Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand and Martha Smith Roberts investigate how the hula hoop has become both an empowering tool for embodied practical spirituality rooted in metaphysical religiosity and a basis for a thriving community connected not by a shared dogma but by a common practice. They argue that the growth of the hooping subculture lies in its ability to nurture the diverse spiritual experiences of individual hoopers and to build an inclusive hooping community (composed of both spiritually and recreationally motivated hoopers). This post is an excerpt from Practical Spiritualities in a Media Age, eds. Curtis Coats and Monica M. Emerich (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015).
Introduction: Hooping as Practical Spirituality The hula hoop has been resurrected in American culture over the past two decades. No longer just a children’s toy, hooping is an adult trend, and hooping classes exist around the country and world. Often advertised as a “fun” way to exercise, hoop fitness is only one small part of the larger hoop movement. Like many hoopers, we (the authors) started going to “hoop classes” with friends for the fun and exercise it promised. We began noticing that our instructor was ending classes with “manifestation” exercises and referring to hoops as “powerful manifestation tools.” As we continued to attend classes and other hoop gatherings, we discovered that this type of manifestation language was quite common. We also found it was quite common for hoopers to have had an unexpected experience of transformation (mental, emotional, and/or physical) while hooping, and they were happy to share their stories with us.
In these stories, hoopers often utilized religious or spiritual language to describe their experiences and their motivation to continue hooping. The prevalence of spiritual language and transformation stories made us curious about what was happening in the hoop community, and we set out to try and understand the broader significance of “hula hoop spiritualities” for the study of religion. In the process, we found a thriving hoop community that attributes meaning to their hoop practice in diverse and compelling ways: some who draw upon traditional religious language and symbols, others who draw upon metaphysical teachings, and still others who create their own unique spiritual narrative.
Over the course of two months (December 30, 2010 – March 1, 2011), we conducted an anonymous online survey of over 500 hoopers. When asked to describe their hooping practice, 69.1% of hoopers described it as “meditative,” 43% described hooping as spiritual, and 8.1% described their practice as “religious.” Their descriptions of hooping experiences in all of these categories are highly personal and individual. And, as might be expected, their descriptions of community are pluralistic, diverse, and inclusive enough to embrace all of these individual interpretations. However, the dynamics of personal and communal spiritualities in hooping are quite sophisticated. Using plastic hoops and social media, these primarily Generation X hoopers have developed and shared complex spiritual narratives and practices that reveal the intersections of the material and virtual worlds.
Our research draws on large-scale survey data, in-depth interviews with hoopers, and participant observation at workshops, retreats, and in the online community. We also utilize hoopers’ self-generated media as data—videos, photos, and texts from their websites and social media—to develop a nuanced understanding of this spiritual community.
This essay investigates how the hula hoop has become both an empowering tool for embodied practical spirituality rooted in metaphysical religiosity and a basis for a thriving community connected not by a shared dogma but by a common practice. We argue that the growth of the hooping subculture lies in its ability to nurture the diverse spiritual experiences of individual hoopers and to build an inclusive hooping community (composed of both spiritually and recreationally motivated hoopers). Through social media, hoopers connect virtually; share spiritual testimonies through dance, spoken, and written word; and teach various hooping techniques intended to help others develop their spiritual practice and flow. Social media is second only to the hoop as the means to accomplishing these goals. To better understand the nature of hoop dance as a spiritual practice, three intersecting themes must be engaged: the characteristics of metaphysical religion in the American context, the generational specificity of hoop spiritualities, and the use of media in cultivating personal practice of hoop dance and creating community. In this blog, we address the first two of these themes; our chapter in Practical Spiritualities also investigates the third.
Metaphysical Context Meaning-Making
Figure 1: Hoopers dancing at the HoopPath Sangha Retreat in Carrboro, North Carolina, June 2013. Photo by Cassandra Kapsos.
