Calm City Meditation Station: NYC’s 1st Mobile Studio of Zen
A meditation wagon was the first project for Calm City's founder, who is living with metastatic breast cancer, to help people live well with adversity and stress.
When Kristin Westbrook was working in Rockefeller Center in 2015 and trying to maintain her daily midday meditation sessions, she always came up short while looking for a quiet place for her practice. Between her office’s open floor plan and the bustle of Midtown Manhattan, it was impossible for her to get deep into her meditation, safe from interruptions.
The creative director had already been practicing mindfulness-based breathing meditation for 14 years by that point — a practice that became essential following a breast cancer diagnosis in 2010 and a recurrence in 2012.
“It was really beneficial in helping me navigate the healthcare system and all the diagnostic tests, surgeries, PET [positron emission tomography] scans, and treatments,” she says. “And it helped me stay focused on the moment rather than running down these paths to the future.”
Indeed, the practice can help prevent your mind from wandering to dark places. “Meditation gives you the presence of mind to shift your focus from negative or unrealistic thoughts and habits to more positive, realistic, and healing ones,” says Joe Loizzo, MD, PhD, founder and academic director of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry in integrative medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.
Like Superman’s Phone Booth for the Mind
Rather than letting the dilemma of noise and crowds stop her, it gave Westbrook an idea: “Wouldn’t it be great if you could have a pod on every corner, like Superman’s phone booth, where you could pop in, transform with a quick meditation session, and get back to your day?” she thought — perhaps something similar to a food truck.
The idea for a mobile meditation studio slowly began to take shape. Once she settled on using a truck herself, Westbrook spent four months testing out various vehicles and settings, eventually opting for a 1976 GMC Vandura RV that she transformed into a place of tranquility, replacing dark ‘70s-styled interiors with a bright, serene atmosphere including nine green Sunbrella-upholstered cushioned seats.
“I wanted to take something that already existed and turn it into something else — something resembling wood and nature,” says Westbrook. Calm City Meditation Station, as Westbrook dubbed the 24-foot traveling studio, went for its inaugural run in May 2017. Soon after, Westbrook was parking the wagon throughout the city so the general public could step inside for 10-minute guided meditation sessions. Others quickly caught on, and she started getting hired for private events, too.
From a Traveling Meditation Station to Wellness Courses, a Book, and More
The coronavirus pandemic put a temporary halt to the mobile studio, as sitting next to others in a small enclosed space was obviously a no-go. But Westbrook had already started expanding into general wellness services prior to the pandemic’s onset, working with the City of New York to help develop some of their WorkWell NYC programs for more than 380,000 city employees in offices like NYC Health + Hospitals, Child Protective Services, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Like so many others, she quickly pivoted to virtual programs for the city workers, teaching meditation via Zoom and building wellness and happiness programs that she developed largely based on her own personal experiences: Westbrook continues to live with and manage metastatic breast cancer, which requires treatment every three weeks and regular PET scans to check for further growth, all of which has resulted in some memory loss, among other issues.
She also utilized knowledge gained from various trainings she’d done throughout the years to build the programs, including coursework in mindfulness, Transcendental Meditation, and compassion cultivation. In addition, Westbrook is certified in meditation through the Nalanda Institute and is also a certified hypnotist.
As someone dealing with constant challenges herself, Westbrook says she relates to what city workers have to deal with and finds working with them particularly rewarding.
“Their jobs are really hard. They’re under so much stress,” Westbook says, adding that people she worked with were regularly on their computers until 10 p.m. trying to help asylum seekers, children, and other people in need. “They can’t put down their work.”
The ability to deal with and adapt to regular challenges is one benefit of a regular meditation practice. According to Dr. Loizzo, meditation allows for awareness and the ability to be able to step back and watch your mind work — and to notice what’s making you both crazy and more sane.
It also helps to increase neural plasticity, he says, which can “shift and reset our minds and nervous systems so we’re more prepared to live well and healthily, and to change in the ways we want to be able to — or need to — change.“
The mental flexibility Westbrook acquired through meditation helped her adapt her small business during the height of the pandemic, and since the spring of 2022, she’s been back in action in person. In addition to her work with the City of New York, which has taken her to all five boroughs, she has worked with organizations like the Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Half Marathon, offering meditation sessions to runners during the three days they were able to pick up their bibs prior to race day.
Most recently, she put together a guide for others on how to live well with adversity, The Luckiest Unlucky Person I Know. In part a memoir of living with breast cancer and handling the “absurdity of the healthcare system,” it’s also a collection of exercises for developing a positive mindset when dealing with challenges like managing grief or living with a chronic disease. Included are many of the exercises she developed as part of the virtual workshops for city employees during the pandemic.
Whether through her meditation studio, her workshops, or her book, Westbrook’s ultimate goal is to give people the tools that will help them manage stress and anxiety in their lives, and to bring them some happiness regardless of what they may be dealing with.
“Throughout my breast cancer journey, I’ve had to rebuild my framework for how to live on a day-to-day basis, and meditation and mindfulness exercises have been tremendous assets for my health and well-being,” she says. “It would have been very difficult to face those challenges without some sort of superpower, and that’s what you get from practicing mindfulness or jumping into Superman’s phone booth — aka Calm City — you get grounded centeredness.”