Please don’t call me spiritual

Published on February 7, 2011 by      Print
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By Kimberly Johnson

The other day a friend described me as “spiritual” and I took it as an insult.

That made me curious, since I am a yoga teacher and a Rolfer. I spent a good decade of my life prospecting my next trip to India. I have to wonder exactly what has happened that turned a word that used to describe my life’s compass into one that makes my skin crawl.

For one, I don’t think I know what the word really means. And I don’t want to look it up either—that won’t help. Spiritual has to be one of the most misused, abused, misunderstood, overused, and trivialized words of our time—or at least the last fifteen years. (Second only to “Zen,” which now refers to anything from toilet paper to an impeccably decorated home interior with Buddha statues.)

Aside from the woo-woo, New-Age-bookstore connotation (and I must confess here, I spent some years frequenting more than a few of those) I’m pretty sure I despise the word because some of the most manipulative, narcissistic, and tight-fisted people I know are “spiritual.” In fact, I trusted them as such. My mistake was in assuming that spiritual people would be different, and better, than average people. That spiritual leaders would have their shit more together, would be more honest, more compassionate, and more present. My experience is that this assumption is WRONG.

People in the yoga and Buddhist communities are no different from anyone else.

In fact, I have seen people act a lot more ethically in corporate America with a lot more clarity than I have in most of the yoga communities I have been involved in. Calling oneself spiritual and pursuing a spiritual path like meditation or yoga doesn’t necessarily translate into coherent action and behavior. (One of the most compassionate people I have met brought McDonald’s to Brazil, which I would have formerly labeled as an evil endeavor.)

Now I have heard the theories: that wounded people are drawn to yoga so it is a de facto self-selected sensitive traumatized crowd (agreed). And I know about the projections of students looking for an idealized perfection in a teacher (guilty). The dynamic is complex.

I have been brainwashed and seduced by some of the most “spiritually evolved” teachers I have met, in insidious and deeply harmful ways—more so because of the spiritual context.

On the other hand, the real angels in my life, who have given me a place to recover from the aforementioned abuse and mental rewiring—who have been there to help me pick up the pieces after the brainwashing and disillusionment—none of them call themselves spiritual. They are just good people. They watched my daughter for me with no strings attached, arranged classes for me to teach when I was sure I had nothing to teach, and reflected material reality back to me when I thought it did not exist.

I’m bored by spiritual. When it is not busy neutralizing perfectly interesting personalities or turning intelligent people into spouters of trite Vedanta sentiments like “everything is perfect,” it’s supplying people with a new hip identity that allows them to avoid, gloss over, or bury the reality of their particular circumstances. I’m over it.

So please don’t call me spiritual, I’d rather go with “interesting.”

About Kimberly Johnson

Kimberly Johnson is a yogini nomad who recently put the earth boots on for motherhood. After a lengthy love affair with India, she was relieved to fall in love with Brazil—and a Brazilian—and now lives in Rio de Janeiro with her 3-year-old Brazilian daughter. She leads retreats on the most beautiful place on earth: Ilha Grande, an island with 100 beaches and no cars; leads teacher trainings; and tries not to pronounce Sanskrit with a Portuguese accent. Rearranged by childbirth in every way, she travels, teaches, and learns about what yoga has to do with womanhood.

Visit Kim online at:

Filed under: Platitudes | Shady Gurus and Tagged:


  1. Matthew says:

    Great write-up! Yet another thing that we need to be vigilant about: being true to ourselves, regardless of what the groupthink instructs.

  2. Carol Horton says:

    I have to admit that this post brings up some feelings of sadness. I too have been disillusioned by yoga teachers who bought too much into their own “spiritual” trip. Prior to that, I was disillusioned by activists in the non-profit sector who used their causes more for self-aggrandizement and a cushy professional life than anything else. Prior to that, I was disillusioned by professors who lorded it over others with their smartness but who really didn’t like to think.

    Yet all those worlds – yoga, non-profit, academia – also had many beautiful and sincere people, and even those who disillusioned me often had a lot to give and were trying to do so up to their current limits. And it’s also true that I know people who are sweet at home but accept doing horrible things in their works lives. Hell, I remember visiting Auschwitz and reading about how the Nazis running the death camp were great family men who loved taking their children to the zoo – I think that they even built one right nearby, how twisted is that???

