In This House, Everyone is Welcome

Posted June 27, 2018 3:00 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The Cobbler is the most popular smoothie at HealHaus, a new wellness studio and cafe in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. It is a clever blend of peaches, almond butter, cinnamon and oats whose flavor has an uncanny similarity to peach cobbler, the staple of black cuisine that inspired it.

This protein smoothie is HealHaus’ big strategy in miniature: Bring them in with familiarity (yummy smoothie), then get them to try something new (adaptogenic coffee alternatives and, maybe, some reiki).

HealHaus, open since May, offers daily classes in yoga and meditation — sometimes alfresco — and topical workshops that address specific concerns, like Breath Work for Grief or Womb Healing Yoga.

Its cafe beckons warmly from the street. Elisa Shankle, a founder, developed the tea blends and elixirs with an herbalist. Patrons and practitioners hang out in the cafe after class.

“We’re creating an overlap of wellness and the mainstream — modernizing it and making it accessible,” Shankle said. “When somebody comes in here, it’s not necessarily Zen music playing overhead. We may be playing R&B. We’re interested in the person who’s walking down the street who knows nothing about this stuff, has never taken a yoga class. We’re going to get the wellness people, but we want that person here, too.”

Darian Hall, the co-founder, approached Shankle, his longtime friend, to develop what would become HealHaus after traveling for six months. He was inspired by his trip to search for his father, whom he had never met (he was raised by his maternal grandparents). He discussed that process with his friends.

“All these conversations started happening with my boys, and it was like, ‘OK, I’ve been friends with these dudes forever, and we don’t know the real stuff about each other,'” Hall said. “But because I was vulnerable and put myself out there, it allowed them the space to also be like, ‘OK, well, I’m wrestling with something.'”

He wanted to create a inclusive place where men, too, would feel encouraged to do that emotional work.

He and Shankle see signs that it is working. A 16-year-old boy stopped in to inquire about yoga, motivated by LeBron James’ discussion of the practice. “I told him to bring his friends, and he was like, ‘Nah, this is for me,'” Shankle said. “And we thought this is what it’s about. LeBron is mainstream. This kid can connect through that.”

She and Hall are black in an industry that overwhelmingly is not. And the simple fact of them being there, in HealHaus, creates a connection with the community they are trying to engage.

“This can be intimidating,” Hall said. “Like, to drop $20 for a yoga class. Or if you’ve never heard of reiki, you’re not going to do that. You need to come into a space, see your face reflected, feel warm and welcomed, and then have the opportunity to say, ‘OK, let me try something.'”

Men, in particular, pop in and see Hall and can relate. “I’m not a Super Yogi Dude,” he said. “I’m just a regular dude — whatever that means.”

Some weekend classes, like a workshop on quieting the noise of daily life, do not have a set price; instead there is a suggested donation.

Many of their practitioners are also ethnically diverse and are given the freedom to teach classes that are personal. On Sundays at noon, Elsz, a Brooklyn singer and musician, teaches yoga that is elevated by her harp playing and soothing singing at the beginning and end of class. She connected with Shankle after posting on Instagram that she was starting a donation-based yoga in the park class for people of color.

“Sound and music go hand in hand with yoga for me,” Elsz said. “I’ve always felt that the harp can alleviate stress and heal people.”

Hallie Mazurkiewicz lives in the neighborhood and had passed HealHaus when she was walking on Fulton Street. Her first class was Elsz’s.

“I was blissed out after,” Mazurkiewicz said. “When I first walked in HealHaus, everybody that was in there, including the owners and the barista, turned to me and welcomed me, and looked me in the eye. There was this immediate sense, this must be the place.”

And that seems to be the effect of HealHaus. Making room for marginalized people opens up space for everyone.

“We’re doing this for the community, for our people,” Hall said. “But even people who are outside of that community, they come in here and they get it.”