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More Than A Fancy Gym For Head Work

I read a snarky Facebook post that MNDFL, New York’s first drop-in meditation center, attracted a super white crowd, making it the SoulCycle of Zen. But the first thing I noticed when I entered the chic 8th Street studio -- after pristine wood flooring and a giant macramé curtain -- was that half of the class was male, of various shades and generations, sitting in the neutral-toned living room.

“You’re guys,” I blurted. I was floating on the shock of dental surgery. Yet my outburst zinged with truth. Having taught in New York’s yoga world for more than a decade, I’d grown accustomed to a mostly female crowd. I missed having a mixed group, ages, colors, sexes..

Fortunately, the clients chuckled at my geekiness. Sarah, the studio manager, gave me a tour

of the two naturally lit practice rooms: one for group classes ($10/ intro and $15-$25/drop-ins) and the other for privates ($150/hour) or public rental ($5 for non-members). Because of my surgery, I felt too fatigued to sit up on a cushion; Sarah kindly set up a chair for me in the main meditation room. She thoughtfully checked my cell phone at the front desk. They were serious here but they were nice about it – no teacher giving you a horrid look when your phone buzzes by mistake.

In the living room area, students sipping tea from MNDFL mugs, looked so inviting I joined. Many studios make the mistake of combining social areas with coat and shoe zones so you don’t ever really feel comfortable, but this carpeted space seemed made for real conversation. One mahogany-voiced gentleman, an actor called Fernando, said he attended every day thanks to the 30-day challenge, incentivized with a free month of classes. When he couldn’t make it to class, he practiced at home in his own newly designated space.

(They’d gotten him charged up about really making a practice for himself.)

In this 1 p.m. Friday class, led by one of the center’s 26 instructors, I found my chair inside the main room with whitewashed walls and a sliding door. There were eleven people in all. Joe Mauricio, a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, discussed his take on “Heart,” one of MNDFL’s several themes that include Sound, Sleep, and Mamas. He guided us into metta (“visualize someone adorable”) and tonglen (“imagine you could breathe in everyone’s pain in the room, and then breathe it out”). I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go on that journey, but I did and felt empowered. To ground us, he ended with more breathing.

At the end of the fast 45-minutes, he gave each participant the opportunity to speak. Everyone did, to my surprise. A young woman worried she didn’t do it right. Another participant said he kept falling asleep. The instructor assured both that their situations were normal (phew!) and that they could speak after class.

True to his promise, this teacher chatted post session. Having attended several meditation

retreats, I appreciated the time he gave us. Many teachers don’t, leaving pupils with the ash of stirred-up chitta. Worse, when led by untrained yogis, meditation can be crazy-making, as exemplified by the ever popular “let go of your thoughts,” which just doesn’t work at all.

What I loved about MNDFL was its neutrality and the obvious level of superb teaching here. Without Buddhas or images of gods, the vibe lent itself to shared spirituality. A few days later, I spoke with Fernando via phone to continue our heart-to-heart.

“I'm meditating to get happier and to try to expand the space between thought and action,” he said.

An atheist, he explained he doesn’t associate with the word ‘spiritual,’ but he needed something to get through a stressful time in his life. Meditation has even made him more interested in yoga, to ease the stiffness caused by seated practice.

Encouraged, I went back to the same 1 p.m. Friday slot. This time, it was led by co-owner

Lodro Rinzler, who would teach a different theme: MNDFL 101. The schedule changes weekly, both in themes and sometimes teacher

“I think we found our scheduling groove,” said Rinzler, who has taught meditation for more than 15 years. “We know our teachers and really trust them to teach what they know and put it into modern language. We do ask that each of them provide a few minutes of intro, a guided meditation, and time at the end for questions.”

Rinzler and I filled mugs with Rishi tea and sank into the couch. Pressed into a pillow, I told him a guy and I had exchanged information, planning to start a friendship,, something that had never happened in yoga. Rinzler, a serene faced-man in glasses, seemed proud.

“We devoted half the space to community,” he said of the enterprise he and Ellie Burrows opened in November. “We want students to bring their friends who might normally be nervous about meditation to hang out on this couch. We’re seeing people who might normally be skeptical. But the barrier, physically and financially, has been lowered enough to come and fall in love with the practice.”

My internal spend monitor argued that $40 was too much for a T-shirt. Otherwise, I agreed with pricing -- especially in a gorgeous space with plants installed on the walls. A first month unlimited package costs $50, what Rinzler considers reasonable for “meditation university.” Some events are free.

Did he foresee similar studios?

“We’re the first in New York, but we’re not the last,” Rinzler agreed. “We might see people who don’t know as much about meditation who see a virtual market. For us, we think it’s important that a teacher be present to talk with you if your knees hurt or if you see colors.”

Rinzler doesn’t discuss teacher salary, but he said the center treats staff well.

“I’m sure there’s a whole range of pay from $0 to higher out there,” he said. “Ask Deepak Chopra. We have a fully staffed roster here because we do take care of our teachers so that they can pay rent themselves.”

Om shanti!!

I inquired if he anticipated the Groupon route that has been so detrimental to yoga studios. He smiled and said he would let me know if MNDFL went down the promo path. In the meantime, he and Burrows wanted to do one thing really well: high quality guided meditation in a comfortably sweet setting. I walked out feeling hopeful for this new business model. Maybe the yoga world can learn from it.

--Jennifer Grims, illustration

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