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The Yoga of Money

The Yoga of Money

by Brent Kessel

It’s not about how much you have or don’t have—it’s about what you think (and don’t think).

Many seekers and yogis have spent years or decades looking within for the answers to life’s most troubling questions, and, in the process, find themselves with a plethora of tools and insights they’ve learned on the yoga mat, in the therapist’s office, or on the meditation cushion. However, I’ve observed that very few apply these powerful practices to money, an area with virtually unmatched ability to spark our attachment, avoidance, hope, aversion, envy, and fear. Over the past 15 years, I’ve been on a quest to integrate the insights and practices of the East’s yogic and spiritual traditions with the latest financial-planning wisdom of the West. This quest has taken me around the world to ask questions about money and spirituality, consulting financial experts and spiritual teachers alike, including Thich Nhat Hanh; Joseph Goldstein; the Dalai Lama; Adyashanti; Gangaji; the founder of Vanguard mutual funds, John Bogle; 1990 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Dr. Harry Markowitz; meditation teacher Christina Feldman; and spiritual guide Ram Dass, among other prominent figures. What I discovered in these interviews as well as in my work in general is that money has the power to be a most profound spiritual teacher in our lives—if we are willing to engage it with the same consciousness and intention as we do our traditional spiritual practices.

Of course, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Money is one of the easiest targets when we’re looking for the cause of our discontent, our lack of choice and freedom, the decimation of the planet’s resources, and class inequality. Examples of people profiting from others’ misfortune litter human history, and it is true that the desire for material gain leads to wars, destruction, and misery. This has caused many to simply turn away from money, blame it for most of the ills of the world, and avoid looking more deeply into their own relationship to money.

In my professional work with people from all financial walks of life, I have noticed that although the details of people’s behaviors and problems are unique, great similarities emerge among groups of people. From this, I’ve created some broad definitions of these groups, or archetypes, so that we can learn from others who have gone through similar experiences, who subscribe to similar beliefs, and who exhibit similar behavior patterns with money. These financial archetypes are

  • The Guardian, who is always alert and careful
  • The Pleasure Seeker, who prioritizes pleasure and enjoyment in the here and now
  • The Idealist, who places the greatest value on creativity, compassion, social justice, and/or spiritual growth
  • The Saver, who seeks security and abundance by accumulating more financial assets
  • The Star, who spends, invests, or gives money away to be recognized, feel hip or classy, and increase self-esteem
  • The Innocent, who avoids putting significant attention on money and believes or hopes that life will work out for the best
  • The Caretaker, who gives and lends money to express compassion and generosity
  • The Empire Builder, who thrives on power and innovation to create something of enduring value.

I present and teach these archetypes not as a categorization system to be fixed in stone but as a way to tease out what might be affecting a person’s financial life on an unconscious level, both positively and negatively. Identifying the archetypes that are most active within you at any given time (and it’s usually more than one) is an important step toward creating true financial freedom.

The Archetypes in Action

Many seekers and yogis I’ve met exhibit the Idealist archetype. Idealists are often able to express great vision and compassion in their use of money, but they also experience mistrust, skepticism, or rebelliousness around money. More often than not, they view money as the problem and not the solution.

Many Idealists, rich or poor, feel that a lot of suffering and sacrifice is necessary to be creative or spiritual. In fact, most Idealists are artists, musicians, alternative-health practitioners, or work for nonprofits. At the extreme, Idealists are often financially dependent on others, and they either don’t earn enough to file a tax return, or, if they do, they choose not to file in objection to the government’s use of tax dollars. Interestingly, none of the spiritual teachers I interviewed for my book felt that financial deprivation or scarcity was an aid to expression of spiritual or creative ideals. In fact, many felt that financial stress, whether due to actual lack or due to strongly held beliefs, was a major hindrance to having the time and psychological freedom to pursue authentic spiritual practices.

When I spoke with Gangaji, a spiritual teacher who has taught at Kripalu and is the author of You Are That, she offered this perspective on one of the Idealist’s common mantras that money is not spiritual: “If poverty is idealized, then there’s actually a war against those who have money, or a feeling of being righteous or more pure, or more true, and that’s a huge spiritual trap.”

As part of my quest, I went to France to stay for a short time at Plum Village with Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and author of The Art of Power. During our interview, Thay, as he’s affectionately called, said to me, “If you are free, if you are compassionate, it’s true that some power and some money can help you to help people. But if you don’t have that freedom, you become a victim of money, a victim of power.” Like Thay, many of the teachers I interviewed said that using money to express our compassion is one of the most important and spiritual potentials of money. When we are giving in a healthy, balanced way, we are essentially telling ourselves, “I have enough,” which reconditions the more prevalent unconscious belief, “I’ll never have enough.” The archetype which most exemplifies using money to express empathy and compassion is the Caretaker. An overly caretaking orientation, however, can lead to enabling or even self-abandoning behaviors.

Caretakers spend more than 20 percent of their income on others in need—family members, friends, or charities—but they are not financially generous with themselves and usually don’t feel a sense of ease about their generosity. As David Whyte, a poet and organizational consultant I also interviewed, said, “It doesn’t matter how much you have or haven’t, just the burden of having to hand out money all the time can be hard on the psyche.” And, in fact, with Caretakers having financial dependents who often cause them to have less than six months’ expenses in the bank and perhaps even significant credit-card debt, the toll sometimes affects more than just the psyche.

Another archetype that is prevalent among yogis and seekers is the Innocent, who generally feels that things will work out better if they don’t put significant attention on money. However, when these tendencies to avoid (or the results of unfortunate life circumstances) become too great, Innocents are usually helpless and unconscious of just how bad things have gotten. Their money mantras are “I don’t have enough financial smarts to get my money situation together,” or “Life’s too short to worry about money.” These beliefs aren’t helped by living in a culture, where, as spiritual teacher A. H. Almaas said to me, “It’s difficult for people to really have a sense of worth if their financial worth is not much.” Of course, there are Innocents who, no matter how much they pay attention to their finances or transform their internal money mantras, will never make ends meet due to either illness, disability, or lack of education.

The Middle Way with Money

Recently, I was fortunate to be able to ask the Dalai Lama why there are so many people in the West who are unhappy despite their considerable affluence. His Holiness responded, “When there’s too much stress and too much worry, you need to look inward. Read more. Think more. Trying to find the answer from outside yourself is nonsense.”

The key to transforming money stress and worry into freedom, as with yoga asanas, lies in applying the yogic principles of self-observation and the cultivation of balance. There is nothing inherently wrong with the qualities of any of these archetypes. It’s primarily a matter of whether we’re exhibiting our financial tendencies and habits in distorted and imbalanced ways or in balanced, integrated ways.

In sum, financial transformation is possible—for all of us. In my professional practice and facilitation of workshops for hundreds of people, I’ve observed overwhelming credit-card debt become celebrated home-ownership. Middle-of-the-night financial anxiety attacks are realized as having a deeper root than just the numbers and are transformed into a lasting spiritual practice. I’ve also seen overspending become a life of voluntary simplicity without the dreaded feeling of sacrifice. The common theme in all of these people’s lives was that once they identified their unconscious tendencies with money, they were then able to emphasize the thoughts and behaviors which created more balance, freedom, and fulfillment for themselves and thus for the wider world their lives touch.


Brent Kessel is the author of the forthcoming HarperCollins book, It’s Not About the Money, and the cofounder of Abacus, one of the nation’s top sustainable investing and financial planning firms, whose tagline is “Changing the World One Portfolio at a Time.” www.brentkessel.com

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Kripalu catalog. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.