The emergence of hoop spiritualities is not anomalous in U.S. religious history. Rather, hoop spiritualities fit well within the long tradition of metaphysical religion in the United States. As Catherine Albanese demonstrates in her work on American religion, an exploration of what she calls “metaphysical religiosity” helps us to better understand “what is American about American religion” [i]. Metaphysical religiosity transcends religious institutional boundaries, appearing both within and outside of established religious traditions [ii]. This long tradition of metaphysical religion has been recognized in contemporary American incarnations as well. Scholars continue to be captivated by the “spirituality” present in a variety of contexts, including the combinative nature of lived religious practices, as well as those who define themselves outside of traditional religious frameworks, calling them “spiritual, but not religious,” “unchurched,” or “nones” [iii]. In the midst of diversity, Albanese’s four characteristics of metaphysical religion—mind, correspondence, energy, and salvation—remain apt descriptors of hoop spiritualities. These attributes continue to pervade American notions of what constitutes a “spiritual experience.”
First, Albanese describes “a preoccupation with mind and its powers” [iv]. The emphasis on the mind includes a privileging of reason as well as an exploration of the things the mind can do through intuition, clairvoyance, telepathy, trance, and meditation, to name a few examples [v]. The impact of hooping on the state of the hooper’s mind was a constant theme in survey results. As one hooper explained: “I first started hooping for exercise purposes, but then I quickly learned that it was more fun than anything, and if I can have fun while working out – awesome! Then I started to see the meditative qualities of it. I began to notice my mind state before, during, and after. I could tell that it was a positive thing in my life. Then I began to grow as a hooper, and in a lot of ways, as a person. I started feeling like I was becoming the person I had wanted to be my whole life. I started changing my life more to resemble my ideal ‘me.’ This is when the journey became spiritual” [emphasis added]. Another hooper described her/his practice this way, “Hooping is my church…. Hooping is where I commune with God. It’s my quiet space where I can quiet my mind and just be… I stopped going to church about 6-7 years ago and use my hoop time as my spiritual haven… my place to find/meet God and be gracious for what He provides, and I usually become overwhelmed with my gratitude of movement.” The quieting of one’s mind is seen as a necessary catalyst to reach a state of peace, meditation, spirituality, and transcendence. The hoop is a tool in achieving this desired state.
Second, metaphysical religions typically contain a theory of correspondence between worlds [vi]. Albanese explains, “The human world and mind replicate – either ideally, formerly, or actually – a larger, often more whole and integrated universe, so that the material world is organically linked to a spiritual one” [vii]. According to Albanese, “In these traditions, the human mind – often acting out its imaginative grasp of the world through the body and thus through ritual – has operated as a transformative agent, taking advantage of the secret symmetries and connections for its own purposes. Religion thus is above all a work of the practical imagination” [viii]. For those hoopers surveyed for whom hooping was a meditative or spiritual practice, the clearing of their minds allowed them to feel a profound connection to their bodies and to a more authentic self or higher power. One hooper described her/his experience this way, “Hooping helps me center within myself, to remember who I am, to feel my body and listen to my body like I never have before. It has taught me to love my body and what it can do… Hooping is the first thing in my life that has tapped into my insides, into my soul and find a light and a joy that I never knew was there and had never found with any other activity.”
Third, Albanese observes that movement and energy characterize both mind and correspondence: “metaphysicians find a stream of energy flowing from above to below—so powerful that they discover themselves to be, in some sense, made of the same ‘stuff’” [ix]. The correspondences between mind/body and human/divine are energetically formed; they are not static or fixed relationships. For Albanese, this prompts a search to better understand the energy that makes these cosmic connections along with “notions of proper and correct motion” [x] The movement and action that are central to hoop dance as an embodied practice become the energetic pathways for metaphysical correspondence. This experience is recognized and cultivated in many hoopers’ personal practices, and often referred to as “flow.”