    People are strange and complex beings. I haven’t given up on the word “spiritual” only because I don’t know of anything better when it comes to trying to name the process that keeps us trying to go deeper, be compassionate, and find our own truth in spite of all the shite. The English language is really deficient in this regard; we need so many other words to describe all of these experiences. But we don’t have them, so for now I’ll stick to my “spiritual” path while continuing to try and dodge the bullets, landmines, and sinkholes that you describe.

    • Kimberly Johnson says:

      Dear Carol,

      Thank you for your valuable and thoughtful comments. I have been chewing on them for the last few hours. I see your points, especially about the complexity of human experience and all the layers on which we can operate. I guess this is one of the points I was trying to make is that just because someone is “spiritual” doesn’t even necessarily mean that they have anything figured out on the interpersonal or emotional level per se.

      I guess one of the things I think about is that a “spiritual” path which is meant to cultivate humility and compassion often churns out the exact opposite- people who feel superior and separate because they are better than. I know because I have been there- distant, awkward, removed, wondering why my parents and everyone else was not taking their spirituality more seriously and doing things the way I did. And yet in all my superiority I was not happy.

      We need a new word. For me, spiritual is ruined.

      I just received this comment which I find apropos: “Jim Hillman often remarks that words are alive, having been born, strive for maturity, stability and integrity or become banal, meaningless and die. Spiritual is in bad shape. Gaston Bachelard, in a delightful volume, ‘The Poetics of Space”‘notes that “Words — I often imagine this — are little houses, each with a cellar and garage.”

      Anyway, I will think more about your comments- and thank you for making me think.

      • Carol Horton says:

        Kimberly – your comments make me think of John Welwood’s work on “spiritual bypassing” – have you read it? Jack Kornfield is also really insightful and helpful on the issue of how spiritual pursuit and even attainment does not necessarily equal (and can even detract from) psychological health. In other words, you may have amazing spiritual visions and still not be able to get along with your parents (or have a healthy relationship, or whatever).

        I so love this work and find it so smart and insightful – it needs to be better known in yoga community.

  3. Quinn W says:

    Thanks for sharing your sentiments, Kimberly! This topic popped up a few times this week. At my yoga studio (which is one of the most real studios I’ve ever been at), we had a gathering where the owner’s topic was : “Spirituality ~ Solution of Pollution?” He started off with a quote from Nisargadatta: “Spirituality is as discardable as dishwater.” Calling someone spiritual and attesting a certain value to it is as polarizing as good vs. evil. Calling someone spiritual, like you said, attributes the qualities of ‘better’ or ‘more virtuous.’ It becomes an identity to claim, to show that you are more righteous on your path.

    It’s uncomfortable and not true. I’d rather be called interesting as well, or nothing at all.

    Thanks for sharing!


    • Kimberly Johnson says:

      Hi Quinn,

      Your studio sounds rad. Where is it?

      Love Nisargadatta.

      I agree with you that what spiritual now means is something in the way of better, which is inherently problematic.

      “It’s uncomfortable and not true. I’d rather be called interesting as well, or nothing at all.” Yes!

      Thanks for stopping by- love you website.


      • Quinn W says:

        Thanks Kimberly!

        The studio I attend right now is in Phoenix, AZ ~

        Even though one part of me is in yoga recovery mode from my time in LA, I am still an ardent believer in the power of yoga in our lives and this studio is such a supportive place to be. I just enrolled in their yearlong advanced studies/teacher training, so I am very excited!

        Thanks for visitnig my site too, maybe one day I’ll find myself in Brazil with you!

  4. Joslyn Hamilton says:

    It makes my skin crawl when people describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” Although I think the sentiment behind it is good, it tends to just come across as smug, pretentious, and elitist.

    • Kimberly Johnson says:

      I have said that exact phrase- a lot of times. Oddly enough, many times abroad, when being pressed for which religion I am.

      Somehow saying “I am spiritual not religious” was different in 1994, or maybe it was the naivete of being 19 that makes it less offensive.

      But I agree, I think the statement has become so cliché, so easy to say, that is annoying and cringe-worthy.

  5. Tweets that mention Please don’t call me spiritual -- says:

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  6. Sukie Baxter says:

    Woohoo! Go Kimberly! I’m on that train with you…as always, this is an insightful and well-written piece.

  7. Melody Granger says:

    Oh my goodness Kimberly! Thank you for writing this.

