For-profit meditation centers are the new yoga studios – Crain’s New York Business

Can money buy happiness? It’s an age-old question that researchers recently have become eager to answer. A 2016 study by Case Western Reserve University found that making more money reduced negative emotions for people earning less than $80,000, but the benefits disappeared after the $200,000 threshold was reached. That may help explain why businessman Khajak Keledjian “felt an emptiness” when he sold a minority stake in his retail company, Intermix, to a private-equity firm in 2007, a transaction that’s typically considered a victory. “The world that I was in—this very driven New York world—didn’t have a pause button,” he said. “I needed something that gave me balance.”

A close friend, Quest Partners founder Nigol Koulajian, urged him to look beyond the visible and the material. “At that time I actually didn’t know what he meant by that,” said Keledjian, raising his eyebrows in mock disbelief. And yet he was intrigued and restless enough to embark on a personal quest that led him to kundalini yoga, which incorporates challenging breathing techniques; vipassana, one of India’s ancient forms of meditation; and Burning Man, a free-spirited art and music festival in Nevada. Keledjian, a 2008 Crain’s 40 Under 40 honoree, sold Intermix to Gap for $130 million in 2012. He eventually started his own meditation company, Inscape.


A new spin on the yoga studio

Investors jumped at the chance to participate in his new venture, according to Keledjian. “There was hardly any selling,” he said. “We just went through some key people.”

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One of Inscape’s high-profile backers is Gary Vaynerchuk of Vayner Capital, a professed believer in both mindfulness and the sector’s growth potential. Research company IBISWorld estimated that meditation-related businesses raked in nearly $1 billion in 2015, which doesn’t include revenue from the hundreds of mindfulness apps currently available.

And corporations have embraced the trend on behalf of their employees; it’s been well-established that being plugged in 24/7 can wreak havoc on the mind and body. Google reportedly began teaching meditation to its employees, with more straight-laced companies such as McKinsey & Co. and BlackRock following suit.


“This country has gotten wealthier, but if you look at people’s happiness, it’s down,” said Keledjian. “Everyone’s intellect is filled to capacity.”

Inscape opened last November in the Flatiron District and is part of a small but rapidly growing group of meditation venues that operate like boutique fitness studios and look worthy of a decor magazine. Unlike traditional mindfulness centers, which often offer a limited schedule for group practice and are associated with one of various Buddhist schools of thought (which some people might consider too sectarian), Inscape’s model is purposely secular and adapted to a fast-paced lifestyle, with short classes offered throughout the day.

Another difference is the explicitly for-profit business model: These are not the donation-based temples staffed by volunteers that were born out of the hippie generation.

“When people found out I was meditating, they started reaching out to me, constantly asking questions,” Keledjian recalled. “There was clearly a demand, but nobody was offering a modern experience that was neutral and consistent.”

(Other entrepreneurs were thinking along the same lines; more on that later.)

Partnering with Lew Frankfort, executive chairman and former CEO of Coach, Keledjian opened a 5,000-square-foot studio that offers audio-guided meditation sessions with breathing exercises, sound therapy, visualization and other relaxation techniques put together by mindfulness professionals. It’s an approach to creating a brand that resembles Keledjian’s mix-and-match ethos at Intermix, known for its curated collection of luxury clothing labels. There’s also an app, which for a $12.99 monthly subscription or $89.99 yearly serves up versions of the on-site classes.

Inscape’s spacious reception area, furnished with clean-line sofas and oversize bean-bag chairs in neutral colors, was designed to provide a sense of serenity. Two meditation rooms created by Dutch architect Winka Dubbeldam look like otherworldly cocoons featuring LEDs and round-edge cushions designed in collaboration with French furniture maker Ligne Roset. The recorded meditation sessions are narrated by a soothing female voice with an Australian accent, meant to help listeners visualize themselves in a faraway land.

Inscape launched with 27 weekly classes and now has about 60. A single session starts at $18, depending on duration, and unlimited memberships are $168 per month or $1,680 per year.


Entering the state of Zen

In New York, Inscape’s main competition is MNDFL, which opened its first studio, in Greenwich Village, in 2015 and recently unveiled two other locations, in Williamsburg and on the Upper East Side. Founded by Ellie Burrows, a former film executive, and Lodro Rinzler, an experienced meditation teacher who now carries the title chief spiritual officer, MNDFL offers nonreligious, drop-in classes. The sessions are more traditional than Inscape’s, meaning they’re led by in-person instructors. In fact, the company’s motto is “Real traditions. Real teachers. Real techniques.”


Photo: Buck Ennis

CLEARING THE MIND: 
Rinzler and Burrows 
say meditation centers 
could be as common 
and mainstream as coffee shops one day.

“The environment is secular, but the teachers are trained in various religious traditions,” said Rinzler, who was raised Buddhist. “No one made this stuff up last week.”

MNDFL’s single classes start at $18 for 30 minutes, with monthly memberships set at $150. The company also offers hourlong private sessions for $150 each. The daily schedule has an ongoing roster of thematic meditations with names such as Emotions, Sleep and Breath, each one accommodating about 25 people.

Burrows and Rinzler, who started the company with seed money from friends and family, say that while they knew that meditation was becoming mainstream—”I had a hunch that meditation spaces would someday open like coffee shops,” Rinzler said—they were blown away by the response they received.

In addition to its brick-and-mortar studios, each designed to evoke the feeling of Scandinavian coziness, the company created a video series geared toward on-the-go meditators and a corporate program that sends teachers to different offices throughout the city, a service that has undergone “unexpected growth,” they said.

“At this time last year, our evening classes in the Village started selling out,” said Burrows. “We now have about 1,000 people coming to that studio every week, and the new locations are steadily building.”

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