Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Alicia Frazer, 22, is a local yoga teacher and artist. Although she grew up in the Catholic tradition, her parents supported her when she decided to search for a belief system that could provide a more personal sense of fulfillment. Years ago, Frazer embarked on a journey into the spiritual realm. What she found became a key component of her identity and her primary source of guidance in daily life. Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
"... (millennials) are more likely to have a 'do-it-yourself' attitude toward religion."
Q: How did your parents expose you to religion and spirituality while you were growing up?
A: My mom is Catholic and my dad grew up Baptist. My mom still practiced Catholicism into adulthood, but my dad didn’t really stick to his religion as he grew older. I would go to church and Sunday school with my sister, but at some point, we realized that we did these things for our mom — they weren’t things we did for ourselves. So then, we decided not to go anymore. Growing up with a standardized religion was nice, and then having parents who said, “hey, do what you need to do to fulfill your life,” was really great. They gave us so much freedom to explore and were very supportive of different ideas we’d find. Now, I don’t practice or go to church, and I wouldn’t say I’m Catholic. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve experimented and really delved into the spiritual world, especially within yoga.
Q: What are your spiritual beliefs, and how have they changed over time?
A: I feel like there has got to be something greater than us. When I teach yoga or when I speak to people, I always talk about this “higher self.” The word “God,” for example, is something people can get a bit cringey about if they’re not religious. That’s why I often use the words “spirit” or “soul” or a “higher self.” Over time, I’ve started to focus on how there’s definitely something greater than us, but specifically, how can we find that within ourselves in order to relate to all these other living beings in this world. In the end, we’re all the same. We all come from something that’s shared, whether it’s love or light. We all have that higher being within to be uncovered.
Q: What do you think are the benefits of having a spiritual foundation?
A: We’re all looking for the same things in life. We’re looking for love. We’re looking for happiness. And we’re looking for a sense of eternity. I always talk about this inner light that we have. I say it’s either your soul, or your spirit or just who you are. Spirituality is a way to keep that light alive.
Q: What’s the most spiritual moment you’ve experienced?
A: There’s this thing called “prima,” and it’s a type of breathwork where you’re taking these really dramatic breaths. For a whole hour, you do these intense inhales and fast exhales. From a physical level, you’re basically hyperventilating, but it’s also used in different spiritual practices as a way to get rid of inner layers you have. I did it in Costa Rica, and I felt this huge release. I feel really connected when I’m doing intense things like that, or if I’m in a very gentle meditation.
Q: Why do you think millennials are turning more toward a focus on individualistic spirituality, as opposed to organized religion?
A: Personally, growing up Catholic, I felt that it was, almost like, exclusive. But with spirituality, it’s able to mold and shape into your life. I think a lot of millennials are embracing the idea: “I may not follow the same belief system as my parents did, and having my own idea of spirituality is what works better for me.” There’s no harm in being spiritual. At the very least, I’ve learned that I feel better when I’m breathing, and I feel better when I think of the idea of something bigger. It’s just a way to think. And it makes you more present in your life.
Q: Why do you think so many people are hesitant about this trend?
A: I think everyone is terrified of change. Older generations often react as “Well, back in my day I remember this being really great for me, and this is how I’ve always imagined it.” But, even before them, things changed drastically, and I’m sure generations ahead of them also thought the same things. So just being really open-minded is really important.
Q: What do you think is the fate of faith in America?
A: I think the fate of faith in America is always going to be evolving. I don’t know where that direction will go, but I hope that faith is still something that grounds us and something that keeps us together rather than pushing people away.
When Alicia Frazer first began practicing yoga, she primarily focused on her personal well-being. Like most athletes, the former competitive gymnast and diver used it as a means for physical self-care.
But when Frazer decided to get her instructor’s certification during her freshman year of college, she inadvertently stumbled into a spiritual world.
Raised as a Catholic, Frazer abandoned the religion as she grew older. As she
continued her studies in yoga, a different sort of faith filled that spiritual void
and continues to guide her daily decisions.
