Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Hula Hoop Spiritualities: Social Media, Embodied Experience, and Communities of Practice

Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand and Martha Smith Roberts investigate how the hula hoop has become both an empowering tool for embodied practical spirituality rooted in metaphysical religiosity and a basis for a thriving community connected not by a shared dogma but by a common practice. They argue that the growth of the hooping subculture lies in its ability to nurture the diverse spiritual experiences of individual hoopers and to build an inclusive hooping community (composed of both spiritually and recreationally motivated hoopers).

MLA citation format:
  Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand & Martha Smith Roberts
 "Hula Hoop Spiritualities: 
Social Media, Embodied Experience, and Communities of Practice"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 2 May 2017. Web. [date of access]

This post is an excerpt from Practical Spiritualities in a Media Age, eds. Curtis Coats and Monica M. Emerich (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015). 

Introduction: Hooping as Practical Spirituality
The hula hoop has been resurrected in American culture over the past two decades. No longer just a children’s toy, hooping is an adult trend, and hooping classes exist around the country and world. Often advertised as a “fun” way to exercise, hoop fitness is only one small part of the larger hoop movement. Like many hoopers, we (the authors) started going to “hoop classes” with friends for the fun and exercise it promised. We began noticing that our instructor was ending classes with “manifestation” exercises and referring to hoops as “powerful manifestation tools.” As we continued to attend classes and other hoop gatherings, we discovered that this type of manifestation language was quite common. We also found it was quite common for hoopers to have had an unexpected experience of transformation (mental, emotional, and/or physical) while hooping, and they were happy to share their stories with us. 

In these stories, hoopers often utilized religious or spiritual language to describe their experiences and their motivation to continue hooping. The prevalence of spiritual language and transformation stories made us curious about what was happening in the hoop community, and we set out to try and understand the broader significance of “hula hoop spiritualities” for the study of religion. In the process, we found a thriving hoop community that attributes meaning to their hoop practice in diverse and compelling ways: some who draw upon traditional religious language and symbols, others who draw upon metaphysical teachings, and still others who create their own unique spiritual narrative. 

Over the course of two months (December 30, 2010 – March 1, 2011), we conducted an anonymous online survey of over 500 hoopers. When asked to describe their hooping practice, 69.1% of hoopers described it as “meditative,” 43% described hooping as spiritual, and 8.1% described their practice as “religious.” Their descriptions of hooping experiences in all of these categories are highly personal and individual. And, as might be expected, their descriptions of community are pluralistic, diverse, and inclusive enough to embrace all of these individual interpretations. However, the dynamics of personal and communal spiritualities in hooping are quite sophisticated. Using plastic hoops and social media, these primarily Generation X hoopers have developed and shared complex spiritual narratives and practices that reveal the intersections of the material and virtual worlds. 

Our research draws on large-scale survey data, in-depth interviews with hoopers, and participant observation at workshops, retreats, and in the online community. We also utilize hoopers’ self-generated media as data—videos, photos, and texts from their websites and social media—to develop a nuanced understanding of this spiritual community. 

This essay investigates how the hula hoop has become both an empowering tool for embodied practical spirituality rooted in metaphysical religiosity and a basis for a thriving community connected not by a shared dogma but by a common practice. We argue that the growth of the hooping subculture lies in its ability to nurture the diverse spiritual experiences of individual hoopers and to build an inclusive hooping community (composed of both spiritually and recreationally motivated hoopers). Through social media, hoopers connect virtually; share spiritual testimonies through dance, spoken, and written word; and teach various hooping techniques intended to help others develop their spiritual practice and flow. Social media is second only to the hoop as the means to accomplishing these goals. To better understand the nature of hoop dance as a spiritual practice, three intersecting themes must be engaged: the characteristics of metaphysical religion in the American context, the generational specificity of hoop spiritualities, and the use of media in cultivating personal practice of hoop dance and creating community. In this blog, we address the first two of these themes; our chapter in Practical Spiritualities also investigates the third. 

Metaphysical Context 


Figure 1: Hoopers dancing at the HoopPath Sangha Retreat in Carrboro, North Carolina, June 2013. Photo by Cassandra Kapsos.
The emergence of hoop spiritualities is not anomalous in U.S. religious history. Rather, hoop spiritualities fit well within the long tradition of metaphysical religion in the United States. As Catherine Albanese demonstrates in her work on American religion, an exploration of what she calls “metaphysical religiosity” helps us to better understand “what is American about American religion” [i]. Metaphysical religiosity transcends religious institutional boundaries, appearing both within and outside of established religious traditions [ii]. This long tradition of metaphysical religion has been recognized in contemporary American incarnations as well. Scholars continue to be captivated by the “spirituality” present in a variety of contexts, including the combinative nature of lived religious practices, as well as those who define themselves outside of traditional religious frameworks, calling them “spiritual, but not religious,” “unchurched,” or “nones” [iii]. In the midst of diversity, Albanese’s four characteristics of metaphysical religion—mind, correspondence, energy, and salvation—remain apt descriptors of hoop spiritualities. These attributes continue to pervade American notions of what constitutes a “spiritual experience.” 

