Does L.A.’s Absurd, Narcissistic, and Pricey Mindfulness Trend Have Its Benefits?

In Los Angeles, mindfulness has become a hot commodity
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I pull up to a dusty Palm Springs conference center whose lawn is littered with people doing aerial yoga and energy healing, not to mention a lady who is literally marching to the beat of her own drum as she flails with a bongo. This is Wellspring, a mindfulness festival from Wanderlust (a company in the business of self-actualization events). Wellspring has everything you could want from a “wellness gathering”—free CBD massage, sound baths, a machine emitting blue Back to the Future-like currents that supposedly electrocute your chakras into alignment, flower crowns, meditation intensives, and, of course, Russell Brand. It’s the Coachella of natural highs.

 

I’m wearing typical conference gear—a nice dress, jewelry, and heels—which is all wrong. I’m the only one not in yoga pants. (Side note: I’ve never seen so many flawless backsides in one place.) For a crowd that values diversity and individuality, they all seem to be pulling from the exact same shelf—it looks like a his-and-hers Lululemon ad.

I part the sea of tanned, chaturanga-chiseled arms and dodge inquiring looks at my attire. Call it jealousy if you will, but I find the perfection radiating out of every pore in this place kind of gut-churning.

Right away I happen upon a meditation circle. For years Hollywood’s depiction of a meditation teacher was an old Asian master with a long white beard at the top of a mountain. The leader of this circle is as far from that guy as you can get. She’s young, blond, gorgeous and knows it. Her history with meditation is shorter than the Bird scooter fad. After reading to us about how today’s alignment of stars might affect our practice, she begins telling us that she wasn’t the nicest in high school. As she goes on, I get the sense that’s an understatement and we’re dealing with a reformed Regina George from Mean Girls. She says she was that way until she was about 19, which, so far as I can tell, was five minutes ago. She leads a mantra meditation, spending the full 15 minutes with a hand over her heart, head tilted dreamily to the side, whispering, “May I forgive myself” over and over again. We all do the same mantra, bringing to mind our own misdeeds—may I forgive myself for not packing yoga pants?—as the kind of music they have at Chinese foot-rub places tinkles in the background.

I’ve spent as much money on therapy as the next Angeleno and can appreciate self-forgiveness, but I wonder—is this what L.A. mindfulness is actually about? Trying to feel better about ourselves so we can more comfortably do what we do best—self-obsess? Or is “Regina” here actually the face of a new (but no less genuine) spiritual tradition?

 

Back in Los Angeles, I intend to find out. Over the past decade or so mindfulness has caught on like the Macarena. Part realization-seeking, part stress-reduction, part science, the mindfulness movement isn’t easily pinpointed. But the general consensus, from Stanford professors to Gwyneth Paltrow, is that it works. Studies from the world’s best research institutes confirm mindfulness’s quieting effect on anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and the like. A 2018 Harvard study says meditation affects the expression of our genes and can regulate sleep, blood pressure, and anti-inflammatory response. Mindfulness is rooted in ancient mystic traditions and verified by modern science, but the question of what it means to us remains. Is it religious? Spiritual? Or more like hot yoga—purely something we do for the bragging rights and afterglow?

Whatever the reason, it’s gone from social movement to multibillion-dollar industry, fast. Far from “yogis with a dream,” the heavy hitters behind the L.A. mindfulness boom include former Hollywood executives and big-time CEOs. They’ve done what Western Buddhists failed to do (or perhaps avoided) for the last 40-plus years: packaged and purveyed inner peace, en masse. They may not know as much about enlightenment as the yogis who sat in caves practicing meditation for years—but they sure as shanti know how to sell it.

Chief among mindfulness proponents is Suze Yalof Schwartz, CEO and founder of L.A.’s Unplug Meditation, which has locations in Santa Monica and West Hollywood. A former fashion editor at Vogue and Glamour who made regular appearances on Today, Schwartz was known as a makeover guru—a talent she’s now applying to meditation. “I realized if you go into the history or if you talk really slowly, you’re gonna lose your audience. So I decided to try to make it more broad…. Its roots are in whatever lineage…but I kind of took out all those words.”

The only notable thing about Unplug’s decor is the lack thereof. Schwartz has created a pleasant yet blank space. The studios have kombucha, sparkling water, the La-Z-Boy of meditation chairs, and zero Zen guilt about a few luxuries. The technique is also bare-bones, with its foundation being breathing and contemplation.

Schwartz says her pared-down meditation model is changing lives. One client, a high-profile reality show producer, was sent by a fertility doctor while on her fourth round of in vitro fertilization. She took time off from work and came to meditate twice daily, which, according to Schwartz, did the trick. The woman soon had a baby whose conception she credits to Unplug.

This mindful miracle is not singular. Santa Monica psychologist Chris Marrero offers biofeedback training: a method of hooking patients up to a machine and literally showing them how to control their own vital signs through mindfulness practice. Marrero is chock-full of biofeedback success stories, including one about an agoraphobic patient who was able to cut his medication by 75 percent within six months. “Just being able to regulate his body in a different way has allowed him to take those steps,” she says.