Flow is described as an alignment of body and mind in the hoop, though it means different things to every hooper. The experience of flow is thus another instance of diversity and plurality that is accepted as a part of hooping itself, as each hooper must find his or her own flow. Hoopers’ descriptions of flow rely on the feelings generated by the energy and motion of a fluid state of hoop dance and often contain references to being “one with the hoop,” “a state of bliss,” or “a loss of time.” Albanese’s observation that utilizing “proper and correct motion” is important to metaphysical practitioners also applies to hoopers. Hooping involves the acquisition of a basic set of movement skills. Mastering and utilizing these skills is a necessary tool for hoopers to achieve a flow state. Hoopers clearly connect feeling and practiced movement in their descriptions of spiritual experience: “Getting centered in my own body, gaining muscle memory when I learn new tricks, feels very spiritual to me.” Others directly connect the acquisition of hooping skill with finding flow: “My skill level has increased and I am finding more of a flow to my practice.” “Being able to do skills without as much thinking has helped to build it more into a meditative practice.” In hoop dance, the energy and motion of the hoop allows for alignment and correspondence that cultivates what many hoopers call a spiritual experience or flow state.
According to Albanese, the energetic quality of metaphysical practice is where “the practical imagination joins forces with will. We enter the realm of what properly may be described as magic, but—and this is important—magic read in a healing mode” [xi]. The experience of energetic motion and correspondence with mind has an important practical application, a salvific quality. This brings us to the fourth and final quality of Albanese’s metaphysical religion, which emerges out of “a yearning for salvation understood as solace, comfort, therapy, and healing” [xii]. The spirituality of hoop dance also relies on the efficacy of the practice, and while the transformative effects of hooping vary for each hooper there is a sense of progress that pervades the discourse of hoop dance more broadly. In addition, the hoop is a conduit for psychological and physical healing: overcoming depression, losing weight, and recovering from injury are some of the benefits that hoopers attribute to their hooping practice.
Narratives of transformation and healing abound in the hoopers surveyed. “I started hooping when I was very ill, mentally and physically,” one hooper explained, “I was able to detox from all of my medications for depression, anxiety and epilepsy by hooping daily for a year. Hoop dance literally allowed me to maintain my sanity and ease the physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms I was experiencing.” Another hooper expressed a similar sentiment, “Hooping has refined, enriched, and blessed my life. It saved me from the darkest place I have ever been… It helped my mind, body, and heart reconnect after they were severed from abuse in my late teens. The more I hooped, the less I had stress-induced seizures, the fewer nightmares I had… It balances my mind and body more completely than any therapy session or medication ever has.” There are many more testimonies like the above. In addition to relief from physical pain and mental anguish, hoopers testified to increased self esteem, improvements in their sex lives, and recovery from addiction. These narratives of hooping salvation cover a multiplicity of ailments, physical and emotional, but all share a sense of progress toward a better state of being.
Figure 2: Hoopers at the HoopPath Sangha Retreat in Carrboro, North Carolina, June 2013. Photo by Cassandra Kapsos.
Albanese characterizes metaphysical groups as pluralistic and diverse, privileging individual conscience over group cohesion. As a result, metaphysical communities are often “ad hoc and flexible, and authoritarian voices and concerns have not gotten very far” [xiii]. In order to study metaphysical communities, she tells us, we must examine their diversity. This approach “begins to ask questions about new and distinctive forms of community – less organized from the top down, more fluid and egalitarian” [xiv]. Wade Clark Roof comes to a similar conclusion in his analysis of seeker spirituality. The religious seeker’s concentration on the development of an authentic self does not mean that they have an aversion to commitment to community formation and engagement. Spiritual seekers search for a spirituality which is “all-encompassing, reaching to the very depths of people’s lives and giving birth to new forms of community” [xv]. This relationship between the personal, individual search for an authentic spiritual self and a commitment to community may seem contradictory. There is a sense that the two – individualism and a sense of belonging – are antagonistic to one another. Roof argues that this conclusion is too simplistic: “Americans not only pick and choose what to believe, by and large they also set the terms governing involvement in religious communities. Especially in a time of heightened spiritual activity, we would expect a more rampant subjectivity, but also the possibility of new, emerging forms of community giving expression to personal enhancement” [xvi]. Robert Wuthnow makes a similar observation of post-Boomer spirituality, which he defines as “pieced together… from materials at hand” [xvii]. For the researcher this means investigating manifestations of religiosity in unconventional places.
