Coaches tend to focus on a client’s future rather than psychoanalyze the past. They stress a more holistic evaluation of the client’s life than a business consultant might offer. In theory, if they encounter a client with serious mental health problems, they refer the person to a medical professional, but the line between coaching and therapy is not always distinct, and the industry is essentially unregulated. Professional associations like the International Coaching Federation offer accreditation and oversight. But anyone can call herself a life coach and — following the model of yoga studios, which have long drawn significant income from certification courses for new instructors — offer a pricey training program to make you a life coach, too. (Life coaching is like any new, unregulated profession, with its share of peddlers of false promises.)
Over the past generation, life coaching has split into a dozen subdisciplines, almost all of them dominated by women. Women account for 75 percent of coach practitioners in North America, according to a 2019 study by the federation. One reason for the demographic imbalance, Ms. Mook speculated, is that early on, many coaches came from the worlds of counseling, nursing and other caring professions that also employ many women. And as gender disparities in pay and professional advancement persist in many fields, women let down by traditional support systems may find the sustenance they need in a coach. “This may be a way that women are finding support in their lives,” she said. Spiritual coaching seems to feature the starkest gender imbalance of any coaching field.
Typically, spiritual coaches offer a mix of one-on-one counseling and group coaching, as well as certification programs for aspiring coaches. “Some people say, ‘You’re just a coach that coaches coaches,’” Drea Guinto, who runs Soul Flow Co., based in Central California, told me. “My response is, maybe coaching is an emerging trade that is filling a true need in the population, and that is the reason why people are saying, I see there is profitability in this.” She offers a lifetime-access group coaching program for $3,333, aimed at, according to her website, “soul-preneurs” who are “ambitious” yet “also spiritual” and seeking to launch their own businesses. “I see my clients as healers of different modalities, and my premise is that the world needs more healing,” she said.
Spiritual coaches face an extra dose of mistrust because they base their claim to transform lives and careers not just on self-taught psychology and dubious certifications but also on supernatural beliefs and rituals that they swear have worked for them. Coaches I interviewed told me that trusting the universe can replace chemotherapy, that healing prayers drive away chronic bladder infections, that a professional clairvoyant can read a client’s future in the universe’s “nonphysical, vibrational library,” as a recent Goop article put it, of past lives and future events called the Akashic records.
How should a skeptic think about such claims? “It would surely be pedantic and overscrupulous for those who can get their savage and primitive philosophy of mental healing verified in such experimental ways as this, to give them up at a word of command for more scientific therapeutics,” wrote the pragmatist philosopher William James when he considered testimonies of healing through supernatural “mind cure” more than a century ago. “What are we to think of all this? Has science made too wide a claim?” Perhaps such experiences “show the universe to be a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific sect, allows for.”
Attention to unseen forces in the universe — especially the divine feminine — is partly a means for these coaches to counter the machismo that dominates American entrepreneurial culture. Many spiritual coaches target female would-be entrepreneurs with spiritual business accelerator programs that promise to help you find fulfillment while you make money. “Part of it is strategy, but I come more from the point of view of consciousness — what wants to be birthed through me — versus a more capitalistic, masculine approach to business,” Ms. Guinto said. “Of course we love profit, but the point is unleashing that soul purpose.”
In American culture, entrepreneurship is the highest spiritual discipline. A successful start-up requires the self-abnegation that a monastic vocation used to demand: little sleep, coming to terms with your own failure and sacrificing bodily comforts in the service of a higher cause. The gig economy is an ersatz way to open this vocation to lesser souls, but it seems to fail many seekers. Spiritual coaches are responding to this failure. And in a culture where the feeling of truthiness is more important than scientifically verified facts, it’s natural to embrace a mishmash of spiritual healing practices that just feel right.