Photo: Matthew Brown / Hearst Connecticut Media
If there’s one thing Carla Zilka wants to stress about the burgeoning practice that’s ballooning into a billion-dollar industry, it’s this: Most people understand meditation all wrong.
“Please write this down,” the Greenwich Water Club yoga programs director said during a tour of the club’s new meditation center and with a clear note of exasperation.
“Meditation is not about removing all thoughts from your mind — everyone will tell you that. That’s not going to happen. We have 70,000 thoughts a day,” Zilka said. “Seventy thousand,” she repeated louder. “Meditation is about allowing the thoughts to be there but not allowing them any time.”
The real purpose of meditation, according to Zilka, is to “distract you from all those thoughts so you can be present.” There are different types of meditation to fit all personality types, Zilka said, but each is geared at focusing people on a small action or repeated word that commands all their attention.
“Let me ask you,” the former Wall Street trader and General Electric executive said in a tone implying she already knew the answer. “When was the last time you were just totally quiet and present?”
Similar prompts have led millions, including Silicon Valley stars and corporate chiefs such as Greenwich resident Ray Dalio, who’s attributed his success to transcendental meditation, to set out on their own mindfulness practices. For Zilka, the rising tide of apps and studios dedicated to both is encouraging as she credits meditation with keeping her sane during trying times.
Finding community in meditation
In 1987, fresh out of college, the Saratoga, N.Y., native headed straight to one of Manhattan’s top trading floors at Shearson Lehman Bros., where she recalls being the only woman. Working in a stressful, competitive environment in a city where she knew no one was tough, Zilka said. “I went to New York and I just felt daggers. It was like I needed to put up a shield to protect myself.”
Finding a safe, supportive community was crucial for her, and she discovered it at Jivamukti Yoga, a studio founded in New York City that’s expanded around the world and culled notable clients like Gwyneth Paltrow, Heidi Klum, Madonna, Steve Martin and Sting. “Within a month of first attending, I was going every day,” Zilka said. Now, she requires all her yoga teachers to attend and train at the same studio.
From the high-stakes New York trading floor, Zilka marched her way through a number of high-powered corporate jobs, including rising to vice president of growth for consumer finance at GE and running her own global consulting firm. Just a brief outline of her resume indicates why she’d want to learn how to press pause on her thoughts.
Since joining the Water Club two years ago after selling her own yoga studio, Zilka’s empathy for members’ crammed schedules and overworked minds has helped prioritize changes to its offerings that increased yoga classes participation and membership, according to Mike Wieneke, club director of programs and member services, as people can sign up solely for the club’s yoga program headed by Zilka.
‘What we’re all here for’
The newest addition is the club’s conversion of a storage room into a serene meditation space that’s intended to be a sanctuary that provides everything Zilka once wanted as a new New Yorker: “safety, serenity and peace.”
“This is a safe harbor,” Zilka said, pointing out defining details such as infrared radiant heating panels that warm the room, but “dry like India not humid like Florida,” an altar with dancing Shiva, the calming sound of trickling water and meditation cushions with heavy Mexican blankets.
The club’s new meditation room and expanded classes are planned to debut Sunday, during its annual Yoga Open House. By fall, Zilka also hopes to have published her newest book on meditation called “The Happiness Process,” and launched a meditation instructors’ curriculum she co-designed.
Her pivot from successful corporate businesswoman to immersion in meditation training is evident through her answer as to why the ancient practice has re-emerged and gained so much traction. “We’re going through a revolution where people are saying, ‘How do I feel better when there’s a conflict of what I’m doing and what I should be doing?’” she said.
“My son told me, ‘I don’t want to go to college, work and then die.’ As a collective, we’re moving toward consciousness. And right now, this moment is the only thing that’s real. The past is an illusion. The future is an illusion. Being conscious in the present is the only place where we can find happiness, and isn’t that what we’re all here for?”
MBennett@greenwichtime.com, 203-625-4411; Twitter @Macaela_