Put Your Money Where Your Mind Is: A For-Profit Meditation Studio Opens in New York

From MNDFL's Facebook page
From MNDFL's Facebook page

Ellie Burrows and Lodro Rinzler had their big idea over a cup of tea. Certain details change with the telling (was it a nail salon or a hair salon?), but here’s the official version: during a teatime conversation, Burrows asked Rinzler “why there wasn’t a modern, non-religious, drop-in studio where she could meditate in the same way she could drop into a salon and get her hair done.” Rinzler, it turned out, had been thinking along the same lines. They drew up a plan.

I’m not a Buddhist teacher, but I can think of at least two answers to Burrows’ question. Answer one: the diverse, millennia-old practices of meditation are not necessarily equivalent to hair-and-nail care. Answer number two: the non-religious bit aside, those kinds of places already exist, and they are called temples.

Rinzler and Burrows came up with a third answer, which is why they’re now the owners of a much-buzzed-about new business in Greenwich Village, whereas I’m still a freelance journalist, hustling for gigs. Rinzler and Burrow’s new meditation studio, MNDFL, is just a block away from Washington Square Park, in one of New York City’s most chic areas. For the price of two entrees at Denny’s (plus a dessert), you can drop in for a 45-minute session that includes a brief introduction, a guided meditation, and a debrief Q&A with one of MNDFL’s 27 teachers. Special deals are available for your first month of visits.

“In this branded form, it offers both health benefits and pleasure, and it can be delivered in the context of a straightforward consumer transaction.”

Not counting the orgasmic meditation chain OneTaste, MNDFL is the East Coast’s first for-profit meditation studio. As a cynic might point out, it looks an awful lot like a privatized temple—a sangha with a profit motive; dharma for dollars. The company does not phrase its mission in quite those terms. “MNDFL exists to enable humans to feel good,” the website explains.

In its DNA, the company is one half executive, one half spiritual. Burrows is a film executive-turned-life coach-turned-“spiritual tourist,” while Rinzler is a longtime meditation teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. His 2012 book, The Buddha Walks into a Bar, has sold widely.

Over the phone, I asked Rinzler why he and Burrows had chosen to establish the studio as a for-profit company. “We really wanted to make sure we had all the resources we need for supporting people who are trying meditation for the first time,” Rinzler explained. Because they’re a business, there’s more professionalism. The teachers they’ve hired show up on time, and, as Rinzler put it, “you’re not just holding it together with duct tape.”

In truth, opening a business in Manhattan isn’t exactly cheap. And MNDFL offers a range of class times and options that few temples or nonprofit meditation centers would be able to match.

For yoga practitioners, the story here might sound familiar. A spiritual practice, fresh from the exotic Orient, becomes popular among American elites, and adapts itself to the world of for-profit fitness instruction. You might say that MNDFL is aiming to yogify mindfulness-oriented meditation. Yes, it’s the mind you’re stretching, not the muscles. But in both cases, a ritual practice has been repackaged as a service. In this branded form, it offers both health benefits and pleasure, and it can be delivered in the context of a straightforward consumer transaction.

What we’ve got here is just one more instance of an American trend—a trend that is drawing spiritual practices deeper into the world of consumer culture. 

An unlikely prosperity gospel

In the past five weeks, the Harvard Business Review has run six separate articles online about the benefits of mindfulness. If anything, HBR is behind the times. Mindfulness practices have become common in the business world where they’re thought to improve performance. Advocates have pushed this kind of mental training for schools and prisons as well. They frame mindfulness in terms of self-improvement, often with specific strategic goals in mind.

“When you secularize a practice, you open it up to new groups of people. You also make it more available to commodification.”

The melding of Eastern spirituality and American capitalism isn’t new. As the popularity of yoga demonstrates, adapted ritual practices can sell. (Much the same could be said, too, about many martial arts). Spiritual practices can also be harnessed for corporate ends. “American capitalism has had a long and durable romance with Eastern spirituality,” Michelle Goldberg wrote last year on newyorker.com. “For well over a century,” she continued, “business-minded Americans have been transforming Hindu and Buddhist contemplative practices into an unlikely prosperity gospel.”

Prosperity gospels and contemporary mindfulness practice share a profound belief in the power of the mind. Redirect your faith, prosperity gospel preachers claim, and you will be rewarded with health, happiness, and material wealth. Redirect your thoughts, the mindfulness gurus claim, and you will be rewarded with health, happiness, and, if you’re taking a meditation class at work, better profit margins. This approach treats religious practice as something individual and instrumental. You do it in order to get something for yourself, perhaps with broader benefits for the rest of the world down the line (I’m happier… and also more compassionate!).

