Representation and Whiteness among the “Spiritual but not Religious”

Dr. Amanda Lucia

Yoga class, Lightning in a Bottle, 2016 / Photo courtesy of author.

When I was conducting research for my new book I spent nine years in multiple field sites with people who largely identified as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). These people were seeking expansive spiritual experiences, and I followed them through networks of transformational festivals, like Bhakti Fest, Wanderlust yoga festivals, Lightning in a Bottle, and Burning Man. What surprised me (at the time) was that these spiritual seekers were exploring powerful and transformational experiences by practicing the religious forms of non-white cultures, but overarchingly they were fostering communities that were nearly all white. To uncover the ways, methods, and possible reasons for this, I focused specifically on the practice of yoga as a generative space for SBNR values and I started thinking deeply about the politics of representation and how race and belonging intersect with religion and spirituality. The impetus behind the book was, in fact, a question of representation at its heart. As a specialist in the field of guru studies, I had witnessed over the years, in multiple research fields, how guru communities tended to divide into separate categories of Indian and Western devotees. In fact, I had written about that phenomenon in my first book and had come to the conclusion that it was the different socio-cultural needs and desires of these communities that made them divide into ethnically homogenous de facto congregations.

But I was unsatisfied with that semi-functionalist conclusion and so I delved deeper, focusing specifically on yoga and transformational festivals as institutions of SBNR religiosity. I followed yogis, kīrtan (devotional music) artists, Tantrics, sound-healers, meditators, visionaries, and barefoot walkers into the global field sites of transformational festivals. I saw how these festivals were sites of community-building, educational sharing, ethical formation, spiritual growth, and wonderous release. I attended hundreds of yoga classes and workshops that taught breathwork, neo-Tantric sexual awakening, Tibetan bowl sound therapy, chanting-prayer practices from both Indigenous and Indic traditions, Sanskrit 101, mandala making, and meditative labyrinth walking. These classes and workshops supplied the initial layer of an infinite field because my fellow participants in these spaces would lead me into their own self-designed spiritual worlds and in contact with them, I would learn about their latest Ayahuasca trip, their encounter with shamanic healing, or their recent stay at a yoga center in Bali. My informants were creators, building spiritually-conscious worlds by invoking wisdom from non-Western sources. In so doing, they were rejecting the modalities of their home identities (some conglomeration of white, Western, Christian, capitalism) and embracing that which they conceived as radically other – exotic (mostly Indic and Indigenous religions). While each transformational festival and each person therein has a distinctive identity, purpose, and vision, their commonality lies in that they are predominantly white (80 – 100 percent), and the festivals are exponentially whiter than the demographics of the surrounding regions in which they are held. In fact, they seemed to be attracting whites, almost exclusively, and at a higher rate than other events and sub-communities. Despite their commitments to inclusivity and their attractions to non-white cultures, I found that these spiritual seekers, yogis, and bhaktas (devotees) were separating into largely homogenous white communities – once again.

With White Utopias, I put this understudied question at the center: why do spiritual seekers tend to separate into ethnically homogenous “like-minded” spiritual communities? It was all the more perplexing to me because the majority of practitioners in these communities self-identified as liberals and progressives. There were some anarchists, radical revolutionaries, and abolitionists, but most were democratically-inclined reformists. In fact, they were actively building unconventional utopias and working to build new planes of spiritual consciousness. Why then where these communities so comfortable in isolated white spaces? And not only were they comfortable but when provided the materials to create a new, alternative, spiritually conscious worlds – why were they actively choosing to create white utopias? I found this particularly perplexing because in so doing, they mirrored the demographic of their presumed antithesis: republicans, white supremacists, and religious conservatives, who are searching for strong communities retreat into white-only gated spaces, as documented by Rich Benjamin.

Most importantly, why and for whom is this an issue? Why does it matter if whites represent kīrtan or yoga? or Buddhist meditation? Or Indigenous religions? Or shamanism? In short, representation matters because operating within the context of structures of white supremacy, whites tend to dominate, obfuscate, and erase non-white voices unless they intentionally intend to do otherwise – and sometimes even then. Second, when whites adopt and represent non-white religious practices without dialogue with the communities from which the practices are extracted there is a potential for violence that occurs with the inevitable singular, stereotypical, or blatantly incorrect representations that become distilled in the extraction process. Third, as white representations become ubiquitous and all-powerful, they create new discourses – translations upon translations – that threaten to supplant and replace the thing itself.

