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7 minute read

The Commodification Of Meditation

Inscape, a new meditation "brand" from the CEO of Intermix, is both a physical studio and a digital app. And it has big ambitions to scale.

Inside of the Dome room at Inscape, a new meditation studio in New York’s Flatiron district, a disembodied voice is giving instructions for breathing. In for five seconds, hold, then slowly release. Her voice is calm and even, and it feels enveloping thanks to invisible surround sound speakers integrated into the walls and ceiling. Soft LED lights, immersive ambient music, and a gentle reminder from the voice to focus on my counting all start to pull me in to a relaxed state.

It's enough to make me forget that I'm in the middle of New York City, and almost enough to quash my ritual pre-interview anxiety. I'm there to speak with Khajak Keledjian, the founder and CEO of the luxury women's clothing retailer Intermix, who is meditating on my left. Inscape is his latest business venture: A mindfulness "brand" that includes the physical studio we're sitting in, as well as a guided meditation app, which is currently being played through the speakers.

App-guided meditation and meditation studios are nothing new, but it's rare that they are used in conjunction; the former has recently popped up as the quick-and-easy alternative to visiting the latter. Yet as Keledjian tells me after our session, this is where he thinks the meditation industry is headed. The Inscape subscription-based app allows anyone to have access to meditation, but the studio, designed by architect Winka Dubbeldam, provides the "experience"—a sort of physical oasis from the outside world.

It's what Keledjian calls meditation "relevant for the 21st century," and it's a business he's building to eventually scale up. Classes, even in the physical studio, are all taught by playing the app through a speaker system, effectively replacing human teachers with a diverse array of pre-recorded sessions. Meanwhile, the studio design is all pre-fab, meaning Inscapes can pop up anywhere with relative ease.

During a time where mindfulness is increasingly being packaged and sold, Keledjian is developing what he calls a "new dimension of luxury."

The Path To Meditation

Lebanese by birth, Keledjian has lived in New York since he was a teenager and has worked in luxury fashion for nearly as long; in 1993, he and his brother scraped together their savings to open their first Intermix store when Keledjian was just 19 years old.

Fifteen years later, the stresses of being a CEO were making Keledjian feel anxious, overworked, and lacking the time and mental space for creativity. A friend, who had previously bet him $15,000 that Keledjian couldn't sit in silence for 15 minutes without reaching for his phone—a bet that Keledjian lost—introduced him to meditation through Kundalini yoga, and it made him feel calmer, lose weight, and feel more productive and focused at work. From then on, he started meditating almost daily.

He regularly goes on 10-day meditation retreats, and has visited Burning Man—where he was inspired by the collective meditation in the festival's annual Temple installation—twice.

Keledjian became a vocal proponent of meditation, extolling the benefits to friends and family. In 2014, two years after Keledjian made headlines for selling his business for $130 million to Gap, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal both wrote lifestyle pieces that mentioned his meditation practice.

Suddenly, people he only knew tangentially or not at all were reaching out to him about incorporating meditation into their own life. "I realized that I could do more than just live this lifestyle," he says. "Why not create a space that is going to enrich the life of many?"

Zen Out And Scale Up

That accessibility is the idea behind the Inscape app, which has a content library full of guided meditations of various lengths and focuses—one that concentrates on breath, for example, or another that features a sound bath. The Inscape team came up with the sessions based on a mix of various meditation traditions and lineages. "I think it’s up to the user to see which one relates to you," Keledjian says.

[Photo: Inspcape]

For the design of the physical studio space, Keledjian turned to Dubbeldam, a friend and a fellow meditator. At her practice Archi-tectonics, Dubbeldam has been focusing on pre-fab structures that can be constructed locally. She decided to use that concept to build out the two meditation rooms in the studio: the Dome room, for upright meditation, and the Alcove for lying down.

Related Video: Work Some Moving Meditation Into Your Morning Routine

Inside both of the rooms, Dubbeldam carefully designed the space so that speakers, lighting, and other accessories are all seamlessly integrated into the walls and ceilings. An LED ring in the Dome room goes from warm light to cool light, depending on whether the visitors want to wake up or relax. A bench circumventing the space provides a place for less-experienced meditators to rest their backs, while also hiding the air ducts within. In the Alcove room, a wooden arc guides the acoustics so that meditators lying down can enjoy sound baths.

