You have your cushion and you’ve downloaded that new meditation app you’ve heard so much about. So then why is it so hard to actually sit and be present? You know the benefits of mindful- ness—stress reduction, improved executive-brain function, increased ability to self-regulate—but that doesn’t make it any easier to establish a regular practice on your own. There is that class at the rec center across town, but it’s at a really bad time, and plus, the floors are always grimy. And as wonderful as a weekend retreat sounds, it’s just not in your budget right now.
Sound familiar? The irony of mindfulness is that while it doesn’t require anything other than your presence, it can be incredibly difficult to just…do…it.
Enter the urban meditation studio, a new breed of practice space popping up in urban cen- ters across North America. Offering a modern option befitting the booming mainstream inter- est in meditation, these studios provide begin- ners and seasoned practitioners alike with an array of drop-in sessions, programs, and more, in contemporary digs. According to a few of the enterprising minds behind this trend, the inspi- ration stemmed from personal need. Desiring a friendly, accessible place to sit and be still, when they couldn’t find it, they built it themselves.
Will these studios meet the needs of everyone interested in mindfulness? Probably not. But with new studios opening all the time, it’s clear that a demand exists. Here, owners of three stu- dios share how they are trying to meet it.
Ellie Burrows had no problem going to the gym six days a week, but she could never achieve the same consis- tency with her meditation. “I had a really hard time getting on my cush- ion,” she says. “And I figured I wasn’t the only person struggling with this.” So one day over tea, she asked a friend for suggestions—and she ended up with a lot more than advice. That friend happened to be Lodro Rinzler, a meditation teacher who has written five books on the subject, including The Buddha Walks into a Bar. Sixteen months later, they opened the doors to MNDFL—New York City’s first secu- lar, drop-in meditation studio.
Instruction in traditional medita- tion disciplines is offered, including Zen, Shambhala and Tibetan Bud- dhism. But because Burrows and Rinzler wanted to make the studio welcoming to beginners, they coined user-friendly terms such as MNDFL Breath, for the studio’s signature meditation class, and MNDFL Heart for a loving-kindness practice.
Accessibility also informed the location: The renovated 19th century townhome in Greenwich Village is close to almost all major subway lines. “The dirty little secret about MNDFL is that it’s beautiful,” says Burrows. “But in a way that serves the practice—we created an environ- ment you might want to be in every day.” White-washed brick, skylights, and green living walls create a calming refuge from the city. While the studio is a generous 1,800 square feet, half the space is designated as communal areas and classes are kept small—so it’s easier to get to know your teacher and fellow meditators. Each week, the studio hosts book launches or discussions on such topics as mindful eating or sex and spirituality. And when a class isn’t in session, the room can be used for self- guided practice.
“We have people from all socioeco- nomic backgrounds, all parts of New York, all racial and ethnic back- grounds, sexual orientation, gender identity—you name it,” says Rinzler. The youngest student is 9, the oldest is 91, he says. And after realizing that a language barrier might be keeping some people from meditating, MNDFL began offering an occasional class in Spanish. “It’s been wonderful to see how the space has supported and opened up the practice for so many people,” Rinzler adds. “And that it’s having the effects that meditation does have: kinder, more compassionate individuals here in a pretty harsh city.”
The response has been so great, in fact, that Rinzler and Burrows are in the process of opening a second loca- tion on the Upper East Side. It will feature the same classes and teachers, because as Burrows says, “consistency is key in any mindfulness practice.” Set in a townhouse, it too will have a cozy vibe—as if you were dropping by the house of a dear friend.
With cloud-white walls, pale wood floors, and violet light emanating from the studio, the aesthetic at Unplug Meditation is a far cry from your aver- age recreation center. “I wanted it to feel like heaven,” says owner Suze Yalof Schwartz. “I wanted people to walk in and immediately feel comfortable.”
It’s exactly what she had been hunting for when she first discov- ered the power of meditation. As a fashion editor at Glamour and Vogue, Yalof Schwartz had been living the so-called “dream.” Anointed “the fairy godmother of makeovers” by The New York Times, she was doing regular segments on Good Morning America and the Today Show, and rubbing elbows with the likes of Tyra Banks and Oprah. But life was getting increasingly hectic. When her mother- in-law led her through a three-minute breathing and visualization exercise, it was a revelation. She started to look for places to learn how to meditate, but the only choices she found were pricey training programs or retreats. “I thought, ‘Where is the Drybar for meditation? Where you can walk in feeling icky and walk out feeling great, and do it quickly?’” she recalls. “As a mother of three, I didn’t have a lot of time or money to spend on it.”
So she took a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, a Vedic meditation program, and any and every other meditation class she could find. After each session she thought about how she wanted to adapt these techniques to suit her vision. “In a five-minute TV segment, you need to edit and simplify so that people know what they’re learning, they are able
to practice it and can walk away with a takeaway,” she says. “I wanted my meditation classes to actually be like those TV segments: colorful, short, and succinct.”
That’s exactly what Unplug offers. Most sessions are kept to 30 to 45 minutes, so you can drop by before work, during your lunch hour, or before you go out at night. (Students meditate in everything from yoga gear to suits.) There are more traditional sessions that focus on the breath as well as ones that use sound baths and tapping, among other techniques. “There are so many different things out there that I love, so for me Unplug is kind of like the ‘best of’ album, edited,” Yalof Schwartz says. “I wanted people to be able to explore all the different ways they can meditate.”
Some people feel this à la carte approach may trivialize the simple power of meditation practice. Some people are worried the practice is being over-simplified. “One woman asked me, ‘Aren’t you afraid you’re going to turn it in McMindfulness?’ I said ‘No—I want everyone to be able to get something out of it,’” Yalof Schwartz says. “I want to share what I learned in three minutes with every person that I meet for the rest of my life.”
The DEN Meditation
Tal Rabinowitz came up with the concept for The DEN while she was still logging long hours as an exec- utive at NBC. Trained in Transcen- dental Meditation, she’d try to fit in a 20-minute sessions at work, but it was easy to skip whenever her to-do list was too long (which was often). “For me, creating DEN was absolutely to fill a hole I was looking for,” she says. “I knew what I wanted the space to look like and I had very specific ideas about accessibility.” She wanted a wel- coming place where you could drop in before or after work, a place where as she puts it: “You don’t have to become a monk. You don’t have to feel like you have to be vegan. You don’t have to subscribe to certain ways of being, or having or dressing or talking.”
A producer at heart, she made lists of everything it would take to build, drew up budgets and business plans, and created schedules. The resulting studio in LA’s stylish La Brea neigh- borhood looks more like a cozy bar or café. In the common area, richly hued rugs dot the dark wood floors and there are plenty of comfortable chairs and couches where you can talk and grab a cup of tea before class. Candles, featuring The DEN’s signature scent, flicker throughout the studio.
“It had to feel like anybody could gather with friends at any age, and just enjoy each other’s company. And it’s been really amazing to watch it happen,” Rabinowitz says. “I’ve watched friendships form among peo- ple who probably never would have met otherwise.”
That inclusive feeling extends to the broad offering of classes, which range from traditional mindfulness sessions to Kundalini yoga.
From the first day, attendance at the studio has been solid. “I looked around and there was actually a bunch of people I didn’t know in the space, using it,” Rabinowitz says. “That’s what I’m most proud of—I put something out there and it’s getting used in a way that’s really benefitting people, making them happy and changing their lives.”