LOS ANGELES — It's early on a cool, gray September morning at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, and people are gathering amid the tombs to do yoga. Kundalini yoga, to be precise. With some hypnosis thrown in.
The organizers call it "hypno-yoga," and as unusual as that may sound, they're not the only ones combining the millenniums-old Indian practice with the therapeutic technique Franz Mesmer pioneered in the 18th century. Hypno-yoga practitioners are scattered across the country and the internet.
But Ellen Heuer and Monique Reymond are the only ones doing hypno-yoga at Hollywood Forever, and offering it for free (for now, at least). Donations are accepted, of course, with the net proceeds going to charity.
Spoiler alert: In keeping with the Hollywood setting, this story will have a twist at the end.
On this morning, people in sweatshirts and workout pants filter into the site a few minutes before the 8 a.m. starting time, carrying rolled-up yoga mats and tarps to shield them from the dew. Reymond welcomes them with a song that might be just a tad too on the nose for a cemetery: David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes." This being L.A., students — all adults, mostly women, young and old — continue wandering in well after the 75-minute class starts, eventually bringing the total close to 30.
The sessions unfold every Wednesday on the Fairbanks Lawn, which you might mistake for a high-end park if it weren't for the imposing tomb of famed actors Douglas Fairbanks and his son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., at the south end.
The west side is dotted with mausoleums and abstract stone sculptures, while the eastern side is bordered by a two-story stone wall. On closer inspection, you'll find that the wall is actually formed of tombs, many still awaiting occupation.
Although Hollywood Forever is her first cemetery, Heuer has been a trained hypnotherapist for 30 years — she filed for a trademark on the term "hypno-yoga" in 2000 (it expired in 2009).
"The reason why I blended Kundalini yoga with the hypnosis is that when you do this expanded breath work, you alter your brainwave patterns into an alpha state, which replicates a mild hypnotic state," she explained in an interview. Even in that mild state, "you're more receptive to the feedback that I give."
Which on this day is about helping people deal with the stress and anxiety of their busy lives. And with COVID-19 filling hospitals again, there's plenty of stress and anxiety to go around.
Most of the attendees lay their mats along the rectangular reflecting pool leading from the Fairbanks tomb to the stone patio where Reymond presides. Others station themselves along the stone wall, underneath engraved messages to beloved fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. A typical one is the inscription gracing the tomb of James Bernard Hollander, a film editor and cinephile who died in 2019 at age 73, describing him as having "a humor and spirit that cannot be contained." Nearby, the tomb for "Goddess Robin Victoria Gallagher," who left the Earth on April 16, 2020, at age 65, adds this admonition: "Deal with it."
Even if you do yoga with your eyes closed, there's no mistaking the main purpose of the grounds. Just getting to the Fairbanks Lawn requires you to pass through acres of loss. This is a showy cemetery, a place where people flaunt the wealth or celebrity they achieved before moving in. But you're seeing dead people.Or, rather, tributes to dead people. Lots of them.
Which is not to suggest the proceedings are ghoulish. Reymond started teaching yoga classes on the Fairbanks Lawn last year in large part because, with the pandemic taking off, outdoor sessions posed less risk of infection. And she happened to be a friend of Tyler Cassity, the yoga-practicing Hollywood Forever president and co-owner who has turned the cemetery into an events space. These days, people go to graveyard for concerts, movies, festivals and Monday night Buddhist meditations.
Yet Reymond and Heuer — and many students — also argue that there's something appropriate about conducting hypno-yoga classes amid the dead.
"This is not a haunted space," says Beau Hoffman, a class regular. "This is a restful space."
Another student, Jennifer Drake of Los Angeles, conceded that some people called the setting creepy. She disagrees. "It's a really, really peaceful place," Drake says, adding, "I feel like it is a connection with everything."
Stefanie Carimati of Los Angeles came to the session with her friend Viorica Baln of Manhattan Beach and Toto, a little pooch named after Dorothy's companion in "The Wizard of Oz." In yet another reminder that we're in Hollywood, on the other side of the stone wall stands a memorial to the cairn terrier that played Toto in the movie.
Carimati is a fan of hypno-yoga, saying it enables you to "connect to yourself and do some work." Baln gave the Hollywood Forever setting a thumbs up, saying, "It feels more powerful to be connected to spirit and spirits."
Let's pause here and acknowledge the obvious: This is the sort of thing that earns Los Angeles its la-la-land reputation. There's a distinctly L.A., entertainment-industry vibe to the gathering too; both Heuer and Reymond make their living as award-winning foley artists, and a number of the students also work in Hollywood.
And no, yoga and hypnotherapy are not for everybody. The combination requires pliability of both body and mind, along with a knack for tuning out worldly distractions. But there's nothing exclusive about these sessions. Reymond talks students through the movements in each exercise ("kriya"), explains the meaning of each mantra and offers alternative poses for people who can't quite twist themselves into the ones she's taking.
The class begins with Reymond thanking an absent Cassity and saying that the day's donations would go to Del Gato Rescue, a charity for abandoned and feral cats. She also touches on a couple of the themes for the day: that good and bad intermingle and that you need to be questioning, flexible and open to change.
Kundalini yoga is a good example of the good and bad intermingling. The man credited with introducing the practice in the United States in the late 1960s is Yogi Bhajan, a charismatic former Indian customs inspector who built his Los Angeles-based yoga studio into a lucrative empire. After he died in 2004, he was credibly accused of sexually abusing multiple followers.
