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.
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 graveyards 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.”