A couple of years back, I started watching Nadiya Shah’s weekly horoscopes on YouTube. I wasn’t looking for predictions about how the rest of my life will play out (though I’d be glad to know the good stuff, of course). I accept that life is unpredictable—what I wanted to know was how other people deal with that. And so I was drawn in by Shah’s perspective, which always takes the long view.
It’s fair to say that I geeked out a bit when I was on a video chat with Shah in January. She speaks with the same effusive warmth that’s helped her build a YouTube subscriber base of over 130,000. “Astrology is an act of poetry. It’s interpretation,” she says, explaining that her approach requires humility. “The sky just is—the sky is impartial, and it’s the astrologer that imbues it with meaning. When I see people saying, ‘This is gonna happen, that’s gonna happen,’ I’m like, ‘Can we relax a little bit?’”
Shah, in her early 40s, was born in Toronto and now divides her time between Canada and Cancun, Mexico. She’s the author of four self-published astrology books, most recently The Body & The Cosmos, which came out in December. It’s her latest attempt to explain how she sees astrology as a “quiet philosophical assertion,” one that reveals the vast cycles that encircle human history and the smaller ones that dictate our own lives.
She’s also part of a wave of modern astrologers driving what market researchers have called the “mystical services market,” a digital economy valued at US$2.1 billion by the New York Times last year. Over the last decade or so, astrology has undergone a virtual resurgence in the West, one that’s been patiently incubated by DIYers on YouTube, Instagram and other platforms. The current appetite for online readings, podcasts and courses is enormous. Apps like Co-Star (over three million downloads since late 2017) synthesize information from birth charts, then spit out uncannily detailed horoscopes and mood-altering daily aphorisms.
how i look when i—once again—fall for a fucking scorpio pic.twitter.com/70WxvYN9mi
— sara david (@SaraQDavid) June 3, 2019
Astrology memes are bountiful, and sharing one is a way of wearing your foibles on your sleeve. One of my personal favourites is a video of a person in a Goofy costume, dancing stupidly, with the caption, “How I look when I—once again—fall for a f-cking Scorpio.”
Many of the most influential names in this ever-growing space are women like Shah: slightly older than the enthusiastic millennial and Gen Z audience, tech savvy and aligned with the fluid values of a demographic raised with the prospect of a progressive future. She’s also not the only Canadian. Montreal-born Jessica Lanyadoo, 45, is Chatelaine’s resident astrologer and a psychic medium, the author of Astrology for Real Relationships and host of the witty and empathetic weekly show, Ghost of a Podcast, which has generated more than two million listens over its 100 episodes.
There’s also Chani Nicholas, in her early 40s, who built her business and 300,000-strong Instagram following over the last decade. Her email horoscopes were originally sent just to a small group of friends but became so popular she now has a destination website and creates monthly workshops. “I grew up in a town that was outside of the norm and so I initially didn’t want a career that was also counterculture,” Nicholas says of a childhood spent in Nelson, B.C. “I wanted something that was going to bring me into the world—not further separate me.”
Despite its fringe-y reputation, astrology—the practice of divining meaning from the sky—has been around for millennia. Early astrological practices very likely shaped many of the formal spiritual and organizing systems that humans take part in today. And yet media coverage can be condescending, or at least capitalist: Outlets like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have framed stories about the current interest in this tradition as just another millennial folly to profit from, the spiritual equivalent of avocado toast. Maybe it’s because of the digital bent, although it seems fairly natural that, in 2020, humans would look to their devices in the eternal search for truth. Or maybe the dismissiveness is because women make up most of the audience and public-facing personalities.
I grew up in a Hindu household that placed significance on the position of the stars and planets. There is evidence that Indian astronomers have been watching the skies for thousands of years. There is debate whether Jyotish—or Vedic astrology, as it is known—was influenced by Greek thought. The main thing to know is that, unlike the Western tradition, Jyotish uses a system of mapping the constellations that isn’t fixed. To this day, astrology is used by millions of Hindus to inform religious rites and business decisions, as well as other mundanities of daily life. Baby names are traditionally determined, in part, by Sanskrit syllables associated with the natal chart. When I was born, my grandma called up a religious scholar known as a pandit to find out what my parents’ options were for an auspicious name. She was told that it had to begin with an “ah” phonetic.
This traditional astrology didn’t interest me much in my youth—the old men who doled out weekly astro-forecasts on the Indian TV programs my mom watched were artless in their approach. Everything seemed to be about shady business deals, major windfalls, household electrical problems or big romance. I moved on to more reflective horoscopes by Susan Miller, still one of the best-known published astrologers, and the Astro Twins at ELLE.com.
For most of my adult life, horoscopes were simply something I sought out semi-regularly, in the form of blurbs tucked into the back of newspapers and alt-weeklies. Then, about five years ago, I came across Nicholas’ work and was taken aback by how it was attuned to the finer rhythms of life and non-traditional social values: She offered affirmations for the way things could be, if you put your energy toward understanding it.
This is why, when I found myself in a major emotional mess two summers ago, I turned to astrology to help me pull through. There were many possible reasons for my depression—being laid off, my third apartment in two years, a broken heart. I know now, though, that the main issue was a total lack of trust in myself. Most people knew me as an outgoing person, but I began to see that confidence as a persona, one that masked how insecure and insipid I felt on the inside.
Standing amidst the rubble of my shattered psyche, it was easier to tease out other lies that had, over the years, grown thick around my self-perception. I craved self-belief and found it in the horoscopes offered by Nicholas, Lanyadoo and Shah. On Lanyadoo’s podcast, her anti-capitalist viewpoint and tough-love talk felt like a reflection of the real, political world. And I loved that Shah’s boundless optimism about planetary movements was rooted in a deep knowledge of history.
