Indigenous Learning, School Community, Well-being

Exploring the Sacred Hoop

An Indigenous perspective on educator wellbeing and workplace wellness

HOW DO WE INFUSE INDIGENOUS perspectives into our work on educator wellbeing and workplace wellness? This is the question our writing team asked ourselves as we began working on the book, Teacher, Take Care: A guide to wellbeing and workplace wellness for educators. We wanted to infuse Indigenous knowledge throughout the book as a means of widening the lens on what it means to be well. Our Elder, Stanley Kipling, and Knowledge Keeper, Richelle North Star Scott, guided us in this process, using the Sacred Hoop as a model for wellbeing. We used this image as a foundation for understanding how to find balance and harmony within ourselves and within our schools. This article will explore the Sacred Hoop, its meaning, and the ways in which we have applied it to educator wellbeing and workplace wellness.  

A holistic view of wellness  

“The circle [Sacred Hoop], being primary, influences how we as Indigenous peoples view the world. In the process of how life evolves, how the natural world grows and works together, how all things are connected, and how all things move toward their destiny. Indigenous peoples see and respond to the world in a circular fashion and are influenced by the examples of the circles of creation in our environment. They represent the alignment and continuous interaction of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realities. The circle shape represents the interconnectivity of all aspects of one’s being, including the connection with the natural world. [Sacred Hoops] are frequently believed to be the circle of awareness of the individual self; the circle of knowledge that provides the power we each have over our own lives (Dumont, 1989).”

Image from Teacher, Take Care: A guide to well-being and workplace wellness for educators, by Jennifer E. Lawson. Copyright 2022, Reproduced with permission from Portage & Main Press.

We each have our own definition of wellness, whether we have articulated it or not. One understanding of holistic health and harmony is reflected in the Sacred Hoop. The Sacred Hoop is a representation of how some Indigenous Peoples view the world. It is also known by other names, such as Cosmological Circle, Circle Teachings, Hoop Teachings, Medicine Wheel, or Wheel Teachings. (Many Indigenous communities are trying to break free from using references to the Medicine Wheel and Wheel Teachings, as these are colonial terms.) There are many different perspectives on the Sacred Hoop, depending on nation, territory, and personal interpretations. A common theme, as represented in the Sacred Hoop by the Four Directions, is that wellness involves the whole person – their Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual selves. The Sacred Hoop shown here is the one that Elder Kipling and North Star are most familiar with. It supports their thoughts and ideas and has shaped the teachings they have received throughout their lives. When using the Sacred Hoop, it also is a reminder that we are not perfect – that as individuals we will go around the Sacred Hoop many times in our lifetime and that we are never done our healing. Wellness is not a destination, so we must think of it as endless teachings as we venture through life. 

In the Sacred Hoop, the Physical dimension is represented by babies and children, as their physical bodies do much growing and learning when they are new to this world. The Golden Eagle sits in the East as a teacher of unconditional love for our children. The colour yellow represents the rising sun and the gift of a brand-new day. Nourishing a healthy body through exercise, nutrition, and sleep are ways to promote physical wellness.  

The Emotional dimension is represented by teenagers, who experience a wide range of emotions during a time of hormone changes in their lives. The Wolf sits in the South as a teacher of humility. As true leaders, wolves are humble. Although often misrepresented as wild and dangerous animals by settlers, they care for the pack even if it means their needs are not met. The colour red represents the red-hot emotions we may have during this life stage. We are teaching emotional wellness when we allow ourselves and others to experience feelings in a safe environment. Expressing emotions is a natural way to bring ourselves back into balance.   

The Mental dimension is represented by adults, who spend much of their time in cognitive thought. Actually, they also often overthink and then worry about the decisions they have to make or the consequences of the decisions they have already made. The Black Bear sits in the West as a teacher of courage, as it takes courage to go deep within our minds and learn about patterns that no longer serve us. The colour black represents our minds and the introspection it takes to journey through our lives. Being engaged in the world through learning, problem-solving, and creativity can improve our mental wellness. Learning is an ongoing, ever-evolving, lifelong process. It keeps us forever moving and growing and prevents us from getting stuck or becoming stagnant.  

