Suze Yalof Schwartz, the founder of Unplug Meditation, at her studio in Los Angeles.
Imagine having your dream job. And then walking away from it -- on a dare.
Suze Yalof Schwartz was named the “fairy godmother of makeovers” by the New York Times in 2001. She had carved out a powerful niche for herself at Glamour magazine, where she was executive fashion editor, and before that worked for Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire.
When she was photographed for the New York Times piece, she remembers the photographer looking at her through the lens and saying, "when I take this picture, your whole life is going to change." And it did.
She went to the Bahamas with Oprah to do bathing suit makeovers for the show, jumped into a NASCAR pit with “Good Morning America” and one time made over a rabbi -- proudly calling it “synagogue chic.” She reinvented people from 1996 to 2010 and wrote hundreds of articles for Glamour about style improvement.
Schwartz with Tyra Banks and Oprah on a makeover episode in 1997.
But after 14 years of making over other people, she flipped the script and made over herself. She moved from the east to west coast and opened a studio in Los Angeles that is dedicated to teaching people the art of meditation.
Unlike many tales of career reinvention, Schwartz’s is not one of burnout, dwindling inspiration or soul-sucking unhappiness. It's actually quite the opposite.
“I had the dream job of all dream jobs,” she told The Huffington Post in the back office of her meditation studio, Unplug Meditation, in Los Angeles. Schwartz radiates positive energy -- she has a megawatt smile, flowing brown hair and the keen ability to always give her opinion without ever seeming pushy.
After a work trip to Los Angeles for the Oscars in 2010, Schwartz joked with her husband that they should move to the west coast. He thought about it and began to dream of raising their three children outdoors, near the ocean and in a freer environment than New York City provided.
“He dared me to be adventurous and to move. I said if you’re daring me then I’ll go, but you have to find schools for our kids and a house for us to live in. And he did!” she said. Their kids were 9, 6 and 3 years old at the time.
But when they arrived in L.A. in August of 2010, Schwartz remembers feeling lost. “I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she said. “I quit my job entirely when we moved. It was scary. But I knew he needed me to be there for the kids at first and to help the transition be better for everyone.”
After about six months (and a stint at beading bracelets that only yielded boredom), Schwartz returned to the fashion industry part time for Lord & Taylor and began to fly back and forth between L.A. and New York producing taxicab TV commercials for the brand.
Her stress levels were so unmanageable during this time period that her mother-in-law, a psychotherapist, taught her a breathing exercise to help her relax. It made such a difference in Schwartz's ability to stay calm, that her mother-in-law suggested looking into meditation.
But when Schwartz searched on her computer for a place to learn in Los Angeles, she realized there was a gaping hole. “The choices were $1,400 to sit in some hot guy’s house and learn how to meditate, or a four-week program or trekking up to a Buddhist temple,” she said.
“I’m busy. I wanted to try it but didn’t want to make a huge commitment. So I told my husband I was going to open a meditation studio."
This talent for being able to recognize what is missing and envision what should be in its place is a major part of Schwartz’s identity. It’s why she was so successful in her first career.
She was one of the first fashion editors to suggest photographing non-model women in bathing suits to show how the pieces looked on a human -- not just on a mannequin. She can easily visualize how things could be as opposed to how they are.
Her husband fully supported her. But told her she should probably learn how to meditate first.
She went to group classes, learned from private teachers, listened to podcasts, and did guided meditations on YouTube. She began meditating as often as five times a day. As she learned the physical practice, she also took notes on what wasn’t working.
Schwartz with students at Unplug Meditation.
“I found that a lot of the instructors would go on and on -- and I wanted to edit them. They were all basically saying the same thing but I wanted it to be delivered in a way that was less mystical and easier to understand.”
She also began noticing the effects of all the meditation she was doing. “Normally with my children, I would react in a not so nice way to something, but I was able to press my inner pause button and then respond,” she remembers. “I was able to think before I spoke. I had never been able to really do that before.”
She noticed she was calmer, too. But she said the most interesting side effect of her meditation was that she didn’t want to shop anymore. “I wanted less. I wanted more and more of less and less, as Marina Abramovic says.”
She and a girlfriend wrote a business plan at her kitchen table and opened the doors to Unplug Meditation in April 2014.
For those out there thinking Los Angeles is the last place in need of another spiritual center, you’re right and you’re wrong. L.A. has long been a mecca for drifters, dreamers and hippies. Wellness trends start there, drifting first along the coast of the Pacific Ocean before migrating to other parts of the country.
But Schwartz’s desire to make meditation -- a rapidly growing interest and industry -- accessible to people with busy schedules helps explain why so many have called her studio the Drybar or SoulCycle of meditation.
"What I like about Drybar is you walk in feeling icky and you walk out feeling great. And it’s a half hour. That’s how I feel about Unplug," Schwartz said.
Meditation classes at the studio are 30 minutes long and take place morning, noon and night. The teachers have a variety of meditation backgrounds and Schwartz is always adding new classes to the schedule. The whole point is you can pop in, try it out and see how it goes. It’s exactly what Schwartz was looking for when she first started investigating the practice.
There is not one specific tradition of meditation taught at the studio. There are classes focused on mindfulness, mantra, breath work, clarity and imagination. There is a tapping meditation, a sound bath meditation and even one with live guitar music.
