Sunday January 9, 2005
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SPENDING –Business Section page 7

C'mon, Get Happy, but the Calm Will Take Some Cash

By JENNIFER ALSEVER

JUDY FORSYTH could make a payment on a luxury car for what she spends each month on stress relief.

Ms. Forsyth, a Silicon Valley computer consultant, forks over nearly $500 a month for spa treatments, massages, incense and yoga products. She has paid $160 for a game that uses biofeedback to help her meditate.

"The expense is right up there with rent," said Ms. Forsyth, 45, who spent $10,000 on a recent trek to India for peace and relaxation. "In the Silicon Valley, it's crazy; the stress is unbelievable. Sometimes it's really hard to sit and meditate."

People like Ms. Forsyth who are working longer hours and carrying larger workloads are a big force driving a lucrative new market centered on relaxation. Time-pressed Americans increasingly want to buy their serenity off the shelf, and countless companies line up to sell it to them in the form of personal consultants, specialized video games, vitamins, yoga, massage, biofeedback, self-help books and hypnotism training. In 2003, Americans spent $36 billion on relaxation products, according to the Natural Marketing Institute, a consulting and research firm in Harleysville, Pa.

The list of possibilities is long. A $20 pen from RedEnvelope.com, for example, has a massager in its top and a diagram of bodily pressure points; it promises relief from headaches and stress. SeiFu meditation cushions are offered for $95 at Dharma.net, while circulation machines - chairs with cushioned ankle rests and electric controls - are $165 and intended to stimulate circulation and to relieve muscle tension. And LearningMeditation.com offers pendant jewelry that "helps your personal energy."

While the products may benefit buyers, at least one critic questions the size of the marketplace that has emerged to meet Americans' desire for relaxation. "No matter what kind of problem we suffer from, someone always offers a product as a solution," said John de Graaf, a co-author of "Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic."

"As overworked and overstressed Americans, we suffer from time poverty," he said. "In part, that results from our overconsuming and always wanting more and more."

But in an uncertain economy, many people, including Ms. Forsyth, feel increased pressure to work even more. Out of fear of losing her job, she said, she often sacrifices personal time. "If I get laid off, it's going to be pretty hard to get a job," she said.

That kind of tension has created an open market for a number of businesses. The Centerpointe Research Institute, a company in Beaverton, Ore., offers Holosync, a set of CD's for $160 with rainlike sounds and Tibetan bell tones that, when heard through headphones, promise to create new neural pathways between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, improving memory and reducing anxiety and stress.

People who buy the first CD package from the company then get multiple pitches by mail to buy other products. Centerpointe's founder, Bill Harris, said his company, which has 25 employees, would generate $10 million in sales in 2004.

Rob Deming, a technology manager in Philadelphia, bought a 10-CD set of the Holosync system for $65 on eBay. He liked it. Because he bought the CD's unused, he was able to register with Centerpointe as a new user. But he said the subsequent marketing pitches, which arrived in the mail every couple of weeks promoting books, CD's and other meditation products, annoyed him. He said the whole 12-level Holosync program was offered to him for $3,500.

"It's really a turnoff," Mr. Deming said. He said he has spent $600 over the last two years buying a variety of other, less expensive meditation CD's. "You can walk into a local Barnes & Noble and find a whole selection of CD's," he said. "It is out there and readily available for $15, not $3,500."

Mr. Harris, Centerpointe's founder, said the additional marketing was just part of business. "If we send something you want, you buy it. If you don't want it, throw it away."

Mr. Harris said Centerpointe provided new customers with 10 follow-up support letters, a copy of his book and a free set of six CD's with recordings of talks he has given. "It's a lot of extra stuff we send them," he said.

ANOTHER company, Wild Divine, in Eldorado Springs, Colo., developed a video game, "The Journey to Wild Divine," to teach breathing exercises and meditation. Priced at $160, it comes with three clip-on finger monitors that plug into a computer and measure heart rate and perspiration level.

Players rarely use the keyboard but instead rely on controlling their breathing to travel through various scenarios in the two-hour game. Players who can successfully relax their heart rate by using slow deep breathing, for instance, will master juggling balls in a Mediterranean courtyard and move on to the next task. But those who cannot relax will cause the balls to fly off the screen. Wild Divine's founder, Kurt Smith, said he had set out to create a tool that people could use to ease tension without leaving their desks.

"People's minds are spinning and spinning," said Mr. Smith, a yoga enthusiast and medical device entrepreneur. "They're looking for a way to stop."

Since its introduction last January, Wild Divine has sold 25,000 copies of the game. The next version, in April, will let up to 18 people play simultaneously over the Internet.

And a new breed of specialists has emerged to ease life's turmoil by offering seminars and one-on-one counseling. A growing number of people now make a living as "life coaches," "health coaches" or "spirituality coaches," providing a wide variety of services, like identifying sources of stress or organizing living spaces.

Typically, coaches charge $300 to $500 a month for three or four 30-minute calls and some shorter emergency phone calls.

Ronni Sandroff, a publishing executive, paid about $3,000 for nine months of coaching to spur her creativity in order to write a novel. The coaching, she said, helped her realize that stress was preventing her from reaching her goals and that most of the stress came from work.

"My job drained me emotionally," said Ms. Sandroff, who lives in Fort Lee, N.J. "Once we dealt with the stress, it liberated me to do other things. It was really worth it. It was the most profound change I have had in my life since my daughter was born, and she's in her 30's."

A number of groups, like the International Coach Federation, offer certification for coaching, often requiring up to a year of study, including weekend workshops, telephone-based classes and a final test. Other experts offer stress-relief seminars, which teach everything from doodling to hypnotism. "Hypnotism really gets to the root of the problem," said Mark Gagnon, a magician in Montpelier, Vt., who charges companies $1,000 to $3,000 for seminars at which he hypnotizes employees. He also sells a CD that people can listen to at home to hypnotize themselves.

"Stress is often a subconscious thing," he said. "A lot of products mask the stress."

In Los Angeles, Carol Ross Edmonston teaches seminars on doodling, aiming to have people live in the present with pen and paper and forget future or past worries.

"In these seminars, I'm really getting you to think, really getting you to look at whether you really have a strategy on how you handle chaos, how you cope," said Ms. Edmonston, 56, who twice survived breast cancer and discovered doodling's relief potential while sitting in a doctor's waiting room.

She said she was not motivated by money when presenting corporate seminars. "My life doesn't depend upon making 'X' amount of money," she said. "I'll work within their budgets." She has received as little as a couple of coffee gift cards and as much as several thousand dollars for her seminars.

Ms. Edmonston is also co-author of "Create While You Wait: A Doodle Book for All Ages," which sells for $12.95.

Still, she recognizes that there are market forces converging on the overstressed. "There are so many gimmicks that marketers will come up with when they see a problem," she said. "Stress isn't going to go away. It's a fast-paced world."

   
     
     
 


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