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7 Corporate Titans Selling Spirituality


These gurus and entrepreneurs have made big business selling mindfulness in the form of yoga pants, spin classes, books, and -- wait for it -- hugs.


In our inherent willingness to believe we can change and heal and tap into the power of our higher selves, we shell out $10 billion annually to those who promise to make the process as quick and painless as possible. Despite the research that says 75% of people who make lasting life changes do so on their own -- without the help of an "expert" -- somehow, year after year, we still insist on paying others for our enlightenment. The following are seven such gurus, teachers, and entrepreneurs who have made big profits spoon-feeding our souls that chicken soup.

Rhonda Byrne, The Secret
Like many of her self-help teacher cohorts, Rhonda Byrne had to hit rock bottom before hitting the big time. In her case, her father had just died, her mother was inconsolable, and she was at her own physical and emotional nadir. Then her daughter lent her a copy of Wallace Wattles' hundred-year-old book The Science of Getting Rich.

In it, and other works by New Thought movement writers like Napoleon Hill, Byrne learned about the law of attraction and how to discover the "secret" to unlocking the power of the universe with magnetic properties and units of mental energy and radio waves and vibrations that are as scientifically sound as gravity itself. Whatever the version of the Powerball jackpot was in 1910, you could win it just by believing that you would.

Byrne repackaged this philosophy in her own book and, thanks to a big boost from the Oprah effect, sold more than 19 million copies of The Secret -- and millions more on DVD. Her sequels The Power and The Magic continue to push the notion that positive thinking can manifest anything we want in life.

The consensus from the scientific community is that these books have no basis in fact. They are "larded with references to magnets, energy and quantum mechanics," say psychology professors and authors Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. "This last is a dead giveaway: Whenever you hear someone appeal to impenetrable physics to explain the workings of the mind, run away."

Meanwhile, Rhonda Byrne will keep running all the way to the bank.

Sylvia Browne
Sure, her predictions aren't exactly batting a thousand; her fortune-telling faux pas even made national news recently. But that's not about to stop celebrity talk show psychic and intermediary to the spirit world Sylvia Browne from taking desperate people's cash to commune with their loved ones. Nope, nothing could stop that gravelly voice from telling it straight, on behalf of the other side.

Seventy best-selling books in -- and with the upcoming Past Lives of the Rich and Famous already getting snatched up in Kindle (NASDAQ:AMZN) format -- Browne has made a tremendous living out of the dead. Her appearances at venues like the Lucky Eagle Casino in Rochester, Washington -- home to Hunks the Show, America's Hottest Ladies Night -- bring in $60 a pop. She also hosts "spiritual salons" for intimate groups of between 35 to 45 people for $1,000 per person.

Normally, a 20-minute phone reading with Browne goes for $800, but the rate has been recently dropped to a low, low $550. Perhaps the discounted rate is a bit of damage control from her very public misreading of Cleveland kidnapping victim Amanda Berry's mother on The Montel Williams Show. Or maybe her followers are getting wise to statistical analyses of her missing persons readings that puts her confirmable accuracy rate at zero percent.

Tami Simon, Sounds True Publishing
Two years after Shirley MacLaine brought reincarnation into the mainstream with the 1983 release of Out on a Limb, a 22-year-old would-be publisher with a tape recorder and a dream set out to spread spiritual wisdom. Today, Tami Simon's multimedia publishing company Sounds True boasts a catalog of 600 "wisdom-transmitting" titles. It is guided by a vision to "inspire, support, and serve personal transformation and spiritual awakening" and a mission to "find teachers and artists who serve as a gateway to spiritual awakening and to produce, publish, and distribute their work with beauty, intelligence, and integrity."

All that may sound like a bunch of meaningless platitudes, but it's working for Simon who has enjoyed healthy profits from publishing some of the world's leading teachers, Buddhist thinkers, academics, and visionaries, including Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Pema Chodron, and Eckhart Tolle.

It also appears to be working for legions of readers. And to be fair, whether or not its authors are your cup of organic, artisanal tea, this is not a spirituality-focused business that can be accused of price gouging: Most of the company's books and media sell for under $15 or $20.

Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, SoulCycle
"We ride close together so we can feel each other's energy. That being said, your neighbor does not want to feed off your odor."

Wearing clean laundry is the third rule of etiquette for members cycling in the soul sanctuary. You see, cramming 70-plus stationary bikes into a tight studio tends to ramp up the sweat and stink factor.

