Before I meet Lisa Levine, the founder of one of Brooklyn’s first Eastern-inspired holistic healing centers, I see her moving through its rooms, a tie-dye clad swirl in a space undergoing serious architectural disembowelment. Maha Rose, I learn, is in the midst of expanding, taking over a 1,500-square-foot space nestled right beside its flagship in Greenpoint, all of which is scheduled to be open to the general public this autumn. And as though summoned forth for duty, Levine stands at the helm of it all with willful and deliberate force.
A grounded mother earth sort with, what I gather quite quickly, is a keen sense of irony and whimsy, Levine greets me with a smile, a warm kind of weariness in it. “I’m super raw right now. I feel like my guts have been ripped out,” she confesses when I ask her how she’s holding up with the onslaught of renovation.
Though I imagine she must be under severe duress from it all, she remains outwardly equanimous despite the din of construction. So equanimous in fact that as she troubleshoots with her Maha Rose compatriots, she breastfeeds her three-year-old boy Hudson who is draped slackly on her arm, which she uses to prop him up with great brawn and affection. A few moments later, I find him, a miniature whirling dervish, steering white plastic chairs toward the main room at his own behest for that evening’s practice.
“Meditation!” he growls, “Let’s go meditate!”
Lisa looks on at him adoringly as he whizzes and weaves through the room, where an impossibly large dracaena plant, a photo of hugging saint Amma, and the late afternoon sun preside over him with equal, muted affection.
With a background in ceramics, painting, and silversmithing, Levine had long imagined that she would not just live, but earn her living as an artist. And for many years she did, spearheading her own jewelry line and living with other creative types in a New York loft, which became the setting for wild women classes and impromptu meditation circles comprised of artists, musicians, and yogis. And as yoga and meditation grew to become the twin cornerstones of her life, the rest fell organically and fortuitously into place: She met the hugging saint Amma (who later became her spiritual teacher). She went to an ashram in India. She underwent a radical altering of perception. She humbled herself. And upon her return to the States, she started waking up with very clear messages, all of which told her to do healing work.
It was at this juncture that Levine felt certain her loft, so freewheeling and grassroots in its collective psyche, playful and novel in its approach to cultivating community, was the space in which these messages could not only be realized, but sustained. And so the loft, already known by Levine’s fringe contingent as Maha Rose, became a bonafide cottage industry, turning bedrooms into treatment rooms, the living room into the main event space, and the kitchen into a store of spiritual sundries. She had no idea that wellness was destined, and in many ways, slated, to become a First World behemoth.
Retracing the steps of Maha Rose’s trajectory helps to pinpoint the moment when wellness became the $3.7 trillion global industry it is today, but it is important to note that Levine did not piggyback on the corporate sector’s co-opting of mindfulness. She was at the vanguard of the movement when it was still underground and, in many respects, unalloyed. When it still belonged to the community and not the conglomerate.
When Maha Rose officially opened to the general public, Levine estimates it served anywhere from 25 to 50 people per month, solely through Sunday evening breathwork workshops. Now, 5 years later, Maha Rose serves nearly 1,000 people per month offering everything from reiki and meditation to sound baths, with prices ranging from donation-based to $40. Its fast-growing following also spurred Lisa on to open Maha Rose North, a rustic mountain retreat center at the foothills of the Catskills, in 2016. And so, the forthcoming expansion, which will include “a second workshop space, even more crystals, another treatment room, and an infrared SAUNA!,” is part of a continually evolving plan to accommodate the influx of new members, many of whom are helping fund the expansion through a crowdfunding campaign alongside a smattering of small loans from family members.
It is all, admittedly, exciting, but still begs a crucial question: By making Maha Rose into a business, by expanding and entering into the circuits of profit-making, has it gone against the ethical and spiritual grain it developed all those years ago when it was just a makeshift meditation dwelling frequented only by friends?
“The mission of Maha Rose has remained more or less the same since we opened it to the public in 2013,” writes Levine. “There is less of an emphasis on creativity and expression on the website, but these are elements that are still very much at the heart of Maha Rose. We’re all artists and this has always been and will be a creative endeavor.”
Levine, I learn, is the daughter of a Jewish father and a born-again Christian mother, two sects she ultimately decided to renounce in favor of Eastern theology. Later in life though, she came around to the notion that, just like her parents, she too was spiritual-seeking, and that they were not as diametrically opposed as she once believed them to be. And perhaps it was precisely this upbringing, so seemingly at odds with the life she leads now, that paradoxically begot it. Or perhaps it was that one “totally cathartic” yoga class, for it was at that juncture that her spiritual path revealed itself and she, unflinchingly, set off on it.
Everything after that transpired in fairly quick succession: she closed her jewelry store, received her Reiki certification from friend and master Padma Gonzalez, studied breathwork with healer David Elliott, went to acupuncture school, and then, finally, made Maha Rose into a legitimate business. And, though it has certainly attracted more attention over the years, its membership growing and its demographic diversifying significantly since the mindfulness movement gathered momentum, it seems like Maha Rose’s main through line and ethos, which Levine says is an “outpouring of offering,” has persisted.
When I asked Levine why she ultimately felt the need to expand, she told me, “If the divine wants it, it’ll be done.” The divine, I am sure, is a variable in the equation, as is faith in anything metaphysical, but Levine is, of course, susceptible to the same compulsions, the same attachments, the same desires as the rest of us are.
“Last year, I was feeling competitive because all of these new centers were opening up that I thought were bigger and more beautiful with better marketing and I was worried that we were going to become obsolete,” she admits. Levine’s reaction to the flurry of wellness centers (Mountain, Bhati Space, Treatment by Lanshin) cropping up around the city was the knee-jerk will to survive. But what really is at stake here? At whose expense? And at what cost?
