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Meditation: No Texts, Please, We’re Meditating

Source: NYTimes
By Caren Osten Gerszberg
Date: March 18, 2016

When a photo of a wall covered in lush green foliage showed up on Grace Clarke’s Instagram feed, she felt an immediate urge to track it down. Stressed out and headed to a meeting at Madewell, where she works as a social media copy editor, Ms. Clarke saw that the wall’s location was on East Eighth Street in Manhattan at a meditation studio called MNDFL, which opened in November.

The next morning, Ms. Clarke, 29, went to the studio and spent 30 minutes in a meditation class led by Lodro Rinzler, one of MNDFL’s founders.

Since that session last December, Ms. Clarke has attended classes nearly every other day, often early in the morning, before work. “Having a place with a stripped-down aesthetic and a menu of classes makes it feel very approachable and promotes a sense of calm amid the craziness,” she said. “It’s a time-efficient way to quiet my mind so I can think more thoughtfully in life and work.”

With increasing attention being paid to the physical and emotional benefits of meditation — lowered levels of stress and anxiety, an improved immune system, better sleep and a drop in blood pressure, to name a few — practice is finding new adherents in New York City. As meditation studios like MNDFL and Unplug are opening, classes and events are also being held in public parks, art museums, hotels and branches of the New York Public Library.

Meditation has been around for more than 2,500 years, but it has taken a secular approach and scientific research — not to mention added publicity from technology companies like Google and Apple, which encourage employees to meditate — to reintroduce it into popular culture. But can meditation, and its cousin, “mindfulness,” become staples of urban life the way that yoga, a rarity until the early 1990s, has become a widespread activity?

Learning to focus on the breath, the sounds of a Tibetan singing bowl or the lovingkindness in your heart may not be for everyone, but given its numerous benefits, more New Yorkers are deciding that meditation seems worth a try. “The secular approach to meditation is opening a lot of doors right now when it comes to brain health and stress relief,” said Dawn Eshelman, the head of performing arts at the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea, where she has been involved in starting meditation sessions. “That’s something a lot of people can understand and relate to. And who wouldn’t want less stress in their lives?”

Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher with 45 years of experience and the author of the best-selling book “Real Happiness,” said: “There’s been a whole secularization of the movement, and you now hear about it in a medical context and as stress reduction more than anything, like the mental gym. It can be off-putting to walk into a room with statues that you may not be able to relate to. So why not create that environment where people can drop things that are causing them stress, and do it in a contemporary way that doesn’t freak people out? It meets a lot of needs.”

For many, meditation studios and classes have become a way to slow down, something many New Yorkers crave in this era of constant connection. “People’s phones are making them bananas,” said Dina Kaplan, founder of the Path, which offers weekly meditation gatherings at the Standard hotel in the East Village and a monthly event that pops up at different venues. “There are lots of ways to make your body beautiful, but if you want to make your mind function better and find meaning in your life, meditation is the best way.”

The cozy, contemporary lounge area at MNDFL fills up before and after each class with people hanging out and sipping tea. Ethan Herschenfeld, a 47-year-old actor and opera singer, took his first meditation class in December and has since gone to classes almost daily, experimenting with MNDFL’s varied offerings (Breath, Mantra and Heart, for example), which are each based on a different tradition. “Meditation brings me serenity and helps me deal with the things that are out of my control,” he said.

All sorts of people are finding themselves sitting together. “Our customer is everyone, because there is an investment banker sitting next to a tree hugger next to a doctor next to a stressed-out mom,” said Suze Yalof Schwartz, owner of Unplug, which is based in Los Angeles and is expected to open a New York location later this year. “I see how people feel better after coming to the studio one time, and the more they come the more I see their attitude toward life changing.”

A sense of community — and freedom from distraction — draws New Yorkers together for an activity that can actually be practiced alone. “Many people in this city don’t have enough physical space to set up an area to meditate, and they’re always going to be distracted by the stain on the carpet or their to-do list,” said Mr. Rinzler. “Having a dedicated space where you can go to meditate really brings the practice to life for people.”