Despite their commitments to inclusivity and their attractions to non-white cultures, I found that these spiritual seekers, yogis, and bhaktas (devotees) were separating into largely homogenous white communities

Let me be clear, this is not a false and romantic longing for origins or a positing of any imagined singular correctness to be found in the cultures from which New Age practices are extracted. But it is also a recognition that representation and discourses are powerful – and that balanced, respectful, and truthful representations do not always win the day. For, as Michel Foucault so carefully explained in multiple works in the second half of the twentieth century – ideas become things – or in his more erudite language, discourses are “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.” In 1971, nearly fifty years ago by now, Edward Said elaborated on this point, demonstrating to readers how representations of the Orient formed a discourse (Orientalism) that created the robust ideological foundation that justified the Anglo-European colonial project. Reading Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism, it becomes frighteningly clear that anti-Semitism was a powerful discursive force decade prior to the rise of fascism in Europe and the extermination of six million Jews in WWII. Hitler is infamous worldwide for his skillful execution of atrocities, but Joseph Geobbels, the Reich’s devoted Minister of Propaganda, receives far too little attention. Geobbel’s expertise in creating propaganda that was as invisible as it was entertaining not only furthered Hitler’s agenda but authorized it.

In the current social politics of the United States, it is somewhat unsurprising then that the 2000s and 2010s have seen a resurgence of media-enhanced culture wars. Identity politics, cancel culture, cultural appropriation – these are discursive debates about cultural representation. In this moment of heightened awareness of social inequities, these discourses are challenging institutionalized structures white supremacy that have become so habituated into our daily living as Americans that they have strong parallels with what Michael Billig calls banal nationalism. We might have predicted that such resistance discourses would rise in tandem with a rise in state violence against people of color and the resurgence of unabashed public expressions of white supremacy. On both sides – resistance to and advocacy for white supremacy – discourse not only precedes the event, but produces it.

In my own fields of inquiry, I entered with the hypothesis that both yoga classes and transformational festivals were active discursive sites of knowledge production for “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) ideas and world views. My field research confirmed this suggestion as it overflowed with discourses about the self and its place in the cosmos, ethics, ecology, and global modernity. I also found that in yogic, spiritual, and transformational spaces there was deep introspective identity work being done, meaning that practitioners were actively focused on deconstructing and reconstructing the self. On yoga mats and in therapeutic workshops, teachers in these SBNR communities encouraged participants to do so, giving them communal support and practical spiritual tools to unpack their psychosocial histories and to reconfigure themselves in new fashion. There was a consistent focus on the goal of self-transformation – achieved both through ascetic practices and mystical exploration. There was a deep dive into authenticity, and ultimately a search for roots.

This search for roots that was articulated so ubiquitously in these fields is a project that begins with a critique of the West – of western civilization, of western modernity, of western consumptive practices (capitalism), of western forms of religion. And it is that critique that initiates the process of searching for other ways of living and existing – non-Western ways of living and existing. These are whites who defect from whiteness. Somewhat optimistically, Christopher Driscoll and Monica Miller suggest that in choosing spirituality over religion, these populations are ushering in the “death of whiteness” by initiating the decline of white religion. But from my research into the ways in which these populations find their roots by exotifying and appropriating non-Western forms of spirituality, I’m not so certain.

In fact, I found that, often, the desire for non-Western religious forms was cultivated through expressions of religious exoticism. Exoticism is a constructed representation of the other in service of the production of the self. Adding the modifier religious signifies that it is through the religious practices of exotic others (others deemed exotic) that the spiritual self is produced. But no person or people is inherently exotic. Rather, exoticism signifies a relation that, in Véronique Atlglas’s phrasing, “emphasizes, and to a certain extent elaborates, the otherness of groups, locations, ideas, and practices.” Non-Western religious forms become spiritual solutions to the crisis of ennui and disenchantment in late-capitalist modernity precisely because they are imagined to exist outside of its confines. My interlocutors routinely claimed non-Western cultures (particularly Indic and Indigenous ones) were untouched by corruption, pure in essence, deeply spiritual, and eco-conscious. None of this has much to do with the reality of living conditions among contemporary South Asians or Indigenous people. Instead, these notions are a deep projection of white fears and idealizations that have been present in western romanticism since the mid-eighteenth century. Whites performing sweat lodges, sage-smudging, chakra healing, and yoga are only its latest expression.

