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Gayle MacDonald reports on why increasing numbers of people seeking substance and spirituality in their lives are starting to take the stars seriously

Some might think Amber Joliat's yoga class unorthodox. Her students prefer to call it enlightened.

"Is everyone feeling the moodiness of Pisces?" Joliat quietly asks the rapt crowd. "The watery undercurrent we've shifted into?"

There are nods. Then Joliat explains why some may be feeling a bit off-kilter. "I'm going to rewind to Feb. 15, when there was a new moon and a partial solar eclipse, both at the same time.

"This day was a cosmic gift to remind us all of the endless cycles of nature. A day to reaffirm this year's theme: That we need to shift our perspectives … swim in that contemplative place … and begin the process of letting go."

Only when the celestial bodies are properly assessed and taken care of does Joliat focus on the physical elements of her practice.

Since she opened Misfit Studios eight years ago in a former church, a forgotten relic that's been brought back to life on Toronto's Queen Street West, the place has become a star attraction for millennials, particularly women seeking more substance and spirituality in their lives.

"We call it our Saturday morning religion," laughs Danielle Seraphim, a 36-year-old corporate banker, who is a regular. "I'm a logical person by nature, and I'm not overly into astrology, but I like how Amber makes me think about my life."

In the past five years, there's been a renewed interest in astrology – and basically all things mystical including aura readings, mediumship, healing crystals, sound baths and tarot cards, to name a few – that has spawned what its practitioners call the new "Age of Aquarius."

The internet has opened up a whole new space for people to learn about these pursuits, Joliat says. "You can find a tarot deck [called the Wild Unknown, $50] at Urban Outfitters, whereas you used to have to seek these things out. Now, they're readily accessible and available. It's not witchy any more."

Google "astrology," for example, and you'll find more than two million websites, including relative newcomers such as AstroTwins (10 million page views a month), and Co-Star, which crashed three times its first week in October due to demand. Its chief executive, 30-year-old Banu Guler, said in a phone call from New York, "We've seen downloads at rates close to 1,000 an hour."

Twitter is flooded with Zodiac memes, themed to everything from Game of Thrones characters to Marvel Comic villains. (I'm Poison Ivy). Phrases such as "Mercury in retrograde" are part of the hip vernacular.

Having a bad day? Maybe Mercury is to blame.

For the un-hip: When you've had a bad day or slipped it up, it might be because Mercury is in retrograde. More literally, the phrase refers to the period of time when the planet appears to move backward in the sky. (It never actually does – it just looks that way because Earth and Mercury travel at different speeds.) Astrology enthusiasts say the reverse motion can throw our plans off course, and the expression has become a catchall for mishaps, frustrations and delays. Missed an e-mail? It must be because Mercury's in retrograde. As of this weekend we're entering one of three Mercury retrograde cycles that will cause breakdowns in communication and possibly mess up travel plans up to April 15. (So best to stay put.)

And offline, friends gather for wine, cheese and tarot parties. They visit aura readers, who take pictures of the electromagnetic field surrounding their bodies, which are then broken down into the seven chakras (signified by vibrant colours). These offer insight into a person's feelings, emotions, behaviour and health. "I was a skeptic and very much driven by logic, reasoning and science," says Emily Scarlett, a 34-year-old former Torontonian who now lives in Manhattan and works at a major fashion retailer. "But I follow my sign, and I like tarot and crystals. A friend bought tickets to have our auras read at Radiant Human [an aura photography lab]. It was the most accurate reading anyone has done of me in my life."

Even the under-20s are embracing the otherworldly movement. "We have kids in elementary school wanting to get crystals so they can have one in their pocket to rub and keep them calm so they can deal with anxiety," says Alethea Lymworth, whose dad started the New Age bookstore Banyen Books & Sound in Vancouver in 1970. (The shop has also seen a 25-per-cent increase in the sale of tarot cards in the past year.)

Given the zeitgeist, it's hardly surprising that U.S. market-research firm IBIS Worldwide reports psychic services generated US$2.1-billion in revenue in 2015. "Following a dip during the recession, rising disposable income levels have spurred demand for discretionary services like psychic services," the report said.

More interesting still was another reason cited in the report. "Religious beliefs have grown increasingly flexible and accepting … and according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith they were raised in, and 16.1 per cent identify themselves as unaffiliated with any particular religion." That void, the report posits, may have left people searching for a spiritual alternative.

After all, humans have always sought insight beyond purse science to answer life's big questions and dilemmas. The Greeks and Romans used astrology to predict weather patterns and forecast natural disasters. In the 1960s and 70s, the hippies and yippies adopted the Age of Aquarius (the dreamy song in the smash hit 1967 musical Hair) to embody a generation of like-minded thinkers – sick of the paternalism and oppression of the Cold War – who stood for love, light and humanity.