"In every meditation, you pick a single point of focus," Schwartz said. "If it’s Vedic or Transcendental, it’s a mantra. In mindfulness meditation, it can be your breath or a grape. In Zen, it can be movement. You pick one single point of focus. Then you let that slip away. Then a thought or a feeling pops up -- because that’s what they do. And then you notice that you’re feeling or thinking and so you bring it back to the focus point. Focus, let it go, think, notice, repeat. That’s it."
Inside, the studio walls are white, the seat cushions are chic and every detail is edited. There are fresh flowers in clear vases, fruit-infused water and huge signs that read: “Calm,” "Stillness" and “I’m thankful for today.”
The gift shop sells stylish notebooks, glass water bottles, delicate jewelry and meditation books recommended by the teachers at Unplug. It’s apparent that Schwartz has an editorial background. But if it seems like all of it came together seamlessly, that was definitely not the case.
“I’m not a businessperson. I had an idea and was stupid enough to think I could actually do it myself. I didn’t overthink it and just did it,” Schwartz said, laughing. Her overt optimism is part of what has propelled her into such an adventure. But that didn't instantly translate into bodies in the studio.
For many months, she was one of the only students at Unplug. In some of the afternoon classes, she was literally the only person sitting with the teacher. She felt bad and the teachers felt bad.
Unplug initially offered first classes for free so that newcomers could try it out, but Schwartz says that instead of encouraging clients to come back, new students would happily use up their free class and never walk through the doors again.
“For the first six months, it was deep dive losses,” she said. “Oy-vey-what-am-I-going-to-do-with-myself kinds of losses.” Despite the fact that the studio sits smack dab in the affluent and health-conscious neighborhood of Brentwood, the price point just wasn’t right for the clientele.
Schwartz hired someone to come in and help with business strategy and they changed the model entirely. Unplug began offering new clients a $40 option and they saw immediate results. Schwartz said she broke even for the first time that month and has only gone up each month since then. This price is significantly cheaper than many other options.
To put it in context, an introductory course at a Transcendental Meditation house -- one of Unplug's competitors -- is $960. Private one-on-one meditation teachers can cost just as much, if not significantly more.
The physical and mental benefits of meditation place the practice in a rapidly growing wellness category alongside many workout regimens. Experts often say it’s like exercise for your brain.
In the spring, Unplug Meditation was added to the popular exercise app ClassPass, alongside activities like Pilates, yoga, spinning and boot camp. It got a whole lot more eyeballs on the name Unplug.
Students in class at Unplug Meditation.
Schwartz has gone from seeing a handful of people in a single class to 15, 25 and sometimes 50 in certain classes. Even though the studio isn’t overtly “spiritual” (there is no chanting or Sanskrit around), one of Unplug's most popular classes has become the crystal healing meditation.
“I thought it would be a little too ‘woo-woo’ for what I was trying to do here,” Schwartz said. “But I really liked the teacher and we gave it a try.”
The class has become so popular that they sometimes have to turn people away for lack of space -- something she would have thought unimaginable a year ago.
“You lay down and the teacher feels your energy field and decides what crystals should go on you. People walk out feeling incredible. The meditation is listening to her drop crystals on different people’s bodies.”
Some clients love the studio so much they make it a part of their daily routine, like going to the gym.
"One woman has been coming for 100 straight days," Schwartz said. “She says she is a different person. She is nicer. Her boyfriend likes her so much more. She had a meltdown on him the day after Valentine’s Day. She was so ashamed of her behavior that she Googled what to do and meditation popped up. She has seen so much change that she comes every single day.”
Schwartz also talks about a runner who started meditating because he was no longer enjoying running, but is now back at it. Some of the Pittsburgh Steelers popped in for classes to help with mental focus.
“We have so many different types of people coming in and out of the doors -- all of them are grateful. It’s so nice as a business owner to have people come up to you and say ‘you have changed my life.’ You can decide to do that any day. I wish more people could tap into that and know reinvention was possible.”
Today she calls herself a “spiritual entrepreneur” and sees herself as part of the launch of a new industry that is elevating wellness and spirituality. Her advice for people wanting to reinvent their lives, too? Do it.
“One of the teachers here says ‘it’s always now.’ The only time you have in life is right this very moment,” Schwartz said. “So if you want to do something, just do it. What is the worst that could happen? You could fail? I would rather say ‘oh well’ than ‘what if.’”
She says she doesn’t really miss the glamour of her former life. "I try not to look at it like that. I don’t want to look backwards, ever. I had a great job and it was fabulous. There are moments where I miss the splendor and the glory and the parties and the clothes. But mostly I don’t. Go with your gut, move forward and jump. If there’s passion behind what you’re doing then you will be successful.”
Schwartz has done makeovers on hundreds of people and has now meditated more times in the last year than many people will in a lifetime. But the most meaningful part of her reinvention, she says, was moving her family from New York to California.
“A lot of people love where they live. Their whole families are there, they’re holding on and they don’t want to take that risk. When you let go of everything you own and decide to go into a fully-furnished rental with nothing you like inside, it is the most freeing, fabulous feeling you can imagine,” she said. “You are free of stuff. You are free of the past and you can do anything you want.”