Crowned in Prayer: Hair Care as Spiritual Practice

Hair has had a special significance in spiritual practice for millennia. Whether we consider it our crowning glory, a symbol of self, or the part of our bodies closest to the Divine, tending our hair as a spiritual practice has a long and varied history. We polytheists can use that foundation to support our own spiritual work. 

How can hair be spiritual?

When considering our hair as a tool for our spiritual practice, it’s important to consider what our hair means to us, or what it might symbolize in our lives, before we start. Most of us take our hair for granted, but we often do have pretty intense feelings when we think about it a bit.

Is your hair merely something you ignore? A frame for your face? A method of self-expression? Perhaps it’s your favorite feature, or favorite fashion accessory, or preferred way to pamper yourself. Maybe your hair is a sexual thing for you, and you consider colors and styles to be your plumage. Maybe it’s something to hide behind, a curtain between you and the world. Maybe, like the Biblical Samson, you think of your hair as the seat of your power. Maybe your hair is one way you identify with your culture, heritage, or community. Maybe having someone else pet and play with your hair is relaxing. Maybe that makes you feel vulnerable, though, or you feel violated when other people touch your hair. Maybe it’s a safety hazard at work. Perhaps you don’t have any strong feelings attached to your hair but your spouse loves it.

Once we know how we relate to our hair, we can begin to see how we can relate it to our spiritual practice. If your hair is your favorite way to express yourself, then it can be used to express your devotion too. If it makes you feel vulnerable, maybe you want to cover it up so only those with whom you feel safest – including the Powers – can see it. If it’s a symbol of vanity for you, and you see vanity as a flaw you’re trying to improve, maybe shaving it off completely would be incredibly meaningful for you. If it’s a matter of heritage or cultural affiliation, then obviously look back to any hair practices that might be associated with that and work from there. If you don’t feel any kind of way about it, maybe you can start using it as a mindfulness tool and give it meaning.

There are no right answers here. It’s all about your personal relationship to both your hair and your practice, and that’s going to vary individually. Really give yourself some time to work it through, and keep it in mind as you check out the below options. You’ll naturally find that some of these methods speak to you more than others do. And that’s great! Those are the places to start exploring.

Some Practices to Consider

When it came time to put this post together I did a lot of research. Interestingly enough, everything I came up with fit rather neatly into three general categories. I love when that happens!

Those categories are Hair Care, Styling, and Covering.

Hair Care

This is the easiest and most subtle place to start. If we consider our hair to be a symbol of ourselves, and we either incorporate it into our spiritual practice or dedicate it to a specific Power, then the way we tend it can symbolize the way we tend our spiritual practice or the Power(s) to Whom our hair is dedicated. Cool, huh?

Some options here can include (but are not limited to):

  • Ritually rinsing or washing our hair before ritual or during sacred baths

    This is easy peasy. We can ritually rinse or wash our hair before engaging in ritual, on High Days, and/or on days sacred to a given Power. Light some candles, use smell-good products, sing or chant, lavish our hair with care and attention, the whole time keeping in mind the reason behind the action. Then, every time we see or smell our hair afterwards it’ll bring that symbolic action to mind again. It’s a great way to encourage mindfulness, and no one around will have the slightest idea that there’s anything different going on.

  • Using products made with ingredients or scented with a fragrance sacred to a Power
    This takes the above idea and advances it a single step. For instance, let’s say you’re cultivating a relationship with Aphrodite (for Whom hair care would be an excellent devotional act). Why not use rose-scented hair products? The scent would be another reminder of Her, or even of Her place “above” you. That can work for a wide variety of different Powers! Can’t find anything scented for the Power you’re working with? Consider buying an unscented product and adding your own essential oils. Problem solved!

  • Using only natural hair care products
    This whole ideas runs right along the same path as “don’t use plastic ritual tools”. If you hold by that, and you’re tending your hair as a spiritual act, then it just makes sense to use natural products. This doesn’t have to be complicated, though. More and more natural hair products hit the market every day. My favorite brand – Shea Moisture – is even carried at Target. No trip to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s required.

