MNDFL is a meditation space in the guise of a yoga studio. It features Buddhist teachings alongside instruction in Kundalini, Jewish mindfulness, and MBSR. What can Buddhists learn from this new model for meditation instruction?
What does it mean when a meditation studio somehow becomes a hot media darling? Founded less than a year ago by author and Buddhist teacher Lodro Rinzler and his business partner, writer and personal development coach Ellie Burrows, NYC’s MNDFL has been noticed by Vogue, the New York Times, and The Atlantic. So I went to see what all the fuss is about.
MNDFL (pronounced “mindful”) is located in Greenwich Village, occupying a window-fronted garden floor space, half underground on 8th Street. The reception and waiting area, complete with a front desk, couches, shelves with merch, a kitchenette with tea, and bathrooms, takes up half of the studio’s footprint. This is meant to be a space where meditators coming in off the busy street can acclimate before hitting the cushion, “since meditation is such a gentle practice,” Jessica, a staff person, later explained to me — “kind of the opposite of New York.”
The staff at the front desk recognize that I’m new there as soon as I give my name, and Jessica offers me a guided tour. She shows me the two meditation rooms in the back: a large one, with space for up to forty people, and a smaller one that looks like it could seat about ten. The smaller room is the more famous one: a cozy space with painted-white brick walls, skylights, and a green wall at the front.
MNDFL is all about making itself as accessible as possible. Part of that seems to mean feeling more like a spa than a temple.
The whole place feels stylish and chic. The meditation cushions are wrapped in heather-grey and branded with the MNDFL logo — a meditator in the shape of an “M”inside a heptagon. The bathrooms have framed Pinterest-style quotes from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Pema Chödrön. The waiting area is decorated with geometrical lamps and miniature succulents. Even the all-caps no-vowels name, MNDFL, feels very 2016.
While some might find all this a bit contrived, I can’t deny I find it relaxing. As Lodro tells me later, MNDFL is all about making itself as accessible as possible. Part of that seems to mean seeming more like a spa than a temple.
After a few minutes, I return to the smaller room with three other meditators for our class, “Breathing Meditation (Advanced).” Our instructor, Joshua, is sitting at the front of the room, looking peaceful and wearing a big smile. He welcomes us and then starts the hour-long class with a body scan, which — being unaccustomed to guided meditations — I find relaxing and helpful. He then moves into a ten-minute traditional mindfulness meditation instruction. As we set off on a period of silent meditation at the end of Joshua’s instruction, I find myself feeling peaceful and focused. Within moments, of course, my mind is flitting about and I’m trying futilely to tie it back down to my breath.
Halfway through our session, Joshua gives a short talk, during which he mentions that mindfulness can be obscured by greed, aversion, and delusion. Up to this point, I had assumed that MNDFL promoted secular — as opposed to Buddhist — mindfulness practice, but Joshua’s talk sounds suspiciously Buddha-inspired.
We do another twenty minutes of silent breath meditation. By the end, I’m predictably uncomfortable and fidgety. To my relief, I’m noticing the other meditators fidgeting occasionally as well. Finally, Joshua rings the bell three times. All of us release our upright posture and slump into comfy slouching.
I’m left wondering: “is this a Buddhist center? Or a secular meditation studio?”
Joshua gives a short talk on the eightfold path, explaining the story of the Buddha as background. His talk bucks the popular approach of teaching mindfulness minus its Buddhist heritage, and I’m left wondering: “Is this a Buddhist center? Or a secular meditation studio?”
Back at the front desk, I chat with Rinzler, who helps clarify the center’s spiritual outlook. Mindfulness is the most common meditation practice taught at MNDFL, but it is not the only one — Lodro cites Kundalini yoga as an example. MNDFL features teachers from a wide range of traditions and disciplines, representing the Theravada, Insight, Sakya, Gelug, Nyingma, Shambhala, MBSR, Kundalini, and Jewish traditions.
MNDFL doesn’t insist that its mindfulness teachings be secular. Lodro encourages MNDFL’s teachers to share their practices how they best see fit. That might mean teaching mindfulness in the context of the Torah or the Buddha’s eightfold path. Students are free to identify teachers or traditions that they feel affined to and stick with them, or sample different philosophies and teaching styles. Once a student wants to go deeper with their practice, the teachers at MNDFL might encourage them to explore or join a spiritual community elsewhere that suits them.