    I remember a client asking me if I was religious and I said…no, but I believe I may be spiritual because I’m a good person and I enjoy helping others. I wasn’t sure what exactly “spiritual” meant, but I used the word! She said, there’s no doubt you are if you are doing this for others. Then she said a prayer for us.

    Kindness, helpfulness, and optimism is in me. I suppose I should come up with a term for it…oh yeah, it’s melody.

    LOVED this article.

    • Kimberly Johnson says:

      Hi Melody,

      Thanks for stopping by. It’s funny how we need labels to orient ourselves and then decide who people are. And you put it well- you are Melody. It is a conundrum because our stories create connection and yet the labels can distance us at the same time, so we don’t see the changes and peculariaties in each of us. (Gordon Lish said it was not the particularities but the pecularities that truly made the individual.)

      XO Kimberly

  8. christopher says:

    yes — loved your blog + to be fair i would say 95% percent of things spiritual could more accurately be described as spiritual bypassing and really not strictly “spiritual” in the best sense of that word. Robert augustus masters does a facinating (and humbling) exploration of this topic for those of us disillusioned with the state of “spiritual” affairs…..

  9. Kris Nelson says:

    After my own heart…


  10. LT Writes says:

    I was just complaining, sort of, via e-mail to a close friend that I was frustrated by the herd mentality where no one thinks for themselves and you have to shock them out of their apathy like using paddles in an ER for a heart patient. I’m just glad I got to read you today.


    • Kimberly Johnson says:

      I guess the need is so atrong for belonging and identity- that yoga communities can easily fill that need. And then there are all kinds of group codes, like clothes labels and special words, and all kinds of things that denote what kind of group you are in. And it all gets a little far away from compassion and human decency.

    • Sydney Chandler says:

      In response to LT re: herd mentality. If everyone thought for themselves there would be no religion. That in itself would do the world good. It is an indoctrination that is insidious and dangerous. It is creeping slowly but surely back into our government, which is exactly what the Consitution of the United States was trying to prevent. OK. A little off topic. Just saying……

  11. Woo Woo Woo Woo. says:

    Life and spirit belong to each, and all of us. We should never try to define or understand the spirituality of others, or ourselves through through books, classes, questions, some fucktard yoga “guru” or meditation guidance. You might get laid, but you’re not going to figure out your life. Simply put, spirituality is the embodiment of being. It’s not mysterious, sexy, intellectual or smart and has nothing to do with Buddhism or yoga. I’ve seen a lot of people go down the brutal path of “seeking out spirituality” and sadly, it usually ends up with the person becoming severely brainwashed, or happy they got the fuck away from their weird “spirituality seeking” confusion.

    • Kimberly Johnson says:

      Hi woowoowoowoo,

      You are SO NOT woowoo.

      “fucktard:’ wow- made me think of leotard.

      It’s not mysterious, sexy, intellectual or smart and has nothing to do with Buddhism or yoga.

      I liked this sentence. And sorry for labeling, but it was sounding very Krishnamurti- hope you don’t take offence.

    • Gilana says:

      Wow. I was enjoying this conversation until this comment came up.

      I have a guru. He spends his time frustrating my every desire. He has no sexual interest in me. Through his guidance and help, this morning it came to me that life was about choosing yourself – not waiting for somebody else to. Now, I’ve come from terrible circumstances where I was never allowed to consider my own desires for a moment (crazy parents). So you would think he’d encourage me to do so….but no. He’s spent four years reinforcing my parent’s messages – creating circumstances where I’ve had to confront them over and over again.

      And guess what? I’m finally stepping up for myself. It’s unbearably hard, through a blinding maze of conditioning and uncertainty. However, next time I see him, I’ll tell him “Thank you, but Enough. I’ve got it now.” That’s what he’s been waiting for.

      Now, this isn’t good for everybody. My drive for god is the only thing that’s bigger than my fear. The culture forsaked me, and when I tried to get help from it, it either took advantage of me (rape, etc.) or gave me “candy” (drugs, material stuff, ideas of convention) instead of truth. I was so caught in an “unbreakable” circumstance that it took incredible skill to keep me alive and yet progressing at the same time.

      Long and short of it is: Think for yourself. Always. Any broad statement (other than that ;) is probably wrong. There are good gurus and there are bad gurus; just like there are good yoginis and there are bad yoginis, and there are good religious people and there are bad religious people….you get the picture.

      But don’t dis me. I won’t stand for it anymore.


  12. Luna says:

    “In fact, I have seen people act a lot more ethically in corporate America with a lot more clarity than I have in most of the yoga communities I have been involved in.”