There are TONS of options when it comes to natural hair care!

There are TONS of options when it comes to natural hair care!

  • Using only hair care products we’ve ritually made ourselves
    Again, this is a natural continuation of the above. Making our own products allows us to choose all the ingredients and scents with intent and then ritualize every step of the production process. Using what we’ve made would continuously remind us of the energy that went into the making. There are recipes and tutorials all over the internet, so I won’t get into all the possibilities, but here are a few to consider:

    • Making your own shampoo/conditioner soap bars
    • Brewing tisanes (herbal teas) and using them as hair rinses
    • Using soap nuts to wash and condition your hair
    • Making various deep conditioning treatments
    • Going no ‘poo (shampoo, that is)
  • Never cutting our hair

    This is a more long-term strategy, but it can be a pretty powerful one. If we see our hair as symbolic of our relationship to a Power, then cutting it could be seen as cutting the relationship. So don’t. Let your hair grow forever, only trimming it as necessary to maintain hair health. This naturally slides into some of the Styling options listed explored below, too.

  • Shaving our heads

    This is obviously a polar opposite view of the “never cutting our hair” option above. There the hair itself as seen as symbolic of the relationship to a Power, so cutting it would be bad. However, if we instead see hair as symbolic of our relationship to the world, to vanity or attachments or a secular life, then shaving it off can by symbolic of both our rejection of that and of our putting our spirituality first.

    Shaving might strike some folks as more extreme than never cutting our hair, but it’s becoming more accepted for men and women every day. And don’t forget that different lengths and even styles are possible with shaving. It doesn’t have to mean “completely bald” unless that’s what you’d like it to mean.

Captain Picard, boldly (and baldly) going where no man has gone before.

Captain Picard, boldly (and baldly) going where no man has gone before.

Hair care can be as simple or complicated as you’d like it to be, and as you can see there are a ton of options that fall into this category! It’s also something that’s dead easy to include in just about any lifestyle. Bonus!

Styling

Regardless of what methods you use to care for your hair, how you style it after can also become a significant part of your practice. As a bonus, many of these methods will work under full veils if you’d like to transition between the two.

Here are some options:

  • Wear a Blessed/Sacred Accessory
    This is a rather simple approach that won’t draw much attention.
    Pick up a hair accessory – a jeweled bobby pin, for instance, or a hair comb – and dedicate that to whatever Power you’d like. Then wear it when you feel the need.

    How about a hair stick?

    How about a hair stick?

    There are so many options available that it’s easy to tailor our choices so that the color(s) and/or materials used in the jewelry are sacred to a particular Power. We can also do a formal dedication blessing, ask for the accessory to be blessed every morning during devotions before tucking it into our hair, etc.

    Don’t worry if you’ve got little or no hair, either – you can still get in on this! If nothing else, headbands (and the things we attach to them) are options too. No hair required! Other options include hats of all kinds, beanies, etc. Get creative!
     
    How gorgeous is this look?

    How gorgeous is this look?

  • Dyes

    The current trend of unnatural dye jobs plays beautifully into this. It’s hair styling via color correspondences! Do you follow a Power associated with purple and gold? Why not dye your hair purple and wear gold accessories? Scarlet, green, purple, brown, the sky’s the limit, and you’ll be reminded of the Power you’re honoring every time you look in the mirror. There are even temporary spray-in colors, or colored chalks, that let you do this for shorter periods of time. Those preferring natural hair care aren’t left behind either – natural box dyes, vegan semi-permanent colors, and henna are all options too.

    This technique might work out very nicely for some folks depending on their God(s) and their lifestyles. Considering recent trends it’s also likely to be less fraught to explain to the general public, although you might run into problems in the workplace.

  • Updos

    Want to save the sight of your hair for the Powers or because modesty is a part of your practice, but don’t want to cover it entirely? Keep it up!

