Spiritual Commodification

Spiritual Commodification
Many have explored new things in the state of isolation, especially when this state of solitude is coupled with a bustling social media scene. One that has been particularly popular is the exploration of spirituality. Renewed interest in meditation practices and cleansing is apparent in the volume of posts on platforms pertaining to the subject - however, this particular genre of content is composed of a very random melting pot of stolen rituals, closed practices, and misinformation.

With the onset of social media, trends are easily diffused throughout the masses. These trends are not exclusive to clothing or beauty products - many hobbies and lifestyle practices have been popularized through the means of Instagram, TikTok, and other forms of social media  frequented by young people. This rings true in a world recovering from the difficult throes of a pandemic. Many have explored new things in the state of isolation, especially when this state of solitude is coupled with a bustling social media scene. One that has been particularly popular is the exploration of spirituality. Renewed interest in meditation practices and cleansing is apparent in the volume of posts on platforms pertaining to the subject - however, this particular genre of content is composed of a very random melting pot of stolen rituals, closed practices, and misinformation.


This, though potentially exacerbated by the pandemic and technological advancement, is nothing new. The global market has enabled a commodification of sacred practices, as religion has been cleaved from its place of origin and can now be made marketable. Spiritual practices are now tradable, easy to adapt, and align with local environments. Take yoga, for example, a meditative and athletic practice with distinct Indian roots, it has been adopted as a secular hobby in the west. Yoga in these spheres relies on flimsy and quasi-spiritual philosophy. Eden Ballard of UCLA’s The Ballard argues that the power of yoga as it exists in the western world is based upon an inherent need for community, a desire that may exist due to the decline of religion in these regions. Regardless, yoga is adopted as part of an industry - it is packaged to be easily consumable. Yoga’s relation to religion outside of the west is contentious, but within the west, its spiritual components flourish. There is a curiosity about spiritualism that many young people hold. And while there is certainly no problem with exploring one’s spirituality, issues of cultural commodification and exploitation crop up as byproducts of this widespread curiosity. It is easy to take in pre-packaged, perfectly marketed fragments.


Take the practice of burning white sage. Corporations like Vogue, recognizing general trends towards spirituality, are eager to capitalize on these interests, promoting something called “spiritual hygiene”. White sage is recommended for cleansing, as smoke-based energy clearing has risen in popularity among younger demographics. Colleen McCan, stylist and spiritualist, gives Vogue the maxim of “eat, sleep, work out, and sage!” For years now, fashion, beauty, and lifestyle brands have been promoting sage as a wellness cure-all.


While these intentions are not inherently malicious, there are some major downsides to the popularization of white sage that negatively affect Indigenous communities. Among many tribes, white sage has been used in rituals for cleansing or prayer, a practice often referred to as smudging. It is also used as a medicine for a host of problems, from menstruation issues to sore throats. Sage is considered sacred and full of utility. Nowadays, however, it is often over-harvested for use by non-indigenous communities, which can bar indigenous people from access to their traditional medicines. In fact, nowadays white sage is being harvested illegally. In 2018, four people were arrested for smuggling 400 pounds of sage from the North Etiwanda Preserve of Rancho Cucamonga, California - a behavior that is becoming increasingly common due to the increased demand for sage. Regulations on sage are extremely lax - the illegally sourced herbs could end up anywhere because there are no trading restrictions. And while this practice of burning sage may seem harmless and peaceful, it is something that has been historically used as leverage against indigenous people. Bianca Millar, the mind behind A Tribe Called Beauty and resident of the Québec Wendac reserve, stated in a Fashionista article, “In Canada in 1876, my people were banned from not just using sage, but any traditional medicine. It outlawed all religious and cultural activities, which obviously include smudging, and I think it wasn't until 1951 that it thankfully was abolished, and we were finally allowed to use our medicines." This is a sacred practice with a torrid history that has experienced distillation and adoption as a trendy lifestyle ritual among white consumers. The things for which indigenous peoples have been oppressed are celebrated in non-indigenous circles.


It is often white masses that spearhead spirituality movements in the West. Even though people of color have been practicing these religions or spiritual practices for centuries, enduring scrutiny and oppression, parts of their culture are being cherry-picked and sometimes reshaped to fit a western, white frame. The nazar, or “evil eye”, is a prime example of how spirituality is adopted based on how well it fits an aesthetic. The nazar is its Arabic name, and it holds significance in many cultures. Dating back to ancient Greece, Sumeria, and Egypt, it is used to protect one from the “evil eye”, or a curse from an ill-intentioned glare. Many corporations like SHEIN, Walmart, and Forever 21 have noticed the popularity of the symbol, and have pushed out accessories and decor with the nazar adorning it. It can be found on bracelets, rugs, and pillows - almost anything you can think of. Here, it is reduced strictly to a decorative element, eclipsing its cultural value. It is a trend, stripped of its great significance.

The meaning of these practices cannot be diminished. They carry weight beyond being trendy lifestyle practices tinged with quasi-spiritual rhetoric. They carry immense history unbeknownst to many who adopt them. They are worthy of respect and reverence - as are their respective communities of practitioners. Spirituality is a great way to discover more about yourself and the world around you. No one should be discouraged from exploration, but it is important to proceed with care and the correct mindset. Elements of spirituality cannot be carefully selected for the sake of an idealized and glamourized conception of life. Spirituality needs to be treated as more than just a trend.


Editors: Evie F. Amshu V.

This article was originally written in April 2022

Image Credits: United Plant Savers