The Spiritual dimension is represented by Elders because they have great knowledge, having travelled the path around the entire Sacred Hoop. The White Buffalo sits in the North as a teacher who teaches us about facing the toughest of challenges head-on. Because of this, both the Elders and the White Buffalo deserve much respect. The colour white represents the harsh weather we must face and the wisdom our Elders have gained, often turning their hair white in the process. The Spiritual is that which fills us up. For some, Spirituality means connecting to our higher power, whether we call it Creator, God, Buddha, or Allah. For others, it means something different, such as that which embraces our soul, giving our lives meaning. The Spiritual also means the fire within us – our pursuits that fill us up when we feel empty. These can be dancing, singing, attending ceremonies, or painting – things that make us feel whole again. As we go deeper within ourselves, committing to another walk around the Sacred Hoop, spirituality keeps us grounded, creative, and inspired. 

Finding balance 

So, how do we live in harmony and find balance using the Sacred Hoop? It begins with an understanding of the equal importance of our Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual dimensions. It means acknowledging and caring for those four aspects of our whole being by keeping them in balance. Think, for a moment, about standing on a Bosu ball at the gym, and imagine that the ball’s round, flat circle is your Sacred Hoop. 

Photo: iStock

Using this analogy, the goal is to keep yourself steady and balanced in all four dimensions of your being. If you are struggling in one area, it will indeed affect your overall sense of harmony. If you are challenged in more than one area, it may be difficult to maintain equilibrium at all. 

How can we manage to find balance? Here, we will provide an example from each of us on how we strive to maintain a sense of wellbeing and harmony in our daily lives. 

North Star:

I am diabetic, and I struggle from day to day to maintain my blood sugar levels. Teaching can often be stressful, and my job keeps me extremely busy meeting 26 schools’ needs. I’m often not eating properly because I’m constantly on the move from one school to another and I’m not eating lunch at appropriate times. In addition, once I’m at a school, I am either teaching in a classroom or I am attending meetings in small conference rooms, requiring me to sit. So my Sacred Hoop is out of balance. I’m not eating well or exercising and that throws my Physical wellbeing out of balance. As soon as my Physical self suffers, my Emotional wellness also becomes askew. In contrast, my Mental health and Spiritual life are strong. I am constantly learning, reading, and writing, and I challenge myself mentally all the time. I am always in ceremony, so my spirit is strong. This means that I must be aware of both my strengths and challenges in my Sacred Hoop. As I become aware of where I am the strongest on my Hoop and where I am needing some support, I can seek out help to rectify this, knowing that the Physical and Emotional aspects of my life are out of balance. One thing that has always helped me with my diabetes and supporting the Physical and Emotional aspects of my Hoop is being out on the land. There I find I’m moving more and releasing any negative emotions, and so I often try to teach out on the land. I am taking care of myself, as well as my colleagues and students, as I introduce them to healing out on the land.


I find it important to be cognizant of my strengths and challenges in terms of my four dimensions. For example, in a Physical way, I am quite strong, active, and healthy. I walk outdoors daily and take Zumba classes several times a week. I also see my Mental dimension as quite strong, as I challenge my learning and thrive on gathering new knowledge. My Spiritual dimension is enhanced by my time immersed in music and nature. However, my Emotional dimension is where I struggle. I am what one would call an empath, highly sensitive, and can be easily overwhelmed by my own emotions. This makes it difficult for me to balance my own Sacred Hoop. I try to recover this imbalance by focusing on my strengths (Physical activity, Mental stimulation, Spiritual endeavours), while also acknowledging, articulating, and accepting my Emotions. This helps me to find balance, harmony, and wellbeing in daily life.

We are at the centre of our own wellbeing and healing. If we keep ourselves at the centre and take care of ourselves, then we can also take care of others. Often, as teachers, we are constantly taking care of everyone else, in both our personal and professional lives, and we can forget to take care of our own daily needs. As we journey around the Sacred Hoop, we need to be having that internal conversation about how we’re feeling throughout the day. Are we in balance? 

