For a long time, Olivia Bowser relied on exercise to manage her mental health.
It didn’t work.
“It wasn't giving me what I really needed to be able to feel stronger mentally,” Bowser said. “I needed to focus on my mental well-being, versus mental well-being being a positive side effect of physical fitness.”
Looking for answers, Bowser started attending yoga classes at night, using a meditation app and Googling journal prompts. As she began to find relief through these practices, she had an idea. What if she could take what she loved about her fitness classes and focus on strengthening the mind?
“How could I create just as energizing and dynamic and interactive an experience that we get when we go into a SoulCycle studio and 40 people high-five us on their bikes? How could we take that and create an empowering experience around mental well-being?” she wondered.
Seeing a need for a studio that focused on mental fitness, Bowser launched Liberate online in May 2020, offering classes led by herself, a certified meditation and mindfulness teacher and yoga instructor, and a team of four other certified instructors. The sessions combine mindful movement — usually about 10 minutes of yoga — with journaling, conversation and meditation. The cost of Liberate is structured like a gym membership: For $19 a month, members have access to live classes, held on Zoom twice a week, as well as an extensive on-demand library of prerecorded classes.
The Liberate experience
Melanie Prior, 29, started attending Liberate classes in May 2020. She’d moved back in with her parents at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and was working long hours at a public relations company.
“I was struggling with anxiety and just getting a handle on my mental health, while the world was falling apart and all the things got worse over that year,” Prior said. She began attending the live classes once a week; she liked knowing the class started at a specific time and that somebody was waiting for her to join.
“I also liked it because it was a format to find a good level of connection with other people, but it wasn't like you were sitting in on someone's therapy session or you had to really open your heart up. Everybody can share as much as they want,” Prior said. And the members often benefit from one another’s insights.
Now living in her own apartment in Boston with a new job, Prior thinks back to the dark, early days of the pandemic and how Liberate helped her move through the stress and anxiety.
“I found that, with Liberate, it was a way for me to do something that helped me build a community and a routine that still felt fun and not intimidating and very approachable. And I always got something out of it every week,” Prior said.
The story of Coa
Around the same time Bowser was launching Liberate, Emily Anhalt, 34, a clinical psychologist, and Alexa Meyer, 31, a product and marketing executive, teamed up to create Coa, a mental health gym that takes a therapist-led approach to everyday mental health.
The seeds for Coa were planted when Anhalt realized that most people don’t work on their mental and emotional health until things start falling apart. “And to me,” Anhalt said, “that’s a little like waiting until you have early signs of heart disease to start doing cardio.” She wanted to reframe the idea of focusing on mental health as “a more proactive thing that we do to maintain wellness.”
In 2016, Anhalt began doing research, interviewing 100 psychologists and 100 entrepreneurs to come up with the seven things emotionally healthy people are working on all the time, which she called the seven traits of emotional fitness: self-awareness, empathy, curiosity, mindfulness, playfulness, resilience and communication. She created a curriculum around these traits with the goal of giving people a way to strengthen their minds, just like they’d lift weights to strengthen their bodies.
Around 2018, Anhalt met Meyer, her co-founder, who’d had a frustrating therapy experience and was troubled by the stigma still attached to the process. Meyer began thinking about creating a better therapy experience because like Bowser, she saw so many different ways for people to work on their physical health, but no equivalent for mental health.
The two created in-person mental health popups around the United States and Canada, where people were matched with an experienced therapist for one-on-one sessions, and then took a class with Anhalt about emotional fitness.
They set up a space where people could hang out after the class and noticed that the attendees would linger for hours after their session was over. When asked why, the class members said it was because they knew everyone was there for the same reason, and it felt like a safe space to build community.
This inspired Anhalt and Meyer to create Coa, short for coalesce. They’d planned to launch in 2020 as a brick-and-mortar gym, but the pandemic forced them to switch to an entirely online model.
Coa’s eight-week series, which costs $30 per class, are led by therapists and focus on learning tools for mental health. The company also offers therapist matchmaking for people in New York and California, for those who want a more traditional, one-on-one experience.
“At Coa, it’s not about whack-a-mole-ing symptoms and just trying to get something broken to be fixed. It’s about having compassion for all of the many reasons why we feel the way we do and act the way we do, and giving people space to explore it and move to a more authentic and satisfied version of themselves,” Anhalt said.
Maintaining emotional fitness
For Angelie Patel, 27, the initial appeal of Coa was the cost.
“I was kind of in disbelief with how inexpensive it was for the impact that was going to have. So, I figured it was worth a shot,” Patel said.
Patel had been through in-depth, one-on-one therapy eight years earlier to address post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from a sexual assault. She’d also tried group therapy but never enjoyed the experience.
“My original group therapy experience was like, ‘You’re broken we’re trying to fix you attitude,’ ” Patel said, “whereas with Coa, it was ‘You have all this potential for growth and we’re going to help you out there and give you the tools you need to get there.’ ”
After the eight-week course, Patel said she feels like she has a better set of tools to deal with new challenges and often refers to her notes when facing difficult moments. Patel said she also developed strong friendships in the course and has stayed in touch with her new friends on social media.
“I developed a support system and I gave myself more structure to handle the things I can’t control,” Patel said.
Diana Kelter, a senior trends analyst for Mintel, a global market intelligence agency, said the company has seen an effort to remove the stigma of talking about mental health over the past five years and a corresponding discovery that society doesn’t have the structure — or even the language — to have these conversations. “I think we’ve been pushing this discussion of ‘Let’s talk,’ but no one knows how,” said Kelter, who focuses on cultural, lifestyle and technology shifts.
She thinks places like Liberate and Coa, as well as a handful of other mental health gyms that have been established at this point, can help to bridge that gap. “I think we are going to see more of these types of services and gyms pop up,” Kelter said, “and I think we are also going to see traditional gyms take a more holistic approach. These gyms give people a place to express their anxieties and address these issues in real-life situations.”
The founders of Coa and Liberate emphasize that they don’t see their classes as taking the place of traditional therapy, which they all feel is extremely important and useful, especially when addressing life’s bigger problems. “Liberate is a more proactive practice of just taking care of yourself the same way you go running on a treadmill,” Bowser said.
Anhalt said she wants to change the way we talk about therapy, from something that’s hidden and seldom discussed to a common, everyday practice — like going to the gym.
“Our goal is to figure out what is an emotional push-up and how do we help people do them?” Anhalt said, saying she hopes in five to 10 years that saying you’re going to an emotional fitness class is as unremarkable as saying that you’re going to a yoga class or the gym.
“We want to create a different relationship to doing this kind of work that feels empowering and supportive,” Anhalt said, “that people can be really proud to do with others.”