Dharma Bum Temple in San Diego has a similar ecumenical philosophy. That center’s leaders invite visiting teachers from across traditions to give talks to Buddhist-curious practitioners. The center even organizes field trips to other communities in the area. If a student wants to start a more dedicated practice, one of the guiding teachers refers them to a community where the student would feel comfortable.
A key difference, however, between Dharma Bum and MNDFL is economics. While Dharma Bum, like many Buddhist centers, runs on a pay-what-you-can, generosity-based model, MNDFL is a business, run like a yoga studio. Students can pay for individual classes (starting at $10) or get a membership for unlimited access ($50 for the first month, $150/month thereafter). There are many classes each day, focusing on a handful of different practices, and you can register online.
So far, it seems, that model is very successful. MNDFL is busy and has now added “Advanced” classes to meet demand. Lodro says that the students represent a diverse swath of New York life — not just the hippies and yoga junkies you might expect to see at a place like this. This is what he was hoping for: that MNDFL would help make contemplative practice accessible to people from all walks of life. The idea arose as Lodro noticed that many people want a space where they can practice more often. Even Buddhist centers generally only offer a couple of classes per week, and those are usually tradition-specific and often geared towards long-time members of the community. Lodro’s business partner suggested that if he could get the teachers together for a pan-traditional meditation studio, she could create a space that would be inviting and comfortable.
If mindfulness teachers offer samples of faith ideology in their teachings — serving to enrich the instruction — students who want more spiritual fulfillment could seize the opportunity to take mindfulness further.
The idea even appealed to corporate managers. Before opening Lodro got requests from companies for training at their offices. I ask him if he cautions his teachers to avoid faith-specific ideas when they’re teaching in a corporate setting. “No,” he says. “No one has complained yet.” With a laugh, Lodro says that he trusts his teachers “maybe too much,” and leaves it to them to frame their teaching in whatever way they feel will be most helpful to the students — even if that means invoking God or Buddha.
This is interesting because it may offer a solution to one of the main criticisms of the mindfulness movement by Buddhists: that it might be a dead end. Mindfulness is one of the eight aspects of the eightfold path. Without the other seven aspects, some Buddhists argue, mindfulness can never offer true liberation; it can only be a tool for relaxation, stress-reduction, productivity, and, ultimately, more greed, aversion, and delusion. However, if mindfulness teachers offer samples of faith ideology in their teachings — serving to enrich the instruction — students who want more spiritual fulfillment could seize the opportunity to take mindfulness further. In that sense, MNFDL’s business model could work as a waystation where relaxation-seekers who are just looking for a break from the chaos could become liberation-seekers venturing out to one of the temples, churches, or meditation centers around NYC.
When I ask Lodro if he’s hoping to scale MNDFL, he says he’s just focusing on what he’s doing right now. But that doesn’t mean that someone else won’t recognize a profitable business model in MNDFL and reproduce it on a mass scale, which could result in studios that are less scrupulous about credentialed teachers and quality teachings. As other teachers have pointed out, when mindfulness is taught without expertise and sensitivity it can be oppressive instead of liberating. MNDFL could herald a proliferation of profitable yoga-studio-style meditation studios led by uncredentialed teachers and unqualified managers. After all, MNDFL does have real appeal for religiously-skeptical-yet-spiritually-hungry Gen X, Y, and Z-ers: the accessibility of a spa, the science based rationality of mindfulness, and the spiritual depth of a temple.
There is one thing in particular at which MNDFL seems to excel and that would be hard to imitate elsewhere: community. Lodro and his staff talk about their regular students, people starting families who come in with their children, and their connection to all the centers around NYC. It seems to me that the teachers at MNDFL are not just there for a paycheck but because they want a chance to connect with spiritual seekers in their community. And yet, the other radical part of MNDFL is that its teachers do get a paycheck. Often, meditation teachers work for free. That’s admirable, but it prevents many people from teaching or from teaching more often. MNDFL creates an opportunity for teachers to pay the rent by sharing the dharma. Fundamentally, that seems to be what MNDFL is trying to do: create a sustainable model for sharing traditional teachings in contemporary America.
For much more on the Buddhism-and-mindfulness connection, visit Lion’s Roar’s Buddhist teachings on mindfulness page. You may also wish to visit our mindfulness section or, if just getting started, our How to Meditate page.