The candlelit nap room is beautiful. It’s also empty. Alone among the Himalayan salt candles, blankets, and plush pillows, I lie on my back and try to relax as birdsong plays faintly in the background. I’m at co-working behemoth WeWork’s first wellness facility, Rise by We, located in the basement of a skyscraper in New York City’s financial district. The nap program, held three afternoons a week in the center’s yoga room, launched about nine months ago.
Halfway through my 20-minute stay, the birdsong gives way to ominous animal noises, lending a dramatic cast to my question: Will anyone else join me? No one does. As I leave the empty, flickering room to rejoin the working world above me, I’m disappointed in my inability to calm my mind enough to sleep. Somehow it feels like an indication that I’m further from wellness than when I arrived.
At this point in its evolution, wellness culture has become synonymous with aspiration. According to worldwide polls and studies, Americans are more anxious, lonely, and overwhelmed than ever before; at the same time, there has never been such an extensive array of products and services that purport to cure us so thoroughly that we transcend healthiness and become well.
As the market has matured, physical-wellness centers, which offer an extensive range of services, like meditation classes, vibrational-energy healing, and color therapy, have proliferated. The Well, slated to open later this summer in New York City, is billed by cofounder Kane Sarhan as an antidote to, and oasis from, modern-day city living. Like Rise by We, it will operate on a membership model, but with pricing that ranges from $210 to $375 per month (plus a $500 initiation fee), it will provide a more comprehensive, tailored experience, with members paired with a personal-health coach after joining. Other New York City–based centers, like Clean Market, HigherDose, and Modrn Sanctuary, meanwhile, sell a dizzying variety of à la carte wellness treatments, including CBD massages and Botox. HealHaus, “an inclusive space focused on holistic health and wellness,” offers $190 monthly memberships as well as drop-in sessions.
Each of these businesses is selling the same general promise: to provide an antidote to the deskbound jobs, take-out dinners, alcohol-fueled weekends, and daily stressors of the outside world. “Most people in New York aren’t living well,” says Sarhan. “It’s just the lifestyle we’ve created for ourselves: work hard, play hard, career driven. The stimulation of the city is not good for us in general.”
After Sarrah Hallock was diagnosed with a thyroid condition a decade ago, she consulted both her primary-care and Chinese-medicine doctors; the latter prescribed some herbs for the condition, she says, while the former told her to avoid them. Hallock cofounded The Well with Sarhan and Rebecca Parekh in 2015, in part to counteract what she saw to be a rigid American approach to health care. The new center will offer personalized, integrated wellness plans, including treatments generally accepted as therapeutic by the medical establishment (massage, physical therapy) as well as those that are decidedly not (vibrational-energy healing, Ayurveda). Members of The Well will check in with a health coach each week and examine 13 different lifestyle components, such as mental health, financial health, and nutrition. (Its health coaches have a certificate in nutrition and have completed an apprenticeship with an M.D.) The center also has two doctors on staff who will focus on functional and preventative medicine, areas its founders feel are often overlooked by the general health care system. While The Well’s M.D.’s will be able to provide annual checkups and perform blood tests, members will nevertheless be advised to continue to see an outside general practitioner. “To be able to have a Chinese-medicine doctor talking to your M.D. and your M.D. talking to your yoga teacher is so powerful,” Hallock says. To me, this sounds like a nightmare scenario in which one’s health is micromanaged to the point of absurdity. But perhaps this is the only way pure aspirational wellness can be achieved.
Modrn Sanctuary in Midtown Manhattan sells offerings similar to The Well, in addition to further-out-there treatments, like meditation dome sessions and Cryoskin body contouring. On a recent visit to the facility, which is decorated with plush furniture and trendy art on black walls, I try the crystal-light and sound treatment. The 30-minute, $45 session calls for participants to lie beneath a row of colored crystals in order to supposedly improve sleep and focus, as well as reap a range of other alleged health benefits. (The scientific evidence to support most of these claims is lacking to the point of nonexistence, although researchers say crystals may be able to provide a placebo effect that could help treat some conditions, like pain and anxiety.) The bed is warm and vibrates pleasantly, while headphones pipe the sound of rain into my ears. At the end of the session, a soothing voice via my headphones advises me to return to “experience all seven frequencies” for maximum effect.
I also try Modrn’s salt room, an Instagram-worthy space constructed out of millennial-pink Himalayan salt bricks and lined with salt crystals of the same hue. I can’t say I feel any of the benefits this treatment purportedly offers—like drawing out the toxins in my lungs or widening my airways—but the experience of sitting in a beautiful, quiet room in the heart of Manhattan is nice. As I head back out into the urban crush, I reach if not a state of equanimity, a feeling of one slightly removed from the chaos.
Modrn claims that its services provide much more dramatic benefits than mere calmness, including weight loss (infrared sauna), reduced stress and anxiety (Somadome mediation pod), and antiaging (ThermiSmooth treatments). When a client expresses doubt about any of the marketed health benefits, founder Alexandra Janelli doesn’t push back. “People are like, ‘This is bullshit,’” she says. “We’re like, ‘That’s OK. This is not the treatment for you.’” Her approach is to acknowledge someone’s opinion before probing what brought them in and whether they are curious enough to learn more or try the service for themselves. “If they are pooh-poohing it altogether, we leave it alone,” she says.
