Laura Thompson doesn't consider herself a religious person. So when the 27-year-old Toronto resident decided she needed a spiritual fix, craving a sense of belonging to something greater than herself, she didn't turn to a priest or rabbi. She sought the guidance of soul coach Kimberly Carroll, a bubbly, older sister-type figure, whose business tagline is "Seeking higher consciousness ... in even higher heels."
"I don't want to sound too hippie-ish, but, like, to be one with everything, to feel like I belong and I fit in with everything in the universe is kind of what spirituality is to me," Ms. Thompson says. "That was something that I found was lacking in my life."
After taking Ms. Carroll's six-week soul-coaching class, Ms. Thompson says she adopted daily feel-good rituals, like stretching, meditating, and keeping a journal of all the things she's thankful for. She also learned to quash self-deprecating thoughts by imagining herself physically pulling those thoughts out of her head, whipping them to the ground and stomping on them. "It's just little cathartic things like that you can do, and they really help," she says.
But perhaps one of the most alluring aspects of Ms. Carroll's approach to spirituality is the absence of any rules. In fact, the soul coach openly admits to being a "spiritual bad girl," a seeker who has no hesitations about using the odd curse word, indulging in the occasional tipple and embracing her love of stilettos. Nonetheless, the aim is to tackle big puzzles like the meaning of life and how to live "a more present, connected and ignited life," Ms. Carroll says.
"My spiritual path is strewn with some messiness and wrong turns and, yes, a few tequila shots, but it's also one that's been fully engaged and heart-felt," Ms. Carroll says.She is currently working on a book to offer guidance to other women that "embraces meditation and martinis, the solemn and the silly, and the mystic and the lipstick."
Hers is an irreverent approach to spirituality that doesn't follow any particular dogma or religious tradition. It's becoming increasingly popular among women in their 20s and 30s, who are seeking enlightenment without having to give up worldly pleasures. It's a blend of self-help and holistic wellness that Ms. Carroll describes as "soul food for the Sex and the City crowd."
She is just one of a growing group of gurus who are tapping into this market, following in the footsteps of Oprah Winfrey and Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. Among the new generation of notable spiritual cheerleaders are New York Times best-selling authors Kris Carr, of the Crazy Sexy Cancer series, and Gabrielle Bernstein. Ms. Bernstein's latest book Spirit Junkie: A Radical Road to Self-Love and Miracles, details how she went from being hooked on romantic relationships, drugs and partying to reclaiming her "spiritual mojo." As her photo on the cover suggests, that journey didn't require abandoning short, sparkly sequined dresses. But it did require banishing negative thoughts and fears, listening to her intuition and learning forgiveness.
"The woman in her 20s or 30s or 40s who this message appeals to is the one who's like, 'Actually, I want a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and I still like my Gucci bag,'" says Kate Muker, co-founder of Vancouver's Conscious Divas, which operates a website and hosts monthly "Diva Date Nights" where women can gather, meditate and learn about personal growth.
Ms. Muker, who is in her 30s, says many women of her generation are searching for greater meaning because they don't feel fulfilled.
"All of a sudden, they're like, 'Oh my God, what am I doing here? This is not what I want,'" she says, adding that women may be more likely to participate in this type of soul-searching because they seem more willing to explore and discuss their feelings than men.
Ms. Muker says she was not brought up in any religion and the rigidity of organized meditation retreats didn't appeal to her. "People would be like, you should be vegetarian or you should be this way. And I was like, 'Yeah, that's cool. … I love what I'm getting from your teachings, but actually I'm going to have a glass of wine with my girlfriend.'"
Ms. Carroll acknowledges that this type of spirituality, which focuses on adopting whatever practices and beliefs make sense to each individual, can be construed as convenient or cherry-picking. "But to just swallow a belief system because it's been handed down to you, I think that's a recipe for disaster, or at least for putting yourself to sleep spiritually." She helps her clients create their own action steps to figure out how to live a more meaningful life. For example, that could involve taking a "spiritual inventory" of beliefs one holds and assessing them, or making a chart of one's disappointments in life.
Siobhan Chandler, a sociologist of religion at Wilfrid Laurier University, says this growing wave of spirituality is based on the notion that individuals can better contribute to society by taking care of themselves first. Because it's not rooted to any particular institution, seekers turn to the marketplace for guidance, whether it's through books, coaching sessions or videos.
Although this kind of unstructured soul-searching can be fun and promotes positive values, some argue that individuals can't be their own priest, Dr. Chandler says. Without any focus, some may consider it superficial, she says. "It's a bit bubblegum."
Nevertheless, Dr. Chandler says this brand of spirituality, and the message it advocates, is a natural product of the times.
"There's a way to blend the objectives of capitalism with spirituality. You can have it all, you can be rich, beautiful, wear high heels and be an authentic person with a meaningful life," she says. "This isn't just about this type of spirituality. This is about our culture. Our whole culture is wrapped up in this endeavour."