I was just about to close my computer few weeks ago and enjoy the weekend when a friend text me a copy of an article. The article referred to a letter a bishop in Ireland had sent to Catholic schools discouraging the use of yoga and mindfulness in schools. Sigh. Really? Who would actually want to discourage wellbeing practices for children? Despite an initial flash of annoyance, I thought could I be bothered giving oxygen to this? The next morning, I realised I actually didn’t really have a choice. You see my journey started out with this type of behaviour. I stopped practicing any religion as a teenager because it seemed so alienating, non-inclusive and judgemental. For me, that was both an ending and a beginning. It was the end of my participation in religion, but it started a spiritual search for me and ultimately led me to complete a MSc in Positive Psychology with the aim of researching Spirituality as a lived experience.
The benefits of yoga and mindfulness are widely published
Outside of the fact sending the letter in itself suggests a lack of tolerance of people’s right to choose, there were two particular angles which were just factually incorrect. Firstly, regardless of your spiritual or non-spiritual inclinations, yoga and mindfulness are some of the most researched elements of positive psychology. Yoga has been practiced for over 5000 years, longer than many spiritual traditions, and was formed on the idea that the body is a sanctuary for the soul or spirit and crucial to our spiritual development. Increasingly in the west it is being used to encourage greater psychological wellbeing. A plethora of research shows it can contribute to wellbeing, evoke greater awareness and attention, promote compassion and gratitude and generally support and encourage wellbeing₁. Mindfulness or meditation has also exploded in terms of practice as ongoing research shows that mindfulness lowers stress, enables greater self-awareness and promotes wellbeing₂.
We are showing children how to live
Outside of academic research, by encouraging practices such as yoga and meditation or mindfulness, we are also showing children something else. Simply, that they matter. That doing activities solely for the purpose of looking after yourself is enough of a reason. I am re-learning as an adult that just “to be” is good enough. I am enough just as I am. I don’t need to “do” all the time and it is ok to rest. When we show young children that their wellbeing matters, that they matter, we are setting them up for a life of always feeling enough.
There is a universality to the experience of spirituality
Secondly, claiming that one spiritual practice is better than another has no evidence-base. As I write this, I have just finished speaking at a psychology conference and my topic was spirituality. In particular, I spoke about my own spiritual journey and the research I conducted on what spirituality means to different people. One of the central elements I found was that there was a universality to the experience of spirituality, but practices vary and it remains a personal path. People I interviewed did discuss yoga and meditation, sometimes prayer but equally they discussed walking in nature, spending time alone and other more individual practices. The Irish theologian and philosopher John O’ Donohue once said ‘We are all trying to climb the same mountain’ but the path we choose is our own. The PEW institute in the US noted last year that 27% of Americans now call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’₃ . This figure is up 8 percentage points in just 5 years. This decision to embrace a more individual approach to spiritual practice is growing.
‘The essence of who we are’
I have no goal to convince people to be spiritual or not. Nor do I have a view if someone participates in religion or not. What I do believe is two things; people should have agency in their life to choose if and how they incorporate spirituality into their life and that spirituality can be a potent resource for people’s wellbeing. Research tells us spirituality helps us to develop more meaningful lives, it builds resilience and a coping mechanism for difficult times in our lives and supports psychological wellbeing₄.
There are many definitions to spirituality available. One definition that really resonates with me is that it is about the ‘essence of who we are’₅. Understanding the essence of who we are takes time. Building a spiritual belief system and practice can be a lifelong journey. What we need on this journey is a society which is supportive and promotes tolerance for people to explore what spirituality looks like in their lives. Suggesting that one practice is better than another is not really helpful for anyone.
I believe in openness and acceptance around spiritual topics. I write and speak about spirituality in a way that engages and empowers people to have agency to make decisions about their own spiritual lives, beliefs and decisions. My research question was simply ‘what does spirituality mean to you?’. I wanted to shine a light on individual experiences of spirituality in today’s world. I share that question with you so you can also ask yourself what it means to you and maybe ask others what it means to them. When we focus on questions rather than seeking definitive answers, we create safe spaces for people to explore their own spirituality and the ‘essence of who they are’. My mission is to expand perceptions of what spirituality can be so that we are individually empowered to understand and prioritise spiritual wellbeing in our lives.
As the great psychologist Carl Jung once said, ‘The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you really are’. Any practice which supports that should be encouraged.
₁Ivtzan, I & Papantoniou, A (2013) Yoga meets positive psychology: Examining the integration of hedonic (gratitude) and
eudaimonic (meaning) wellbeing in relation to the extent of yoga practice
₂Lipka, M., & Gecewicz, C. (2017). More Americans now say they’re spiritual but not religious. Washington, DC: Pew
Research Center. Retrieved August 19, 2019, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-
₃Ivtzan, I., Chan, C. P. L., Gardner, H. E., & Prashar, K. (2013). Linking religion and spirituality with psychological well-being:
Examining self-actualisation, meaning in life, and personal growth initiative. Journal of Religion and Health, 52(3), 915–929.
₄van Dierendonck, D. (2004). The construct validity of Ryff’s Scales of Psychological Well-being and its extension with
spiritual well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 36(3), 629–643. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(03)00122-3
About Fiona English
Fiona is a coach and business consultant with extensive experience in global investment markets. Alongside working with clients, she researches, speaks and writes about Positive Psychology, the science behind what makes individuals and communities flourish.
Her research area is Spirituality, the pathways we take to spiritual practice and its potential to influence wellbeing in our lives. In 2019, she launched ‘Exploring Spirituality’, a series of projects and events aimed at creating open dialogue and conversations about spirituality in the 21st Century. She speaks at events on topics including spirituality, meaning in life and authenticity. Believing we can all use our skills to make the world a better place, she mentors social entrepreneurs helping them to create sustainable businesses and is a board director of Dublin-based charity.
In 2015, she was one of 50 women globally chosen to participate in the W50 Program in UCLA aimed at building the next generation of global women leaders. For fun, she runs, hikes, travels and spends time with friends and family. She practices yoga and meditation and is a certified mindfulness and mediation teacher.
If you are interested in hearing more about the projects and events in ‘Exploring Spirituality’, you can find information at: https://www.fionaenglishpp.com/exploring-spirituality