I’m lying on my mat at the end of a challenging hot yoga practice, eyes closed, sweat sliding down my temples and palms facing open to the studio’s ceiling. This resting pose is called shavasana, a Sanskrit word that signals a state of relaxation at the end of a class.
My instructor’s gentle voice washes over me as he explains yogic philosophy between instructions to shift from crow’s pose to arrow stance. At the end, a low ‘Om’ rolls out from the chests of those around me and, once this sacred chant of harmony dissipates, the session concludes in a collective namaste.
Today, Australia’s Generation Z — those born between 1997 to 2012 — are more likely to roll out their yoga mats, read their horoscopes and carry crystals than be found at a religious service. Personally, as a member of Gen Z, astrology and manifestation techniques are more ingrained in my vocabulary than theological hymns or verses. Fifty-two per cent of Australia’s teenage and early 20s cohort don’t identify with a religion, according to The Australian Generation Z Study, conducted in late 2018 by academics from the ANU, Deakin and Monash.
But Generation Z are not adrift in a turbulent current of lost faith. Even in a secular world, young Australians are looking to connect to something bigger than themselves, to put words to their feelings and to feel witnessed. As they turn away from one source of meaning, they’re not abandoning the search for faith but looking for it elsewhere. This cultural shift away from organised religion sees young people picking and choosing their own beliefs and embracing transcendent ideas — from the cerebral benefits of yoga (such as mental clarity and focus) to the concepts of karma and reincarnation.
“Certainly, belief in God is declining among members of the younger generations, but a lot still believe in a higher being or life force, or are just unsure,” say Deakin’s Associate Professor Andrew Singleton of the study’s findings. It is only human to look for order in chaos; when the world feels upside down, it’s hardly surprising Generation TikTok is on the hunt for security and direction. They’re simply doing it outside of the church.
Twenty-three-year-old Bianca Rapp attended a Catholic high school, but felt a disconnect between her values and the church’s beliefs. “I don’t identify with a religion anymore,” she shares. “In the later years of high school, I looked into spirituality and found it to be a better fit for me.” Now, instead of practising Catholicism, Bianca looks to astrology, tarot cards and the law of attraction to find comfort and spiritual guidance.
“Astrology was the door that led me to spirituality and a belief in ‘the universe’. I started by researching what my birth chart meant and how each planet and house relates to aspects of me and my life, and I was amazed by how accurate it was,” Bianca says. “I find [astrology] really helpful when reflecting on situations; it’s a useful tool for self-awareness. I also regularly check what sign the moon is in and utilise the full and new moons for rituals such as journalling and card readings. I don’t let astrology rule my life, but help it guide me and inform how I can best live my days.”
A 21-year-old friend recently shared with me that she became passionate about crystal healing through TikTok videos, joining a movement that has amassed over 110 million hashtags on the platform. The astrology industry is now worth a whopping $2.2 billion, and the popular dating app Bumble even includes a feature that allows users to filter matches based on their star sign. Those coming of age now are doing so in a world switched on to the problematic nature of religion, and no other generation has championed inclusivity and representation quite like Gen Z, something religion often comes under fire for. At the same time, new-age ideas are more accessible than ever, whether it’s through a bite-sized TikTok video or a long-form digital article.
The children of the internet age are more curious and engaged with the world around them than their predecessors. In the same way they curate their social media feeds, young people are fashioning their own spirituality, seeking to enrich and personalise their spiritual experience through various ideas and practices. Many of these new-age practices have non-Anglo roots, originating from religion and ancient practices; Vedic astrology, for example, is derived from Hinduism. “Most of the teens (in the study) don’t identify as Buddhists or Hindus, but their interest in those beliefs is evidence of a changing spiritual landscape among teens,” says Professor Andrew. “The idea of karma, for example, has become a kind of semi-mystical shorthand for ‘what goes around, comes around’ in this life.”
It’s important to recognise the origins of re-popularised ideas like oracle decks and meditation, says Bianca; “There hasn’t been enough acknowledgment within the Western world’s appropriated take on these ideas. For me, this opens up questions of whether our practices are okay with the people who live and breathe these religions.” To avoid appropriation, it’s crucial to understand the history and cultural weight of the things you choose to believe in before you slip ancient healing crystals into your pocket or say ‘namaste’ with your hands at your heart.
Consider yoga, for example. While the modern yogi is not part of a religion, the practice has ancient roots in Hinduism and Buddhism and involves Hindu worship, such as that sacred chant of ‘Om’. Mantra Schultz, my aforementioned yoga instructor and the creator of Flex Hot Yoga, a yoga and meditation studio in Brisbane, is a devotee of Krishna and former monk. “I moved into a Bhakti Yoga ashram when I was 14 years old in 1998. There I learnt yoga philosophy, engaged in rigorous yoga sadhana (spiritual practice) and lived a life of service to the temple,” says Mantra. “When I turned 18, I moved to India where I lived at the 24 Hour Kirtan in Vrindavan, studied the Bhakti Sastras and travelled to many temples. On a spiritual level, yoga recognises that we are a soul having a human experience. By identifying with our soul’s nature of sat-cit-ananda, which means we are eternally full of knowledge and bliss, we reap the rewards of spiritual life.”
The yogic philosophy is not dissimilar to the spiritual beliefs of Indigenous Australians. “The totemic system of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia insists on the interconnectedness and spiritual equality of all things,” writes Aboriginal Australian author Bruce Pascoe in his book Dark Emu. “In Aboriginal life, the spirit and the corporeal world are wedded.” For Indigenous Australians, religion is intertwined with spirituality and culture — from Dreamtime creation stories to the Aboriginal belief that all objects are alive and harbour the same soul or spirit as Aboriginals. “It is … the worshipful respect for the earth itself, the creation of God or Bunjil or Buddha, it matters little which. Human survival on a healthy planet … is the deepest of religious impulses,” writes Bruce.
Whether you attend your local church and carve out time to pray, or visit a studio and set intentions on a yoga mat, we all share an underlying desire to believe in something greater than ourselves. “Perhaps that’s God, consciousness, the universe or science; likely a combination of these. We make decisions throughout our life based on what we believe to be the truth and what is the best for us, those we care about and the world,” says Mantra. “As spiritual beings having a human experience, believing in something gives us purpose and hope.”
Kayla Wratten is a Brisbane-based journalist. When her head isn’t stuck in a good book, you’ll find her on the yoga mat, in a dance class or crafting inspiring stories. Find her on Instagram at @kaylawratten