As the Universe, So the Soul

My Conversation with WOOM Center Co-Founder Elian Zach on the Role of Wellness Communities in a Socially Distant and Socially Turbulent Time

September 15, 2020

Photo: WOOM Center

When I first moved to New York City in the Summer of 2019, I made it my mission to find a yoga studio where I felt at home. I wanted to find a community that approached yoga and the human experience in a way that honored the soul. As a yoga instructor myself, I wanted to find a space that challenged the mind, body, and spirit. Luckily for me, after hours of searching on ClassPass and MindBody, I found WOOM Center, which was only a short walk from my Tribeca apartment over to Soho. WOOM was the first wellness space I ever entered in the city, and to this day, it is still my favorite.

WOOM yoga experiences are sensory immersion practices that are beyond what the average yoga-goer would come to expect. Each experience is a beautiful blend of breathwork, vocal toning, sound immersion, moving meditation, and most of all, play. During my time at WOOM, my yoga experiences were equal parts immersive and experimental. I found myself making friends with my classmates as I tried (both successfully and unsuccessfully) to play with different poses and sequences, as classmates worked together to help one another navigate the experience. The space provides an environment that allows for the subconscious and conscious to play, creating a limitless space that allows the mind to be a present, active observer of its surroundings. From projected imagery flooding the walls, to 3D sound immersion, aromatherapy, free postclass elixirs, and tactical movement, WOOM experiences engage all five senses. When it comes to the WOOM experience, it is impossible to anticipate. You have no choice but to simply participate.

Photo: WOOM Center

As the city, and honestly the world, has entered a moment of unknowing through a global pandemic and an economic and racial reckoning, I began to wonder what role wellness centers are left to play in their communities. How does a wellness center function when those within the community cannot enter a communal, immersive space due to social distancing? When it feels as if the soul of the world is broken, how do wellness centers adapt to the needs of the community from afar? I found myself on a mission to learn how places like WOOM Center and those within the WOOM community in New York City sought to evolve and elevate their mission through socially distanced and socially tumultuous times. To find out more, I spoke with Elian Zach, Co-founder of the WOOM Center, Yoga and Breathwork Guide, and navigator of all things body, mind, and soul.

Elian Zach

When I first spoke to Elian, we met virtually from each others’ living rooms. She sat on a couch in her cozy New York apartment, surrounded by books covering the likes of yoga and spiritual exploration, as well as one beautiful, dainty hand sculpture that immediately stood out to me. I, on the other side of the screen, sat in the living room of the house that I grew up in, residing in the same space where I have taken a few of WOOM’s virtual experiences from afar. 

As I listened to Elian tell the story of WOOM, I learned that its journey, and Elian’s personal journey, are completely intertwined, even in the present moment. Elian reflected on the interwoven path of her life and WOOM by emphasizing the deeply connected nature of the universe, a phenomenon that she has been recently leaning into while taking a Buddhism course. She explains the parallels between her journey and the journey of WOOM through her favorite quote by Hermes Trismegistus: “As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul.”

Elian co-founded the WOOM Center with her former partner David Shemesh in 2016 out of a deep desire to create a safe and explorative space to work through what she describes as “the labyrinth of self-exploration.” Elian, a former actress who originally moved to New York from Israel, was deeply moved by personal experiences of her own in her journey as she began to create WOOM. Elian knew that she wanted to make a wellness center. However, before she could do so, she knew that she needed to take time to search internally and define what wellness meant to her.

Inspired by the psychedelic experience, Burning Man, and the effects of sound, WOOM was born. Elian worked to create a space in which the conscious mind can be free and explore without any psychedelic intervention. WOOM was created out of an observation that “grand little experiences have a grand impact on life and perspective in general.” As Elian reflected on her personal journey, those grand little experiences played a large role in the vision of WOOM.

Elian herself experienced her first sound immersion with ethnomusicologist Alexandre Tannous; she knew she was going to do everything in her power to learn from him. Tannous’ teachings and a deep connection to the power of sound are at the cornerstone of WOOM’s practices. In fact, Tannous’ guidance to “remain inquisitive, remain curious, and to remain skeptical (not doubtful but skeptical)” helped set the tone of WOOM’s mission.

