January is a time for people to reflect and focus on the health and wellness goals they set for the rest of the year — these can be difficult to fulfill after all. For some people, reflecting occurs along Manhattan’s west side, in an ever-changing retail store called “STORY.” The space recently transformed into a haven for nurturing the body and mind, thanks in part to a new partnership with Cigna.  

Inside the store is a “Feel Good” concept that's organized into three health segments — good plan (prevention), good vibes (mindfulness), and good eats (nutrition). STORY’s merchandisers teamed up with Cigna to curate products to support each of its segments, the most dynamic and innovative of which is the Cigna Virtual Relaxation Pod. The pod offers a virtual reality experience through the Oculus Rift headset and headphones to promote mindfulness by creating a sound-insulated environment and a multisensory 3D experience.   

STORY Feel Good STORY's "Feel Good" concept utilizes Cigna's health technology and know how to create a wellness store. Photo courtesy of Medical Daily

Virtual reality technology has been around for a while, but it’s only recently boomed and inspired companies to use it in different ways,” Cigna Solution Architect Rachel Stein told Medical Daily. “We used Oculus technology to transport the user into a place they’d find relaxing. In future models, the user will be able to choose from different sounds, voices, and a wider variety of environments to relax after a long day of work or when feeling stressed out. My favorite is the woodland campsite.”

Stein, along with her team members, hope to eventually see the pod inside hospital lobbies, where they believe it'll be used to calm patients about to undergo surgery. Or, it might simply be used by those who’ve had a stressful day at work and need to lower their blood pressure with guided mindfulness therapy. Being aware of your current state, as well as using the pod to engage the senses, can stimulate a meditative state in users. The Oculus headset then virtually transports users to places of peace, such as a Zen garden, a tropical beach, or a woodland campsite.  

Cigna Pod In the virtual reality pod during a two-minute session designed to promote mindfulness. Photo courtesy of Cigna Virtual Relaxation Pod

I chose to transport myself to a tropical beach. I opened my eyes to look into the goggles and found myself in front of a shoreline's edge, with blue waters and whitecaps. A group of seagulls lazily flew across the landscape. And when I looked to my right, I found a drink standing on a table next to me, which gave me the impression I was on vacation on an exotic island somewhere far away from the city. After two minutes, I was ready to come back to reality, where I could hear a woman's calm voice through the pod telling me to relax my shoulders, feel the chair support my weight, and breathe slowly into a state of mindfulness and peace. 

The Cigna-STORY partnership lays the foundation for new kinds of partnerships that allow consumers to have the opportunity to test some of the latest technologies. STORY founder and designer Rachel Shechtman credits the immersive retail store's success with its commitment to providing customers with “experience per square foot.” And Cigna's health care partnership launched the store into a 4- to 8-week period of sophistication and delicate design. 

“The partnership is truly groundbreaking in scope,” Shechtman said in a press release. “Our intention was to create a 360-degree experience around a topic that’s more important than ever: taking control of one’s health.”