First, Albanese describes “a preoccupation with mind and its powers” [iv]. The emphasis on the mind includes a privileging of reason as well as an exploration of the things the mind can do through intuition, clairvoyance, telepathy, trance, and meditation, to name a few examples [v]. The impact of hooping on the state of the hooper’s mind was a constant theme in survey results. As one hooper explained: 
“I first started hooping for exercise purposes, but then I quickly learned that it was more fun than anything, and if I can have fun while working out – awesome! Then I started to see the meditative qualities of it. I began to notice my mind state before, during, and after. I could tell that it was a positive thing in my life. Then I began to grow as a hooper, and in a lot of ways, as a person. I started feeling like I was becoming the person I had wanted to be my whole life. I started changing my life more to resemble my ideal ‘me.’ This is when the journey became spiritual” [emphasis added]. 

Another hooper described her/his practice this way, “Hooping is my church…. Hooping is where I commune with God. It’s my quiet space where I can quiet my mind and just be… I stopped going to church about 6-7 years ago and use my hoop time as my spiritual haven… my place to find/meet God and be gracious for what He provides, and I usually become overwhelmed with my gratitude of movement.” The quieting of one’s mind is seen as a necessary catalyst to reach a state of peace, meditation, spirituality, and transcendence. The hoop is a tool in achieving this desired state. 

Second, metaphysical religions typically contain a theory of correspondence between worlds [vi]. Albanese explains, “The human world and mind replicate – either ideally, formerly, or actually – a larger, often more whole and integrated universe, so that the material world is organically linked to a spiritual one” [vii]. According to Albanese, “In these traditions, the human mind – often acting out its imaginative grasp of the world through the body and thus through ritual – has operated as a transformative agent, taking advantage of the secret symmetries and connections for its own purposes. Religion thus is above all a work of the practical imagination” [viii]. For those hoopers surveyed for whom hooping was a meditative or spiritual practice, the clearing of their minds allowed them to feel a profound connection to their bodies and to a more authentic self or higher power. One hooper described her/his experience this way, “Hooping helps me center within myself, to remember who I am, to feel my body and listen to my body like I never have before. It has taught me to love my body and what it can do… Hooping is the first thing in my life that has tapped into my insides, into my soul and find a light and a joy that I never knew was there and had never found with any other activity.” 

Third, Albanese observes that movement and energy characterize both mind and correspondence: “metaphysicians find a stream of energy flowing from above to below—so powerful that they discover themselves to be, in some sense, made of the same ‘stuff’” [ix]. The correspondences between mind/body and human/divine are energetically formed; they are not static or fixed relationships. For Albanese, this prompts a search to better understand the energy that makes these cosmic connections along with “notions of proper and correct motion” [x] The movement and action that are central to hoop dance as an embodied practice become the energetic pathways for metaphysical correspondence. This experience is recognized and cultivated in many hoopers’ personal practices, and often referred to as “flow.” 

Flow is described as an alignment of body and mind in the hoop, though it means different things to every hooper. The experience of flow is thus another instance of diversity and plurality that is accepted as a part of hooping itself, as each hooper must find his or her own flow. Hoopers’ descriptions of flow rely on the feelings generated by the energy and motion of a fluid state of hoop dance and often contain references to being “one with the hoop,” “a state of bliss,” or “a loss of time.” Albanese’s observation that utilizing “proper and correct motion” is important to metaphysical practitioners also applies to hoopers. Hooping involves the acquisition of a basic set of movement skills. Mastering and utilizing these skills is a necessary tool for hoopers to achieve a flow state. Hoopers clearly connect feeling and practiced movement in their descriptions of spiritual experience: “Getting centered in my own body, gaining muscle memory when I learn new tricks, feels very spiritual to me.” Others directly connect the acquisition of hooping skill with finding flow: “My skill level has increased and I am finding more of a flow to my practice.” “Being able to do skills without as much thinking has helped to build it more into a meditative practice.” In hoop dance, the energy and motion of the hoop allows for alignment and correspondence that cultivates what many hoopers call a spiritual experience or flow state. 

According to Albanese, the energetic quality of metaphysical practice is where “the practical imagination joins forces with will. We enter the realm of what properly may be described as magic, but—and this is important—magic read in a healing mode” [xi]. The experience of energetic motion and correspondence with mind has an important practical application, a salvific quality. This brings us to the fourth and final quality of Albanese’s metaphysical religion, which emerges out of “a yearning for salvation understood as solace, comfort, therapy, and healing” [xii]. The spirituality of hoop dance also relies on the efficacy of the practice, and while the transformative effects of hooping vary for each hooper there is a sense of progress that pervades the discourse of hoop dance more broadly. In addition, the hoop is a conduit for psychological and physical healing: overcoming depression, losing weight, and recovering from injury are some of the benefits that hoopers attribute to their hooping practice. 

Narratives of transformation and healing abound in the hoopers surveyed. “I started hooping when I was very ill, mentally and physically,” one hooper explained, “I was able to detox from all of my medications for depression, anxiety and epilepsy by hooping daily for a year. Hoop dance literally allowed me to maintain my sanity and ease the physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms I was experiencing.” Another hooper expressed a similar sentiment, “Hooping has refined, enriched, and blessed my life. It saved me from the darkest place I have ever been… It helped my mind, body, and heart reconnect after they were severed from abuse in my late teens. The more I hooped, the less I had stress-induced seizures, the fewer nightmares I had… It balances my mind and body more completely than any therapy session or medication ever has.” There are many more testimonies like the above. In addition to relief from physical pain and mental anguish, hoopers testified to increased self esteem, improvements in their sex lives, and recovery from addiction. These narratives of hooping salvation cover a multiplicity of ailments, physical and emotional, but all share a sense of progress toward a better state of being. 