    This very traditional approach can be as easy or complex as you like and definitely works for more professional environments. Crown braids. Buns. French twists. Snoods. Clips. Combs. Spin pins. Whatever works for your hair and lifestyle. (I don’t really recommend ponytails for this because they’re too free-flowing for me to consider them an updo, but you do you. 🙂 )

    Personally I’m a huge fan of the Scunci Upzing. It’s made of two combs connected by elastic cording (my preference) or elasticized beadwork. The elastic makes the combs hold beautifully while adapting well to various lengths and hair thicknesses. I can securely put my hair up in about 5 seconds flat.

    An Upzing used for a bun. Suitable for any professional environment, no? Works for a night out, too, and easily transitions between events.

    An Upzing used for a bun. Suitable for any professional environment, no? Works for a night out, too, and easily transitions between events.

As a bonus, almost all updos can be worn under veils. The Upzing I mentioned above is crazy comfortable for that!

Veiling (aka Covering)

Veiling can be loosely grouped into partial veiling and full veiling, but the lines between the two can be pretty blurry. For instance, lots of folks who do full covering may also leave their bangs exposed, or cover the crown but leave the back open. I define veiling as “anything put on the head to block visibility of the hair/scalp”, and that can include lots of options!

  • Hats and Beanies

    This is super easy, especially in the winter. Who doesn’t already wear beanies anyway? They don’t even rate a second look. They’re a little more noticeable in the summer, but there are enough styles that even that can be navigated.

    On the plus side, hats and beanies have zero learning curve. Put your hair up (if you have any) and pull one of these beauties over it. Done! They’re also an excellent option for folks who want full coverage but don’t have the mobility to wrangle a scarf regularly.

    A selection of beanies and pull-on hats from https://www.headcovers.com.

    A selection of beanies and pull-on hats from https://www.headcovers.com.

    Beanies provide adjustable coverage. You can wear them so your bangs show and your hair hangs out of the bottom, or you can wear them so your hair is completely covered. Not all hats are created equal in this regard, though. If you’re looking to completely cover all your hair, maybe check out places that cater to those experiencing medical hair loss (like the site in the photo above) as those products are designed to cover the whole scalp. Just keep in mind that they’re not designed for people with lots of hair.

    If you do have a lot of hair, and find that even beanies don’t accommodate you, consider a “slap“, or a satin-lined cap. These are especially good for folks wanting to pamper their hair and/or looking for sleep cap options. They also come in a variety of contemporary colors and styles. The video below shows the versatility of the turban-style slap, but there are other styles that do the trick too.

  • Wide Headbands and Bandanas
    This is a great option for covering regardless of how much hair you have, and can get the idea of covering across without being particularly note-worthy. The ones marketed as yoga headbands seem to be particularly wide, or you could go even wider by looking for the stretchy tube underscarves used by hijabis.

    A yoga headband.

    A yoga headband. It can be stretch to maximum coverage like this, but it can be folded or scrunched when less coverage is desired.

    Even better, almost all of these styles (depending on print) are completely unisex. Guys can get in on this too! I’ve seen the above style of headband on guys with longer hair and dreads, for instance.
  • Wear a Wig

    This option is very well established in Jewish communities, where married Orthodox women are encouraged to cover for modesty reasons. Wigs worn for this purpose are called sheitels, and ideally they cover the hair so naturally that it’s hard to tell it’s covered at all. It’s a great option for those who want full coverage in the workplace without drawing attention, it can adapt to various trends as needed, and styling it can be fun. Wigs/sheitels are absolutely not cheap options, though, so be prepared for a significant up-front investment if you want to go this route, with even more required for upkeep.

    A sampling of sheitels and their prices from http://www.sheitel.com.

    A sampling of sheitels and their prices from http://www.sheitel.com.

  • Scarves

    Scarves are the budget-friendly go-to for the majority of folks who cover, all around the world. They can easily be found for less than $20, in a wide variety of colors and materials, and the same scarf can be worn in a variety of creative ways. I recommend checking out Youtube for a plethora of different styles, as there’s no way I can cover even a tenth of the possibilities out there!

