My Zen is Better Than Your Zen

With conspicuous consumption now considered ill-advised at best, seeking inner peace has become the one-upsmanship du jour.

On a recent Wednesday night at Back Bay “mind-body” spa Exhale, yoga—a pursuit that traditionally eschews the materialistic, and sometimes showering—feels very posh. The studio is packed with well-toned and -coiffed yogis, and everyone seems to know everyone else. My neighbor to the left, the owner of an upscale fashion mini-chain, introduces me to her architect; limbering up ahead of us is a successful and disturbingly flexible local handbag designer. If it weren’t for the color-coordinated yoga outfits, not to mention the scorpion poses, it might as well be Wednesday night at Mistral.

The 90-minute class costs $20, with an additional $2 each for bottled water and mat rental, which means that four of these a week would set you back about the price of a pair of Chanel sunglasses—at one time, an attractive alternative for some. But as the moribund economy erodes demand for It-bags, fancy cars, and other conspicuously showy possessions, a growing number of Bostonians in search of a socially acceptable, feel-good fix are pumping their discretionary cash into this kind of more “spiritual” pursuit.

David Magone, an instructor at the Sports Club/LA and other tony centers, reports that his class size has increased by about a third in the past few months. “Many of my students are in finance,” says Magone, who uses phrases like “take it back over the chardonnay barrel” to help students visualize their moves. “They’re under a lot of pressure.” It’s not just yoga, though, that’s experiencing a sudden upswing: Boston acupuncturist Joshua Summers, who also teaches yoga and meditation, says he’s seen a minimum 10 percent growth in all three areas within the past six months, with interest in meditation up by nearly twice that. “People are looking to find a peace that’s separate from the external world,” he says.

It sounds nice. Here at Exhale, however, the external world manages to creep in among all the peace-finding. I catch a few yogis sneaking side glances at their neighbors’ better backbends. The woman in the ill-fitting pink sweatpants looks as if she’d rather be at Curves; I find myself shamed by my pedicure, even though it’s really only a couple of weeks old. When the teacher singles out a superlative poser by name, heads whip around. Today’s economy may have condemned shopping for sport and spurred the inclination to chant in large groups, but the drive to compete and compare is recession-proof. The crowd here is likely too evolved to judge one another by such earthly possessions as cars or stock portfolios. Still, they’re certainly judging something.

At the end of class, we Om together with excessive enthusiasm. Afterward, a few of us head upstairs to Via Matta for drinks.


  • Brian

    What originally caught my eye about this article was the description of Exhale. As a semi- "regular" there for the last couple of years, I've found it to be just the opposite of the quasi-competitive yoga fashion show that you describe. I don't wear expensive gear, and am by most measures a pretty average guy. Self-employed, work hard… the usual. I've found the overall attitude of the place and the practitioners to be very non-competitive and easy going. They are bursting at the seams with absolutely top-notch instructors (David Magone foremost among them), and the facility is clean and user friendly. For practitioners who want the "luxury" of a shower after a class it's well worth the extra dollar — if that — for the convenience). Most people seem to buy packages that keep the cost between $14-15/class… which is very competitive with other reputable studios in Boston. Anyway, I think it's unfortunate that many folks who might consider trying yoga at Exhale will accep

  • Brian

    …accept your account as given… which I suspect was the carefully observed byproduct of exactly ONE visit, right? And was clearly used more to make a point than report accurately.On balance, though, your point overall is well taken. There are plenty of less expensive ways to look inward during challenging times and you certainly don't have to have Lululemon on your workout pants to engage in spiritual pursuits!Still, I wish you hadn't eviscerated a very good studio in the process of making your point.Don't forget, there is another industry that positively THRIVES during recessions: Alcohol and Tabacco. A lot of people I know don't think twice about dropping 100+ per month on booze. So I don't know, Alyssa… maybe dollar for dollar there are worse places people could be spending their money?For my part, it is money well spent.All the best,Brian