Figure 2: Hoopers at the HoopPath Sangha Retreat in Carrboro, North Carolina, June 2013. Photo by Cassandra Kapsos.
Albanese characterizes metaphysical groups as pluralistic and diverse, privileging individual conscience over group cohesion. As a result, metaphysical communities are often “ad hoc and flexible, and authoritarian voices and concerns have not gotten very far” [xiii]. In order to study metaphysical communities, she tells us, we must examine their diversity. This approach “begins to ask questions about new and distinctive forms of community – less organized from the top down, more fluid and egalitarian” [xiv]. Wade Clark Roof comes to a similar conclusion in his analysis of seeker spirituality. The religious seeker’s concentration on the development of an authentic self does not mean that they have an aversion to commitment to community formation and engagement. Spiritual seekers search for a spirituality which is “all-encompassing, reaching to the very depths of people’s lives and giving birth to new forms of community” [xv]. This relationship between the personal, individual search for an authentic spiritual self and a commitment to community may seem contradictory. There is a sense that the two – individualism and a sense of belonging – are antagonistic to one another. Roof argues that this conclusion is too simplistic: “Americans not only pick and choose what to believe, by and large they also set the terms governing involvement in religious communities. Especially in a time of heightened spiritual activity, we would expect a more rampant subjectivity, but also the possibility of new, emerging forms of community giving expression to personal enhancement” [xvi]. Robert Wuthnow makes a similar observation of post-Boomer spirituality, which he defines as “pieced together… from materials at hand” [xvii]. For the researcher this means investigating manifestations of religiosity in unconventional places. 

The hooping community shares many of the characteristics of metaphysical, seeker, post-Boomer spiritual communities. Having a physical, emotional, and spiritual transformation while hula hooping is certainly an example of finding religiosity in an unconventional place, and many hoopers (who often describe their transformation in the hoop as unexpected) would agree. Their practical, embodied spirituality arises independent of any religious authority or institution, consequently it is expected within the larger hoop community that there will be a variety of interpretations of that hooping experience. The hooper is free to peruse a variety of hoop approaches (focused on meditation, spirituality, exercise, performance, etc.) and utilize what works for them in their hoop practice. The growing number of hooping retreats and workshops that feature a diverse range of hooping instructors with very different approaches further illustrates the variety of tools at hand. 

There are also many examples of hoopers drawing upon their own reservoir of religious symbols and language to describe their experience. While a full 33.6% of hoopers in our survey identified as a “member or practitioner” of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, or Paganism, 55.9% of hoopers claimed no religious tradition, and 21.6% chose “other” and defined their own tradition outside of institutional affiliations. Usually these “others” described themselves as “spiritual” or an eclectic blend of traditions. One hooper told us, “I choose not to label, but feel great spiritual connection expressed through work, music, and hooping.” Another hooper explained, “I tread my own personal spiritual path, which includes elements of many of the aforementioned religions, though I do not consider myself to be a practicing member of any organized religion.” All of these descriptions of religion tend to be inclusive of other views, no matter what the individual’s own tradition might be. While hoopers might find spirituality outside of an institution best for themselves, their pluralist frameworks are also present, and they see religion as an individual choice for themselves and others. Many hoopers expressed this sentiment of respect for individual faith. “I respect every religion for what it’s worth,” one hooper explained, “but I’m not extremely religious.” Another hooper surveyed explained, “I respect every religion and the people following a religion different from mine.” 

Traditional means of delineating the boundaries of a community based on believers (insiders) and non-believers (outsiders) are not adequate in exploring hoop spiritualities. For instance, in our survey there were many “non-believer” quotes like this one: “I think hula hooping is a fun activity! I don’t feel like hooping will heal depression as some have claimed! I don’t find it spiritual or meditating either! I feel ppl take that part to the extremes!” (sic). This hooper and others like him/her are still accepted members of the community even though hooping is not spiritual or religious for them. Likewise these hoopers are not saying that those who do find hooping spiritual should leave the community. The boundaries of the community are built around the shared practice of hooping. One survey participant explained, “[Hooping] is a conduit to a larger community of people that share the same sorts of experiences in their hoop.” Articulated another way by another hooper, “If I see someone walking down the street carrying a hoop, I know they understand something that I get as well.” “Everyone who hoops knows that someone else who also hoops just ‘gets it.’” Again and again, hoopers note that it is the practice (not one particular interpretation or belief) that unites the community [xviii]. 

In fact, the practice and the hoop itself are the only two stable markers of the hoop community, which in other ways sees itself as very diverse. The hooping community, which contains those who find hooping spiritual, religious, or meditative as well as those who see it purely as recreation or exercise, constructs the boundaries of the community around the object of the hoop and the acquisition of hooping skills. As one hooper noted, “There is nothing unique about the hooping community that differentiates itself (sic) from any other community… except that they come together for the hoop.” From this shared practice, hoopers recognize each other as part of a unique community. 

It is important to highlight that many of our hoopers fit into the Generation X category (born roughly from early 1960s-early 1980s), and while the number of millennial hoopers (born from early 1980s to early 2000s) will likely continue to grow in numbers, our data shows that a high percentage of hoopers (64% of our survey) and almost all of those who founded and remain important figures in the movement come from Generation X. Steeped in pluralism, the Generation X emphasis on individualism and subjectivity are not a barrier to community. In fact, for hoopers, they have become the marker of the community. “Open,” “diverse,” “non-judgmental,” “respect for individual choices,” “accepting”—these are all common ways in which hoopers characterize their community. 