With a few tweaks, Buddhist practices of mindfulness meditation fit right into this American tradition. Since the 1970s, Americans have used quiet, awareness-based contemplative practices to calm and focus their minds. Much of this is thanks to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight-week course. Kabat-Zinn studied mindfulness meditation under the Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, but he has emphasized the psychological and neurological benefits of mindfulness practices. His MBSR program is presented as a therapeutic regimen, not a spiritual practice.

Scientific justifications secularize meditation. In this approach, meditation is not about conquering desire. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with transmigrating souls. There’s lab data to back you up, regardless of the metaphysics.

When you secularize a practice, you open it up to new groups of people. You also make it more available to commodification. Today, a studio like MNDFL can insist that it’s a non-religious space, even as it draws on religious traditions. “The secularization is explicitly designed to make [mindfulness] more marketable,” said Jeff Wilson, a Buddhism scholar at Renison University College in Canada and the author of Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture. “One secularizes in order to better commodify, such that one can more effectively market to a wide range of people, or simply a not-yet-served niche of people,” Wilson said.RDinboxIn Mindful America, Wilson traces the movement of mindfulness practices from explicitly Buddhist religious contexts into the market—from a world where you have to go to a retreat center to study with a religious teacher for a weekend, to one in which mindfulness means participating in a multibillion dollar industry, with everything from mindful diets to mindful Marines.

I asked Wilson whether MNDFL was really unusual within this larger mindfulness-and-meditation scene. He pointed out that there are already quite a few nonprofit meditation centers in the area—the Village Zendo is 10 blocks away, and The Interdependence Project, a secular meditation center, is close by. But Wilson does see MNDFL as something new. “What’s unique about this,” he told me, “is simply the branding. That’s what this is about.”

You don’t need the Buddha

Considering its origin story, it’s appropriate that MNDFL’s studio is sandwiched between a hair salon and a nail salon, deep in the Village. The décor is a mix of wood, white paint, and plants, which cover patches of the walls in living installations. Upon entering, visitors are invited to take off their shoes and make a cup of tea. Next to the check-in desk, MNDFL offers its merchandise, including $40 T-shirts and $32 tank tops. For $150, you can buy a special candle in a porcelain jar, and meditation cushions branded with MNDFL’s handsome heptagonal logo retail for $75. There are stacks of Rinzler’s books for sale, along with titles like Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience and The Wisdom of Insecurity.

Rinzler told me that their clientele has been diverse—racially, socioeconomically, and in terms of sexual orientation. When I asked how socioeconomically diverse MNDFL’s target market could be when even the cheapest package charges $26 per hour of class time, Rinzler pointed me toward their beginners’ special, which offers unlimited classes for the first month for $50.

My sister, who recently took MNDFL’s 45-minute-long sound-based meditation class, described the attendees as clearly affluent, and “whiter than a Blitzen Trapper concert.”

MNDFL is not the only boutique for-profit meditation studio. Nor is it the first. A studio called Unplug opened in 2014 in Los Angeles. Deepak Chopra has taught a class there. Good Morning America recently included Unplug in a segment on mindfulness. The studio was opened by a longtime editor at Glamour, Suze Yalof Schwartz. In a phone interview, Yalof Schwartz said that she decided to open the studio when she couldn’t easily find a place to learn meditation.

I asked Yalof Schwartz how Unplug differed from the dozens of Buddhist centers that immigrants and hippies have sprinkled across the hills of Southern California. “Meditation is a science,” she replied. “It’s literally build[ing] your brain. You don’t need the Buddha.” She explained that “my business is geared to people who don’t have a lot of time,” and who “don’t want to feel like they’re doing anything religious.”

Both Yalof Schwartz and Rinzler gave similar answers for why their studios exist: to help people slow down in a hyperdigital world—and to do so in a space that is explicitly non-religious. And when I asked Yalof Schwartz about the costs—which are even higher than MNDFL’s—she gave the same answer as Rinzler: the first month, at least, is cheap. It’s just $40 for unlimited classes. “If you can afford a Starbucks,” Yalof Schwartz said, “you can afford to meditate.”

“What these companies share is a willingness to frame spiritual practice or ethical action as a kind of service. This service can be purchased.”