That is to say that in order for these “spiritual” tools to be a solution to the crisis of modernity, they must be exoticized to exist outside of it. They are conceived of as ancient, spiritual, and authentic. Resurrected by agentive whites, they become therapeutic strategies for building the self anew, and important tools for building a new self that is disidentified with whiteness. In this initial act, these practitioners are enacting a fundamental challenge to the hegemony of white supremacy. They destabilize a cosmological understanding of the world that views the Western world as the pinnacle of human progress and Anglo-European culture as the highest expression of intellect and achievement. In this way, they are part of an ongoing project to reformulate the cannon – to include and even celebrate non-Western cultures as vital contributors to human evolution.

Sunset yoga meditation, Lightning in a Bottle, 2016 / Photo courtesy of author.

However, unlike undergraduate students taught to read beyond Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel, these practitioners do more than learn about the wisdom of non-Western sources. Instead, they have built entire subcultures that not only learn about non-Western ideas, but represent them in the public sphere as their own. And further, as they do so, they gradually erase non-Western sources all together so that they are no more than signifiers of exotic mystique. What began as a quest for authentic roots ends up consuming them and reproducing them through the perspectival lens of the white subject. It becomes another moment of what the Australian Aboriginal scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson calls white possessivism, the seemingly ubiquitous expression of white claims to access and entitlement.

It may help readers to grasp this process if I ground it in empirical reality, taking yoga as a primary example. Today, the practice of yoga in the United States is dominated by thin, affluent, educated, urban-dwelling, white women. As such, these white practitioners must contend with their dislocation from yoga’s Indic roots and their representation of South Asian yogic traditions. In my research, I found that these concerns about representation fostered a nearly obsessive preoccupation with the concept of authenticity in contemporary yogic fields. What is an authentic practice? What does it mean to be an authentic self? How can we ground ourselves in authenticity? How can we best connect with others authentically? As any reader familiar with yogic worlds will recognize, these questions consume contemporary spiritually-inclined yoga practitioners.

With regard to concerns about representing yoga authentically, I found that the field tended to bifurcate into two primary ideological camps: one that sought to root yoga in an authentic Indic tradition and one that found the source of authenticity to be found in personal experience. The first group, basing its authenticity on the reproduction of local knowledge, sought to reproduce Indic yogic traditions. The second group, basing its authenticity in the idea that there is universal knowledge available to any practitioner, sought to improvise and expand on Indic yogic traditions.

What was most interesting was that within just one or two generations, both groups disconnected from actual South Asian teachers and created new forms of white authority. We might anticipate this among those espousing universal knowledge, but it occurs even among the white teachers who traced their yogic authority to Indic lineage claims. Though their yoga teachers may have been named Tirumali Krishnamacharya or Tirumalai Krishnamacharya Venkata Desikachar, they are known as Henry Stevenson, Eli Gordon, Shelby Michaels, Helena Blake, and Jordan Light. Even when they take on Indic names like Bija Rivers, Prem Das, and Sundari Lakshmi and draw their yoga students into devotional (bhakti) yogic worlds – they are still at the front of the stage, on the website, and in the media serving as brokers for Indic culture, Hindu religion, and yogic heritage. White teachers teaching to white audiences.

What is somewhat surprising here is that this profound affinity for Indic culture (to continue with the yogic example) does not translate into a collaborative politics of friendship and partnership with South Asian people and their communities. In contrast, it creates separation from the very object of affection. The disturbing irony is that as these large swaths of whites attempt to distance themselves from whiteness (by identifying with a non-white cultural resource) – they (re)create homogenous communities of whites. Arun Saldhana refers to this as white viscosity or
“the stickiness of whiteness” – the tendency for whites to stick together and create bounded communities – and I found it readily reproduced in the transformational festivals, yoga spaces, and SBNR communities.

Wanderlust yoga class, Great Lake Taupo, New Zealand, 2017 / Photo courtesy of author.

Importantly, there are some activists in these fields who are working to resist the erasure of South Asian voices in yoga. But often these interventions are co-opted – sometimes in fascinating ways – by both the Right and the Left. For example, from the Right they are co-opted by Hindu fundamentalists who would claim that all yoga is Hindu, furthering the platform of Hindu nationalists who would aim to capitalize on yoga as India’s primary spiritual export. On the Left, initiatives to decolonize yoga often center non-Indian POC voices and incorporate non-yogic social-political platforms such as body positivity, trauma sensitivity, egalitarianism, anti-capitalism, and pro-LGBTIQ+ and anti-racist activism. It is unlikely that either side of the American contemporary yoga scene is likely to connect deeply with the deeply homophobic and capitalist trends that are pervasive among popular Indian yogis – which, it must be mentioned, are also only current iterations and not imagined origins of the multiply signified notion of Indic yoga.

