On a busy street, amid the sirens and hustle and bustle of New York City, sits an unobtrusive van.
Inside is a soundproof space where more than 15,000 LED lights bathe the interior in ever-changing color as soothing background music plays. Patrons can enter and pay to collect their thoughts for 10 to 20 minutes.
"It's a little spaceship of calm," said Carla Hammond, owner of Be Time, a mobile meditation studio.
With the rise of food trucks comes an interesting offspring — meditation studios on wheels.
Since 2015, mobile meditation studios have popped up in Detroit, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. While each one varies slightly, they all share the same mission: helping people de-stress from their hectic lives.
The story of how many of these businesses came to be is surprisingly similar: The founders were all stressed out and couldn't find a time or place to relax in the midst of their busy days. Each, familiar with food trucks and their popularity, wanted something just as convenient for meditating.
"I wanted something where people could pop in during lunch," said Kristin Westbrook, who left her high-stress job as a creative director in New York's Rockefeller Center to open a meditation truck, Calm City. "People in New York are so time starved. I thought, wouldn't it be cool if there was something like Superman's phone booth where people could pop in and recharge their superpowers?"
Joanne and Jake Leider, a mother and son team, used a trailer attached to a truck to start Meditation Works in 2015 in the Detroit metro area after the younger Leider quit his first post-college job because of stress.
There are others. In addition to Be Time in New York, San Francisco has PauseNow.
"At the root of this is the inability to manage stress," said Joanne Leider, who works as the program director at Meditation Works.
Leider, who has been practicing yoga and mindfulness for 17 years, said it wasn't until a few years ago that many people understood the benefits of meditation. She cites Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who found in her research that meditation changes the brain structure and function. Lazar also says there is evidence it can improve memory and slow down cognitive degeneration.
"We thought that people who meditated were weirdos who ate kale and lived in ashrams, and that's why they felt better than other people," Leider said. "[But meditating] is this wonderful tool. All you have to do is sit and breathe. The problem is that it's just so hard to do alone."
Meditation, it turns out, is a form of mental exercise, according to Lazar's study, that helps people manage stress.
And stress is increasing. In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2017, nearly one-third, or 29 percent, of respondents said their stress levels have increased in the past year.
Meanwhile, only 8 percent of U.S. adults age 18 or older — or 18 million people — meditate, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health in 2012, the most recent survey available.
"I thought, if we built a meditation studio and put it in a food truck, people would use it if we brought it to work," Leider said. Two years later, the company now has two mobile studios that teach employees of 16 different companies, all over the Detroit area, how to meditate.
Being mobile is also cheaper than having a brick-and-mortar studio. Jackie Corwin, owner of the PauseNow bus in the Bay Area, estimates her bus costs about $9,000 a month to operate — but that's still a discount.
"It would cost $20,000 to $25,000 a month for rent alone in San Francisco," she said.
As the practice becomes more widely accepted, other meditation studios on wheels have emerged — with slight variations. But Leider doesn't mind the competition.
"We can't be everywhere," she said.
In New York's Be Time, visitors must take off their shoes and leave their mobile devices in a locker by the door before taking a seat on one of the 14 floor cushions. The 15- or 30-minute meditation sessions include a certified meditation instructor and weighted gravity blankets that give the feeling of being hugged.
Aboard the PauseNow bus, visitors can reserve one of the seven private "pods." The 27-foot bright blue bus comes with curtains over each pod for added privacy, padded seats and "noise-canceling headphones." IPads are in each pod, giving customers a choice between different meditations, or the chance to sit in silence, during their 15-minute meditation.
For Calm City, Westbrook bought a 1976 RV on Craigslist, ripped out the sink and cabinets and added enough bench space for nine people.
The buses attract both seasoned meditators and newbies, but mostly "curious people," Leider said.
The Detroit studio operates exclusively by contracting companies, such as banks or law offices. Individual employees can use the company's app to schedule a session. PauseNow, as well as New York's Calm City and Be Time studios, both contract to businesses, such as tech companies, hospitals and schools, and offer drop-in sessions to people passing by. Prices vary, but usually average around $1 a minute.
"I like that the bus forces me to go to different locations," said Aja Cohen, who discovered Calm City last year near her Midtown Manhattan office. "You live in New York City and then you realize, wait, I haven't been to the East Village in years."
In the future, all of the studio owners said they'd like to see more mobile studios throughout the country and more people meditating in general.
"If you can take a 15-minute coffee break, why not take a 15-minute mental break?" Corwin said.