The Roaring Twenties might refer to a historical era but the phrase also seems to be an apt description of the life trajectory of many founders. Even the Buddha indulged lavishly prior to renouncing the luxuries of the palace for the asceticism of the spiritual pursuit, eventually founding a religion that walked the Middle Path. Max Vallot and Tom Daly, the founders of District Vision, a company that began with running sunglasses and has since expanded to “tools for mindful athletes,” had a similar trajectory. In their mid-twenties, Vallot and Daly were working in the fashion industry in New York and enjoying all of the indulgences of that fast-paced lifestyle. According to Vallot, it showed.
“I was a nervous wreck,” he recalled of that period, when we spoke over Zoom. “Everything from my sleep to my digestion was a total mess.”
In the midst of this decadent phase Vallot entered a Transcendental Meditation studio that was next door to his office. “Instantaneously I knew that this was something I would be doing for the rest of my life,” said Vallot. “And that this might be the most important thing that I’ve ever done.”
The duo had always enjoyed running as a way of staying fit and curing hangovers, but it soon became a pursuit, along with mindfulness, that allowed them to engage with the world and build community in a fulfilling way. As Daly dove deeper into the world of running Vallot found himself hanging out with more athletes and becoming something of a mindfulness ambassador. He began to see a bridge between these two activities, in which mind and body have the opportunity to align, breath by breath and step by step, and started to offer meditation, relaxation techniques, and marathon mantras to his new friends.
By this time Vallot and Daly had left the palace, or in this case the high fashion industry, behind, but rather than found a religion they founded a brand. From the outset, they were committed to creating something as focused on product as on practice. “That was the philosophical starting point,” explained Vallot. “The umbrella that held it all together. And it still is today.”
Vallot describes mindfulness as not simply a wellness exercise but a lens through which one experiences and explores reality. It is no wonder, then, that District Vision’s foray into sports gear was through sourcing impeccably made sunglasses from a third-generation Japanese eyewear manufacturer with an artisanal approach to the craft. After the success of these sunglasses, District Vision launched into running apparel as well as courses related to aspects of practice like breathwork and mindful movement.
It would be easy to cast aside this combination of business and Buddhism as yet another example of McMindfulness: the appropriation of spiritual practice for the purpose of making a buck. As David Loy, a Zen teacher, professor, and author, and Ronald Purser, a professor and author of the book McMindfulness, stated in a viral article on the subject: “Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.”
Since that article was published in 2013, mindfulness has only grown in popularity and many performance brands have taken note. In 2018, Nike partnered with Headspace to create a series of guided “mindful runs,” and in the same year Lululemon launched a mindfulness initiative centered around product feel and online courses. The optimist might say that this corporate embrace of mindfulness is a means for better business practices as well as the dissemination of practice itself. The pessimist would decry such an embrace as furthering greed and consumption via the savvy marketing of the very tool designed to weed them out.
Which brings us back to District Vision. Do you really need $250 shades to run better? And how, exactly, does mindfulness make you a better runner? The answer to how you feel about a performance lens brand creating tools for mindful athletes might depend on whether you view such marketing through the optimist or the pessimist’s lens.
Vallot is a realist. On the first point he concedes that you probably don’t need $250 shades, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, and the appreciation a beautiful and functional object can stir might even help one stay present. He likened it to the incense he burns while meditating. “It’s just another reminder to come back to the present moment, to come back to a simple awareness of what’s happening and come back to the breath,” said Vallot. “None of this stuff is ultimately needed. But I still have room for it. Even our product ultimately becomes a way of opening people up to all of this.”
As for whether mindfulness will make you a better runner, it often becomes the sticking point in conversations Vallot has with athletes. “The question that always comes up with runners,” says Vallot, “who are inherently competitive, is, ‘If it’s not going to make us faster, why should we bother?’ My response has been that it will definitely make you a wiser runner. You learn to bring attention to these raw sensations in the body as you move, and discern between the type of pain that is worth paying attention to or the type of anxiety that is worth reacting to. The mindful runner sees these states for what they are and understands that they’re transitory in nature just like everything else.”
Julia Hanlon, an avid runner as well as a yoga and movement teacher, and the former host of the Running On Om podcast, is not one to get hooked by gear. She related to me that on a recent frigid New England day, since she doesn’t own any techy cold-weather running pants, she simply put on four pairs of pants and went for it. Yet Hanlon agreed that bringing mindful awareness to running is a way to blur the bounds between formal and informal practice. She described the impact of mindfulness as running through a black and white forest, and the colors suddenly “popping off.”
“It gives you such a deeper connection into your internal cues and into the cues of the environment around you,” explained Hanlon. “You’re really able to get clear on why it is you’re moving and what it is you’re moving for and how your movement can actually be in service of yourself.”
Hanlon herself has never felt any brand affinity, but she understands the attraction and the ability of a company to foster connection. “A brand has the potential to inspire community, and a community can show people a way of being and loving that might be different than their own,” said Hanlon.
In addition, the right gear can take away ulterior concerns by eliminating unnecessary obstacles. It’s not that all obstacles should be removed but if tangential nuisances can be addressed by proper gear an athlete can drop more easily into a flow state. She mentioned a particularly challenging trail run she endured in Croatia, and the way her gear allowed her “to feel fully safe and fully present, because I had everything I needed with me.”
Ultimately, Vallot is well aware that there is quite literally an element of spiritual materialism in creating a mindful brand. In a materialistic society, however, this might offer one of the most relevant gateways to practice. “It’s a way of getting people into the funnel and opening their eyes,” says Vallot. “If you follow this lead, it is something that could profoundly change your life.”
“The gear makes sense for now because this is what we’ve learned and I think we can add something there,” concluded Vallot. “But mindfulness is what I’ll spend my last breath practicing and sharing with the world.”