Joe Dispenza wants you to breathe. He wants you to relax. He wants you to focus on the space between your ears. He wants you to focus the space beyond the space between your ears. He wants you to open your heart.
C’mon! Dispenza says. C’mon! Open your heart!
Can you do it? Can you move into a new state of being? Can you be defined by a vision of the future instead of the memories of the past? Can you let the thought become the experience and let the experience create the emotion and teach your body emotionally how that future feels now?
Good. The doctor will see you now.
In a world in which “self-care” is sacrosanct, in which coffee shops sell crystals and tech bros microdose mushrooms and self-help-author-slash-spiritual-leader Marianne Williamson ran for president, it can be hard for a single New-Age guru to rise above the rest. Joe Dispenza has done that.
The 61-year-old New Jersey-born chiropractor with a striking resemblance to Wallace Shawn and a voice like your Italian uncle after inhaling helium has in recent months become the dominant spiritual leader of impressionable young women everywhere. His meditations have been translated into eight languages, his $2,299 retreats sell out in days. His book, You Are the Placebo, is a New York Times bestseller. And he is alllll over Tiktok.
“Dr. Joe,” as he calls himself, preaches a fairly standard combination of mindfulness mixed with manifestation mixed with something he claims is quantum physics but definitely is not. But something about him has a chokehold on the kind of young, millennial influencer class that craves spiritual guidance and Insta-ready mantras. It could be his paternal countenance; it could be his professed scientific credentials. Or it could be something much more troubling: the fact that he markets his meditations as cures for deadly diseases.
I found Dispenza through a fitness influencer I follow—ostensibly for her workouts but, if we’re being honest, mainly for her abs. She started posting about Dispenza a few months ago, claiming his meditations had completely restored her gut health. When I looked him up, I noticed that almost every fitness influencer, yoga guru, recipe creator, and Instagram model I followed followed him too. So did 2.5 million other people.
Maria Shriver follows Dispenza; so do Russell Brand, Maria Menouonous, and Ana de Armas. He does not have a TikTok, but he has managed to attain Andrew Tate-levels of omnipresence on the app, without the Tate-level misogyny or human trafficking arrests. “Warning!” reads the text on one representative video, over footage of Dispenza’s book Becoming Supernatural. “Do not read this book until you are ready for your whole life to change.” It has nearly 14,000 likes.
Jordan Younger, the absurdly popular lifestyle blogger who goes by the name “The Balanced Blonde” and posts largely about her matcha lattes and supplement routine, recommends Dispenza to all her followers. Beauty guru Michelle Phan swears by him. Dispenza even got a shout-out in Goop, where the founder of a “plant-based meal delivery system” recommended his book along with her “Detox Lemonade” and a $84 face cleanser. He has appeared on podcasts including On Purpose With Jay Shetty (1.06 million subscribers on YouTube), the Marie Forleo Podcast (805,000 subscribers), and the in-house Goop podcast. If The Oprah Winfrey Show were still around, he would 1,000 percent have been on that, too.
Many of these followers say Dispenza changed their mindset and outlook on life. Commenters on Instagram call him “life changing, “inspiring,” and “brilliant,” and say he helped cure their anxiety, depression, and even eating disorders. (“I’m creating my reality with every thought!” one ”spiritual business co-creator” commented recently. “So excited for the shift we’re making on this planet.”) Bloggers claim his meditations gave them an “incredible self-love and a deep inner peace,” and made them a “completely different person.” Menounos claims Dispenza’s online course healed her anxiety in three days.
“I went to the weeklong [retreat] and life completely changed,” the former Today show correspondent gushed on her podcast. “I am a whole new person. I am completely new.”
Others, however, say something more serious: that Dispenza’s methods changed their physical health. And that is where things get scary.
Let’s start with Dispenza’s own story—or at least, what he claims it is. In 1986, Dispenza says, he was in a serious cycling accident that left him with six compressed vertebrae. Doctors told him he might never walk again and recommended spine surgery. Instead, Dispenza claims, he checked himself out of the hospital and dedicated himself to reconstructing his vertebrae with his mind. Within 10 weeks, he says, he was walking again. Within 12, he was back at the gym.
Doctors couldn’t believe it; experts were blown away. “I made a deal with myself that if I was ever able to walk again I would spend the rest of my life studying the mind-body connection,” Dispenza said in a 2018 interview. “And I’ve been doing that ever since.” (Dispenza declined a detailed request for comment on this story.)