But SoulCycle co-founders Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler insist the sardine can-like spaces in their indoor cycling gyms help nurture "a culture of inspiration" and are not some greedy attempt to maximize every inch of their pricey pieces of Manhattan real estate. Incidentally, the choice to hold classes by candlelight is done to head off leering rather than to dim the harsh spotlight on the reality that its members are exercising on top of one another.

Of course, nothing clears the mind of an impending claustrophobia-bred panic spiral like listening to boilerplate Eastern mantras underscored by thumping house music. Cardio workout aside, SoulCycle's success is largely due to its spirituality gimmick that some have dubbed the "Scientology of Spin." Instructors are a bizarre brand of super-fit yogis who lead class participants on their personal body/mind journeys with chestnuts like "Today we ride with the energy with which we would like to live" ... two, three, four. Sessions -- er, spiritual voyages -- conclude with a namaste set to the meditative tones of Alicia Keys' "New York."

The bike chain is always recruiting new SoulCyclogists. With help from recent partner Equinox, it has grown to 14 locations throughout the country with plans to expand to 60 locations around the world by 2015. At $3,500 for 50 classes, it still costs less than becoming an Operating Thetan.

Chip Wilson, Lululemon
When "yoga billionaire" Chip Wilson stepped down as chief innovation and branding officer
of Lululemon Athletica Inc. (NASDAQ: LULU) in January 2012 and handed over the luxury sportswear business to Christine Day, he left the enormous responsibility of continuing "to elevate our world" in her hands. No pressure, jeez.

Though outfitting Park Slope moms in $100 yoga pants probably isn't raising global consciousness, it does at least promote inspiring messages, namely, "The pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness," and "What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves," which constitute the company's manifesto. Lululemon is also hitching its wagon to the "emerging fitness-spirituality movement" that is actually the millennia-old practice of yoga by hosting events like The Gospel of Sweat at Manhattan's Riverside Church.

This "pray through our pores" push may seem like a contrived marketing strategy, but it's a smart contrived marketing strategy. Well, at least it was, until a product recall of a few styles of yoga pants for being too see-through hit the company's profit line and Day announced her departure. Due to these misfortunes, the stock price took a hit this week.

This ain't your Gandhi's ashram.

Amritapuri, the birthplace and global headquarters of India's guru de jour, is a pink, tropical villa complex surrounded by palm trees and nestled between the Kerala Backwaters and majestic Arabian Sea. On the grounds are cafes and pizzas shops, gift shops, and an outdoor Olympic-sized swimming pool. To the casual cynic, the high-rise ashram resort may seem less spiritual Hindu community and more five-star San Diego hotel. Then again, the casual cynic may just need a hug.

Translated as "mother," 59-year-old Amma earned her worldwide fame for literally throwing her arms around it. Thousands of devotees flock to her retreats where they wait in line just for a quick embrace from Amma. After all, this is a woman who -- according to her authorized biography (now translated into 31 languages) -- came from low caste beginnings, and at one time subsisted on a diet that included broken glass and human feces, and has now performed miracles like "kissing cobras, diverting rainstorms, and feeding more than a thousand people from a single, small pot."

Today, Amma's empire of the hug rakes in about $20 million per year. In fact, right now, "the hugging saint" is on the first leg of a two-month North American tour held at the ballrooms of various Marriott (NYSE:MAR), Hilton (NYSE:BX), and Hyatt (NYSE:H) hotels as well as convention centers throughout 11 cities. For about $300 (excluding accommodations), followers are treated to meditation and spiritual instruction, while the lucky ones with tokens get that coveted squeeze.

Donation boxes are reportedly never far from sight, and each retreat hosts its own "mini-mall" of Amma merch, like $500 crystals she's allegedly touched, clothing she's worn, and a flower tincture from her garland that can cure cancer. Amma also receives money from high-profile patrons. Warner Bros. Pictures Group (NYSE:TWX) president Jeff Robinov counts himself among her Hollywood benefactors and even then-Indian president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam donated most of his salary to her in 2003. Thanks to another fan, the $7.8 million home previously owned by Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver is now used by Amma as her Washington, DC, meeting house.

While Amma's charitable organization Embracing the World famously has zero financial transparency, its health and human services work, education efforts, and disaster relief have definitely been felt in some 40 countries. She has been referred to as a headhunter extraordinaire, able to find the right people to quickly fill crucial needs left by unresponsive and red-tape-hamstrung governments. Especially in her homeland of India, Amma seems to represent a palpable sense of hope in a place with so little.

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