    Wow. You articulated perfectly something that has been nagging me for a while… and this is from someone who left the corporate world a few years ago to save my soul. LOL
    Your post may be about the Yoga community specifically, but it also applies to other similar communities.

    “I’m pretty sure I despise the word because some of the most manipulative, narcissistic, and tight-fisted people I know are “spiritual.”

    Precisely. Another word that is becoming similarly tainted is “conscious.”

    Whenever I hear the phrase “conscious community” I cringe.
    Besides the elitist connotation, I know far more “conscious” people who would not refer to themselves as such… and I have witnessed a fair amount of less-than-conscious behavior (for lack of a better description) exhibited by members of a conscious crew (or should I say clique?)

    To be fair… In my experience, there are some wonderful, sincere, earnest and open-hearted people in these communities, as Carol Horton notes in her comment. It is a shame when some spoil it for others. Even more of a shame (though quite amusing) is the damage control dance and spiritual rationalization that some “spoilers” engage in when confronted or exposed.

    I guess it comes down to following our gut:
    We each know instinctively what resonates and works for us… and what/who doesn’t.

    Note: a pre-emptive mea culpa if “resonates” is another word that will soon find its place on the “words we loath & abhor” page.

  13. Peter says:

    Hi Carol,

    I couldn’t agree with you more.

    I am recovering from being Spiritually Abused at an authentic Tibetan Buddhist Centre.

    And experienced a lot of similar Brainwashing at Yoga Centres.

    Its a shame I was wounded and traumatized from my past and was seduced by a Buddhist Monk to follow their path and he turned into a Tyrant and was traumatized even more.

    Meditation of any sort can be used to Hypnotize in the wrong hands. You are highly suggestible at the end of/during Meditation and Yoga sessions.

    Your critical thinking is down at those times and a persuasive Guru or whatever can influence you greatly.

    I agree spirituality as a word was a uncomfortable word for a long time.

    All the best Carol your words a comforting for me to find someone to have had a similar experience/thoughts.



  14. Peter says:

    Sorry Kimberley,

    I wrote Hi Carol.

    I was a bit confused from a piece you replied too.

    Its an example of how you can be affected by Spiritual Abuse, the wiring of your Brain can get disorganized.

    Its a tough road.

    Best regards,


  15. Fairdose says:

    Thank you Kimberly for this write-up.
    I know all too well what you describe here – unfortunately New Age spirituality is Big Business right now and what used to be considered marginal thinking has shifted into the mainstream and popular culture. That includes yoga too.
    Having said that, genuine spirituality is ultimately about facing the music about yourself, as hard and painful as that can be for some, and then making the decision to change for the better.
    I find what has happened is that “modern” day spiritualists, gurus, teachers, shamans etc. have jumped on the financial bandwagon and more often than not , take advantage of the insecurities of followers and have somehow duped people into thinking that third party items will solve their problems (buy my book, attend my seminar, buy these crystals, meditate on these mantras, follow my asanas, listen to my channelled messages etc.) when it won’t.
    In the end, it’s up to you to make those decisions about yourself and guide your life the way you’d like to. Anyone who takes that power away from you or makes you feel bad or guilty for not following them is to be dismissed right away.
    People need be less afraid to ask direct questions about methods as well as authority, no one will do that for you.

  16. Gilana says:

    On the whole, I love this blog. Thank you for writing it. It’s very sad that people have been misused and abused in the name of spirituality. It’s almost heinous.

    If you are interested, here’s where I need input. My concentration in on Maturity. I think that word conveys a requirement that isn’t normally considered in spiritual pursuit. Maturity is the ability to think for yourself, to NOT follow any herd, to be able to look at yourself realistically and accept what you are and aren’t. Maturity is responsibility for yourself.

    When I’ve been immature, I’ve given responsibility to others. The “they”s I think about seem to be more authoritative, more powerful, more recognized, smarter and more wise and connected than I am. “They” run the world – not me. Interestingly, in most areas I am extremely mature…in one or two characteristics, I’m a toddler. It was very confusing for a long time!

    My guru (who was a therapist for 30 years) says, “A human being will never do what they don’t want to do.” We’ve all seen it – the definitive turning away from suffering by some and the grudging acceptance of others.

    Where would we be in spiritual pursuit if we confronted our immaturity and rectified it? Could I surrender without giving up my maturity?

    What do you think?

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