Toronto psychotherapist and Jung analyst Christine Becker sees this search in her work, too. She incorporates astrological reading into the sessions of clients who request it, and says the rise of the so-called New Age of astrology is happening, in part, because people "don't have religions that actually can support us in times of chaos like they used to.

"I think a lot of our depression and mental-health issues stem from the fact we don't have a firm foundation to hold us in difficult and challenging times," says Becker, who has practised her hybrid blend of psychotherapy and astrology for 18 years. "We don't live in communities the way we used to. [Traditional forms of] religion used to give us solace but in the last 100 to 150 years it's lost the power to do that for us. For many, it's become dogmatic and lifeless.

"But human beings crave to be related to something larger than ourselves. We are hard-wired to do that. We're the only creatures who actually create stories and narrative because we're trying to find our place in the world," says Becker, who studied at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, and later at the Faculty of Astrological Studies in Britain.

Co-Star's Guler agrees that a decline in religion has resulted in a "belief vacuum" that's left millennials rudderless. This generation, she says, is wrapping itself in the blanket of the zodiac to try to make sense of a world that seems to be coming apart at the seams.

"Our generation is not in the best situation," says Guler, who founded Co-Star with two tech-savvy friends who worked with her in the high-stress fashion industry. Our daily lives are structured by screens and a rational approach to instability, without any semblance of meaning. We try to shrug off threats such as climate change and nuclear war. The jobs that are paying off our student loans are precarious – if we have them at all.

"Astrology is a way of putting yourself in the context of thousands of years of history and the universe. It gives us a rich framework for talking about how we understand ourselves and each other, who we are, and who we are becoming."

In Becker's practice, she says the clients who ask her to use astrology in their treatment do so because they want to delve deeper into all the influences that might hold sway over their mental health. "They have a sense that what they're suffering from is not all that it seems to be."

Whatever the genesis of this quest for a new form of self-exploration, Joliat, who first had her natal chart read when she was 14, says she welcomes the fact that astrology has moved far beyond reading your horoscope (or sun sign) in a newspaper, or the back of a magazine.

"All of it is like little clues or puzzles that help us to understand our uniqueness, to decipher this vibrant map of who we are, and how we relate to the rest of the world."

As we exit her studio – mind and body worked over – Joliat asks each one of us to "walk into the light. To shed all the things that hold and weigh you down."

I'm not sure if I feel any lighter. And I'm pretty sure the God-fearing souls who built the original Euclid Avenue Methodist Church on this site in the 1800s, are rolling over in their graves.

But I agree with Seraphim, the banker, who tells me, "I always leave Amber's class considering aspects of my life that I normally would never think about. And I feel better for it."

The stars, defined

For many of us, astrology means flipping to the back of the newspaper and checking out the horoscope. But to legions of others, it's far more engrossing – and complicated. Students of the stars, planets and other celestial bodies use astrology as a means of self-discovery. Others look heavenward to figure out when to start a new career or get out of a dead-end relationship. Here are a few key phrases to get you started.

Age of Aquarius

The 1960s megamusical Hairhijacked the phrase, but it refers to a time when the Earth moves into the sign of Aquarius, which happens approximately every 2,100 years. In astrology, it's the age of freedom, technology and humanity. Astrologists disagree on whether we're now in it or if we're about to move into this forward-thinking age.


According to New Age beliefs, each person has an electromagnetic field that shows up in colours (red, orange, yellow, green, blue-indigo and violet) that reflect a person's mood, overall health and condition of their chakras.

Birth (or natal) chart

A map that shows the position of the planets, in relation to the sun, at the moment you were born.

Mercury retrograde

Three or four times a year, the planet Mercury appears to be moving backward in the sky for about three weeks. It's an illusion, of course, but one that has come to represent a period of poor communication and decision-making, transportation glitches and overall sluggishness. (Coming dates: March 23 to April 15; July 25 to Aug. 18; and Nov. 16 to Dec. 6).

Moon sign

Different from your sun sign – which most people are familiar with – your moon sign is determined by a calculation of your full date, place and time of birth.It represents your emotional core or inner mood.

Rising (or ascendant) sign

Technically, it's the zodiac sign that was rising on the eastern horizon the moment you were born. This sign determines the face we put on in public and present to the world.

Saturn Return

Every 30 years or so, Saturn returns to the sign it was in when you were born. Often referred to as a cosmic rite of passage (typically because it hits when you're in your late 20s), into adulthood. In astrology, Saturn is the tough taskmasker. It's the time to work hard, strive for your goals and kick butt. Like the personal trainer or life coach of the skies, it tells you to get on with it. You'll be tested, and asked to push through.

Sun sign

It's your zodiac sign, ie. Scorpio, Leo, Cancer etc.