This is the core of Dispenza’s sales pitch: He used his mind to heal his body, and he can help you do it, too. His website contains no fewer than 40 taped testimonials of people claiming he cured their cancer or their multiple sclerosis or their infertility. Under a tab called “coherence healing,” the site boasts Dispenza and his disciples have “produced profound biological changes in multitudes of individuals around the world” and “observed hundreds of healings from a wide variety of health conditions.” According to a video posted on his website, a higher than average number of his followers suffer from conditions like cancer and autoimmune diseases.
In a 2020 interview with podcaster Aubrey Marcus, Dispenza bragged about bringing children onstage at his retreats to cure them of “really serious health conditions.” He claimed to have cured a 76-year-old woman of Parkinson’s. He said his treatments cured illness faster than chemotherapy and that “profound and prestigious universities” in the United States wanted to study his methods.
“[We’ve seen] tumors disappearing, people stepping out of wheelchairs, blind people seeing, deaf people hearing—crazy stuff,” he told Marcus. “This is biblical proportions stuff.”
In interviews and lectures, Dispenza often takes on the role of learned scientist, infusing every basic concept with overly academic language. (“Learning” becomes “forging new synaptic connections” and changing one’s behavior becomes “reorganizing circuits.”) In the Marcus interview, he claimed that meditating in the presence of others—combining “coherent fields,” as he called them—opens up “interference patterns of fractal geometry that are doors to dimensions.” (Peter Woit, a theoretical physicist at Columbia University, told The Daily Beast this was “almost spectacularly complete nonsense.”)
At his retreats, Dispenza assumes the rhythms of a faith healer, speaking in call-and-response and descending into the crowd to answer questions from afflicted audience members. He occasionally brings followers onstage to share the “miracles” they experienced at the workshops that day, such as a woman who claimed she regained her depth perception after decades of encephalitis. “She got a biological upgrade … and all she did was make up her mind to do it,” he told the audience.
In one particularly disturbing instance, Dispenza told a 44-year-old woman struggling with infertility that she wasn’t getting pregnant because she didn’t have “happy eggs.” The woman had already tried several rounds of fertility treatment, and wondered if it was worth the continued cost.
“The spirit is waiting for you to have happy eggs before you have a kid,” Dispenza told her, as her eyes filled with tears. “[The baby] doesn’t want to live in guilt, it wants to live in joy.”
“We’re going to help you,” he added, resting both hands on her shoulders. “You change the field, you change matter… You just need a little help.”
The audience erupted in applause.
To be clear, Joe Dispenza is not a medical doctor. He is a chiropractor. A chiropractor is a doctor of chiropractic care the way a dentist is a doctor of dentistry: both obtained a postgraduate degree; neither went to medical school. You would go to a dentist to cure your gum disease, but not to cure cancer. You probably shouldn’t ask your chiropractor to, either.
Dispenza is also not a neuroscientist, or a physicist, or many of the other things people say he is online. According to a college registrar, he completed 1.5 years of college at Rutgers University before transferring to Evergreen, an alternative college in Washington with no grades, few major requirements, and a 99 percent acceptance rate. (Rutgers makes frequent appearances in his online bios; Evergreen does not.)
He went on to earn his chiropractic license from Life University, a four-year institution in Georgia founded on the philosophy of “vitalism”—the idea that the universe is “self-conscious” and humans are “self-healing.” Besides Dispenza, Life’s most famous graduate may be Carla Sands, the socialite and businesswoman who served as Trump’s ambassador to Denmark. The school has been disciplined by the Council on Chiropractic Education at least three times, including in 2002, when it lost its accreditation for allegedly failing to teach students when to refer patients to a medical doctor. (A federal judge later retroactively restored its accreditation and placed it on probation.)
Dispenza’s website claims he attained post-graduate training in the fields of “neuroscience and neuroplasticity, quantitative electroencephalogram (QEEG) measurements, epigenetics, mind-body medicine, and brain/heart coherence.” Quantum University, an online-only holistic medicine school where Dispenza teaches, lists him as a PhD, though The Daily Beast could find no evidence that he ever earned such a title. (Quantum University did not respond to a request for comment.)
