From womb workshops to naked retreats, the Instagram generation are embracing hippy 2.0. But is it the real deal?
It’s a sunny afternoon and I’m sitting cross-legged with my eyes closed, introducing myself to my womb. “Hello, womb,” I say, inwardly, and wait for a reply. Seven other women are in a circle with me, doing the same as a Spotify playlist of chimey chillout music plays in the background and incense burns. We are in Chloe Isidora’s house, taking up her living room. Isidora, a former fashion editor turned spiritual practitioner, is leading a “womb wisdom circle”. We are all here for different reasons, mine being a mixture of curiosity (my womb and I have not been, shall we say, getting along) and a desire to discover more about what I’ve come to think of, in the past couple of years, as the “neo-hippy”.
When I was growing up, it was desperately uncool to be a hippy. I wouldn’t say my parents were hippies exactly, but they were certainly influenced by some of their ideas. I spent my early childhood living in cooperatives. My mother would purify the house with sage, did yoga, visited reiki healers and read tarot cards (before she stopped, from fear she was allowing in too much “negative energy”). And last time I saw my dad, he was wearing a tie-dye Grateful Dead T-shirt.
Compared with some of my friends’ parents, who took part in drumming circles and grew their own weed, they were small fry. One friend grew up in a Buddhist community in Italy and has witnessed the exact moment she crowned via the medium of her parents’ birthing video. Another, a Californian, knew children who had chosen their own names, such as Windsong and Skyraven. I’m friends with people who have been on Ayahuasca retreats. Still, my parents were “bohemian” enough: there were all those times I opened my lunchbox at school and was mortified to find hummus instead of Cheestrings.
Many aspects of the hippy lifestyle you thought had died a death are back with a vengeance
These days, my parents would be right on trend. Many aspects of the hippy lifestyle you thought had died a death, save for a hardcore of originals in Somerset and the mountains of north Wales, are back with a vengeance. There’s the fashion, obviously: women in floral maxi dresses with tumbling locks topped with flower crowns, men with beards and “man buns”. There’s the clean-eating phenomenon: making your own raw chocolate avocado flourless brownies, snacking on nuts and berries, stewing your own overnight oats. Meditation apps are enormously popular, as is 5Rhythms dance (the movement so brilliantly satirised by Peep Show in the form of “rainbow rhythms”). The neo-hippy tendency manifests itself in everything from natural family planning to polyamory, to houses full of terrariums, spider plants and Moroccan rugs. The resurgence of feminism has intersected with hippydom and seen a renewed interest in womb worship, most notably in the form of the Spirit Weavers Gathering, an all-female Californian camp dubbed “the world’s chicest cult”.
All of this is, of course, eminently Instagrammable. The Spirit Weavers’ account is full of filtered snapshots of women standing naked in circles, their hands raised towards the sky. Meanwhile, many travel bloggers are in on the action: it’s all yoga poses at sunset, temples and beautiful women in peasant dresses standing at the edge of canyons, giving the impression of a carefree, nomadic lifestyle that is in fact enjoyed at luxury hotels. That’s the thing about the neo-hippy: all these hobbies and interests can appear somewhat divorced from the ethics – it’s veganism without reference to an exploitative dairy industry; meditation without the Buddhism; £40 scented candles, and a very expensive flight to Goa. An old hippy would probably say that the commodification of the counterculture was complete.Allow Instagram content?
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And maybe that’s fine. But it is slightly jarring to find that the stuff you always found hideously embarrassing is back in fashion.
My friend Nell, who says last year’s Captain Fantastic was basically a Hollywood movie about her dad, and who once wrote an article headlined 27 Signs You Were The Victim Of British Hippy Parents (with which I heavily identify), is equally bemused. “There’s a big disconnect between people having an alternative harmonious image and how they actually live their lives,” she says. “Being a real hippy is crap.”
Like me, she was embarrassed by her school packed lunch. “Cold, sloppy vegetable curry. And then a loose handful of raisins. Oh God. I remember the day when I unwrapped my sandwich and thought, ‘I might as well die.’”
But that was the point, she argues. “Everything you had was a bit shit: my clothes from jumble sales; the fact that we cleaned our loo with Ecover or vinegar meant that it didn’t smell like a fresh swimming pool; and the fact that we had to brush our teeth with toothpaste powder.” As she says this, I get a flashback to the fennel toothpaste and crystal deodorants my mother used to buy. “It was not very nice,” Nell says. “But there was an understanding that you had to sacrifice a certain level of luxury for a higher ideal.”