The multiplicity of possible interpretations of hooping reveals the importance of tolerance, diversity, and inclusivity in creating community. The fluidity in content also hints at fluidity in form. The ways in which members communicate, form friendships, share tools, and support one another happens in multiple spaces, both virtual and non-virtual. The beginnings of the hoop community, which was more sprawling than dense, demanded alternatives to face-to-face encounters. New media has been an essential part of the formation and spread of the hooping movement. Community happens online, and virtual exchanges are an authentic way to for hoopers to connect. The hoop community thus offers a space where individual, embodied practices combine with virtual encounters to cultivate a truly practical spirituality. 

Generation X Spirituality

Figure 3: Hoopers “swaying” at the beginning of the day’s workshop. HoopPath Sangha Retreat, June 2013. Photo by Cassandra Kapsos.
Generation Xers share much with their metaphysical foremothers and forefathers; one distinguishing factor, however, is that Gen Xers spent their entire lives in the presence of new media and technology and have drawn upon these sources for meaning-making throughout their lifetime. Tom Beaudoin notes that “although the Internet (as a popular communications medium) and the World Wide Web gained prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s, involvement with these media can be seen as continuations of two older technological developments: the computer and the video game. Generation X grew up on intimate terms with these machines, and [their] smooth entry into the nether reaches of cyberspace is directly linked to this technologized upbringing” [xix]. The media that bombarded Generation X during their formative years underwent a transformation that left them thoroughly familiar with technology, but also wary of its incarnations. Much as Generation X’s absorption of popular culture is both self-aware and critical, their use of technology is as well [xx]. A participatory culture of sharing and critique punctuates hoopers use of new media. 

Hoop spiritualities are a mediated form of meaning-making and community building. While the practice of hooping is often a solitary endeavor for hoopers, hoopers reach out though various forms of media to connect with others in order to sustain and reinvigorate their personal practice. In our survey, 87.4% of hoopers use YouTube, 43.5% use Online Forums, and 15.3% purchase online classes to support their hoop practice. When asked how they participate in the hooping community, 72.2% noted that they participate in online hooping social networking sites. Even more, 93.5% said that hooping alone (by themselves) was one way that they participate in the community. Many hoopers live in locations that have no other hoopers. Therefore, online connections are a way for them to share their personal experiences and develop hooping skills. When describing the community, many hoopers mention the internet as an important space. “The closest hooper that I know lives about an hour away,” one survey participant explained, “I do feel like I have a strong online hooping community, and for that I am grateful.” Another hooper expressed a similar sentiment, “Where I live the hooping community is very small and it has been difficult to organize people… When I interact with hoopers on,, and at music festivals and raves it is generally a very outgoing, fun and playful experience.” 

The use of media in hooping has dominated the community since its earliest incarnations. As early as 2003, hoopers were forming an online community at, an early chat and message board site where hoopers could converse and share video. The site became unstable in 2006, and hoopers migrated to other sites for community and support [xxi]. In addition to Facebook, and are now some of the most popular networking sites for hoopers. In a larger sense, online social spaces are a fundamental part of how the hooping community has always communicated. The early discussion forums set the stage for the hoop community. Individuals would share ideas, techniques, instructions on how to make hoops, and more. 

The YouTube revolution is an extension of this basic format. The addition of easily accessible visual and audio components have broadened the community, allowing those unfamiliar with hoop dance to experience it outside of the festivals, concerts, and raves that spread the early movement. Because hooping is an embodied practice, seeing the movement of hooping is crucial to understanding, mimicking, and creating a hoop dance of one’s own. In order to do that, one must first have a basic set of skills that allow a style to emerge. This is where technology is critical. “There is such a focus on teaching others” one appreciative hooper explained, “there are so many free videos on the internet to help me learn it is great.” The sharing on social media does not end with posting videos. Hoopers ask one another questions and respond promptly. When so many hoopers are separated by distance, they are often eager to share and help one another grow in their practice. As one survey participant put it, “We are a tribe, a social network.” Media directly supports the development of individual hooping skills, yet it is only through a context of a sharing community that this is possible. 

For hoopers there exists a kind of dialectic between the construction of a meaningful self and the construction of a supportive, pluralistic community. While the individual hooper may have come to hooping individually, experienced a spiritual transformation unexpectedly, and primarily hoop alone, the hooping experience is not a solitary one. Hoopers reach out to the community, primarily through social media, to both share and receive different tools, skills, and techniques to expand and deepen their personal practice. The community, then, grows in depth and numbers when more individuals participate and claim membership. Thus creating an increasingly diverse depository of symbolic tools for meaning making for individuals to draw upon. None of this is possible without media. 

This post has examined some of the ways in which hoop dance is both a tool for embodied spirituality and a basis for a thriving community connected not by a shared dogma but by a common practice. To return to one of our survey participant’s quotes from earlier in the chapter: “Hooping is my church.… Hooping is where I commune with God. It's my quiet space where I can quiet my mind and just be… I stopped going to church years ago and use my hoop time as my spiritual haven.” Her statement replaces church with hooping. But “hooping” is more than the time spent in the hoop, it is mediated by all of the practices of social sharing that create the new space of the hoop and the community where hoopers feel that they can be their authentic selves. 