Instead, for much of the early 2000s, Dispenza served as an “appointed teacher” at Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, a New Age spiritual sect in Yelm, Washington, that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a cult. The sect is led by J.Z. Knight, a former cable TV entrepreneur who claims a 35,000-year-old warrior called Ramtha the Enlightened One came to her in her kitchen in 1977 and has been speaking through her ever since. When she is not (allegedly) making racist or homophobic statements, Knight preaches that people can choose their own realities using only their minds.
Dispenza appears to have become a teacher for the sect as early as 2001, according to an SF Gate article that mentions him teaching a brain chemistry class for the school’s adherents. He was central enough by 2004 to be featured in the group’s bizarre documentary What the Bleep Do We Know!?, which has been described as a “mushy self-help manual for gullible people” and a “glitzy recruitment tool.” At some point, however, Dispenza and Knight had a disagreement that led to a lawsuit, and the chiropractor and the cult leader went their separate ways. Dispenza published his first book, Evolve Your Brain, in 2007.
Today, Dispenza often refers to himself as a “researcher,” claiming to have collected more than 18,000 brain scans and 10,000 heart-rate measurements from participants as part of his inquiry into the benefits of meditation. The “Research News & Updates” section of his website contains only four links, two on the same topic: a research project he conducted in partnership with Dr. Hemal Patel, an anesthesiologist at the University of California San Diego, on the effects of meditation on preventing COVID-19. Though the men called their discoveries “astounding” and “amazing,” their research paper on the subject—a pre-print version of which Dispenza’s site said would be ready by January 2022—has yet to materialize. (Patel told The Daily Beast the paper was “out for review” but that he had not heard back yet. He did not respond to repeated requests for a pre-print version of the paper.)
The last entry on the research page, about a “study” Dispenza ran on participants at one of his workshops, also promised a research paper that was never published. In fact, Dispenza has published only one peer-reviewed article in his 40-year career—a collaboration with researchers at two Australian universities that found a change in the brain waves of retreat participants when they were meditating versus when they were not.
Nicholas Van Dam, a professor at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences who frequently studies meditation, noted that most of the research displayed on Dispenza’s website relies on case studies, which do not allow researchers to isolate variables and are generally considered the least robust form of scientific evidence.
“There’s so much stuff going on, people are doing so many different things that it’s hard to know what the active ingredient is,” Van Dam said. Was it the meditation that cured the cancer? Was it the acupuncture? Or was it the chemotherapy they were receiving? “There’s no verifying what actually caused the outcome,” Van Dam said. “And that’s the appeal of these testimonial or case examples.”
There’s nothing wrong with using case studies as an entry point to researching a subject, Van Dam said. The problem is using these case studies as “proof” that a method works or combining them with pseudoscientific buzzwords—”energy fields,” “heart coherence,” “mystical experiences”—that make the results sound more promising.
“He’s interspersing science with new age spirituality and using a lot of terms very loosely,” Van Dam said. “He’s also extrapolating scientific research well beyond things to which it can speak.”
“And that’s part of the appeal to the public,’ he added. “It sounds like it’s science, it sounds like scientific evidence, but it’s not.”
Stacey Kelsey started going Dispenza’s meditations in late 2021, after a client asked if she’d accompany her to one of his retreats. A trained hypnotherapist, tarot reader, and intuitive counselor whom Goop once described as a “one-stop spiritual shop,” Kelsey was deeply familiar with self-help and spirituality. “I’m a spiritual intuitive, I’ve talked with dead people,” she told The Daily Beast. “I’ve done the woo-woo stuff.”
But Dispenza was different.
In the months leading up to the retreat, Kelsey started meditating every day, focusing on a future self who had more money. (Dispenza claims that by changing your mindset to one of “abundance” you can attract more money into your life.) She bought five of Dispenza’s meditation courses and attended his monthly calls. She started waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning to meditate, because that was when Dispenza said it was most effective. She even swore off watching true crime shows, because Dispenza said the negative imagery could lead to negative emotions. “You become hypervigilant,” she said. “Everything feels like it has meaning.”
Kelsey attended the retreat in December and found it “nice,” if a little disorganized. There were thousands of people there, and Dispenza often asked them to participate in “experiments,” like seeing if they could “heal” people who weren’t physically present. The experiments were so poorly run she wondered whether they could have any scientific value. “He’s trying to be a scientist in a non-scientific environment,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Well that was a waste of my time.’”