    What I can do is help with sizes. While technically a scarf is simply a piece of fabric of just about any measurement, there are some standardized size ranges that dictate the kinds of wraps we can do with them. I’ve listed the most common ones below to help you narrow down styles you might be interested in. I’ll let Youtube do the rest. 🙂

    • Bandanas: A bandana is really just a small square scarf (the size often used for neck scarves), but with a very distinctive “bandana” print on a whole rainbow of colors. They typically measure 22″ square, but a jumbo size of 27″ square is also available. Bandanas are great for headbands and partial covers, and make awesome skullcaps for folks with short hair and bald scalps.
      Wearing a bandana as a skullcap. A particularly masculine look.
      Wearing a bandana as a skullcap. A particularly masculine look.
    • Square Scarves: Typically larger than a bandana, square scarves used for covering generally hover between 36″ square and 44″ square. They’re great for those preferring retro looks, turbans, and Turkish hijab styles, but they aren’t as flexible as rectangular scarves when it comes to tying options.
      A Turkish hijab.

      Yes, this Turkish hijab style is done with a regular square scarf. The stiff front is achieved by folding the scarf corner-to-corner and inserting a flexible piece of cardboard or plastic in the fold before tying.

    • Rectangular Scarves: There are lots of sizes possible here, but the typical size used for covering tends to be around 28″ wide and 70″ long. Much larger than that and it’s unmanageable, while anything much smaller won’t provide enough coverage. Thinner rectangular scarves can make excellent sashes, though, that can be worn on top of another wrap or on their own for a pop of color/interest. These are the scarves most often used for both tichels and hijabs.

    • Infinity Scarves: An infinity scarf is a simply a rectangular scarf that’s been sewn together along the short ends to make a long loop. They’re not as standardized size-wise as rectangular scarves but the above measurements for good coverage still apply, so check sizes before buying. Infinity scarves make super-simple hijabs, can be used as tichels with a little work, and are especially nice for draping and pinless styles.
 

A Final Note on Timing

Please note that timing for all of these can vary. We can do any of these as frequently or sporadically as we’d like, on whatever schedule suits us and our practice. I fully cover every time I leave the house but prefer to rely on updos at home. Some folks only cover when at shrines/altars, or while praying, and others only uncover at those times. Some save it for High Days, and others on days sacred to various deities, and still others only toss a scarf over their heads when they feel a call to do it. Feel free to experiment!

The goal of all of these practices is to bolster and support your spiritual practice. If anything on this list does that for you, then yay! You’ve got a new tool! If it doesn’t, though, or you find that these practices are actually distracting, then by all means don’t use them. Tools need to suit the user, and one of the joys of polytheism is that we’re encouraged to find our own way as we go. May you find whatever best works for you!

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The Magic of Tidying Up: Connecting With and Honoring House Spirits

Marie Kondo kneels to greet the spirit of the home and invite it to participate in tidying up.

“Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” is on Netflix right now and we’re at the time of year when a bunch of folks commit to reorganizing their homes. Put those together and people are once again talking about Kondo’s 2014 best-selling book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up“.

Organizational expert Marie Kondo and the cover of her best-selling book "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up".

Organizational expert Marie Kondo and the cover of her best-selling book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”.

Most Westerners think of this book, and the KonMari method it introduces, as just another approach to organizing the home. However, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is one of the most prized books on my spirituality shelf.

I thought it might be helpful to explain why.

The Sacred Home

Household deities are common fixtures in polytheistic practice. For instance, like many folks I maintain a shrine for the Goddess of the Hearth. She is the flame at the heart of the home and oversees all domestic matters.

There’s another type of household spirit, though, that’s often considered similar to or even a variation of a land spirit. We see them throughout the Indo-European world, albeit with different names and characteristics. Whether they’re Celtic brownies or Norse húsvættir or Roman panes, though, they protect and promote the health/happiness of the home and all within it.

Figuring out how to work with the Hearth Goddess is fairly easy. We have records, right? We have poems and descriptions and temple remains that at least give us frameworks to work with, and when in doubt we can reach out using techniques originally associated with other deities.

