- The Center SF is what’s known in San Francisco as an “intentional living center.”
- Some 22 engineers, scientists, and artists live together and work on “personal growth,” they say.
- Techies flock there to attend yoga classes, ecstatic dancing, open-mic events, and drum circles.
More than 50 people sat in a circle on the wood floor, legs crisscrossed, listening to the DJ expressing his intentions for the night’s event, an evening of “ecstatic” dance.
“I have this fantastical idea that we’re in a forest and there’s a low fog,” the DJ, Gabriel Francisco, said to the dancers dressed in yoga attire in a purple- and blue-lit room. “When I press play on the music, I want to see everybody creep, crawl, roll, slide — just morph into the space.”
A dancer let out a snarl in approval.
It was a normal Wednesday evening for the residents of the Center SF, a community of 22 engineers, scientists, and artists who live together with “the intention of facilitating personal transformation and growth,” its website says. With 19 rooms on three stories, the house is in Lower Haight next to the famous Church of 8 Wheels, an old church converted into a disco roller-skating rink.
The Center’s residents share the lease with its volunteer-led tea shop, yoga studio, and event space on the ground floor, yet the two are financially independent, Theory, a resident, said. Its volunteers organize weekly open mics, drum circles, and workshops on breath work, gong baths, astrology, herbalism, and ecstatic dance — a form of dance that encourages people to express themselves freely through movement.
San Francisco techies and creatives unite for these events, looking for deeper social connections.
“It’s very hard to actually go out and socialize in San Francisco,” one of the volunteers, Mark Black, said.
Francisco laid out the rules for the ecstatic-dance event: no shoes, no talking on the dance floor, no drugs or alcohol, and no cellphones, he said.
Like woodland creatures or worms, the dancers rolled around on the floor to the slow tempo of flutes and drums. As the music gained momentum, so did the dancers. They crept up onto their feet, moving their arms as if they were cutting through water. They hung from the ceiling beams and jumped around.
When it was time for a movement break, they wandered into the tearoom, where volunteers known as TJs, short for tea jockeys, served hot tea, spiced cacao, and the caffeine-rich South American drink maté.
Inge Fishler, a human-resources director at Google Cloud, said she came to the event from Palo Alto, California, with her husband, Yossi Fishler, to release the day’s stress from work and family.
“We left the kids at home with the babysitter,” she said. As an introvert, she said it had taken her time to feel comfortable letting go. After her first ecstatic dance, she felt a rush of energy.
“It’s helped me open up and love myself again,” she said. “There’s no one judging me. There’s no one looking at me. I don’t have to be a certain persona like I have to be at work. I can just be me.”
It’s helped me open up and love myself again. There’s no one judging me.
Sean Ross, a former data scientist at Facebook, said ecstatic dance has helped him feel confident, a feeling that’s trickled down into his decision-making in both his personal and professional life.
“It’s really intimidating at first, but then you have that moment where you realize everyone is just doing their own thing, paying extremely little attention to anyone else,” Ross said. “The first 20 times I went and, to some extent, I still feel like I’m up against that edge.”
By day, Ross works at the Center’s tea space, riddling away challenges for his startup focused on matching people to friend groups. Ironically, finding an app for social connection comes with isolation, so he works at the Center three to six days a week.
“I pretend the people there are my coworkers,” he said. “It’s the closest thing to being back in an office with a healthy social space. I’m working, but I’m also taking breaks to talk to people and having interesting conversations.”
Ross estimated about 50% of the people who visited the Center were in tech, “which, I think, is probably less than your average coffee shop,” Ross said. The other half are artists, yoga teachers, life coaches, and therapists.
“There’s never a time where I show up and there isn’t anyone to talk to,” he said.
People sit on the floor along large tables, instead of the two-seat tables typically found in coffee shops. Ross said this had helped him break down barriers to start a conversation.
He’s talked to mental-health professionals and creatives who’ve helped him with his personal and professional growth.
“The underlying fear I have or insecurity is around my social worth,” he said, like the time he asked friends to test his new app and his fears crept up. “It’s slowed down my work a lot,” he added.
“Some of the people at the Center have guided me or helped me understand how to address these insecurities,” he said. Once, a therapist told him to write down all the people that mattered in his life, “which felt weird at first,” he said, adding: “But I was shocked by how effective it was.”
Black also volunteers at the Center’s tea shop as he builds a stealth startup in climate finance on the blockchain. Within 10 minutes of his first visit to the Center, he wanted to volunteer.
“It’s like chicken-noodle soup for my soul,” Black said. “Just washing dishes, getting tea ready, and talking with people simplifies my thought process.”
TJs volunteer in three-hour shifts. With more than 150 volunteers on its Slack messaging channel and without money as a motivator, Black has gained a social community.
He said he believed communities like this could heal San Francisco’s culture.
“This is how we can get the social fabric back to San Francisco,” he said. “More people who are more community-based and not so heads down and introverted.”
A resident of two years, Theory said the Center’s tea shop had three paid employees, a manager, a general manager, and a social-media person. The rest are volunteers, like the events manager who organizes the month’s activities.
Activities range from $10 to $45-plus to attend. Yoga and workshop teachers are paid 60% of the event’s earnings, and 40% goes back into the Center.
As an avid poet, theory leads free open-mic sessions every Sunday.
“My main goal is keeping the open mic running and building diversity,” he said.
While the Center advocates for diversity, he added, San Francisco is expensive and pushes out people who can’t secure a tech salary.
The Center’s residents pay between $1,392 to $2,088 for rent, based on room size. There’s also an additional $185 a month for utilities, house cleaning, and maintenance, as well as an optional $215 a month for its communal organic-food plan.
“Community’s a great place to live if you are wealthy,” Theory said, referring to San Francisco’s communal living. But he wants to change that, saying: “My hope would be that we can get some low-income rooms here.”