Across town on La Brea, the Den Meditation looks like a posh living room in a loft, complete with a complimentary loose-leaf tea bar. This studio, too, follows Unplug’s titular rule and requires you to valet your phone upon arrival. Inside, the space is lit like an actual cave. It’s an extremely calming atmosphere. There are fuzzy blankies, soft music, and the same La-Z-Boy meditation chairs that recline all the way.

I have mixed feelings about the chairs because on the one hand, they’re super comfortable but on the other, I’m falling asleep just thinking about them. I’m not alone. At several studios I’ve spied entire groups of people lying down and snoozing during meditation. Between the candlelight, lullaby music, security blanket, and the teacher’s soothing voice, your chances of slipping out of the present moment and into REM are high. In sound-bath meditations, you may find the crystal singing bowls harmonizing with a small choir of snorers.

For a movement that has christened itself as Woke, its acolytes sure are a sleepy lot. I’m all for napping, but c’mon. We just paid someone to take our phones away from us so we could be present for a half hour. And you will pay handsomely at the Den: A month of unlimited classes is $190. (Twenty classes at Unplug will set you back $350.)

For this busy, luxury-lapping city, studios like the Den and Unplug are a logical fit. They’re Chipotle-like, only for enlightenment (if Chipotle charged you steeply just to breathe its air). But those seeking more substance than style will want to look further.

InsightLA, founded by Trudy Goodman, a psychotherapist, meditation teacher, and the wife of best-selling Buddhist author Jack Kornfield, is rooted in Theravada Buddhism but aims to stay relevant and palatable for the 2019 Angeleno. “As meditation spreads and people want to make their career doing this, they aren’t training as deeply as I want them to,” says Goodman, whose teachers are required to have maintained a regular daily practice for years and completed a seven-day silent retreat before they can be meditation facilitators. InsightLA has a beautiful location in East Hollywood that offers affordable drop-ins and groups specifically geared toward Spanish speakers, the LGBTQ community, and people of color—something refreshing to hear in a movement populated largely by rich white women.

The Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens can be found at an astounding vintage mansion that sits on one acre in the middle of West Adams. If it was money the spiritual center was after, it would sell the place to a Kardashian and be done with it. Instead, they charge a mere $10 for hours-long classes and invite the public to visit gratis. The labyrinth sits among meditation gardens with a koi pond and reflecting pool. They say the labyrinth can “untorque the mind,” and I personally found it even more centering than the previous day’s nap at the Den.

Peace Awareness is the perfect place to practice walking meditation—the latest mindful trend-within-a-trend. “I had a really difficult time with sitting meditation,” says Dr. Jim Nicolai, who teaches Breathwalking, a technique of syncing breathing with walking that is celebrated by Dr. Andrew Weil and has roots in kundalini yoga. “So when I came across an idea of how to be able to get into a meditative state and consequently a mindful state while walking, that seemed really practical and powerful…. I got a lot of people who felt the same way.”

Walking meditation is also used at Shambhala, a meditation center focused on Tibetan Buddhism that has locations in Eagle Rock and Mar Vista. It offers a panoply of moving meditations in the form of “contemplative arts”: calligraphy, ikebana (Japanese flower arranging), poetry, and other activities in which your sensory perceptions become the object of meditation. Local visual artist Robert Mann grew up in the Shambhala community and now sells his pieces to eager patrons who want to frame a reflection of the meditative state of mind and hang it in their kitchens.

On some weekends Shambhala also offers Kyudo—a form of Japanese Zen archery once practiced by samurai and preserved as a meditation. In a series of slow, thoughtful moves, the practitioner prepares, shoots the bull’s-eye, and retrieves the arrow. Rather than focusing on the goal of hitting the target, one achieves a kind of union with arrow, bow, and target by remaining fully present. This thought-severing meditation is so electrifying even a narcoleptic at the Den could stay awake.

While Shambhala’s traditions hail from a lineage of meditators traceable to Buddha, some of the strains cropping up around L.A. were thought up last Tuesday. “The word ‘mindfulness’ is being applied in a very general way so that singing bowls and visualization and chanting—all these things—are trying to fall under the category of mindfulness,” says Diana Winston, director of Mindfulness Education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, which has been offering free or affordable meditation services for 12 years. “Especially in Los Angeles…there’s also a lot of hype masquerading as the latest fad.”

But by and large the real danger of the meditation scene is paradoxical self-centeredness and smugness—what Wanderlust CEO Sean Hoess calls navel-gazing. Hoess encourages people to think bigger than their own aura: “We can’t be well in a world that is this sick.”

If anyone’s qualified to judge mindfulness as we know it, it’s Goodman’s husband, Jack Kornfield, who helped popularize the movement. “I’m all for it, and I’m not worried,” he says. “Some people are concerned that things will be secularized to the point that it gets watered down or we’ll lose stuff, but if you look at the benefit for people—if it’s in the school system, if it’s in a business—and people take a pause to just be a little bit kinder or a little bit more attentive…I’m all for it spreading in all these ways.”

I agree with Jack. Bring on the chakra exorcism and $24 hemp smoothies. If it means the powerful tool of meditation is reaching a world in desperate need, I’m in for this “awokening”—so long as I’m not required to wear yoga pants to conference centers.


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