A few days before my nap session, I visited Rise by We to attend one of the facility’s guided sauna sessions. It’s Saturday morning, and the spa area and gleaming locker room (replete with organic soaps, conditioners, and tampons) are crowded. An attendant with a tablet turns away two women apologetically—the session is at capacity. As we wait for the sauna doors to open, the group in front of me makes brunch plans for later that day.
Once inside, a staff member leads us through breathing exercises as he diffuses a range of essential oils (rosemary, citrus, basil, tea tree, and peppermint) into the air. After pouring each one onto the heated rocks, he furiously whips a towel around his head to spread the steamy, scented air further, an effect at once impressive and comical. “I’m proud of you, in a way,” he gravely tells the dripping room at the end of the 20-minute session before releasing us into the welcome, outside cool. A racially diverse, spandex-clad group, most of whom appear to be in their twenties or thirties, lingers in the main spa area, chatting and refilling their bottles with fruit-tinged water.
The scene would make Avi Yehiel, WeWork’s head of wellness, happy. “We wanted to create a space where you could come and stay longer,” he says. Unlike the in-and-out experience of a gym, Rise by We is an environment where people can hang out without having to work out. While $35 day passes are available, most customers are members. “We are focusing on people who want to create connections,” Yehiel says. The club regularly holds events like band nights or anniversary parties in the spa or café; some are health-related, but many are simply an excuse for members to get together.
Member Nicole Rousseau says she values this community aspect more than the fitness classes or spa services. A self-employed leadership-development coach, she joined a WeWork space in New York’s financial district half a decade ago to fight the isolation that comes with working from home. When the company beta-tested Rise by We prior to its official launch in the fall of 2017, Rousseau was one of the WeWork members selected by the company to participate.
She liked the experience so much that she replaced her WeWork membership with one for Rise by We. Today the club provides the same sense of belonging as the coworking space did. Unlike a traditional gym, “it’s not a transaction,” Rousseau says. After a fitness class or spa session, she often lingers in the spa over complimentary La Colombe coffee and artisanal Bushwick Tea. The people at the front desk know her, as do the instructors. “I feel connected,” she says.
In a world where loneliness has reached endemic levels, this community connection shouldn’t be trivialized. Still, it seems like the more wellness strategies emerge, the more opportunities we have to fail at leveling up. Maybe that’s because the word wellness—or at least the feeling of it—is so hard to define. It’s possible to be physically healthy, with a good job, a solid support system, a savings account, a balanced diet, and a regular exercise routine without checking all the boxes necessary to meet the criteria. (Even if you can afford Rise by We’s monthly membership, you might not be able to leave your desk in the middle of the weekday to work out, much less nap.)
Whether exotic and unproven alternative treatments are doing any good—or just soaking up the scarce attention and time people could deploy for more proven health care—remains up for debate. There’s also the matter of cost. Some centers are more expensive than others, but none are truly affordable for most Americans just seeking adequate health coverage. Those who can pay the price of admission are promised equilibrium, where every aspect of one’s life—physical fitness, nutrition, spirituality, skincare—flourish in perfect harmony. Those who can’t, well, they’re probably facing problems that extend beyond the pearly borders of the wellness industry.
When I bring up the question of inequality, Sarhan of The Well says the company’s mission is to build a global brand that will eventually be powerful enough “to influence policy, to influence politicians, to change the way our country thinks about food and wellness holistically.”
“None of us are in it for the money, to be totally honest with you,” he continues. “We are bleeding hearts. For us, we want to change the way people think about health. The way we are going to do it, if we start with this brand and build this platform that caters to… you funnel down from there.”
The Well is, of course, a for-profit business accessible only to a very specific demographic. It’s unfair to ask it to solve systemic issues driving disparities in health and wellness, such as income inequality and the food lobby. But the idea that providing high-priced wellness services to the nation’s wealthiest will lead to improvements for its most in need feels willfully naive. And yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, Yehiel of Rise by We offers up a similar theory. Yes, a membership might be unaffordable for the average person, but “we need to look at the good things,” he says. Rise, along with other wellness centers, has helped elevate the term wellness into the public consciousness, Yehiel says. While only a fraction of Americans report actively pursuing a wellness practice in their day-to-day life, as the movement’s profile continues to rise, “it will trickle down to all the communities eventually.”
Again, this feels like a pipe dream. And even if trickle-down wellness were to miraculously occur, it’s unclear whether that would be a net positive. The wellness movement has good qualities, including its emphasis on balance and holistic health. But as the industry has grown, the concept has evolved into a never-ending pursuit capable of absorbing a seemingly infinite amount of time and money. Even for those who can afford to invest in the chase, wellness can be exhausting—which is why places like The Well, which outsource wellness management to an integrated team of practitioners, exist in the first place. For everyone else, the game is rigged from the start.