References/Bibliography/Further Reading
Albanese, Catherine L. A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 

Beaudoin, Tom. Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998. 

Camp, Jan. Hoopdance Revolution: Mindfulness in Motion. Berkeley, California: Arc Light Books, 2013. 

Flory, Richard W. and Donald E. Miller. Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2008. 

Fuller, Robert C. Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 

HoopPath. Official Website. 

Hoover, Stewart M. Religion in the Media Age. Religion, Media and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2006. 

Hoover, Stewart M., and Lynn Schofield Clark, eds. Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media: Explorations in Media, Religion, and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. 

Mercadante, Linda A. Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 

Roof, Wade Clark. A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation. 1st ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. 

Roof, Wade Clark. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1999. 

Wuthnow, Robert. After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 

[i] Catherine L. Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 1. 

[ii] Ibid., 4. 

[iii] See Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (Oxford : New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Linda A. Mercadante, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014). 

[iv] Albanese, Republic, 13. 

[v] Ibid., 6, 13. 

[vi] Ibid., 6. 

[vii] ibid., 6. 

[viii] Ibid., 14. 

[ix] Ibid., 6. 

[x] Ibid., 14. 

[xi] Ibid., 15. 

[xii] Ibid., 15. 

[xiii] Ibid., 8. 

[xiv] Ibid., 8. 

[xv] Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, 1st ed (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 251. 

[xvi] Ibid., 256. 

[xvii] Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 14. 

[xviii] Flory and Miller’s work on Post-Boomer Christian traditions has found similar tendencies in GenX religion. See Richard W. Flory and Donald E. Miller, Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2008). 

[xix] Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, 1st ed (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 43. 

[xx] Ibid., 122. 

[xxi] Jan M. Camp, Hoopdance Revolution: Mindfulness in Motion (Berkeley, California: Arc Light Books, 2013), 136-7.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Blurring the educational lines? Material religion in the undergraduate classroom

Francis Stewart explores the pedagogical possibilities of teaching material religions as a way of differently engaging with the concept “religion.” Using her experiences in a recent undergraduate course at the University of Stirling, Stewart argues that an embodied, sensory-based approach to material religions helps students approach theoretical and methodological tenets in different, nuanced, more embodied ways, ultimately yielding a context in which, for students and professors alike, the classroom can come to function as a sacred space. 

MLA citation format:
  Stewart, Francis
 "Blurring the educational lines? Material religion in the undergraduate classroom"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 19 March 2017. Web. [date of access]

Socrates said that education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel [i]. This is a very visceral, materially grounded view of the purpose of education and learning. An approach of filling a vessel implies that the students are empty and purposeless until supplied with knowledge by the more learned scholar and that there is only so much they are capable of taking on. A kindling of a flame, however, takes the view that the raw material – the passion, the thirst for knowledge – is already present and the role of the educator is to spark it off and help it grow until it can sustain itself. It removes the limits of knowledge and instead opts for an approach that continues to consume, to grow and to strip away the unhelpful or unnecessary. The Socratic method is one in which a teacher, by asking leading questions, guides students to discovery. It is a dialectical method that employs critical inquiry to undermine the plausibility of widely-held doctrine [ii]. The Socratic method is one that is often employed in the classrooms of higher education, but increasingly, it seems for the purpose of filling a vessel rather than kindling a flame, except in those few students we see as somehow arbitrarily exceptional. This blog posting is asking if we can use material religion not just to engage with the very concept of ‘religion’ (amongst others) but as a means of re-orientating ourselves and our pedagogies. 
It is therefore important to reflect briefly upon what is meant in this posting by both pedagogy and material religion. I arrived at higher education via a career in teaching religious studies in UK high schools (in the UK a high school runs from the age of 11 to 18). I had, therefore, been trained to think about pedagogy from a range of perspectives and developed my own approach based on a synthesis of the theories of Paulo Freire and Lev Vygotsky who both argue that education should have a dialectical relationship that is articulated in praxis [iii]. Building upon both, I would argue that learning / educational pedagogy is a socially constructed process that relies upon an informed and informative collaborative experience that results in both the educator and the student learning something. In constructing a recent religion course at the University of Stirling I deliberately set it up so that space was created for both the students and I to reflect on what we were learning from each other, to ensure that I was made as vulnerable as them in what I revealed about myself and how I engage with the material objects. When the students devised activities for their peers I took part in them and wrote a reflection for them in the same way they had to reflect on their work for me. I also gave the students ownership of what was made public on Twitter from their work. They would as a cohort select which images they wanted to be placed on Twitter and would then excitedly tell me the following week who had responded, what had been commented. They were never more pleased than when Brent Plate commented or liked their work. 
Material religion is something that had been embedded within my own research and writings, but had only marginally been an element of my teaching until I created this course, an honours level undergraduate course entitled ‘Religion, Theology and Postmodernity.’ It was intended to focus on an understanding of contemporary postmodern culture in regards to its relationship with the divine, the sacred and the ineffable. It explored different ways in which individuals and groups have either embraced or reacted to the post-modern ideology of religious, moral, cultural and political pluralism. An emphasis was placed on material religion as a means of understanding the relationship between religion and postmodernity.
As someone who conducts insider participant research on punk and anarchy subcultures I had focused on the embodied nature of tattoos, clothing, dancing, flyers, fanzines and protests but had limited my teaching on them to words and pictures. However I had grown increasingly frustrated at the limitation of academia in its slavish devotion to ‘the word’, only sometimes supplemented by an image. As someone who is severely dyslexic words are something that both enchant and frustrate, but ultimately remain outside of my natural grasp. In attending the material religion panels at the 2015 American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting I was presented with maps, artefacts, websites that one could zoom in on and retrieve video clips, soundscapes, photographs and people telling their own stories. I immediately latched onto this as a way to break the focus on the written word as the dominant educational tool. I looked further into the field and saw the potential within it for widening access and connecting classroom education with the everyday world in a new way, but also noted that nothing was written on how to do so. Therefore this blog posting is offered as a way of moving the field in that direction, in broadening how we teach such a vital subject, as a way of showing the limitless possibilities of educational praxis even in tightly controlled environments and institutions.

