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.

By Alyssa Giacobbe | Boston Magazine |

Illustration by Christina Ung

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.


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.”

On a snowy, late-winter night, I pop into the Cambridge Zen Center to catch the tail end of one of its weekly Buddhism and meditation lectures. With 35 full-time residents, the center is one of the country’s largest residential Zen communities, but also offers meditation sittings, lectures, and in-house retreats that the public can attend. Although director Barbara Feldman doesn’t keep track of the exact numbers (how very Zen), she says that introductory classes have been consistently full in the past few months, and that donations, or dana, are at an all-time high.

As I follow Zen master Jane Dobisz to the Dharma Room, where meditation takes place before the watchful third eye of the Buddha, I feel at ease, despite looming deadlines and the very inaustere Balenciaga handbag I bought myself for Christmas dangling from my arm like the spawn of Satan. The place is bustling: Young, good-looking residents congregate around a table of cupcakes decorated with vanilla and chocolate yin-and-yangs; in a corner, a woman in her forties knits a blanket while manning a display of books for sale. (The center also sells T-shirts for $15 each.) “There’s an old Korean saying that a good situation is a bad situation, and a bad situation is a good situation,” says Dobisz. “We have a macro bad situation economically. But there’s now a disattachment going on, from trying to get the bigger car, the bigger house, the fancy stuff. It’s a reexamination of the values. That’s the good situation.”

More people meditating means more peace in the world. It also means more opportunities for the nonprofit Zen center, which has seen an influx of visitors from the halls of academia, biotech, and finance seeking enlightenment, serenity, and T-shirts. “I like to say that our nature is a glass of muddy water,” Dobisz says. “We shake the glass all the time. Meditation is to stop shaking and let the mud and silt settle down. The water becomes very clear.” I am tempted to hand over the Balenciaga.

Even through the mud and silt, it’s striking how fundamentally the recession has many Bostonians rethinking their decision to devote their life to their job, while wondering if maybe those eternally happy spiritual types haven’t been on to something the whole time. “There’s been a huge shift in attitudes and openness,” says Mary Ann Robbat, a former corporate executive turned shamanic healer/intuitive/medium/life coach, who now sees as many as 30 clients a week at her Lexington-based Robbat Center for the Advancement of Energy Healing. “Ten years ago, if I was at a dinner party, I would never have talked about the work I was doing. Now I have no qualms. People are searching more than ever.”

Robbat’s clientele is made up almost entirely of business professionals (in a sharp red jacket and tailored black pants and wearing significant bling, Robbat herself looks less shaman than corporate exec), who are eagerly signing on for everything from meditation to energy healing. In one regular group session, a spirit named Sage advises attendees on matters of love, family, and yes, the economy; she speaks through Robbat. “The other day I was watching Oprah and Lisa Ling was doing a story on the tent cities and I was getting really depressed,” says one of Robbat’s clients, a woman who works in biotech. “And then I thought about what Sage said and it was helpful: There is an abundance, if you seek it out and stay positive.” She pauses before adding, “But it’s not like she’s telling me anything I don’t know already.”

The price for Robbat’s services hovers around the $175-per-hour mark, yet the clients keep coming. And as they and others increasingly aim to max out their enlightenment, local purveyors of luxury will find it harder to survive in the new economy—or to resist joining in on the shift in governing tastes themselves. Last year clothing store owner Betty Riaz signed a lease on a space at Dedham’s Legacy Place, intending it to be the next store in her popular Stil clothing chain, and the first to focus on home accessories. In the fall, however, she moved her Newbury Street boutique to the Prudential Center and shuttered her Natick Collection one. “People have lost their desire to shop. They’ve lost the desire to do anything else besides find out who they truly are,” says Riaz, who has increased her own yoga practice from twice a week to as many as six times a week since October. “I started to think [selling clothes] is not the only thing I want to do.”

While Riaz intends to continue business as usual at her two remaining Stil stores, in the Pru and The Mall at Chestnut Hill, her plans for the Dedham space have changed: She’ll now open a yoga studio.

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