Whether based in yoga, sound, or meditation, each WOOM experience is curated to allow participants to immerse, have a good time, and become friends with discomfort, while doing so in a grounded, sustainable, and practical space. As Elian explains, WOOM is proudly a “multidisciplinary space that does not align itself with any singular philosophy, but instead draws from a variety of different philosophies, cross referencing on a regular basis.” The space is designed to be equal parts all encompassing and all inclusive, creating an open space for all individuals traveling along their spiritual journey. In short, WOOM is a space for union, which, as Elian explains, “is the essence of yoga.”

Photo: Asi Ze’evi for WOOM Center

Elian and WOOM believe deeply in the power of personal choice and individual empowerment. This is evident even in the rhetoric used at the WOOM center; yoga, sound, or meditation sessions are not referred to as classes, but experiences; those who lead such experiences are not teachers, but guides; and most importantly, the word healer is never used. As Elian explains it, “Words have such a big impact on how we contextualize experiences and perceive reality. If someone tells you that they’re your healer, they take your power away from you.” She sums it up in one sentence: “You are the only healer you will ever meet.”

As she speaks of her own story and the story of WOOM, Elian dials in on this concept of resilience. “Balance is nonexistent,” Elian explains. “You spend your life seesawing between polarities, [which I believe] is the most interesting part of the human existence. I have experienced pain, so now I know pleasure on a much deeper level.” As she would come to find out, resilience would play a large role in the story of WOOM and Elian Zach.

In the Spring of 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic began to take over New York City. Soon, restaurants and non-essential businesses would shut down, some temporarily, and others permanently. Many New Yorkers would lose their jobs, and many would also lose their lives. In a world where uncertainty and disconnect became a part of daily existence, it seemed as if the soul of New York needed refuge, now more than ever. 

As New Yorkers relied on one another to adapt and survive, the team at WOOM came together to brainstorm how they could best give back to a community coming to grips with a deadly pandemic and economic halt. In the theme of resilience, Elian and WOOM began to evolve. Thus, as Elian explains, WOOM created a sliding scale to pay for yoga, meditation, and sound experiences. As many people had lost their jobs and were losing income, WOOM adapted a “pay what you can” model.

“We’re not worried about making money,” Elian explained. “We are more concerned with maintaining community and nourishing the community.” Through brainstorming, WOOM created their first ever free membership: the Hero Membership. Through the Hero Membership, frontline and emergency service workers could sign up and WOOM for free. To Elian, it felt “really good” to give back to those who had kept the city alive during New York’s hardest times, and seeing nurses and social workers join WOOM experiences from a distance.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, [adapting to an online space] felt exciting,” Elian explained. “It felt like a project.” In the first online Zoom Yoga Experience Elian led, over 90 people joined. “It was an incredibly powerful experience,” she described. She was brought to tears seeing those who had once been a part of the WOOM community, and had moved from New York, from all over the world online together again. To her, it felt like a bright light in the darkness, when so much felt unknown.

But then, as time passed and summer began to approach, it became clear that the pandemic would not be ending any time soon. “When will we be able to see each other? When will we be able to experience that closeness again?” she remembered worrying. As the days got warmer and no end appeared in sight, an anxious tone crept in. For Elian, and many in the WOOM community who longed to be back in the space they had worked years to create, it felt like a “crisis of faith.”

Then, on May 25th 2020, an unarmed black man by the name of George Floyd was murdered by police in broad daylight. To Elian, the death of George Floyd pushed the country over its tipping point. During a time of immeasurable grief, the nation had a new reason to mourn: the ever present racial inequality and injustice that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people experience on a daily basis. At the same time, in mid-May, Elian fractured multiple parts of her right foot, severely injuring it. She could not continue her practice. She could not march in solidarity with her city. She could not even walk.

As the world around her descended into pain and unrest, Elian’s sense of helplessness due to her foot and the heaviness of the moment brought her into a month and a half long depression. As someone who is used to being a “lighthouse for those who were feeling down”, her injury and depression brought her to what she describes as her “personal rock bottom.” Even through darkness, as the universe, so the soul.

She had to learn how to ask for help. She had to embrace the discomforts of vulnerability. Though at WOOM Elian had created a place for introspection, having been forced into that position felt miserable. As the summer pushed on, Elian felt as if the city, as well as the nation, had been uprooted in many of the same ways she herself was experiencing. Metaphorically and physically, she “could not stand on [her] own two feet.”