MNDFL has grown quickly since it opened, Mr. Rinzler said. “People sign up to give it a chance for a month and can then practice on their own, but they come back because it’s the community that supports the endeavor,” he said. The fee for the first month at MNDFL is $50 for unlimited classes, and after that jumps to $200 a month. Individual classes are priced at $15 for 30 minutes and $25 for 45 minutes. Normal classes seat 22, but when an event features relatively well-known teachers like Sharon Salzberg or Elena Brower, they’ll squeeze in a few extra cushions so 40 people can attend.

The Path offers its customers a chance to meditate but without a home base. The business has formed partnerships with places like ABC Home and the Standard hotel in the East Village, which host sessions. The weekly “sits” — 30 minutes long with meditation and tea — at the Standard cost $24 and are free to hotel guests; a monthly membership of $85 includes admission to the weekly sits and some meditation-related social events.

The Path’s larger social gatherings include events like a February session with Thom Knoles, a master vedic (a form of mantra meditation) meditation teacher. It drew 100 people to a SoHo apartment, where those who paid $68 could have dinner; those who had paid $200 could stay for tea in a smaller group with Mr. Knoles. “The Path has developed relationships with people and event spaces that are a win-win for everyone,” Ms. Kaplan said. “Our social events have become so popular because people want to meet others who are not checking their cellphones every two seconds.”

“Meditation is part of a wellness trend,” said Ben Turshen, 34, a former lawyer and SoulCycle instructor, and founder of Ben Turshen Meditation, which opened nearly a year ago. “It was once part of a culture associated with monks and hippies, and now we see professional athletes and high-level achievers using meditation to enhance performance.”

For people who want to deepen their experience, there are places that teach traditional vedic meditation, where practitioners are given a specific mantra to use wherever they are in a session. At both Ziva Meditation and Ben Turshen Meditation, you can take a free introductory class, and then sign up for the eight-hour course, given over four days, which costs $400 to $1,200.

Last August, the Rubin Museum began offering a weekly mindfulness meditation series that is free for members and open to ticket buyers. “It’s been massively popular from the beginning, where we were selling out even in the middle of August,” said Ms. Eshelman. “Museums are considered reflective places that inspire us to look at the world more deeply, and the boomerang effect is that we look more deeply within ourselves.”

Dr. Patricia A. Bloom, an associate professor of geriatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, leads a weekly drop-in meditation session at the Asia Society on the Upper East Side, where the crowds have been growing. During the 30-minute session, which are open to the public and free of charge, Dr. Bloom exposes people to a different practice each week: sitting meditation, concentration practice using mindfulness techniques and walking meditation, using the aisles of the auditorium.

At a recent session, Dr. Bloom saw the room fill with people from the area: a young couple who had just moved from Australia, a crew in their 20s and an older woman in a wheelchair. “Right away people appreciate the benefits and say, ‘Oh yeah, that felt really good,’” she said.

Some doctors have recommended meditation for patients who have illnesses like heart disease and high blood pressure, or are just plain worn out. “For these stressed-out finance dudes, they are not stumbling across meditation because they want something more spiritual, they are coming because of the health benefits,” Mr. Rinzler, a MNDFL founder, said.

The New York Public Library offered its first meditation session at the Harlem branch in July 2013. Last year, there were a total of 249 programs offered at 18 locations. “Branches were saying they wanted more programs in their communities on topics like health and stress release,” said Kelly Yim, 39, the library’s adult program specialist. “It’s nice for people to come to a quiet surrounding they are familiar with and meditate.”

Nili Suhami, 46, brought meditation to Governors Island Park last summer, opening it to anyone. A former technology product development manager who moved to New York from Israel 16 years ago and now teaches meditation, Ms. Suhami loved the idea of bringing meditation to the public; no need to venture to a retreat if you can find it in a public park. After applying for use of a building in Nolan Park, she created Meditation Summer. For six summer weekends, people could attend a guided meditation session, attend an educational presentation, and peruse an exhibit on meditation and the brain, at no cost. She is in the process of planning this year’s program.

Medi Club’s focus is making meditation modern and socially appealing to millennials. Last June, its founder, Jesse Israel, 31, a music entrepreneur and founder of The Big Quiet, brought more than 700 people together to meditate in Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield. “We are blending modern culture with conscious living,” said Mr. Israel. “We are creating a space where people are able to return to the lost art of socializing, where they can connect about things that exist internally, not just about where they work and what they’re wearing.”

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