Who is Wellness For? Interview with Fariha Róisín

Fariha Róisín is a multidisciplinary artist, born in Ontario, Canada. She was raised in Sydney, Australia, and is based in Los Angeles, California. As a Muslim queer Bangladeshi, she is interested in the margins, liminality, otherness, and the mercurial nature of being. Her work has pioneered a refreshing and renewed conversation about wellness, contemporary Islam, and queer identities and has appeared in The New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Vice, Village Voice, and others. Her first work of non-fiction is titled “Who Is Wellness For? An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who it Leaves Behind”. Fariha shared her thoughts and insights on ethical approaches to collective wellbeing in December 2022, answering questions prepared by Marianne Abbott from Soul Collective Berlin and Ola Kohut from JOY Space.

What does “wellness”, experienced as a collective, mean to you?

To me, wellness experienced as a collective means taking care of one another, it means that the most underprivileged or disadvantaged people in society: disabled folks or chronically ill folks, child sexual abuse survivors, survivors or war, Black and Brown and indigenous folks – experience care. Because our livelihood is such that most definitely, in most cases, we have experienced deep ancestral trauma, such as genocide. My parents survived genocide in 1971 in Bangladesh, where 3 million people were murdered, and nobody talks about it. It’s one of the biggest acts of genocidal rape known or documented in history – and these things are passed down. There is a concept of epigenetics, where [trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which can then be passed down to future generations] – that’s why to me it’s really important for us to consider this as a society – what does it mean to take care of one another? The people who don’t have an opportunity to take care of themselves, poor people, people that are immigrants, people that don’t have accessibility, people that have blocks to having a better life than others. I think equity, living within equitable terms – is the best way for us to move forward as a society, and that’s what wellness looks like to me.

What are the 3 things you think every wellness practitioner should do to create more integrity in their practice, to truly contribute to a greater good in their community and of our planet?

I think every wellness practitioner should know the context of what they are teaching, I do stand behind this in the book. Right now, we have so many yogis around the world and so many people that own yoga studios who are not of Indian and South Asian descent. And this is highly dangerous given the fact that in India alone estimated 450 million people live below the poverty line. This is what we are tackling when we talk about context. It is important to know where does the money go, and how does this money help the communities from whom these practices have been extracted from, in the first place. So it’s about the context, and it’s also about redistribution of wealth. I don’t think we talk about this enough, and I don’t think we consider it enough – mutual aid is very important. How do we take care of our communities financially, especially if we have better financial opportunities, or we have financial privilege, then we have a responsibility to give back and to be generous. And I think that having a relationship with the land whether it’s through composting, which is a big one for me, or just tending to the land – having a garden, having access to the land – means that we’ll manage to shift our relationship to this planet. And I think that’s a really important practice that any wellness practitioner should bring into their understanding – how important it is to be in service to land. Many people in wellness seem to be in service to themselves and their ego – but what would it mean to be in service to each other, and this planet?

One of the most surprising things while reading your book was how deeply personal it is. Why was it important to you to share your personal healing journey as you conducted the examination of wellness culture? 

I wouldn’t be healing myself if I wasn’t immensely abused as a child. I think that’s really  important for us to acknowledge as a society. How many of us – whether it’s cancer, whether is IBS, fibromyalgia, whether it’s other chronic illnesses or terminal illnesses, whether it’s being in a disabled body – a lot of us had to experience these things because of what’s in our ancestral patterning, meaning – what happened to us as children, or what kind of trauma that we carry for our ancestors. And again, that comes down to our epigenetics, and goes back to very scientific research that is backed by thousands of years of studies from not only Indian or Muslim culture, but many native cultures, indigenous Native American or indigenous Native Australian cultures – there’s an awareness of the impact of trauma. And obviously we have shifted a lot as a society, but there’s still not a lot of space to talk about pain and grief. And I think this was my chance to share my own story, of why I’m on this deeply difficult and arduous healing journey, and what are the reasons behind that. I am not able-bodied, I haven’t been my entire life because of a very horrific thing that happened to me as a child. And I think all of those things are connected, and the more that we can understand that they are all connected, the more we can get closer to actually healing ourselves, and each other. 

Is there anything you gained a new perspective on since publishing your book?

I feel very strongly that this book needed to be written and I feel immensely privileged. It was a book of many years in the working and in the making, and I’m very grateful that I could write it. I have found that the teaching and the wisdom that is not mine – it’s only wisdom that I’m collecting through a lot of research, moving through a lot of information, reading a lot – it’s imperative for us to talk about what is wellness for is talking about, and to have difficult conversations with one another, and to have accountability between each other – accountability, whether or not we’re talking about yoga, accountability whether or not we’re talking about abuse. All of these things are connected. I’ve heard from a lot of child sexual survivors because I know I’m not alone – and I’m happy and grateful I could write a book that is resonating with these folks. 

Are there any people, organizations or collectives that you’re inspired about and would like to give a shoutout to? 

I love Céline Semaan, the founder of Slow Factory [a nonprofit dedicated to advancing climate justice and social equity]. I feel really grateful to have her friendship and to be involved in Slow Factory in any way that I can be. The thinkers that have shaped me – Robin Wall Kimmerer, Arundhati Roy, Vandana Shiva, Gabor Mate –  these are the voices of the collective. A lot of the people I reference in Who Is Wellness For?, and their work was poured over to bring this book to the world. And I feel a lot of gratitude for the teachings and wisdom of the elders that I look up to.

What gives us hope and joy these days? 

It’s a question that I think a lot of us are trying to remember. What brings us joy? For me personally it’s tending to myself and – funnily enough – being diligent about my routine, being diligent about taking care of myself. Being sick and someone who always needs to, for example, make sure that I’m eating, steps that I have to take in order to just get through my day – all of this is actually really satisfying just to do it, to not resist, to just be in the flow of the day. I’m grateful for my relationship with God and divine, and relationship to my earthly pleasures. I love ceramics, golden milk lattes, cooking for friends, and having a good connection and good communication with people that I love, sharing not only my highs but also my lows, and being heard. I think that those things don’t necessarily bring me joy but bring me satisfaction. 

Thank you so much Fariha!