So why don’t contemporary SBNR populations build lasting collaborative relationships with the actual people of the cultures that they so deeply admire? As I argue in White Utopias, fundamentally, their religious exoticism and practices of white possessivism tend to function as a deterrent for people of color, who envision their presumptions of authenticity as superfluous at best and deeply offensive at worst. But the discursive methods of SBNR knowledge acquisition and production may also be an important contributing force to their disconnection from South Asian communities.

Arun Saldhana refers to this as white viscosity or “the stickiness of whiteness” – the tendency for whites to stick together and create bounded communities – and I found it readily reproduced in the transformational festivals, yoga spaces, and SBNR communities.

The idea here is that most people become interested in what was once called New Age spirituality (or SBNR, now that the term “New Age” has developed a pejorative usage) through individual spiritual searching. This legacy of what religion scholar Catherine Albanese calls metaphysical religion is inherited from nineteenth-century religious movements, such as nature religion, New Thought, Swedenborgianism, the Transcendentalists, and even Evangelicals who believed that self-introspection was a critical means through which to develop spiritually. This notion also sits closely to Protestant ideas about religion as the individual’s capability for – and even responsibility to – independently contemplate scripture. It is exemplified in William James’s famously Protestant-inflected definition of religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”

The effect of this is that most spiritual seekers get involved in non-white religious forms independently and through personal introspection – through books, websites, psychedelic experiences, touristic encounters, and so on. That is to say that they engage without the support structures or confines of congregation or community. In this sense, they are different from the converts to conventional religions, who are integrated into existing communities and often forced to learn about and mirror existing structures, protocols, and conventions.

In contrast, whites who are adopting the spiritual tools of Indic and Indigenous cultures are not converts, and as a result, they do not subordinate themselves to the parent tradition. In some cases, they refuse to convert – preferring to identify with the non-belonging spiritual over the membership requirements of the religious. In other cases, there are denied conversion because the religions to which they have affinity are also ethnic identity groups – as is the case in Native American religions and Hinduism. Thus, the individualism of the New Age movement – or SBNR – contributes to the lack of relations with the communities who produce the spiritual tools to which its existence is indebted. A practitioner can learn of Tantra through books and online inquiry, travel to India for increased exposure, and then develop and follow a daily ritual practice for decades – all the while without the demand to connect with a local South Asian religious group, find a South Asian teacher or guru, or join any sort of South Asian community-based and relationship-based-network of practitioners.

And that is a freedom that Americans support – in our Protestantized understanding of religious freedom as an independent and private affair of the individual. But that is not where the New Age – or SBNR – community stops. Because of white possessivism and the lack of a politics of friendship that would build relations with communities of color, those same independent spiritual seekers then move into the public sphere and represent the traditions for which they have developed personal affinities. And that is the circumstance we find ourselves in today: in spiritual-seeker circles, whites not only adopt, but represent and disseminate the religious traditions of people of color in the public sphere. Furthermore, they form communal networks defined by white viscosity, wherein practitioners are bound together through their collective practices of religious exoticism, that is to say, their valuation of non-Western lifeways, practices, and traditions as tools for formulating more spiritually-evolved selves.

In this sense, this is a very precarious representational space that the SBNR community is creating. And the violence is not only in cultural appropriation but in the lasting and pervasive forms of cultural erasure and exploitation for profit. Whites are too embroiled in violent racism, both as a perpetuated system and a close history, to carelessly resuscitate minstrel-esque forms of ‘love and theft’ between whites and people of color. There are numerous thoughtful leaders in the transformational, yogic, and SBNR communities, and I will not belabor them with scholarly directives. But I will suggest, in closing, that it is time for these majority-white communities to build shared representational spaces, to act in solidarity, and most importantly, to develop friendships with the people whose spiritual practices they so deeply admire. ♦

Dr. Amanda Lucia is Associate Professor at University of California-Riverside and an expert in the global circulations of modern Hinduism. She is author of White Utopias: The Religious Exoticism of Transformational Festivals (University of California Press 2020), Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace (University of California Press 2014), and numerous articles.

Recommended Citation

Lucia, Amanda. “Representation and Whiteness among the ‘Spiritual but not religious’.” Canopy Forum, September 24, 2020.