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In my zen mood, preparing for a virtual yoga session inside Sanctuary’s studio near downtown Seattle. (Photo by Ashley Conlin)

For 80 minutes on Thursday, in the midst of another busy day at work, I was transported to a different world.

The ambient music and house-blended tea put me in the mood. The 84-degree room set the stage for physical and mental exercise with my virtual yoga instructor. And a luxurious shower, complete with botanical shampoo and egyptian towels, helped prepare me for re-entry into reality.

This is the feeling that Sanctuary aims to give its customers. The new Seattle startup just opened up what it describes as “the most personal, immersive wellness studio experience in the universe” — and I gave it a spin this week.

Backed by some of Seattle’s top angel investors, Sanctuary is part of a boutique fitness boom with countless companies — SoulCycle; Barry’s Bootcamp; Orange Theory; Flywheel; CorePower Yoga; etc. — aiming to grab a chunk of the $4.5 trillion wellness economy.

But will Sanctuary be unique enough to justify its price — $50 for a private individual session, or $30 in a group — and differentiate it from competitors in an increasingly-crowded market that has some experts wondering if we’ve hit “peak boutique,” especially with a recession looming?

Read on to learn more about my test run and hear why CEO Robert Martin is convinced that Sanctuary is something special.

How it works 

While customers are encouraged to “take a tech breather” when they enter Sanctuary’s studio, it’s technology that helps power the experience, beginning with a slick app that makes it easy to find classes and schedule one of more than 50 different sessions. Yoga, meditation, and sound bath are the initial offerings at the Seattle studio, which is a test site for Sanctuary.

You’re given a door code, which provides access to a building near the Elliott Bay waterfront that also houses a number of Seattle startups and a few retail installations, including Soul Fitness, another boutique shop. Walk up one flight of white stairs and it’s time to enter the Sanctuary.

(GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

There’s an immediate calming effect when you enter the windowless room.

A “docent,” as they’re called, greets you at the front desk. Today’s it’s Ashley Conlin, who left her previous job running lululemon’s flagship store in London to join Sanctuary.

She offers me a drink curated from nearby Miro Tea in Ballard — Centering, Calming, or Energizing are the options. I choose Centering — “good choice,” Conlin says as she prepares the drink in a stone cup.

In the lobby, “The Book of Symbols” sits on a coffee table. Zen-like music plays softly on the speakers.

Where am I, again? This is cool, in a weird way.

Inside the lobby as my Centering tea is prepared. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

The docent leads you to your private studio. Yoga gear and towels are provided; you’re not responsible for bringing anything. The temperature — pre-set options are low, medium, or high on the app — feels good, especially on this chilly November day in Seattle.

As the docent departs, she points out the touchscreen that lets me cool down the room, adjust sound levels, or call for her help — a notification will pop up on her Apple Watch.

“Welcome Taylor,” reads the giant screen, as a timer ticks down to my yoga session. It’s one of many special touches that Sanctuary has thought through.

I picked “Foundations of Flow,” which seemed appropriate for someone who hasn’t practiced yoga in several years. It was filmed in Bainbridge Island, Wash. — videos feature Morocco, Mexico, and other scenic locations — and taught by longtime yoga instructor Sarah Goble, who is also the company’s studio director.

On the virtual shores of Bainbridge Island. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

The session lasts 55 minutes. At times, it actually feels like I’m on the shores of Bainbridge, taking in the view and listening to the surrounding nature. At-home yoga has become popular — CorePower offers its own on-demand product — but having a dimly-lit room with the superior audio and visuals certainly takes everything up a notch.

The content itself was filmed by Sanctuary with the studio experience in mind. Goble would tell me to face certain sides of the room, for example.

As the session winds down, I close my eyes and listen to her words of encouragement.

“Shavasa is your sanctuary within Sanctuary. The space to reinvigorate and relax your body. The freedom to recenter and refocus your mind. The room to tap into inspiration and wisdom already inside you, because when we take the time to make time, to reemerge back into the world feeling good in our bodies, aligned in our hearts, and in our fullest power, all things are possible.”

The screen fades away, and a new timer appears in the left hand corner — Sanctuary gives you 30 minutes post-video to relax and clean up.

And this leads to my favorite part: the shower.

There’s just something about super nice bathrooms, and this one did not disappoint. It’s connected to the studio in the back of the room and has the vibe of a 5-star hotel, from the motion-detecting lights to the heated floor tiles to the high-end toiletries. Even the tree-free 100 percent ultra-soft bamboo toilet paper — made in Seattle — was nice.

