2016-06-30

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."

"It's not that spirituality is pushing out religion. It's that spirituality is shaking up religion," Owens Scott says. "It's a matter of people who are deeply religious and yet are open to new things."

That openness is spawning a new kind of business that New York-based religion researcher Richard Cimino calls the experience industry.

"People want firsthand exposure and don't want to get it secondhand through doctrine or a church they inherited from their parents," says Cimino, who charts the growth of spiritual consumerism in his book "Shopping for Faith" (Jossey-Bass, $25) and his monthly nationwide newsletter, Religion Watch.

"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."

The music and publishing industries were the first secular businesses to discover the power of marketing faith.

"There's been a huge explosion in popular music and books," says Phyllis Tickle, a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly magazine. "People are taking the discussion of religion and theology out of sacred spaces and they're carrying it into the popular realm where real folks can get at it.

"One of the big reasons is that baby boomers, the largest generation in American history, are hitting 50 and, let me tell you, hitting 50 sparks this kind of discussion in almost everyone," she says.

Tickle, who lives in Millington, Tenn., is behind one of the remarkable recent success stories in inspirational publishing. She reached back many centuries into Christian tradition and compiled a 2,100-page guide to daily prayer and Bible reading, called "The Divine Hours." Doubleday published two volumes last year ($27.50 each) and will release the third this year.

Religious Themes Abound

Even venerable corporate institutions, such as Puffs tissues, Lipton teas, Dixie cups and Renuzit air fresheners, are taking an aggressive approach toward marketing spirituality.

Once, Renuzit was content to make a room smell nice. Now, its AromaSense candles offer to "refresh, invigorate and stimulate the senses."

Hallmark, which always has included some religious themes in its greeting cards, recently acquired both a popular Christian greeting card line and Odyssey, a cable channel that features religious programming.

"It just seemed to be a good fit for the changing needs of Hallmark and consumers," says company spokeswoman Rachel Bolton of the acquisition of Dayspring Cards, which are sold mainly in Christian bookstores. Now, Hallmark will move Dayspring into secular shops as well.

"There's a much more open, everyday approach as opposed to, 'This is what you do on Sunday,' 'This is what the Bible says,'" Bolton says.

Michael and Dianne Alexanian say they have new depth and meaning in their lives since they started their spiritual journey through Japanese culture.

Both used to scramble through their hectic work days, but now they wake up every morning, put on their robes and stroll through their gardens together. Dianne likes to sit beneath a wisteria and look out over the yard. Michael prefers the Zen sand garden.

Often, they open up their gardens to outsiders seeking a brief respite, and they offer gardening tips as part of their consulting business.

Shakunage doesn't pay every bill yet, but the spiritual rewards far outweigh the paychecks from previous jobs, says Dianne. "I can come home from a day that is so out of place, walk through my garden, sit at any place, gaze and just have my mind cleared."

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