That doesn’t really work for house spirits, though. Honoring them wasn’t connected to a temple and there wasn’t a dedicated priesthood. Parents passed the lore of their family’s house spirits down to their children as part of other lessons. “This is how you mop the floor, which both gives you a clean surface and makes the house spirit happy.” No one bothered to write much of that down. For the most part we have to rely on the traces of practice left in folklore and fairy tales.

As a result many polytheists are uncertain about how to interact with our house spirits. I think that’s why so many of us tend to approach them through formal rituals and offerings. We’ll light candles for them, maybe leave them dishes of milk or bread, but these activities are all too often distinctly separated from day-to-day life.

From what we can tell, house spirits were much more integrated into the lives of our ancestors than they are our lives today. It can be intimidating and overwhelming to figure out how to reach that level of integration now, though. Where do we even start?

“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has an answer for that.

The Magic of Tidying 

Marie Kondo is Japanese, with a solid grounding in Shinto. She even spent five years as an attendant maiden at a temple. That’s important, because Shinto is an animistic faith. In Shinto, kami – sacred spirits – take the form of things important to life. This can range from inanimate objects like rocks to concepts like fertility. When people die, their spirits even become ancestral kami, who watch after their descendants.

shinto shrine

A public Shinto shrine.

Some of the things most important to life are the objects we use to actually live. In Shinto, our house and dishes and clothing and craft supplies all possess kami. Working with that kami is so fundamental to the whole KonMari approach that the system is not complete without it.

Animism and polytheism aren’t the same thing. However, in this case the differences are pretty easy to overcome. Whether we’re interacting with the spirit of our home/spirits of our things or a resident house spirit is more a matter of perspective than technique. And since Kondo emphasizes Shinto-based animism throughout her book, we polytheists can use her approach as a springboard for our own practices.

That’s a good thing, because the “magic” of tidying is that fostering a more harmonious relationship with our homes provides a foundation for harmonizing the rest of our lives. Honestly, in my opinion the organizational tips in this book are just a bonus.

Hospitality in Action

My approach to working with the Powers, regardless of type, is to always start with Hospitality. It’s something I’ve emphasized since I started writing this blog, and I consider it the key to both facilitating those relationships and living a virtuous life in general. While the mechanics may differ across cultures, the concept of hospitality itself is universal.

The three steps of Hospitality I work with are Being Ready to Entertain, Offering Food/Drink, and Showing Respect. For the most part, Kondo’s KonMari method does that. It’s just all blended together. Being Ready to Entertain flows into Offerings, which flows into Respect, which flows back into Being Ready to Entertain.

This integrated approach is why I treat “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” as a spiritual guide as much as an organizational one. Tips for interacting with the spirit(s) of our home/house spirit are liberally scattered all throughout the book. Better yet, they’re treated as a matter of course, not as novelties or something woo-woo. It’s just the way things are done.

Because everything is so well integrated it can be difficult to separate the threads out so we can look at them individually. I tried, though!

Be Ready to Entertain

The initial tidying up method Kondo promotes prepares our space for the spirit of the home. She clearly states that as a goal. “One theme underlying my method of tidying is transforming the home into a sacred space, a power spot filled with pure energy.” By clearing out extraneous things and keeping only those that “spark joy”, and then neatly and respectfully putting away what we keep, we create a space for the spirit of the home/house spirit(s) to fill. And since everything we keep makes us happy, we’re setting the stage for that spirit to be happy too.

Offerings

Perhaps the biggest difference between Kondo’s animistic perspective and a more polytheist one is that she doesn’t suggest offerings of food and drink for the spirit of the home. However, she does make offerings. They’re simply of service instead. That’s an approach even we polytheists can incorporate into our practices, and other offerings can be seen as a further enhancement.

At a minimum, simply maintaining the organizational system and putting things back where they go can be seen as an offering. After all, according to Kondo storage is “the sacred act of choosing a home for my belongings.” By cleaning and tidying with intent, the things we’d already do become sacred too.

Of course, intent can be used for everything, not just storage. For example, consider the following: “Folding clothes is not about making [them]compact, but [about] communicating your affection and gratitude for their continuous support.”