“To those who are skeptical of Maha Rose’s transformation into a more professional space, I relate to you,” writes Mirza Molberg, student and longtime attendee. “At times I will reminisce on the beginnings of Maha Rose when there was no paid attendant and the whole centre had a more grassroots feel. But seeing Lisa and the Maha Rose community help transform the space over the years has been good for the practice of change and I fully support them.”
Making it into a business has afforded Levine the opportunity to expand the network of people she can connect to and serve. But the growth of the wellness industry has the power to make everything within it suspect, including Eastern healing modalities and spiritual practices like meditation, which are, in fact, scientifically proven to be more beneficial, both physiologically and psychologically, than going on holiday. And given the rise of companies like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, which has now become the renowned purveyor of products like psychic vampire repellent and hooha-friendly jade eggs, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between intrinsically good and intrinsically mercenary.
“The idea of branding spirituality is sticky, especially now that there is an exploding interest in it,” writes Grayson Gilbert, Maha Rose’s social media manager. “There are genuine people out there, though, who want to help others. But those people also need to make a living. So when it comes down to it, I believe it all comes back to ‘what is your intention?’. Are you here to serve? Sell? Neither are wrong answers; it is just important to know.”
Gilbert grafts compassion onto an otherwise contentious matter, mirroring the practice of so many within Maha Rose’s confines. But why is the world of wellness, in particular, so susceptible to repeated ethical and moral lashings? Why, in other words, are people so skeptical of it?
“It’s tricky in wellness because it can feel so directly exploitative,” writes anthropologist and perfumer Marissa Zappas, who attends laughter yoga sessions at Maha Rose. “Like, here’s a rock and I’m going to charge $140 for it. But the fact is, and not to sound cliche, ethical consumption in late-stage capitalism is a nightmare and I love a nice crystal. Especially right now when everything feels threatened. So many of us are trying to make sense of the world and how we might fit into it, and tools like astrology and meditation can help us at least take that first step in making sense of it and acknowledging ourselves.”
I ask Levine how she’s managed to survive despite the shadow cast by this wellness industrial complex, the one in which mindfulness is not, as Ron Purser and David Loy write in the viral essay “Beyond McMindfulness,” applied as a “means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion,” but, rather, “refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.” She responds with a striking degree of candor and insight.
“We’re partially responsible for the wellness industrial complex,” Levine admits. “We did a big push to beauty and fashion magazines during Maha Rose’s first year. We didn’t want to pitch ourselves to yoga journals because that would be preaching to the choir. We wanted to introduce these tools and modalities to people who weren’t otherwise seeking them and who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them. And now it’s become an industry,” she says wistfully. “Things get perverted: beauty, art, the divine, femininity, in order to sell and sell more. And so the same thing has happened to wellness.”
Levine believes in her cause and I see its life-force seize her body, her eyes, when she tries to convey its importance to me. But her belief in it does not stem from a place of zealous activism or martyrdom. It stems from a place of selflessness. Goodness. A kind of goodness, in fact, that comes from a place of endearing naivete and sustains itself with ample doses of idealism. And are these not attributes we’re distinctly lacking and desperately in need of, especially now?
When I ask Gilbert if he, as Maha Rose’s social media manager, is cognizant of any skepticism regarding their motives, he responds thoughtfully and with none of the customary crossness of an aggrieved party.
“We have not received any backlash or specific ‘attacks’ on social media about our authenticity, but we can feel the tension within the online community. There are deep wounds within this conversation and we must be sensitive to that, because there are many companies that are promoting wellness and mindfulness [to try to] be on trend, which can be discouraging to people who are really doing the work—the spiritual nitty-gritty of dealing with trauma head-on, of creating a daily yogic/spiritual practice of constant intention. For many of us, this is not a way to exist on social media, but the way we exist day to day, moment to moment.”
Since I first started attending meditation classes at Maha over a year ago, it has become increasingly evident that everyone who belongs to the Maha Rose sangha is governed by good faith. Each time you step foot into the space, you, in a way, enter into a communion of said good faith with it and its members. And I have seen how both novices and veterans, skeptics and idealists, are disarmed by this outflow of graciousness and integrity.
“I get a kick out of all the woo-woo books, crystals, and other holistic materials for sale in Maha Rose,” writes Molberg. “It’s not my thing, but I see it all as an endearing quality of the space, and makes me love Maha Rose even more.”
I too get a kick out of it all. And I too am disarmed. But I am also uncertain.
“It is our responsibility to question,” said Josh Korda, leader of secular Buddhist community Dharma Punx, after one of his weekly guided meditations at Maha Rose. Questioning is championed at Maha Rose, its meditation sessions treated more like pedagogic symposiums than pedantic lectures. For this reason, alongside myriad others, I continue to return to Maha Rose. But sometimes I worry that we are only cultivating awareness in what Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of New Hampshire, Kevin Healy, calls “integrity bubbles,” which are “limited contexts of work and family life in which a small but satisfied group enjoys an experience of harmony unavailable to others.”
When I confess to Levine my concern, she responds ardently: “I believe that any healing work we do for ourselves trickles down to everyone. And we can’t change anyone other than ourselves. We have to do our own healing and it is only then that the relationship could shift.”
And it seems that the members of the community, myself included, believe that Maha Rose is precisely the place in which such restoration could begin: “Everyone deserves healing and often times, places like Maha Rose are inaccessible,” writes Zappas. “But I think Lisa has done a thoughtful job of making it a business as well as an inclusive space for anyone interested in participating. Her spirit lives in those walls.”