This 21st-century version of astrology wasn’t predictive or fearful. What it offered was a profound opportunity to have faith in myself.
“The reason why people seek any form of spirituality or understanding of yourself in the world is because you’re struggling,” says Lanyadoo, who now lives in Oakland, California. “Until recently, people only came to me as a first step if they were super hippy-dippy. I was one of the last resorts, because it’s easier to believe in [traditional religion] than to be a critical thinker when you feel vulnerable.”
Lanyadoo got into astrology as a teenager, in a course at Montreal’s Dawson College. Taught by a psychology professor, it introduced her to Jungian astrology, which hews to psychological archetypes for its interpretations. From there, she began self-study, then started a private practice that has grown into a 25-year career.
“In the first decade, I felt the need to explain things because I wanted to be good at what I was doing,” she says. “I wanted to prove it was real, right?” Over time, she mastered the kind of intuition that allows her to be confident in relaying “what’s not being said” to people, all of whom have their own stories about their life. She’s now uninterested in convincing skeptics. “For the record, I don’t believe in astrology,” she says. “I don’t believe in the Internet, I don’t believe in cars. I use them because they work.”
Shah was encouraged to study astrology early on by family members who told her about their ancestors’ practice of the “esoteric arts.” “I think they just wanted an astrologer in the family,” she says, laughing, but learning about that lineage did deepen her interest. Her career began as a teenager. “I worked a summer job at the CNE as a palm reader,” she says. “And I was actually really good at it!”
By now, she has lots of training, including a master’s in cultural cosmology from the University of Kent, in the U.K. “To be an astrologer is really willing to be on the fringes—to be an outsider to what’s considered respectable or whatever,” Shah says. “It’s a huge statement of trust in yourself, to go your own way.”
Nicholas was introduced to astrology when she was 12, when her family had a reading together in Toronto. Still, it took her some time to come around to it as a career path. First, a relative introduced her to reiki, the Japanese energetic healing practice. Then she moved to L.A. and began working with her mentor, celebrated astrologer Demetra George. “As soon as we started studying, my life really began to take shape in a new way. She gave me the tools to activate all of the things I’d been learning over the past couple of decades,” says Nicholas. “I don’t know that astrology is real—it’s just the thing that works for me,” she says. “It has never let me down.”
The three astrologers have different perspectives. Shah takes a sweeping approach, often referencing planetary shifts and historical epochs in the same sentence, putting life into a big-picture context. Lanyadoo is quite relational—“Your capacity for emotional intelligence, empathy, responsibility and ambition are foundational to your ability to participate in the world in a sustained way,” she says.
And Nicholas emphasizes a return to “the root of who we are,” which is often clear in early childhood, but less so in later life. “There are a lot of things we live through that tell us that we have to be someone else to be loved or accepted,” she says. In January, she released her first book, You Were Born for This: Astrology for Radical Self-Acceptance, which aims to help readers “move into taking ownership of our talents and putting them to work in the world.”
What these astrologers share is a way of speaking to self-determination—particularly, as both Nicholas and Lanyadoo do, with respect to queerness—that feels quite different from other spiritual, philosophical and organizational ideologies in our world today. One might tag the work of all three as feminist, social justice-oriented, queer or simply “alternative.” Modern astrology is popular, in part, because it offers a way of looking at the world that doesn’t exclude people and ideas outside of the mainstream.
“Historically, a lot of [Western] astrologers have been straight white dudes who used a very prescribed approach to looking at things,” says Lanyadoo. “But I don’t orient that way. It’s not just about your heart and your part of the world. It’s a tool for self-betterment in the context of the whole.”
Nicholas says that her deconstructive approach is very much on purpose—she, too, critiques the heavy Greco-Roman roots of Western astrology, and stresses how many other ways there are of thinking about the sky. This makes me wonder how inverting our understanding of the world, by shifting our focus to the unknown instead of the earthbound, might alter the choices we make in life.
So, back to cycles. There are different transits—astronomical movements affecting your natal planets—that show up at different stages in our lives, and some that repeat. “Things can be harder to change when you’re in your 40s or 50s,” says Lanyadoo. “They’re habituated, and so astrology can really speak to that and help illuminate the tools you can use, when necessary.” My early-30s breakdown was dramatic enough, but it won’t be the last time I experience a conflict between my identity and life circumstances.
These cyclical awakenings come, Nicholas says, as “living out your unlived potential” becomes more urgent as we age. “Between 40 and 42 or 43, you go through what’s called the Uranus opposition,” she says. “Where a lot of life kind of breaks open and there’s a lot of change. At that age, hopefully, there’s a realization that if you don’t have a deep connection to yourself you’re going to struggle.”
Or, as Shah explains it, “astrology becomes something that allows you to affirm what you already know about yourself.”
Personally, I’m more tender and forgiving with myself now than I was two years ago, when I was so unhappy. Leaning into astrology, as well as yoga, meditation and periods of sobriety, gave me the tools to ease out of my careerist, hard-partying 20s and build a tenuous understanding of the unpredictability and discomfort of being alive. I also feel better situated to help shape the kind of world I want to live in.
No matter where humans direct their attention—whether to the sky, like our ancestors, or at the astrology apps on our screens—we are constantly trying to understand our circumstances and find meaning. Modernity isn’t a rupture from this cycle, it’s simply a new iteration.
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Maureen Halushak, editor-in-chief, Chatelaine