Folding our clothes with intent? Communicating love for our homes and everything inside while we tend them? How is that not an offering?

Showing Respect

Respect for the spirit of the home bleeds through the whole KonMari method, and it’s approached in a very practical way. There’s actually a whole section in the book on greeting your house/house spirit. “Greet your house every time you come home,” Kondo says. “Just as you would greet your family or your pet, say ‘Hello! I’m home’ to your house when you return. If you do this repeatedly you will start to notice your house respond when you come home. You will sense its pleasure passing through like a gentle breeze. Then you will gradually be able to feel where it would like you to tidy and where it would like you to put things.”

Feel odd just starting out with a casual greeting from the get-go? Kondo recommends doing a formal introduction prior to the tidying process she endorses, and explains exactly how to do so. We can use that technique even if we’re not fully on board the KonMari train!

I was worried that the Netflix show would gloss over this aspect to appeal to a more Western audience, but nope – in every episode, before the family begins tidying, Kondo kneels and greets the house. She explains that she’s introducing herself as well as enlisting the help of the home’s spirit moving forward. According to her, our homes want to help us if we let them. This is their formal invitation to do so.

Marie Kondo kneels to greet the spirit of the home and invite it to participate in tidying up.

Marie Kondo kneels to greet the spirit of the home and invite it to participate in tidying up.

By regularly interacting with the spirit of our home/house spirit, we become more attuned to it and can even learn to “hear” it. Introducing ourselves formally indicates our willingness to listen and act on what we hear. That’s absolutely a demonstration of respect, and it’s a clear and solid technique we polytheists can use too!

Listening for feedback from spirit(s) during the initial sorting, when we’re deciding what to keep and what to discard, is another way we become more attuned to the spirits of our home. Kondo tells us to hold each item in our hands, one by one, to see if it “sparks joy”. If so, we keep it. If not, we thank it for its service and dispose of it. It’s easier to part with something when we do it with a little respect and reverence. Thanking before disposal also helps formally cut any ties between owner and object in a very gentle way. Whether we’re listening to our response to the object, the object itself, or the input of our house spirit is a matter up to personal interpretation.

By the time we get to the hardest stuff to sort and part with – the sentimental items – we’ve become attuned enough to the voice of our home to hear feedback even for that. It provides support and understanding as we go. No wonder so many followers of her method claim that maintaining a tidy space is easy forever after! They’ve learned to listen to their house spirit and act accordingly!

Reciprocity

Kondo is very clear on the importance of reciprocity to a happy home. She’s got a whole section titled “Your Possessions Want to Help You”, and another titled “Appreciate Your Possessions and Gain Strong Allies”. It’s all spelled out for us. Caring for our things motivates them to care for us, resulting in sweaters that don’t pill as much and spills that don’t happen as often. It also contributes to a more harmonious life.

One example in the book is about socks. “I pointed to the balled-up socks [in a client’s drawer]. ‘Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?'” By folding socks in a way that lets them “rest”, she’s both serving their physical needs (why stretch out the elastic unnecessarily?) and allowing her care for them to let them care for her.

Later she says: “One of the homework assignments I give my clients is to appreciate their belongings. For example, I urge them to try saying ‘Thank you for keeping me warm all day,’ when they hang up clothes after returning home.”

Whether we’re directly thanking our things or the house spirit that protects and helps maintain those things is again a matter of personal preference. The techniques are sound regardless. And if nothing else, gratitude is always a useful attitude to develop!

A Place to Start

Shinto and the Indo-European-derived faiths are literally a world apart. “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” requires us IE folks to make some adjustments as we go. However, it provides us a tangible, practical, and very specific place to start integrating these ideas into our own lives. That alone is worth the cover price!

Want to dip your toes in without buying the book? Check out the Netflix special! And as always you’re more than welcome to reply in the comments!

 

I’ve always enjoyed organizing and I’m a minimalist by habit and preference, so I didn’t really see the need to have this book in my life when it came out. However, it was Stevie Miller’s post over at Grundsau Burrow that encouraged me to pick it up in the first place. Check that out to see her thoughts on it too!