It’s an aesthetic that’s defined by what you’re wearing, the decor of your flat, the food you’re cooking
Now there is an unwillingness to make sacrifices in pursuit of those ideals. Meditation apps are a prime example of the modern way. “That whitewashing of Buddhism takes out all the stuff about having to look after each other,” Nell points out. “It’s about you, and looking after yourself.”
Sarah and Lucy (not their real names) are twins who spent seven years of their childhood in a Tibetan Buddhist centre. “It was the real deal,” Sarah says. “It was run by a Tibetan tulku and populated by a serious, studious group of mostly Europeans, actively engaged in academic and religious study. We were not quite self-sufficient, but grew most of what we ate. Every adult was allocated a job, from gardener to candle-maker, and everything we did was clearly rooted in a belief system, so our childhood felt structured and calm in many ways. We were both busy and free, dipping in and out of all the workshops: cheese-making, carpet-weaving, woodwork.”
Sarah was conscious from a young age that they were different from other children. “We went to the local primary school, which had a few of us ‘hippy’ kids alongside the local children who lived in actual houses furnished, I imagined, with carpet. Meanwhile, we lived in caravans, or in rooms within shared houses.” Naturally, they were vegetarian. “I appreciate that the world has since caught up, but at the time all I wanted was a Fray Bentos pie from a tin. But despite the desperate childish desire to fit in, I knew it was amazing and beautiful, even while we were living it.”
Lucy didn’t feel the same desire to fit in. It wasn’t until after they had left the community that she realised they had been viewed as different. “Integrating into a more mainstream social structure felt like a baptism of fire, and somewhat heartbreaking, too,” she says. “Fellow citizens prioritising loving kindness and compassion, no matter how clumsy or messy, could no longer be taken for granted. That’s what I remember most vividly.”
How do they feel about the rise of the neo-hippy? “It is a surprise to reach adulthood and suddenly find that growing up in a Buddhist centre carries social cache. I am loth to cash in on it; that feels like the antithesis of everything our childhood instilled in me.”
Nell echoes that: “Of course it’s good to wear natural fabrics, it is good to eat organic food, but the reason my parents did all those things was because they were worried about the impact on other people.”
You could argue that the rise of the neo-hippy is simply a reflection of the narcissistic “me, me, me” world of social media. Old hippies believed in living economically and communally, bulk-buying wholefoods and sharing the childcare; Nell says that if your bag of lentils fits into your hand, then you are definitely not a hippy.
Some neo-hippies are also surprisingly intolerant of other people’s lifestyles. My friend Carly experienced this when she moved into a houseshare: “I’m always being made to feel bad for using a razor or enjoying an egg,” she says. She was accused of being insensitive for leaving a non-vegan chocolate cake, a gift from her 87-year-old grandmother, out in the kitchen. “I’ve also been lectured for being in a monogamous relationship, instead of enjoying the benefits of polyamory.
“A lot of my family are from Cumbria and make a living building paths and doing farm work. In my eyes, they are the best kind of hippies, even if they don’t have the hippy signifiers of my housemates – the posters and the dreads. They share resources with their neighbours and are open-minded and welcoming. For many people, being a hippy has become more a badge of honour than a way of life. And when you’re on the wrong end of it, it can feel less like peace and love and more like snobbery.”
Millennials are prone to idealising their parents’ generation: whacking retro filters on their iPhone photographs
There’s a heavy dollop of image-consciousness thrown in there, too. I suspect many neo-hippies wouldn’t be seen dead at Womad, where my mother took me and which Nell attended every year – “standing in a field next to your dad, wearing a bumbag and thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve seen enough men from Kazakhstan playing fiddles’”. The cultural appropriation aspect grates, too: flaunting a Native American headdress at Burning Man, greeting people with “namaste”, calling people and things your “spirit animal”.
But perhaps I am falling victim to rose-tinted nostalgia for a hippiedom that never was. Millennials are certainly prone to idealising their parents’ generation: listening to their vinyl and whacking retro filters on their iPhone photographs. Perhaps there never was a golden age. The historian Dominic Sandbrook, author of State Of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970-1974 seems to think not. “The number of people, certainly in Britain, who genuinely dropped out, lived in communes, slaughtered their own birds – full-on hippies, if you like, was pretty small,” he tells me. “It was a reasonably middle-class, university-educated thing to do. This is a massive generalisation, but how many hippies were there in Rotherham in 1970? My guess is, not many. Whereas in Cambridge, Oxford, a lot of people would probably have identified themselves as hippies.”