Figure 1: Some of the students taking the material religion course at the University of Stirling, Spring Semester 2016. Here they are making their own symbol using air drying clay.

As educators we spend hours deciding what we are going to teach, what we want students to know, to be able to do and how we can quantify those hours – especially with the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework, conceived, implemented and monitored by the UK government and linked to funding allowance) now being developed in the UK. Seldom do we perhaps give any thought to the material space we are working in when we educate, beyond the concerns of enough seats (or students), technology working and so on. Literature on the undergraduate classroom refers to the classroom in relation to the activities or power relations with it, not to the actual space, furniture and walls [iv]. The classroom or lecture theatre is just the space we inhabit for that period of time. Is it the same for our students? When I was asked to create an honours level course at the University of Stirling I began by asking the students what the classroom itself meant to them. These were some of the replies:

It is somewhere I feel a little giddy entering, as it is where things usually come together.” Scott

It is my refuge, my place away from everything else and yet it doesn’t exclude the everyday. I feel my body relax as I sit in the seats and I love the feeling when I get my notebook out and open it on the desk.” Kayla

I like the weight of the door as you push it to go in, it’s an effort but it takes you somewhere. You get to enter something full of possibility.” Arden [v]

Of course there were also the expected comments of ‘it’s where you learn’. However it is interesting to note the type of language that some of the students were using, it could be argued to be ‘religious’ in nature. Their answers tie in with what Brent Plate notes about the nature of being ½: that we seek to unite our wholeness to make ourselves complete, through the senses and through our interaction with the world around us [vi]. That is, I would argue, what these students are doing within the classroom, which raised an interesting question: could a course be designed that took into account their view of the classroom as either a liminal or a potentially sacred space? And how should it be taught? The reminder of this blog focuses on the resultant material religion course that was created and taught on the basis of trying to answer that question. It will include photos, assessment notes and quotes from students.

First though, a brief note on the classroom context and student demographics. At Stirling honours level courses are optional and so tend to be groups between 10 and 30 students taught in teaching labs rather than lecture theatres. The lecturer can determine the shape of the tables but not the remainder of the layout of the room (the screens, projectors and speakers are all fixed to the walls or ceilings). This course had 14 students signed up to take it as an option module and a further 3 students auditing it. The students were a range of backgrounds including UK, EU, American and Canadian and ranged in age from 20 to their early 60s. Religion is not offered as a single honours degree so all the students combine it with another subject. Within this cohort it was predominantly education (this is the most popular combination at Stirling, with most students then going on to pursue a career in state education) followed by philosophy, English literature, sociology and history.

The course
Practically speaking, the course was twelve weeks, with three hours per week teaching time. One of those hours was dedicated to a practical sense-based approach. The other two hours (on a different day) were a more traditional class that engaged with key texts, theory and case studies. The purpose of the one hour practical approach was full sensory engagement so students were not allowed to take notes or engage in typical ‘student’ classroom behaviour. They were also encouraged to have their phones, tablets and other devices that they felt were a key part of themselves on and to use them to record video or take photographs of what they were doing, live tweet their activities, or Instagram it. The practise of coming in and taking notebooks and pens out was so ingrained that they automatically did this for a number of weeks and had to be reminded to put them away. Ultimately three students requested to keep them on their desk but not use them as seeing them there made them feel more secure.
For the first six weeks each class focused on a different sense following Plate’s book. Not only did they have to engage with the material in the book, they had to interact with objects such as drums, incense, crosses and bread. The main activity was always one in which they had to make something from the materials provided that related in some way to the theme of the class. This included painting stones, making their own drums, incense, and a symbol from air-drying clay and creating a meal to share with each other. They were then asked to send me a picture of it – the choice was theirs in regards to how they framed the object. Often they would wait until they got home and think very carefully about the placement of it. When they sent the photograph as part of their assessment they had to write a paragraph on why they made what they did, why they made the decorative choices they did and what the object reflected or came to symbolise for them.

Figure 2: “I wanted to make a modern day ying and yang for my symbol. We get so twisted and contorted by what we think we need, by what we try to learn and understand that we often forget that it all comes back to connection. Maybe with another person, or a god, or just ourselves.” Mike
Figure 3: “Sound is amazing, I hadn’t realised how much it connects us with everything. I wanted my picture to show how much we stop noticing the music of nature because we stick phones in our faces and are constantly bombarding our minds.” Lindsay

Again the language became revealing, they began connecting the practical materiality with some of the theory we were engaged with and discussing, but they also began to express their own experiences of sacrality within the classroom itself. The classroom as a space starts to become sacred for some of the students, moving it from a passive learning environment to one with access to potential life transformations and interactions. What became particularly interesting was by half way through the course, the room itself was a part of this experience. As students completed their activities they would talk to one another about how the desk felt, why they did or did not want to sit in the chair while they worked or where they wanted to display their work. It was not just about the activities, it was the classroom itself that began to be a part of the learning experience. 

