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Illustration by Brian McGovern
Illustration by Brian McGovern

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Just Breathe: Why Meditation Is Going Mainstream

Four months ago former Glamour editor Suze Yalof Schwartz opened Unplug, imagining it as a "modern meditation studio" where guided classes are easy, soothing and accessible.

Cruise through the posh Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood, and you'll drive past all the hot spots: the local farmers' market, a smattering of spinning studios, a boutique coffee shop—and a new trendy meditation spot, Unplug.

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Four months ago former Glamour editor Suze Yalof Schwartz opened Unplug, imagining it as a "modern meditation studio" where guided classes are easy, soothing and accessible.

"I want Unplug to be the Drybar of meditation," Yalof Schwartz told Racked. "There needs to be a place to just pop in and meditate, not take eight-week programs that cost $1400 and are in the middle of nowhere."

Don't expect obvious Buddha vibes courtesy of religious iconography and yogi-style chanting. After walking through a bamboo courtyard—complete with giant waterfall—Unplug's customers will find themselves in a dimly-lit white studio with simple floor-cushions. There, they practice the basics of meditation: breathing deeply in silence, focusing on said breathing and letting go of inner thoughts.

Unplug has seen thousands of people flock to its $20 sessions (which last between 30 and 45 minutes) in the past few months, all but confirming the rising public interest in meditation.

Inside Unplug's meditation studio. Photo courtesy of Unplug

According to Psychology Today, 10 million Americans practice some form of meditation. Once a ritual associated with Buddhists, Kabbalists and the sort, it has become a universal practice adopted by highly successful types like Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs and Arianna Huffington (who held a meditation session at Unplug last month)—even Katy Perry is getting in the action.

Much like yoga, juicing, and other alternative health trends that became mainstreamed, more simplified meditation practices have evolved to cater to the general public. And it's no surprise this holistic exercise is finally catching on with the masses: Among meditation's reported benefits are increased blood flow, decreased muscle tension and enhanced creativity.

Though scientists are now pushing for further research, hundreds of studies have been conducted to trace its effect on areas like heart rate and blood pressure. Earlier this year, researchers at John Hopkins found that eight weeks of meditation was just as effective as medication in the treatment of anxiety and depression; John Denninger, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, is currently leading a five-year government-funded study to prove exactly how mind-body medicine affects genes and the brain. Yalof Schwartz believes in meditation's tangible benefits too—she says it even helps her tame her inner shopaholic—and says Unplug is sponsoring blood-work studies for the studio's use.

A meditation session at the Wanderlust Festival in Tremblant, Quebec. Photo courtesy of Wanderlust

"Meditation is like yoga—there's been a mass recent interest," noted Sean Hoess, co-founder of Wanderlust, a network of wellness festivals around the world. "It used to be that if you meditated, you were seen as Governor Moonbeam. It was a fringe activity. It's amazing to see how mainstream meditating has become."

Next month, in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, Wanderlust will host its first Mindful Triathlon, which includes a 5K run, a yoga practice and a meditation session. The Wanderlust festivals, which have been around for six years, are constantly evolving to fit community needs, Hoess said; they've added art and music components recently, and now meditation is in high demand. He expects some 10,000 people to attend September's event, which he calls perfect for beginners.

Stripping the act of meditation down to its barest essentials is what many believe will be the key to its continued rise. Yalof Schwartz explains that her bare, Pinterest-inspired studio reflects the simple, no-frills practice she wants to convey; at Unplug, she sees customers drop by on their lunch breaks dressed in suits and ties.

"Fundamentally, meditation is very simple, but I find it's made to be very complicated," she said. "It should be welcoming, clean, chic—no Buddhas. You shouldn't have to think about where you are. You just let go of the focus and slide into thinking. The way yoga used to be exclusive and now there's a yoga studio on every corner, the same thing is happening with meditation. We are hyper-connected and need to unplug."

Hush is bringing new-school meditation to Portland. Photo courtesy of Hush

Over in Portland, Oregon, Kristin Reiter's new studio, Hush, has a similar pop-in-and-meditate model. Reiter, who works full-time as Nike's Global Concept Director, opened Hush a few weeks ago to family and friends and will open to the public in three weeks. Reiter told Racked she's less interested in the profit of opening a business and more focused on making meditation accessible.

"The overall intent is to make meditation really fundamental and easy to understand," Reiter said. "The idea is that we are creative professional people, and we're inundated with information and constantly sold to. There's a lot going on, but then take all that away and suggest nothingness. You disconnect from everything and take care of yourself."

Reiter said she turned to meditation after she "got to a point of asking if anything was meaningful or substantial" while working at Nike. She practiced at the Buddhist San Francisco Zen Center—the same studio Steve Jobs meditated at—and while the space was "gorgeous" and "amazing," she found herself imagining one with the same credibility but without the religious attachments.

"I don't want meditation to be an afterthought, like at the end of yoga, or have a hippie, super granola feel. It should feel approachable, where professionals can access the benefits when it's presented in the right way," Reiter said, adding that she hopes meditation practice will soon be taught in schools—a tactic already adopted by some in San Francisco.

Gabrielle Bernstein, a New York-based life coach and meditation instructor, has authored several self-help books and noted that her most recent was tailored specifically to readers interested in "meditation light."

"People want to show up and have a meditation experience, but they don't want to necessarily commit," Bernstein said. "There's been a big shift in a newer generation of folks really seeking. I think the world is waking up to an inner world."

Modern meditation studios' spare aesthetics are part of their appeal. Photo courtesy of Unplug

Last week, Bernstein and wellness guru Deepak Chopra co-hosted the world's largest meditation session, where more than 100,000 people tuned into the live-streamed event. Bernstein is also hosting several meditation workshops at New York City's Rubin Museum this month.

"Ultimately, my intention is to introduce meditation to as many people as possible," she said. "Our greatest source of power is our presence, and a daily meditation practice cultivates that sense of presence and owning your energy. The more people that gather to meditate, the more their energy changes and the more the energy of the world will change. It's a ripple effect."

But ancient practices altered to appeal to the masses will always come with critics. For example, many are vehemently opposed to the approach of yogis like Tara Stiles, whose Strala Yoga practice completely removes all religious aspects. Presumably, those tethered to meditation's religious roots might be unhappy with businesses like Unplug, Hush and Wanderlust, but its founders see the evolution of the practice as something the public can only gain from.

"Not everyone is going to withdraw and train for years and do the necessary work for a deeply rigorous practice," Hoess said. "Still, you absolutely can benefit from a less rigorous one. This way, you give people a way in, and if they choose to go deeper, that's great, they can go deeper somewhere else. You don't have to live in a cave for five years to have a meditation practice—you can still have a life."

"The more people we have doing this, the better," Yalof Schwartz added. "It we get the corporate guy in the meditation studio because it's less spiritual, that's a good thing. It doesn't matter how it's taught, just that it exists."


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