The class chants together briefly, then the students get on hands and knees for the back-flexing "cat cow" kriya. The music, meanwhile, shifts to Lady Gaga's country-pop crooner "Million Reasons."
As everyone moves from one kriya to the next, Reymond tells students what to do with their minds as well as their bodies. "In this position," she instructs at one point, "say a silent prayer — to yourself, to yourself future, yourself past, yourself present. ... Take a moment and be grateful for every lesson that you've had the privilege to learn."
After directing students into the cross-legged "easy pose," Reymond leads them into a lower-back-stretching maneuver, saying, "This aids digestion. Digestion isn't just about digesting food, it's also about digesting emotions."
The students quietly follow along, typically with eyes closed. Aside from the sporadic thrum of traffic noise and the musical soundtrack, the only sounds are occasional outbursts from the local waterfowl and the shutter clicks of a visiting photographer. And when the students move, the sight is like the wind blowing through a grove of trees — their bodies aren't in perfect sync, but they're all being pushed by the same force.
After half an hour of kriyas, it's time for meditation. Seated with her feet tucked under her knees, Reymond leads them through three different seated poses, instructing them to focus with their eyes closed on "the lunar center in the middle of the chin" and to breathe slowly, evenly.
"Come into contact with the idea of your breath," she says, "and imagine that you're blessing yourself with that hand above the crown, and I bet you there's nobody who can bless you more effectively than you."
Ordinarily, Kundalini yoga sessions end with students lying flat on their backs in "savasana," or the "corpse pose," to continue meditating on their own. But today Heuer will lead them through some hypnotherapy.
"Don't worry," Reymond assures the class. "You're not going to jump in the pool."
She was alluding to the notion that hypnosis is a magician's stage trick, where volunteers are put into a trance then induced to strut around like chickens until they're brought back to reality by snapping fingers. (Katherine Zimmerman of Chula Vista, a certified clinical hypnotherapist, pushed back on this idea later, describing hypnosis as a common and natural state: "We pass through hypnosis falling asleep and waking up every day, twice a day.")
Heuer addresses the students as the soundtrack shifts from pop to a slow, mystical Indian track — the sort of thing that screams "yoga music."
"Hypnosis demystified is just a matter of shifting your brainwave patterns so they slow down and you're more receptive to positive change, and accessing the imagination, which is the porthole to your subconscious," Heuer says. This, she adds, "is the area we want to influence. So just listen to my voice. ... Let yourself sink into this state of total relaxation."
The point of the exercise, Heuer says, is to root out bad emotional energy in the interest of healing. "So for the next 15 minutes, I'm going to ask you to suspend your disbelief and use the power of your imagination to redirect those thoughts, emotions and attitudes."
Heuer and Reymond started offering hypno-yoga sessions last year, initially teaching over Zoom from Reymond's Los Angeles apartment. They shifted to Hollywood Forever in September 2020.
With a lawn of supine students stretched out before her, Heuer assumes the role of tour guide on a virtual journey that's fanciful, yet detailed and cinematic.
"Let's begin by visualizing yourself floating in a warm pool of pristine light," she says, spooling out her sentences softly and deliberately. "Smell the air and notice your favorite fragrance — night blooming jasmine, roses or pine, lavender, eucalyptus — then notice the color of the sky, the texture of the clouds, and feel a gentle breeze. Keep floating in this pool of gentle soft and peaceful waves that move you down this river of light."
As the journey continues, Heuer points students to some virtual traveling companions: first a "cosmic light being, a guardian angel or spiritual master," then a horse or elephant that is tuned to their own heartbeats.
The hypnotherapy session concludes with Heuer planting the suggestions she wants students to take with them. There are seven different positive affirmations in all, including "My subconscious mind powerfully supports my immune system. I am strong, healthy and full of vitality," and "Every time I drink a glass of water, I will be reminded of my connection to a higher source, and I will experience healing and transformation on all levels."
The students open their eyes and sit up, and the class ends with Reymond leading a final round of elongated "Sat Nam" chants ("The truth is my essence," in Reymond's translation) to pray for a few members of the community.
And with that, the students roll up their mats and tarps and begin to leave the cemetery, perhaps with lighter steps than when they arrived, to drive back into the world of the living.
This is where the story would have ended, if not for some behind-the-scenes drama. It turns out that achieving peace and harmony was no easier for the people leading the hypno-yoga classes than the students they tried to guide.
After their class together on Sept. 22, Heuer sent Reymond a text saying that she and many of their mutual friends had grown concerned about Reymond's health. "I need to take a step back & take a break from our teaching together," Heuer wrote. "I have agreed to sub for you until you are well enough to come back & I hope it will be soon."
Reymond characterized the split as more a matter of artistic differences within the yoga community. "I don't judge them for not caring for the direction that I've gone," she said, noting that some of her colleagues didn't like her unscripted opening remarks (her "stream of consciousness thinking," as she put it). "The community is ever-shifting," she said, adding, "Maybe it's time for other people to enjoy the splendor and magic that are Tyler [Cassity] and the cemetery grounds."
The show will go on, with Heuer leading both the yoga and hypnotherapy portions on future Wednesdays at Hollywood Forever. The troupers interred around the Fairbanks Lawn would no doubt approve.
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