in Japan.
“The vast majority of chakra-based Reiki goes hand-in-hand with yoga. It’s almost a different physical practice of the same principles,” says Jessica Jennings, a PHD candidate at the University College London studying the medical anthropology of Reiki. She describes the benefits for the casual client—one who books a session because they’re feeling overstressed or has a specific issue they want addressed—as being similar to that of a hug or a really powerful nap. For the regular client, however, it can be transformative.
“If it becomes an interest and they go regularly it turns into a lifestyle practice,” she says. “They might avoid stressors, change their diet. It’s about showing yourself kindness and living in a way that does no harm to the world. If you live in that way you are generally less stressed and probably healthier.”
One healthy lifestyle change begets another. When you prioritize your fitness, you’re more likely to tweak your diet. Once you feel the benefits of a healthy diet, you’re more likely to try meditation. Before you know it you’re hiring Colleen McCann, a modern bi-coastal shaman whose work entails acting as a conduit between the seen and unseen worlds.
“About seven years ago when I was in my late twenties I started hearing voices,” explains McCann over the hiss of milk being frothed. We’re in a packed cafe and the table in front of us is shimmering with the tools of her trade—chunks of purple amethyst and cloudy selenite wands strewn among glossy tarot cards.
” ‘I’ve got to check myself into a mental institution’ was my first thought,” she says, laughing. But before resorting to an asylum McCann decided to visit a psychic on the recommendation of a close friend. “He opens the door, and he goes ‘Oh honey you’re not crazy… you’re psychic.’ And I was like ‘Oooooh, well that explains a few things, but what am I supposed to do with it?!’ ”
She quit her career as a successful fashion stylist to study several lineages of shamanism with mentors in upstate New York; Joshua Tree, California; and South America. A modern version of this ancient practice is now her bread and butter, and she divides her time between Los Angeles and New York, serving a high profile clientele that include Vogue and Goop staffers.
“[In NYC] I get the type-A, lady-slayer, girl-boss, female VP running the fucking ship, the show, the island,” she says. “In L.A. I get girls looking for knowledge, exploration and personal health. Something I always talk about is spiritual hygiene. If we’re emotionally, mentally, physically taking care of ourselves, using exercise and sleep and botox and all this stuff, then why are we not taking care of ourselves energetically?”
When Allie Van Fossen, a marketer and yoga teacher from St. Petersburg, Florida, began seeing a shamanic bodyworker last year, it was an opportunity to tackle some residual issues with her long-time boyfriend in the lead-up to their wedding.
“[My shaman] nourishes me more than any one person, doctor, therapist or yoga teacher combined has,” she says. “Each session I learn incredible amounts about myself—physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It’s also a moment for me to connect with a person who has zero ties to my life, so our conversations are unbiased, authentic, and helpful to keep moving forward, living my journey.”
People tend to visit mystics because they’re at an impasse or a pivotal moment in their lives. They go because they not only have a question but because they already know the answer deep down and are too afraid to acknowledge it, let alone act on it, without a nudge from destiny. It is the job of esoteric practitioners to delicately help us peel back the layers and become reacquainted with our gut.
It’s a concept that Ruby Warrington, founder of The Numinous and author of Material Girl, Mystical World is well acquainted with. “Modern life means we’re bombarded with such a deluge of information on a daily basis, and so any practice that taps us into our own inner knowing, or helps us connect to the right choices for us is becoming not only more appealing but also a necessity,” she explains. “In its essence, this is what ‘the mystical’ offers—a focus on ritual and ceremony designed to help us find an answer to whatever issues might be presenting in our lives.”
The day Natalia Benson, an L.A.-based tarot reader and resident astrologist for the fashion site WhoWhatWear, received me on her doorstep, I had one very current issue on my mind. On the Uber ride over I was hit with the bad news about my visa, and I found myself mentioning it right off the bat, with barely a “hello” or a “nice to meet you”.
“Oh my God, Babe! That’s terrible, I’m so sorry,” Benson exclaims, pouring sympathy and a bowl-sized cup of nettle tea like we’ve been friends for years.
She’s a walking Free People ad: Slender, tattooed, barefoot and attired in a floaty maxi dress, with platinum blonde hair that’s streaked with faded pink dye. We’re sitting at her kitchen table next to an open window. Just past the sill tiny, ethereal hummingbirds flutter. “My little spirit creatures!” Benson exclaims.
In the tradition of ancient mystical arts, she learned tarot from a series of older female mentors, and now “reads” at high profile events for clients like Google.
“One thing [my mentors] told me was to always make sure someone leaves a reading with you feeling better than when they got there,” she says. “Especially if they have something really intense going on. Because you really have an opportunity to give them hope and a new perspective on the situation.”
Something about Benson—a softness—encourages easy vulnerability, and most people (me included) open up to her effortlessly. I ask her if she feels like a counsellor of sorts.
“Everyone tells me everything, everywhere,” she laughs. “If I have one strength in my personality, it’s that I like to be gentle with people, and I think that when you’re like that people just kind of trust you and tell you what’s going on. I think that’s just so beautiful.”
What Natalia Benson, Andi Scarbrough, and Colleen McCann all have in common is a sweet way of being with other humans, an ability to intuit their emotions and respond empathically, without judgement. Whether or not spirit guides are real, or crystals have healing properties, or cards can symbolically deliver messages about our lives seems unimportant if it soothes that complex part of us commonly thought of as the soul.
This is therapy, self-care and self-help combined. Plus a little touch of magic.