Beliefnet

EAST LANSING, Mich., June 8--By age 40, Michael and Dianne Alexanian had it all: successful businesses, a comfortable East Lansing home, a smoking addiction and high blood pressure.

Then, fed up with the stress of their daily grind, the Alexanians sold their firms in 1995 and built a Japanese meditation garden in their backyard. Dianne's blood pressure fell and Michael, now 48, kicked his smoking habit.

"It's completely changed our lives. We look forward to getting up each day. When we can't take other people, we go and hide in the solace of our gardens," Dianne Alexanian, 47, says.

"It's not that spirituality is pushing out religion. It's that spirituality is shaking up religion."

The meditation garden worked such wonders in their lives that the couple turned their spiritual discovery into a full-time business called Shakunage Consulting Inc. They now share their expertise in Japanese gardens, sword art, language and culture with serenity-seeking customers.

Millions of Americans hunger for the kind of spiritual solace the Alexanians have found in their own backyard, according to a new national survey. But people aren't flocking to churches to find it. Regular church attendance remains stable at about 40 percent of the population.

Instead, small firms like Shakunage, as well as dozens of major corporations, are selling spirituality faster than congregations can give it away.

From inspirational teas and bathroom tissues to uplifting books and music, spiritually themed products are breaking into a secular marketplace that once shunned religion.
"We are in a moment in our culture when a lot of the old boundaries...are falling apart--boundaries between public and private, family and work, religious and secular," says Wade Clark Roof, a sociologist and author based in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"History has never been at this point before, where so many spiritual resources are within such easy reach for people," Roof says.

That includes a new high-tech night light that shows a 16th-century image of praying hands. Executives at General Electric were surprised last year when they test-marketed 30 possible designs for the lights and customers overwhelmingly favored the praying hands over images such as flowers and teddy bears.

"I suspected it was going to do well, but not the top pick," says product manager John Wright in Cleveland.

True to test-market indications, the praying hands night light--GE's first foray into religious home lighting--is a top seller at major chains like Wal-Mart and ACE Hardware, Wright said. Another GE spiritual design in the form of a dove soon will hit stores as well.

Looking Beyond Religion

Americans' religious tastes are broadening, according to a newly released national telephone poll by Spirituality & Health magazine.

The term "spirituality" is gaining in popularity over the word "religion," partly because the "s" word is associated with a wider array of experiences, says Robert Owens Scott, editor of the two-year-old magazine in New York.

Prayer and worship still are considered spiritual by the vast majority of Americans, but 80 percent also describe parenting as spiritual and two-thirds use the term to describe a walk in the woods. More than half of Americans consider sex to be a spiritual experience, the poll shows.

"I was just standing in the right spot at the right time with this idea," she says. The books already have become best sellers among people who want to direct their own prayer lives.

Seeking a Purpose

Mary Adley of Atlanta, Ga., had a similar success with her idea for Heavenly Hands and Sole Warmers.

Her simple products, fleecy mitts and booties filled with lavender and pebbles that can be heated in a microwave to soothe tired muscles, were quickly snapped up by national chains like Brookstone and Bloomingdales.

Although Adley, a Methodist who says she runs a "Christ-centered company," is happy to see her spirituality-based products take off, she is determined to put her own personal fulfillment above the bottom line.

"What is this really all about? It's not about working 60- to 70-hour weeks. It's about finding out more about our purpose. What's the reason I was brought to this earth?" Adley says.

One of the hottest new companies in this field is Broomfield, Colorado-based Gaiam, which combines the name of the Greek goddess of the Earth, "Gaia," with a self-directed "I am." Living Arts, a rapidly growing segment of Gaiam, produces do-it-yourself yoga videos and kits, which have been picked up by major chains such as Kohl's.

In early April, one of the company's top yoga instructors appeared on "Oprah" and, the next day, Living Arts accounted for 19 of the top 20 best-selling videos on the Amazon Internet site. Yoga blew away "Gladiator," "Mission Impossible 2" and all the other top box office hits.

"In a heartbeat, people were out there wanting yoga," said Jane Pemberton, head of distribution for Gaiam.

"Three years ago, when my salespeople went out to stores, they heard: 'Yoga? Forget it! That's a religion. People don't want it.' Now, when they go out, they find people who have been touched by it, whose wives do it, whose friends do it."

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