Figure 4: “I get it. I finally get it. This is what you meant when you taught us about Foucault’s self-care. It makes sense now. In selecting what I wanted to smell, I had to think about what memories I wanted to trigger. Making a decision like that’s about knowing what you need to help you cope in a world that just sees you in certain ways (sorry I forget how you said Foucault described them). I choose cinnamon and star anise because my Nan baked with them and lavender was her favourite smell. I am really missing her right now. I thought the smoke might rise up to her.” Shannon

This was perhaps the most obvious in the activity that involved the students painting stones I had brought from my homeland of Northern Ireland. They spoke of how they felt the stones didn’t want to be sitting on the desk; the tables were too cold and unyielding for the stones. They wanted to hold them in their hands as they painted. The stones were taken from an ancient forest called Carnfunock (Carn meaning a mound of stones and Funnock derived from Feannog meaning scalded crow – birds were worshipped by pre-Christian Irish) which is believed to be an important site of sidhe for the fae (the entrance space to the other world for the fairies). I explained this to the students and explored with them the significance of stones in the Irish pre-Christian world and belief, including their practise of elaborate decoration. The students were then asked to take a stone and hold it, turn it in their hands and allow it to become theirs. They were supplied with paints to decorate their stones.

Figure 5: Stone pained by Emma, who selected a circular pattern to reflect her own connection with Ireland (where it was a sacred symbol) and her interest in the study of negation.

The students took a long time to select their stones, and began to talk to one another about how the stones were choosing them, not the other way around. One student put her stone back as she wanted a larger one to paint on, but then kept going back to where her original stone was sitting. When I asked her what was wrong she said her stone was calling to her and she felt guilty about putting it back. In the end she asked if she could have both stones, the one that had initially been selected and the one she had painted. They became very attached to their stones and a number confessed to placing them by their beds to help them sleep, or by their books to help them study for their exams. One student told of how she held her stone in her hand and talked to it.

Figure 6: “I created this pattern because it represents what I have learnt on this course so far. It has taken me on twists and turns, places I never thought about before. Sometimes they are just dead ends, or I just don’t understand them. But sometimes, it opens up and makes it all really clear. When I was painting the stone, I was thinking about smudging ceremonies I saw back home and how they have been commercialized like we read in Carrette & King.” Arden

The last five weeks of the course saw ownership of the hour being entirely handed over to the students. They selected groups to work in at the beginning and each group was given one of the five senses to focus on. They had to use Plate’s book as a starting point but could take their approach any direction they wanted. As a group they had to create a learning experience for the rest of the class. The class then contributed to the awarding of the grade for that group by awarding them marks out of ten and writing a paragraph (max) on why they awarded them. The students leading the class had to write a short reflection piece on their experience which they were graded individually on.

Again the activities revealed just how much of a sacred space the classroom itself had become. The group focusing on sight created a range of activities but the aspect that the remainder of the class noted on their feedback marks was when one of the students revealed to the other that he was colour blind and this had denied him his long desired dream of being a pilot in the Air Force. A number of the students thought this brave and pondered if he would have told such a story if the room they were in was not so “special”, “sacred”, “private” or “transformative”.

The student focusing on smell gave everyone a piece of material soaked in frankincense oil and asked them to close their eyes while they were listening to her story that explained why she choose that smell. She told them:

I could picture his large thumb making a cross with the oil on my forehead. The smell of the oil mixed with his usual smell of body odour that I grew to love. From then on I associated frankincense oil with hospitals and healing. Just looking at the bottle in that moment gave me such a feeling of happiness in memory. I wanted to share that with the class. We all carry our own memories and experiences, they make us different and unique, but we can all share them through our senses.” Kayla
Figure 7: Arden beginning preparation of her eco-world activity and Kayla’s frankincense soaked cloth.

 Her partner in the group had created an activity whereby the class had to create a miniature eco-world based on naturally occurring materials found around the campus. She explained that she wanted them to do this because as an exchange student facing leaving Scotland in a few weeks it was the smells that would remain with her the longest, and which brought her back into her happiest memories of her year in Scotland. She explained that for her the smell of Scotland, especially from her walks in the forests and mountains, had helped her to find a spiritual core and connection with the land and she wanted to bring that into the classroom which she had come to think of as “my church, my sacred space on campus.” Arden.

Figure 8: Rebecca’s completed minature eco-world, made under the instruction of Arden.
Their final class was something they were not allowed to know until they entered the room. On the syllabus the information provided for that date simply stated: Can you keep a secret, well so can I.

When the day arrived I had blocked out all of the windows in the room so that they had to step into the unknown. As we waited outside for all the class to arrive the students began talking about how uncomfortable and nervous they were feeling. I asked them why and was told that by keeping it secret and setting it up without them they felt worried that the room had been violated, that maybe the space would be too different so that they couldn’t connect with it in the same way.


What they entered into was a room-size labyrinth with the various things they had used and made throughout the course placed on it. This video is a very short clip of them starting to go round it. They were not told to, but they choose to do it in silence. After they had completed the labyrinth, again without being prompted they sat down next to the object that meant the most to them and began to talk to one another about why it mattered, what it taught them and so on.