Still, Kelsey was hooked on Dispenza’s promise that she could create her own reality—that by changing her thoughts and feelings, her energy,” from negative to positive, she could attract more positive experiences into her life. When she didn’t see results, she blamed herself for not working hard enough, for letting too many negative thoughts slip into her consciousness. That was a theme with the Dispenza crowd, she said: There was no room for questioning whether the method was flawed or didn’t work. Anyone who didn’t see success simply wasn’t a true believer.
After six months of this, Kelsey said, her finances hadn’t budged—but her mental health had significantly deteriorated.
“I felt more depressed than ever, because it wasn’t working,” she said. “So then I was gaslighting myself like, ‘Ok this isn’t working, there must be something wrong with me.’”
“I was constantly afraid I didn’t do the meditation right,” she added. “Or if I did the meditation and I felt depressed that day… then it was my fault, [because] I should know how to raise my vibration.”
Around this time, Kelsey started seeing TikToks from other women who took issue with Dispenza’s methods—mainly women of color and disabled women who felt his claims about “creating your own reality” dismissed their very real, very painful experiences of hardship and discrimination. She started to question why most of the influencers she saw pushing his methods were young, beautiful, able-bodied white women. She started to have doubts.
Then, in October, Kelsey’s mother was hospitalized and started suffering from paranoid delusions.
“That’s when it all started breaking down,” she said. “Because I was like, ‘I did not manifest this. I did not manifest my mom having a mental breakdown… This is not me.’”
Kelsey slowly stopped practicing the meditations. She began accepting the ways in which her brain was not perfect (her PTSD, her clinical depression,) and practiced sitting with negative emotions, rather than pushing them aside. The process was painful—“I really questioned my spirituality, really questioned my reality,” she said—but day by day, she found herself starting to feel better.
Today, she says, she feels happier than she ever felt when using Dispenza’s methods.
“I have this feeling of self-acceptance instead of hyper self-management,” she said. “I feel like I just let myself off the hook.”
“The word ‘liberation’ is the first thing that comes to mind,” she added. “I don’t feel so restricted and I feel happier.”
Plus, she said, her finances are better, too.
The combination of climate change, the COVID pandemic, and the Trump presidency has spurred a heightened worship of science among the left. Herbs and elixirs have been rebranded as “plant medicine” and algae-eating yoga devotees stick “Science Is Real” signs in their front yards.
Dispenza is a perfect blend of these, a new-age guru who uses the language of science to make his mysticism seem slightly more mainstream. He openly acknowledges the marketability of this intersection in the Marcus interview, observing that talking about science “creates community,” while talking about culture, tradition, and spirituality “divides an audience.” Science, he says, has become “the contemporary language of mysticism.”
But what makes Dispenza’s approach even more appealing is his ability to go beyond science, to use the language of physicists and neurobiologists to make grand claims about immortality and alternate dimensions and miracle cures that someone with a firm grasp on the science would never claim.
The promise of something outside the modern medical system is especially attractive to women, whose medical conditions go disproportionately undiagnosed and untreated. Of the 40 testimonials on Dispenza’s website, 30 are women, many of whom claim they found him after striking out with traditional doctors. In a survey of Dispenza’s followers he conducted over the pandemic, 8.6 percent of respondents identified as having an autoimmune disease and nearly 3 percent suffered from a neurological disease. Eighty percent were women.
When I told a coworker that I was working on this story, she sheepishly admitted she had a Dispenza book on her shelf. She, like the influencer I follow, was struggling with digestive issues so severe she’d lost a noticeable amount of weight. No one—not her primary care physician, not her gastroenterologist, not even a functional medicine doctor—had been able to tell her why. She’d bought the Dispenza book in a moment of weakness. “I wanted to believe I could heal my gut with my thoughts,” she told me.
Scrolling through the comments on Dispenza’s Instagram page, even I felt a glimmer of hope when I saw someone claiming she’d cured her scoliosis with his methods. I suffer from severe scoliosis, the standard cure for which is having a surgeon break your spine and insert a metal rod in its place. Needless to say, I understood the desire for alternative solutions.
Kelsey, now several months out of the Dispenza rabbit hole, said this was one of the hardest parts of reintegrating into normal life: accepting that the miracle cures, the quick fixes, and the snake oil wouldn’t solve her very real problems.
“It’s a way of dissociating from the reality we live in,” she said of Dispenza’s work. “But we have to live in this reality. It’s happening.”