As the Black Lives Matter movement persisted, the team at WOOM set out to do their best to provide for the community once more. Elian decided to do what they do best. Instead of attempting to educate, WOOM sought to offer a space of integration: a place of union. Thus, WOOM created their second free membership, known as the Warrior Membership. Like the Hero Membership before it, the Warrior Membership provides free WOOM experiences for social activists in NYC and all over the world. This free membership is open to all who invest time and energy in the realm of education and relief, while fighting for social, racial, and economic equality. In doing so, Elian and the WOOM team wanted to expand the capacity of WOOM to nourish the community so that those who fight every day for the lives of others can find a place of refuge, a place to just be.

With each passing tragedy that the global community has endured, the WOOM community has continued to ask itself how they can give back. As Elian explains, she and those in the WOOM community are trying “not to be overwhelmed by the storm, but present in the storm.” As social unrest persists and the world continues to grieve, Elian and WOOM have set their eyes on adaptation and persistence, with a commitment to raising the vibrations of the New York community and global community from afar. 

It is not all doom and gloom, however. Throughout the days of socially distanced gatherings at WOOM, there have been many moments of hope. For one, Elian finds herself blown away by the “perseverance shown by the WOOM team and WOOM community” just by showing up on the mat constantly. For those of us familiar with the practice of yoga or meditation, this sentiment rings true. Oftentimes the hardest part of one’s practice is just getting up to show up, which the WOOM community has accomplished day in and day out. In addition, Elian, like many of us, has been inspired by the immense creativity people have shown adapting to a life stuck inside. “People are just making really cool shit,” she says. In addition, as an enthusiastic vegan (like myself), Elian has found joy in the declined consumption of animal products throughout this hardfought summer. 

However, as Elian adapts to her weakened mobility, still unable to walk, she has found joy in leaning into her deep listening practices and even leading a book club within the WOOM community called the WOORM Club. The WOORM Club is a group of 12 dedicated individuals who meet every 2 weeks to discuss their readings of Neale Donald Walsch’s book, Conversations with God. While her injury has deepened her sense of vulnerability, Elian has found that participation in the WOORM Club has increased her capacity for vulnerability, as members of the club consistently find themselves speaking candidly about matters of humanity and God, as well as their hopes, dreams, and fears.

In the future, as WOOM continues to adapt and overcome, Elian does not know where the Universe will guide WOOM. And she is okay with that. Though she relies heavily on vision and makes a living producing curated experiences, not knowing the future of WOOM is something that Elian is learning to embrace. Just as she does not know if she will be able to walk in a month, she does not know if she will be able to gather in the WOOM space again soon. Embracing and honoring discomfort — a primary practice of WOOM — forcibly became a part of its story, and the story of Elain Zach. And both have chosen resilience.

Thankfully, for newcomers who want to check out the WOOM community, in the words of Elian, “It’s never been easier!”. All newcomers have to do is sign up and log on, without even leaving their homes. Signing up for a yoga, meditation, or sound experience can be done through MindBody, or on the WOOM website. Currently, WOOM is offering a condensed summer schedule with yoga every day, along with weekly sound experiences, and continuous collaborations with different brands who promote wellness in their own ways. In the words of Elian: “Come in, and get lost a little bit.”

For those who want to begin their spiritual, yoga, or sound journey, Elian was gracious enough to recommend a variety of books, podcasts, websites, and videos. If you want to learn more about Elian and even more about the journey of WOOM, you can find her on the Life Stylist Podcast where she was interviewed over the course of two episodes. To learn more about the practice of yoga and sustainable yoga, Elian recommends the book The Wheels of Life by Anodea Judith. To learn more about sound immersion and the power of sound, as well as Alexandre Tannous’ work, check out soundmeditation.com (I checked it out and it is quite interesting, containing a wealth of knowledge). To follow along with the WOORM Club and dive deeper into your spiritual journey, you can check out Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch.

As a patron of WOOM, I can say that there is likely no other place in the city like it. It is a space where your soul feels equally as tended to as your body. It is a place where the conscious mind can play, and above all, it is a place to learn. When we can all commune in person, I cannot wait to find myself back on the mat once again. Until then, should we find ourselves on one of WOOM’s amazing virtual experiences together, don’t be a stranger.

To connect with Elian, follow her on Instagram @elianzach and WOOM Center @woomcenter!

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