The hooping community shares many of the characteristics of metaphysical, seeker, post-Boomer spiritual communities. Having a physical, emotional, and spiritual transformation while hula hooping is certainly an example of finding religiosity in an unconventional place, and many hoopers (who often describe their transformation in the hoop as unexpected) would agree. Their practical, embodied spirituality arises independent of any religious authority or institution, consequently it is expected within the larger hoop community that there will be a variety of interpretations of that hooping experience. The hooper is free to peruse a variety of hoop approaches (focused on meditation, spirituality, exercise, performance, etc.) and utilize what works for them in their hoop practice. The growing number of hooping retreats and workshops that feature a diverse range of hooping instructors with very different approaches further illustrates the variety of tools at hand.
There are also many examples of hoopers drawing upon their own reservoir of religious symbols and language to describe their experience. While a full 33.6% of hoopers in our survey identified as a “member or practitioner” of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, or Paganism, 55.9% of hoopers claimed no religious tradition, and 21.6% chose “other” and defined their own tradition outside of institutional affiliations. Usually these “others” described themselves as “spiritual” or an eclectic blend of traditions. One hooper told us, “I choose not to label, but feel great spiritual connection expressed through work, music, and hooping.” Another hooper explained, “I tread my own personal spiritual path, which includes elements of many of the aforementioned religions, though I do not consider myself to be a practicing member of any organized religion.” All of these descriptions of religion tend to be inclusive of other views, no matter what the individual’s own tradition might be. While hoopers might find spirituality outside of an institution best for themselves, their pluralist frameworks are also present, and they see religion as an individual choice for themselves and others. Many hoopers expressed this sentiment of respect for individual faith. “I respect every religion for what it’s worth,” one hooper explained, “but I’m not extremely religious.” Another hooper surveyed explained, “I respect every religion and the people following a religion different from mine.”
Traditional means of delineating the boundaries of a community based on believers (insiders) and non-believers (outsiders) are not adequate in exploring hoop spiritualities. For instance, in our survey there were many “non-believer” quotes like this one: “I think hula hooping is a fun activity! I don’t feel like hooping will heal depression as some have claimed! I don’t find it spiritual or meditating either! I feel ppl take that part to the extremes!” (sic). This hooper and others like him/her are still accepted members of the community even though hooping is not spiritual or religious for them. Likewise these hoopers are not saying that those who do find hooping spiritual should leave the community. The boundaries of the community are built around the shared practice of hooping. One survey participant explained, “[Hooping] is a conduit to a larger community of people that share the same sorts of experiences in their hoop.” Articulated another way by another hooper, “If I see someone walking down the street carrying a hoop, I know they understand something that I get as well.” “Everyone who hoops knows that someone else who also hoops just ‘gets it.’” Again and again, hoopers note that it is the practice (not one particular interpretation or belief) that unites the community [xviii].
In fact, the practice and the hoop itself are the only two stable markers of the hoop community, which in other ways sees itself as very diverse. The hooping community, which contains those who find hooping spiritual, religious, or meditative as well as those who see it purely as recreation or exercise, constructs the boundaries of the community around the object of the hoop and the acquisition of hooping skills. As one hooper noted, “There is nothing unique about the hooping community that differentiates itself (sic) from any other community… except that they come together for the hoop.” From this shared practice, hoopers recognize each other as part of a unique community.