Perhaps most importantly, both rooms come with an instruction manual: Dubbeldam says that if Inscape decides to open a studio outside of NYC, the team can build out the exact same space using local materials and her instructions.

This fits in with Keledjian's larger ambitions, which is to make a meditation practice that is both physical and digital—and make this particular brand of meditation accessible across the country, and possibly the world. "We have a business that can scale, is consistent and we want to evolve and expand into it," he says. "There's no reason this can’t be in any neighborhood"

The Big Business of Meditation

Today, the "mindfulness" industry isn't as far from the fashion industry as one might think. Meditation is big business in the U.S.: According to the New York Times, the research company IBISWorld estimated that the country's meditation-related businesses in 2015 generated $984 million in revenue. That's fertile territory for a businessman like Keledjian, who opened 32 Intermix stores in 10 years (today, Gap has brought that number up to 43). Inscape's offerings, aesthetic, and prices (studio sessions start at $18 for 33 minutes) cater toward a similar demographic as Intermix: young urbanites with fairly disposable incomes.

Inscape's 5,000 square foot space is located just south of the Flatiron Building, in an area straddling the office towers of Midtown and the shops of Lower Manhattan. Visitors to the store are greeted first with shelves of "mindfulness" products: essential oils, sunrise alarm clocks, candles, and beauty products. Further inside, there's a refrigerator at the check-in desk stocked with chilled teas and coffee with pecan milk, and an interactive butterfly mural made by Isabella Huffington (daughter of Arianna) behind an array of Restoration Hardware bean bag chairs.

Meditation has been making its way into the mainstream for a while now. It's scientifically proven to be good for creativity, focus, and productivity, which has made it especially popular with the Silicon Valley sect. Google offers Search Inside Yourself classes at work and the annual Wisdom 2.0, a conference for those who want to "live with greater wisdom, purpose, and meaning," is extremely popular with the tech crowd. And a quick Apple app store brings up nearly two dozen meditation apps, such as the popular Headspace and Omvana.

This commodification of meditation makes some long-time practitioners weary, for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, refashioning an ancient practice into a tool to increase productivity seems to run counter to the traditional intent: Long-term personal growth. There's also the fact that meditation apps often treat it as a quick reprieve from a busy lifestyle, rather than something that takes time and practice to develop as a skill. Traditionally, meditation is viewed as a lifelong journey toward self-compassion and kindness to others. To some, packaging it as a lifestyle choice and an energy-booster—the same way you might an overpriced kombucha—undermines that.

Keledjian doesn't look at it that way. Like many who have experienced first-hand the benefits of meditation, he doesn't see a conflict in bringing a technique for achieving peace of mind, self-awareness, and compassion to a broader audience. And while Inscape certainly isn't the one to start the mindfulness trend, with Keledjian's business savvy and experience running a nation-wide retail chain, he could certainly help expand it.

Authenticity or Accessibility?

It's clear, speaking to Keledjian, that he's genuine in the fact that he hopes people will experience the same positive effects of meditation as he does, even if Inscape seems mostly marketed toward a specific upscale, Lululemon-clad crowd. As someone not quite of that demographic, I went in to Inscape feeling skeptical. But after a 30 minute session and a slate of interviews, I truly did come out feeling happier and more clear-headed. Clever design and a warm staff made the space feel immersive and somewhat fortified from the outside world, and stillness and deep breathing is a pretty reliable formula for feeling less stressed.

If meditation is going the way of yoga studios, it's comforting to consider that the latter has proliferated to such a degree that there are now yoga options for people of all different philosophies, skill levels, and salaries. Inscape's greatest aspect is combining two options into one: if $18+ drop-in fee feels too high, there's always the app ($12.99/month). And if Meditation Inc. is an inevitability, that doesn't necessarily seem bad to me—as long as the newfound industry retains the kindness and inclusiveness of the practice from which it is profiting.

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