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.

It’s not that people aren’t spending money on material goods. They are, though less extravagantly, and what they’re buying is, ahem, none of your business. “Customers don’t want shopping bags, or even paper,” says Sari Brown, whose Newton Highlands boutique LuxCouture deals in high-end clothing and accessories. “A lot of them want to take it and go. They just want to slip it into the car and into their house.” Faced with a self-consciousness and guilt that has all but eliminated one of consumerism’s greatest joys—showing it off to your friends—Bostonians have had to become more resourceful as they seek to maintain status in a society now intolerant of frivolity and flamboyance.

“The days of going to the beach and sipping an umbrella drink are over,” says Cathy Shamir, media relations director for the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge. Instead, lower-profile retreats are increasingly appealing to people like Lexington’s Beth Masterman, who is taking her two adult daughters to Kripalu for Mother’s Day in lieu of a full-on spa getaway—which, she admits, she also could have afforded. “In another year, I’d have considered something more luxurious,” says Masterman, a senior VP at the Liberty Square Group. “[But] right now, it just seems like too much of a luxury,” the word itself practically slinking out of her mouth.

Which isn’t to say that Kripalu comes cheap. In June, the center will unveil a state-of-the-art eco-friendly wing of 80 private rooms. At $2,200 for two guests, a four-night stay in one of them may prove more economical and conscience-clearing than a week of pomegranate margaritas at the Four Seasons Punta Mita, but it’s still pricier than the center’s traditional dormitory-style accommodations, where the beds are bunked and the bathrooms are down the hall.

It’s not austerity we’re after, at least not in the conventional sense. The recession hasn’t turned us all into masochists, and this is not the return of Puritanism. The new form of self-restriction is far less restricting. After all, the actual yoga is just as good in the church basement where Cambridge teacher Patricia Walden holds classes as it is at Exhale. Sitting cross-legged for hours is no less meditative at Brookline’s fairly spare Shambhala Meditation Center than it is at the aura-matic Cambridge Zen Center, located in a $4 million complex in Central Square. And you can get three yogalates DVDs for the cost of a single hourlong yogalates class at the Mandarin Oriental—though scissoring and twisting on your living room carpet while the cat looks on certainly pales in comparison with doing it in the hotel’s 16,000-square-foot spa and fitness center. Accordingly, the Mandarin program has commanded a loyal following since it debuted in January.

Moreover, amid a city of suffering stores, one retailer is enjoying steady growth: haute yoga outfitter Lululemon. Its new Prudential space does a brisk business in $120 workout pants and $60 tops, and its locations at the Natick Collection and Burlington Mall also report increased traffic. Nationwide, Lululemon is expanding, with plans to add up to 35 stores per year.

All this doesn’t surprise Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute, a New York–based ratings and research firm. “Part of what we’re seeing in this economy,” he says, “is there is a willingness to spend more on things that can be seen as therapeutic or emotional—like yoga, or working out. It’s easier to rationalize.”


  • 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