It was a perfect way to extend this period of relaxation and reset, before returning to the bustling city.

#bathroomselfie (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Will it work?

Before going back into the real world, I head upstairs one floor to the company’s workspace to meet Martin, the longtime owner and operator of Summit Capital, a Seattle-based wealth management firm.

The genesis of Sanctuary started when Martin was looking at various real estate projects in Seattle and came across properties that had basement spaces with no natural light. That eventually sparked the idea to “simulate the most fantastic wellness environment possible” by combining technology and video content with a physical space that evoked serenity.

“Instead of going on a retreat to Bali for a week, you could go to a micro-retreat at Sanctuary for an hour-and-a-half right here in Seattle,” Martin said.

Martin cited Yoga Alliance studies showing that 65 percent of people who do yoga practice inside their own home, often with some type of video — similar to how people exercise with the popular Peloton bikes.

“They are already very used to engaging in online content to do yoga,” he explained. “If they can do it in a more immersive, beautiful environment, most people would say yes to that, instead of a living room on a phone with their dog running around.

“And it’s obviously a premium experience, so they wouldn’t necessarily do a daily practice at Sanctuary — they certainly could — but are likely do it once per week as a refuge.”

In that vein, Sanctuary is part of a trend called “immersive fitness” that has been around for several years, including at 24 Hour Fitness locations, and uses virtual reality-type technology to enhance exercise.

(Lauren Segal Photo)

Early reception to Sanctuary has been “incredible,” Martin said, with nearly 1,000 registered users and thousands of app downloads with minimal marketing.

“Yoga and meditation continue to increase in popularity, whether it’s through an app or some other screen or an in-person class or with a wellness consultant,” he said. “Sanctuary is that beautiful blend of those mediums, where it evokes and feels as if you are transported to another place, yet still provides you with those wellness benefits that many people are seeking.”

The startup has been in operation for 18 months and began construction on the new studio in March 2019.

Sanctuary has a big vision: 1,000 installations in ten years. It’s in talks with commercial real estate property owners, apartment and condo developers, tech companies, and various other potential customers interested in offering Sanctuary to their residents, customers, and employees.

The business model could include something like a “wellness-as-a-service subscription,” with Sanctuary making money off installation and operation of the studios, Martin said.

“We believe the automation, the software we’ve built, the content we’re programming, and the incredibly low labor requirement creates scalability that is all effectively available as a result of technology,” he added.

Sanctuary is riding a number of wellness trends outlined by CB Insights this year, including the $595 billion fitness/mind-body sector, the $119 billion spa economy, and the $48 billion workplace wellness industry. Yoga itself is also becoming more popular; the average yogi spends $90 per month on classes, workshops, and accessories, with 44 percent going 2-to-3 times per week, according to an Eventbrite survey.

The Sanctuary team. (Lauren Segal Photo)

The company has about a dozen employees, including Ryan Hufford, chief technology officer who previously spent nearly two decades as a systems engineer at Vulcan, the investment arm of the late Paul Allen.

Sanctuary has raised $3.1 million from family offices and what Martin described as “a medley of dream team angel investors in Seattle,” with backers such as Geoff Entress, Neil Patel, Andy Sack, Tihan Seale, and Jedd Canty. The company’s advisors include Bill Baxter, CTO of Vizio; Kevin Oakes, CEO of i4cp; Kate Harmer, group creative director at Amazon; and several others. Martin co-founded the company with Alex Benasuli.

I’d love to come back to Sanctuary. It was a nice recharge for the rest of my day; I could see it being beneficial in the morning or evenings, too. For anyone looking for a space to do yoga or meditation — and to just get away from the hustle and bustle — Sanctuary provides an excellent setting.

But at $50 per session, it’s not something I can do consistently, especially because I’m already paying for a gym membership elsewhere. I had a similar experience after testing Stretch 22, another new Seattle fitness startup — a fun time, great for the body, but not worth the price for me. Though it would make a nice perk offered by an apartment building or employer, which is where Sanctuary’s business plan seems to be focused.

All things considered, your health is paramount, and this type of stuff can be worth the investment if it fits in your budget. And side note: Sanctuary is offering a creative Kindness in Kind project that gives you 5 credits (one session) for every two hours of volunteer work.

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