Ultimately, she came to a conclusion.
“Meditation, for me, is spirituality. Yoga is spirituality. The way I think is
spirituality,” Frazer said. “What I choose to learn about is just the way (I choose) to be spiritual. It doesn’t have to be a specific thing. ... They can be different every single day.”
Frazer’s story is just part of a new religious trend that’s come to characterize American millennials. By multiple measures, the group is less traditionally religious than the generations that came before it.
Their inherent spirituality, however, remains much the same.
Data from the Pew Research Center shows that millennials score similarly to previous generations in multiple “spiritual” categories: 46 percent of them feel a sense of wonder about the universe at least once a week, while 55 percent think about the meaning and purpose of life just as frequently. In both of these questions, millennials were within at least three percentage points of the highest-scoring generation — the Baby Boomers.
Some experts attribute the trend of millennials becoming less traditionally religious to how they were raised. In a 2016 interview with Pew, Michael Hout, a professor of sociology at New York University, noted how millennials with parents from the Baby Boomer generation were raised to think for themselves and find their own moral compass. He also identified a rebellious streak, one “at odds” with institutions with a history of dogmatic teaching.
“They (reject) the idea that a good kid is an obedient kid,” he said. “As a result, they are more likely to have a ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude toward religion.”
This DIY ethos, though, doesn’t just apply to millennials who reject organized religion. Spurred on by their upbringing, it motivates most of the generation to seek their own truth.
That journey has led them to some unique places.
RELIGION À LA CARTE
Wyndham Batchelor, a 23-year old Ph.D candidate studying biomedical engineering at the University of Miami, was raised Catholic and still practices.
However, that hasn’t stopped him from referring to other sources for guidance about spirituality. In addition to traditional texts, Batchelor enjoys studying commentaries from different backgrounds, from authors as diverse as Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas to Eastern philosopher Confucius.
Despite the negative connotation he thinks the word carries with some older, fervent supporters of organized religion, Batchelor sees spirituality as a foundational component of moral development. It’s also something that he considers to be an individual pursuit.
“I think that they can teach you a different paradigm for moral reasoning … and that might be something that forms your own (ideas) within your own spiritual viewpoint,” Batchelor said. “I think that … understanding how other people approach moral situations in spiritual texts will help you. I don’t think you can know too much.”
Additionally, resorting to spirituality over religion may also function as a makeshift pressure release valve. In a 2015 interview, University of Virginia Associate Religious Studies Professor Matthew Hedstrom described how spirituality, for today's millennials, functions as an extension of consumer capitalism. With so many religious options available to them, spiritual FOMO is a genuine concern.
"This is both liberating and paralyzing," Hedstrom said. "Having so many options creates a lot of anxiety about which religious beliefs, careers or relationships millennials should choose. Spirituality allows millennials to avoid choosing one religion, and instead combine elements from many."
Arguably, this pick-and-choose model of spirituality has come to define millennial attitudes toward the subject. Its effects aren’t limited, either: It’s gained adherents from different walks of life.
Judaism still plays a large role in Jocelyn Gordon’s life, and the faith’s spiritual components give her life the most meaning. Every Friday night, the 22-year-old participates in Shabbat — the Jewish Sabbath — and avoids using her phone on Saturdays in an effort to be more present with her surroundings.
But a religious practice isn’t the only way Gordon achieves this. As an additional spiritual booster, she also practices yoga.
Interestingly, she doesn’t consider either of these practices to be insular. Certain tenets of yoga, she said, overlap with Judaic teaching. In her experience, the combination helps shape her perception of body and mind.
Hybrid spirituality is fostering a new sense of community, fulfilling that innate human need for connection within ourselves and with others.
And millennials are running with it.
“The more you work on yourself, the more you will speak your truth and live your dharma or purpose,” Gordon said. “These practices … give me a sense of identity, confidence, relaxation and connection with something greater than us all.”