There are key differences, though, between MNDFL and Unplug. Rinzler was born into the Shambhala world and taught meditation for 15 years; Yalof Schwartz decided to open Unplug before she began studying meditation at all. And MNDFL is more open about its spiritual dimensions, even if it describes itself as non-religious. Rinzler, unlike Yalof Schwartz, downplays the scientific justifications for meditation. “I come from a Buddhist background that’s been saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve been telling you guys this for 2,600 years,’” Rinzler said in a talk at Google last February, after citing research about meditation’s neurological benefits.

But the pricing model, the basic business plan, and even the aesthetic (“white on white on white” said Yalof Schwartz of her studio’s décor) seem similar for both studios. It’s possible that MNDFL just borrowed heavily from Unplug. But both businesses are also drawing on the templates of a larger cultural movement that fuses spirituality, self-improvement, and commerce.

The benefits of religion, but not the downsides

The closest analogue to MNDFL and Unplug seems to be SoulCycle, the boutique spinning gym that has developed a passionate following in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. With MNDFL, at least, the resemblance is more than passing. The studio seems to be explicitly modeled on SoulCycle. The aesthetic is very similar. The language (“book a cushion”) resembles SoulCycle’s (“book a bike”). So does the layout of MNDFL’s online registration portal. Both SoulCycle and MNDFL project a happy-healthy-community vibe, merging the accept-all-comers language of a millennial church with the prices of an upscale nail salon. And the origin story is basically the same: two people with complementary expertise get together; while chatting, they wonder why a certain service isn’t available, and they hatch a business plan. 

When I wrote about SoulCycle last August, shortly after the company announced its intention to hold an IPO, I pointed out that the chain has many of the trappings of a religious organization. There’s a lot of talk about building community; explicit references to spiritual growth; and, you know, all that soul. But unlike your typical house of worship, SoulCycle offers those spiritual trappings in the context of a for-profit model, with a high price barrier and a strong association with urban coastal elites.

Much the same can be said about MNDFL and Unplug. In this model, they are not alone. There are yoga studios, of course. There are other spiritualized spinning companies, too, including Peloton, one of SoulCycle’s surging competitors. Stores that appeal to ethics and universal values in order to market their products also fit into this category—think Whole Foods Market, Patagonia, and TOMS shoes.

What these companies share is a willingness to frame spiritual practice or ethical action as a kind of service. This service can be purchased. As with any consumer product, it is tailored to the needs of a specific individual. And as with any branded product, these services target specific class groups.

“…they want spiritual goods, but within the protective, customer-is-in-charge framework of commercial consumption.”

Wilson, the Buddhism scholar, argues that this approach to spirituality serves a market in which people “want the benefits of religion, but not the downsides of religion.”

“They want the meditation practice, on demand, to provide them with health, and peace, and calmness,” Wilson told The Cubit. “But they don’t want the supposed downsides of religion, such as dogmas, rules, being beholden to others, power differentials, belief in things that don’t exist, and all this.” In other words, they want spiritual goods, but within the protective, customer-is-in-charge framework of commercial consumption.

For studios like MNDFL and Unplug, the question is whether meditation is suited to this explicitly commercial context, and, specifically, to that drop-in, gym-for-the-mind model. Both studios have generated considerable media attention. Unplug is planning to expand to New York and London, Yalof Schwartz told me. And both seem to be filling classes, although, at least in the case of MNDFL, it’s hard to tell whether group classes are actually intended to drive profits, or whether it’s the merchandise, corporate classes, and individual instruction that will really bring in cash.

The bigger question is whether this trend will continue. Certainly, it is ascendant. For many affluent Americans today, ethics and spirituality look more and more like a commercial service. “People used to go to church on Sunday—that was their weekly ritual and their community,” Peloton co-founder John Foley told Bloomberg Businessweek last year. “Most 25 year-olds aren’t relating on that platform, but it’s ‘I’ll see you at the studio.’” Places like MNDFL seem to be betting that Foley’s observation will bear out.

If you have true faith in the market, you might think that this transition will just make the delivery of mindfulness and community all the more efficient. But there’s a long American tradition of religious groups acting as a counterbalance to the weight of consumerist culture. For those with less faith in the commercial model, the situation might seem a little grim. Siddhartha Gautama set out to eliminate desire. But perhaps desire’s greatest structural incarnation—the marketplace—will eliminate him.

Thanks to Leah Schulson and Ethan McCurdy for contributing reporting from New York.

Also on RD: Religious, Spiritual, and “None of the Above”: How Did Mindfulness Get So Big?

More from The Cubit: The Invention of a Corporate Christian America