It is important to highlight that many of our hoopers fit into the Generation X category (born roughly from early 1960s-early 1980s), and while the number of millennial hoopers (born from early 1980s to early 2000s) will likely continue to grow in numbers, our data shows that a high percentage of hoopers (64% of our survey) and almost all of those who founded and remain important figures in the movement come from Generation X. Steeped in pluralism, the Generation X emphasis on individualism and subjectivity are not a barrier to community. In fact, for hoopers, they have become the marker of the community. “Open,” “diverse,” “non-judgmental,” “respect for individual choices,” “accepting”—these are all common ways in which hoopers characterize their community.
The multiplicity of possible interpretations of hooping reveals the importance of tolerance, diversity, and inclusivity in creating community. The fluidity in content also hints at fluidity in form. The ways in which members communicate, form friendships, share tools, and support one another happens in multiple spaces, both virtual and non-virtual. The beginnings of the hoop community, which was more sprawling than dense, demanded alternatives to face-to-face encounters. New media has been an essential part of the formation and spread of the hooping movement. Community happens online, and virtual exchanges are an authentic way to for hoopers to connect. The hoop community thus offers a space where individual, embodied practices combine with virtual encounters to cultivate a truly practical spirituality. Generation X Spirituality
Figure 3: Hoopers “swaying” at the beginning of the day’s workshop. HoopPath Sangha Retreat, June 2013. Photo by Cassandra Kapsos.
Generation Xers share much with their metaphysical foremothers and forefathers; one distinguishing factor, however, is that Gen Xers spent their entire lives in the presence of new media and technology and have drawn upon these sources for meaning-making throughout their lifetime. Tom Beaudoin notes that “although the Internet (as a popular communications medium) and the World Wide Web gained prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s, involvement with these media can be seen as continuations of two older technological developments: the computer and the video game. Generation X grew up on intimate terms with these machines, and [their] smooth entry into the nether reaches of cyberspace is directly linked to this technologized upbringing” [xix]. The media that bombarded Generation X during their formative years underwent a transformation that left them thoroughly familiar with technology, but also wary of its incarnations. Much as Generation X’s absorption of popular culture is both self-aware and critical, their use of technology is as well [xx]. A participatory culture of sharing and critique punctuates hoopers use of new media.
Hoop spiritualities are a mediated form of meaning-making and community building. While the practice of hooping is often a solitary endeavor for hoopers, hoopers reach out though various forms of media to connect with others in order to sustain and reinvigorate their personal practice. In our survey, 87.4% of hoopers use YouTube, 43.5% use Online Forums, and 15.3% purchase online classes to support their hoop practice. When asked how they participate in the hooping community, 72.2% noted that they participate in online hooping social networking sites. Even more, 93.5% said that hooping alone (by themselves) was one way that they participate in the community. Many hoopers live in locations that have no other hoopers. Therefore, online connections are a way for them to share their personal experiences and develop hooping skills. When describing the community, many hoopers mention the internet as an important space. “The closest hooper that I know lives about an hour away,” one survey participant explained, “I do feel like I have a strong online hooping community, and for that I am grateful.” Another hooper expressed a similar sentiment, “Where I live the hooping community is very small and it has been difficult to organize people… When I interact with hoopers on hoopcity.ca, hooping.org, and at music festivals and raves it is generally a very outgoing, fun and playful experience.”
The use of media in hooping has dominated the community since its earliest incarnations. As early as 2003, hoopers were forming an online community at Tribe.net, an early chat and message board site where hoopers could converse and share video. The Tribe.net site became unstable in 2006, and hoopers migrated to other sites for community and support [xxi]. In addition to Facebook, Hooping.org and HoopCity.ca are now some of the most popular networking sites for hoopers. In a larger sense, online social spaces are a fundamental part of how the hooping community has always communicated. The early discussion forums set the stage for the hoop community. Individuals would share ideas, techniques, instructions on how to make hoops, and more.