Community and workplace wellness 

The Sacred Hoop can also be used to determine and strengthen balance, harmony, and wellness in the workplace. For example, in schools, we need to consider all four dimensions – the Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual – as having equal influence on workplace wellness, and also the school community’s wellness. 

The Physical dimension of a school, for example, involves every aspect of the community’s physical wellbeing, including the building itself. It is the right of every member of a school community to feel physically safe at all times. Unfortunately, this dimension also includes physical violence and injury, which puts both students and staff at risk. In addition, everything from temperature control and air quality to icy sidewalks and leaking ceiling tiles need to be attended to in order to maintain a well school. There is no easy answer to addressing these issues, but it is of utmost importance that Physical wellness and safety be at the forefront of managing facilities and creating a well school. For many students, the land surrounding the school is important not only for their Physical needs, but also for their Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual dimensions. Many schools recognize this and are now actively integrating outdoor classrooms and land-based learning.  

The Emotional wellness of a school focuses on the culture and climate that is a felt sense in the building. How do students, families, and staff feel when they walk in the front doors? Is there a sense of feeling welcome, accepted, and belonging? This is the aim of an emotionally well school. Indigenous families may knowingly or subconsciously ask themselves, “Do I belong here? Will my child be safe here?” It is important for us to connect on an emotional level with our colleagues, students, and their families. One example of this is planning a graduation Powwow for students in their final year of high school. This brings together the staff, students, school families, as well as many other community members who may come to dance or drum. 

The Mental dimension of school wellness focuses on the academic and intellectual pursuits of its members, keeping in mind the individual strengths, challenges, and needs of all members of the school community. In keeping with this commitment, a well school focuses on the learning and growing of students, while encouraging professional development for staff. Events such as a Celebration of Learning provide an opportunity for students and their teachers to share successes (from the Mental dimension) with families. 

The Spiritual dimension of a school is rich and complex because we all see spirituality differently. This is a gift in one sense, in that we can acknowledge, respect, and celebrate a wealth of spiritual practices. At the same time, the challenge is to be inclusive and recognize the diversity of spiritual beliefs and traditions reflective of the school community. We need to be aware of what fills us up, for ourselves, our students, and our colleagues. This is Spirit. As an example, acknowledging and participating in a variety of cultural celebrations is one way of acknowledging Spirit. For many students, staff, and families, the Spiritual dimension is reflected in these cultural practices, so this is a way to respect Spiritual diversity. 

Finding balance and harmony in terms of workplace wellness requires intentional actions that address the Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual dimensions of the school and its members. This, in turn, enhances the wellbeing of each individual in the school community. 

FINDING BALANCE in one’s own Sacred Hoop is a challenging task, as is the endeavour to create that same harmonious balance at the whole-school level. By considering the inherent potential of the Sacred Hoop, we can acquire a stronger understanding of holistic health and harmony, and continue to strive for balance in the Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual dimensions. As we move around the Sacred Hoop on our journey with wellness, we become more aware of ourselves and others, and strengthen both individual wellbeing and workplace wellness.  




Dumont, J. (1989). Culture, behaviour, & identity of the Native person. In NATI-2105: Culture, behaviour, & identity of the Native person. Laurentian University Press. 

Lawson, J. E., Gander, S., et al. (2022). Teacher, take care: A guide to wellbeing and workplace wellness for educators. Portage & Main Press.

Banner Photo: Image from Teacher, Take Care: A guide to well-being and workplace wellness for educators, by Jennifer E. Lawson. Copyright 2022, Reproduced with permission from Portage & Main Press.
First published in Education CanadaSeptember 2023

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Jennifer Elizabeth Lawson

Author, Portage and Main Press

Jennifer E. Lawson, PhD, is the senior author of the new book, Teacher, Take Care: A guide to well-being and workplace wellness for educators, as well as the originator and program editor of the Hands-On series published by Portage & Main Press.

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