He argues that today’s neo-hippies are not so different. “Almost from the beginning, being a hippy was about an aesthetic, and it’s an aesthetic that’s defined by what you’re carrying, what you’re wearing, the decor of your flat, the food you’re cooking. Everyone’s got the same hair, everyone’s got the same clothes. I think it’s too tempting to think, ‘Oh, this is a terrible and commercialised relic of what was once a pristine and beautiful thing.’”
But didn’t they want to change the world? I asked my mum’s friend Rose, who dropped out of university in 1969 to go on the hippy trail to India. “We were idealistic, so yes. We were anti-materialistic and very much seeking out eastern philosophy and ideas. I had been disappointed by my philosophy course at university – it was all very dry and logic-based. This was an explosion of new ideas: Buddhism, Jungian psychology, RD Laing,” she explains. “But we didn’t do much. We took too many drugs, listened to lots of amazing music and hung out – people from so many different places: Australians, Europeans from all over, Canadians, Americans, including quite a few US draft dodgers.” Would she agree with Sandbrook that it was a relatively privileged group of people? “On the whole, it was middle class young people who had the luxury of dropping out. It was a precursor to the whole gap year thing.”
Sandbrook argues that it was an inherently elitist movement. “It was about changing the world through withdrawing from it. That’s quite a monastic attitude: the world is corrupt so we will set up our own little world in which we can live organically and ethically and challenge capitalism.” That involved the kind of material sacrifices Nell talked about; but as Sandbrook points out, there was much less money around in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A lot of people had no central heating. Dropping out involved a level of sacrifice lower than it might today.
You could ask: if practising a hippy lifestyle makes people calmer and happier, where’s the harm? Many of the younger generation now drawn to it live in stressful urban environments and work in demanding jobs. This was precisely the reason my womb guru Chloe Isidora found shamanism: because she was burned out and unhappy. “It’s about people wanting to feel a sense of purpose, like they are doing something with their life,” she tells me. “I felt like there was something huge missing. The word hippy doesn’t bother me at all. You don’t have to be on a spiritual path; you can just have this yearning for fulfilment – that’s what it’s really about.”
Certainly she’s right that you don’t have to be a hippy to attend her womb circle. They are a diverse bunch – four white women, four women of colour, all from different walks of life, and all friendly and keen to find a greater connection to their own bodies. Where’s the harm? Isidora says she’s thrilled it’s fashionable again. “It needs to be for people to plug in and say, ‘Actually I want to do this, and it’s not embarrassing, or I feel weird or the odd one out.’”
It’s very easy to be a hippy and live in a commune if you’re living in sparkling sunshine
Despite the scars of her hippy upbringing, Nell agrees. “I don’t want to sound too cynical,” she says. “Womb wisdom is probably really healthy, and to take time to go outside and be in nature is incredibly important. If you need to dress it up, then at least you’re doing it. It’s so easy for me to be snide because it’s kind of old hat to me.”
Dropping out completely isn’t a popular option in Britain – not just because of our insane rents and crazy working hours, but because of our climate. “The hippy stronghold was always California,” Sandbrook explains. “This will sound so banal, but I think it’s true: it’s partly a question of the weather. It’s very easy to be a hippy and live in a commune if you’re living in sparkling sunshine. If you’re in north Wales and it’s pouring with rain it’s a slightly different matter.”
Tell me about it.
I think the children of hippies will always struggle to fully embrace the revival, perhaps because so many of us have rebelled in the only way we know how: by becoming desperately conventional. We walk among you, but we are in disguise.
“When I think of the children of the hippies I know,” says Nell, “they ascribe to all the ethics, they volunteer, they get the train instead of flying short distances, and all that stuff. But they are wearing clean, smart clothes they bought from a shop, getting married before they have a baby, and buying a house – people whose parents believed all property is theft.”
And conventional though I may be, I confess I enjoyed the womb wisdom circle. I liked Isidora, and when she gave me a little bundle of sage to purify my house, it brought back fond memories. In a weird kind of way, it felt like coming home. Perhaps my mum’s incense burning, and those times she made me do yogic chanting, have paid off. Not that long ago I got so high with my dad that I almost – almost – could see what he sees in the Grateful Dead. And of course, I work for the Guardian. I’m still waiting for my uterus to get back to me, though.