The YouTube revolution is an extension of this basic format. The addition of easily accessible visual and audio components have broadened the community, allowing those unfamiliar with hoop dance to experience it outside of the festivals, concerts, and raves that spread the early movement. Because hooping is an embodied practice, seeing the movement of hooping is crucial to understanding, mimicking, and creating a hoop dance of one’s own. In order to do that, one must first have a basic set of skills that allow a style to emerge. This is where technology is critical. “There is such a focus on teaching others” one appreciative hooper explained, “there are so many free videos on the internet to help me learn it is great.” The sharing on social media does not end with posting videos. Hoopers ask one another questions and respond promptly. When so many hoopers are separated by distance, they are often eager to share and help one another grow in their practice. As one survey participant put it, “We are a tribe, a social network.” Media directly supports the development of individual hooping skills, yet it is only through a context of a sharing community that this is possible.
For hoopers there exists a kind of dialectic between the construction of a meaningful self and the construction of a supportive, pluralistic community. While the individual hooper may have come to hooping individually, experienced a spiritual transformation unexpectedly, and primarily hoop alone, the hooping experience is not a solitary one. Hoopers reach out to the community, primarily through social media, to both share and receive different tools, skills, and techniques to expand and deepen their personal practice. The community, then, grows in depth and numbers when more individuals participate and claim membership. Thus creating an increasingly diverse depository of symbolic tools for meaning making for individuals to draw upon. None of this is possible without media.
This post has examined some of the ways in which hoop dance is both a tool for embodied spirituality and a basis for a thriving community connected not by a shared dogma but by a common practice. To return to one of our survey participant’s quotes from earlier in the chapter: “Hooping is my church.… Hooping is where I commune with God. It’s my quiet space where I can quiet my mind and just be… I stopped going to church years ago and use my hoop time as my spiritual haven.” Her statement replaces church with hooping. But “hooping” is more than the time spent in the hoop, it is mediated by all of the practices of social sharing that create the new space of the hoop and the community where hoopers feel that they can be their authentic selves.
- Albanese, Catherine L. A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
- Beaudoin, Tom. Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.
- Camp, Jan. Hoopdance Revolution: Mindfulness in Motion. Berkeley, California: Arc Light Books, 2013.
- Flory, Richard W. and Donald E. Miller. Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2008.
- Fuller, Robert C. Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- HoopPath. Official Website. http://www.hooppath.com/
- Hoover, Stewart M. Religion in the Media Age. Religion, Media and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2006.
- Hoover, Stewart M., and Lynn Schofield Clark, eds. Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media: Explorations in Media, Religion, and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
- Mercadante, Linda A. Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
- Roof, Wade Clark. A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation. 1st ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
- Roof, Wade Clark. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1999.
- Wuthnow, Robert. After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
- [i] Catherine L. Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 1.
- [ii] Ibid., 4.
- [iii] See Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (Oxford : New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Linda A. Mercadante, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but Not Religious (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014).
- [iv] Albanese, Republic, 13.
- [v] Ibid., 6, 13.
- [vi] Ibid., 6.
- [vii] ibid., 6.
- [viii] Ibid., 14.
- [ix] Ibid., 6.
- [x] Ibid., 14.
- [xi] Ibid., 15.
- [xii] Ibid., 15.
- [xiii] Ibid., 8.
- [xiv] Ibid., 8.
- [xv] Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, 1st ed (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 251.
- [xvi] Ibid., 256.
- [xvii] Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 14.
- [xviii] Flory and Miller’s work on Post-Boomer Christian traditions has found similar tendencies in GenX religion. See Richard W. Flory and Donald E. Miller, Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2008).
- [xix] Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, 1st ed (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 43.
- [xx] Ibid., 122.
- [xxi] Jan M. Camp, Hoopdance Revolution: Mindfulness in Motion (Berkeley, California: Arc Light Books, 2013), 136-7.