Figure 9: Discussing which objects mattered to them and why.

Following the completion of the labyrinth I revealed that their final activity was to be a shared meal in which they had to serve the person behind them, not themselves. As they sat with one another and ate cake, Irish bread and fruit they began to talk about what the course had taught them, what they had enjoyed, what they didn’t like and to share memories and past experiences with one another.

With such strict guidelines, standard exam formats and structured essays it’s occurred to me that nothing is more daunting that academic freedom! The material religion course has been daunting in its own way forcing me to reflect on religion in a physical way. I choose sounds, it was an easy choice. While in the classroom doing the activity the room seemed to transcend the physical action. It became incredibly communal in a communion sense but I can’t explain why.” Mhairi

The impact of the course

All too often as educators we focus on the impact of what we are teaching our students and forget about the impact it can have on us. In undertaking the construction and delivery of this course I was struck not just by its impact on my research, but on how I thought about teaching more generally. I began to see the material world, and the study of material religion as a part of that, as a key factor in the building of relationships both between staff and students but also between varying disciplines. At Stirling we have a range of students that choose to take religion modules for their third choice (first and second year students have to undertake three modules in three different subjects per semester to ensure a breadth of learning), many of whom have not studied religion before. As a department focused on critical religion, asking them to think about and deconstruct the category of religion and its attendant links to power can prove a stumbling block, especially in regards to the language we use. This course has taught me that there is a new way to build a bridge over that language and enable the sports scientist, the marine biologist, the accountant and the computer programmer to see the real links between their chosen modules through a material religion approach.

Placing myself into a position of a visible teacher, as a learner I gathered invaluable insight into what my students experience in classrooms. It taught me how individual perception impacts upon learning and reinforced my belief that there is no one correct way to learn. So why do we so often teach as if there is? Teachers need to be empowered with a variety of instructional designs to meet the needs of all students. This course has taught me that material religion can re-frame the concept of “teaching” to truly encapsulate all that teachers can and should do. It brought into sharp focus how much transformational teaching relies upon factors outwith of knowledge, such as motivation, emotion, and interdependence. I have now made a concerted effort to include what I have learnt in other, non material religion courses I have since developed or taught at Stirling. No longer do I try to force myself to wrestle with the unwieldy word as a dominant, now it sits as complimentary with all the other senses.

Some concluding thoughts
Alison Jasper notes that there has been “a retrenchment into narrower forms of identification and an increased suspicion of difference in the context of educational policy in the UK – especially in relation to ‘Religious Education’. The adoption of standardized management protocols – ‘managerialism’ – across most if not all policy contexts including public educational spaces reduces spaces for encountering or addressing genuine difference and for discovering something new and different” [vii].

Education has become ever more increasingly stripped of space for exploration, for discovering the new and the different as Jasper notes. Too often those who are not on the classroom floor are viewing the purpose of it as the filling of a vessel, leaving no space for the kindling of fires. Our students come to us with a passion for religion (variously understood), a desire to explore the unknown areas, the genuine differences that exist within ritual, sacred texts, differing ideologies and praxis, and the place of religion in all the different aspects of our contemporary world.

I would have very much enjoyed learning this way throughout my university experience and not just in my final year.” Lindsey
Material Religion was a great aspect of the course and the interactive classes were the most engaging class I have ever taken part in.” Rebecca
The comments immediately above demonstrate that teaching material religion through a practical sense-based approach can help to ensure that spaces are available for encountering and addressing differences, discovering something new and being remade as a space. If we are willing to engage with the possibility of the undergraduate classroom as a sacred space we are perhaps better able to engage in the kindling of a lifetime’s fire for the subject of ‘religion’.
For me, the classroom is my sanctuary, my safe space and where I am challenged and made uncomfortable in a good way, usually. Everything is solid and yet only so because we make it that way. The classroom is the site of therapy and sacrality for me.” Emma

Figure 10: Students working with one another to guess the objects that are covered, focusing on sight and demonstrating trust in Lindsay as it was her activity.

In the spirit of sharing experiences that this blog post is offered, so the syllabus for the course is also offered. If you want a copy of the complete syllabus to use however you wish, you are welcome to it. The only stipulation is that you acknowledge both myself as the creator of it and the University of Stirling as the legal owner.

Endnotes and References

i. Hugh C. Benson, Socratic Wisdom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

ii. Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, The Philosophy of Socrates (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000), 53.

iii. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, translated by Myra Bergman Ramos (London: Continuum, 2005); Lev Vygotsky, Thought and Language (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986, 2012).

iv. For examples, see Attila Szabo and Nigel Hastings, “Using IT in the undergraduateclassroom: should we replace the blackboard with PowerPoint?,” Computers & Education 35 (2000): 175-187, accessed 9 March 2017; Carol E. Kasworm, “Adult Meaning Making in the Undergraduate Classroom,” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (Chicago, IL, March 1997), accessed 9 March 2017; David Morse and France Jutras, “ImplementingConcept-based Learning in a Large Undergraduate Classroom,” Life Sciences Education 7:2 (2008): 243-53, accessed 9 March 2017.

v. All students have given permission for their first name to be used with their quotes and for their images to be used in the photographs and video clip.

vi. S. Brent Plate, A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to its Senses (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014).
vii. Alison Jasper, “RE/TRS is a girl’s subject,” Feminist Theology 24:1 (2015): 69 – 78.