Upscale meditation studios are bringing mindfulness to the masses. Are they also diluting the practice?
Outside | August 2017
By Kate Siber
Before you meditate, you must surrender your iPhone. At least that’s what a couple of serene young women tell me when I walk into Unplug Meditation, an airy Los Angeles studio with inspirational slogans on the walls. (Keep Going! Live the Life You Love!)
I’m here for a 45-minute class called Inner Peace, which promises to teach me the basics of deep mindfulness, making me calmer, more productive, more focused, and more joyful. After passing through the gift shop, which peddles crystals, aromatherapy eye pillows, and Bad Spirit Remover candles, I settle into a black faux-leather floor seat. Violet lights beam down on a couple of dozen people, from spandexed millennials to graying businessmen. It’s like a yoga studio without the yoga.
“Thoughts can make us sick or they can empower us,” says Sherly Sulaiman, a hypnotherapist with an Australian accent, who sits on a dais. “We want them to empower us, right?” She instructs us to lift an index finger every time a thought arises. “Remember, you are not the thought. You are aware of your thoughts.” Spa music wafts from the speakers as index fingers tap out a frantic Morse code. A truck horn blares. Eventually, a bell rings. “I’ll be outside,” says Sulaiman, “if you want to ask a question or share—or if you just want a healing hug.”
A new breed of upscale meditation studios, which package contemplative practices into 30-to-60-minute classes for about $20 a pop, are spreading across the country. Designed for the affluent mainstream, the hip spaces offer diverse services, including private sessions for about $150 and five-day, $300 mindfulness summer camps for teens. At Inscape, which opened in New York City in November, meditators loll in beanbag chairs under a sailcloth and bamboo dome; at a Los Angeles studio called the Den Meditation, the wellness crowd attend classes like Lunchtime Detox and Candlelight Relax. Following the trajectory of yoga, these for-profit centers have opened in cities from Miami to Calgary.
“I’m the gateway drug,” says Suze Yalof Schwartz, the founder of Unplug and a former Glamour editor. Schwartz floats about the studio, greeting customers with frenetic exuberance. “People who would never meditate are now practicing, because we’re meditation lite.” Unplug plans to open two more locations—in Los Angeles and San Francisco—over the next year, and the brand’s app has users in 37 countries. “It’s the Netflix of meditation,” says Schwartz, beaming.
Meditation, you may have noticed, is becoming as ubiquitous as Starbucks. Studies suggest that it can improve concentration and working memory, lower blood pressure, and even boost immune-system functioning, among many other benefits. Nearly 1,000 apps, such as Headspace and Calm, promise to help you find inner stillness in a now $1.1 billion meditation and mindfulness industry, which includes therapy, classes, retreats, and other services. This swift commercialization is alarming some longtime teachers, who worry that the new studios present an attractive but diluted version of spiritual practices.
“Secularized mindfulness programs are like an industrial approach to meditation,” says Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, a teacher at Vipassana Hawaii, a nonprofit Buddhist organization that offers weekly meditation as well as multi-day retreats on the Big Island. “They’ve turned it into a commodity and replaced its foundations of generosity and morality with promises of productivity and effectiveness—higher test scores, more effective soldiers, greater wealth, more power.”
Others compare selling meditation to bottling water: it makes some people rich while commercializing an abundant resource. But arguably the biggest concern is whether these for-profit centers’ instructors can support the full range of emotional experiences that practitioners encounter. In some spiritual traditions, becoming a teacher can require more than a decade of serious study. Some of the new studios require as little as 100 hours of training.
According to the guidelines for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, an eight-week intensive program, some practitioners may find that negative emotions worsen before they improve. This is simply because of heightened awareness. Willoughby Britton, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University who studies challenging meditation experiences, suggests seeking out teachers with meditation-instructor training and at least three years of personal practice. But the onus is also on the studios.
It would be easy to dismiss the trend as superficial, but as with exercise, many people are more likely to develop beneficial habits with the help of guided sessions. “It’s like going to a fitness class for the mind,” says Stefanie Seifer, an actor and filmmaker who visits the Den several times a week. “Sometimes it’s hard to practice on your own. I knew how to meditate before; I just didn’t do it.” But does marketing meditation as a feel-good cure-all set people up for frustration? After all, on any given day the practice can range from blissful to exasperating.
“Nobody here pretends you walk in and it’s magic,” says Tal Rabinowitz, founder of the Den. “You still have to do it, and we are here to guide you. Like anything, it takes practice and time.”
Jack Kornfield, one of the first Buddhist teachers to bring mindfulness to the West, is not particularly worried. Contemplative practices have taken many different forms in Asian cultures for centuries, he explains, and these new studios will survive only if people find them beneficial.
“I see it as an offering that serves people where they are, and that’s the point,” he says. “A certain number will know intuitively that much greater depths are possible. But the fact that anybody goes in and takes 20 or 30 minutes to quiet their mind and tend to their body and listen to their heart—hallelujah.”