“Find your psoas!”
I am sitting on a reformer, a contraption that looks like it belongs in a collection of medieval torture instruments but that Erika Bloom, a Pilates instructor with a studio in Los Angeles, assures me will strengthen my core and tone my body into a long, lean machine—if only I can focus. Trouble is, I have not a clue where my psoas is hiding. Bloom helpfully points toward my hip.
Two subsequent days of sore muscles aside, Bloom’s workout is as much a mental exercise as a physical one, an approach that has built a clientele of discerning—and enviably lithe—celebrity types, including Kerry Washington, Jennifer Garner, and Olivia Wilde. Bloom is among an ever-growing coterie of advisers, consultants, coaches, and such who cater to seemingly every body part— visible and not—of LA’s elite and engender a devotion bordering on cultlike. Gone are the days when an entourage was just a personal trainer and an agent. Now it seems you’re not complete without a facialist, an energy reader, a breathwork coach.
That Californians tend to pursue self-improvement aggressively and relentlessly is part of what gives the state its answer-seeking reputation and its optimistic belief in reinvention. And while Hollywood takes its share of hits for being surface-oriented, a quest for inner well-being and outer beauty sans fillers is on the rise, with many of the most in-demand gurus, like Bloom, merging the physical with the metaphysical. I set out to meet a few of these gurus and sample what they’re selling. Is it snake oil or a survival kit for the soul?
One was Martha Soffer, an Ayurvedic doctor and cofounder with her husband of Surya Spa in LA’s Pacific Palisades. Since opening three years ago, the spa has become a go-to for the likes of Kate Hudson and, perhaps inevitably, Gwyneth Paltrow, where experiences range from a $640 half-day session with lunch to a 21-day detox regimen known as panchakarma for a steep $14,450. When Soffer feels your pulse, she’s not counting heartbeats; instead, she explains, she’s trying to find “points of imbalance between the elements of air, water, earth, and fire” in your system, according to Ayurvedic principles.
“When Ayurveda comes into your life, your life changes,” says Soffer, before diagnosing my dosha (or constitution) as having too much vata, which is characterized by the element of air and symptoms of being low on heat and a little strung-out or scattered. Guilty. She cautions against spicy food—too inflammatory for vatas (damn, I love my Thai curries and Mexican)—and suggests I try dry brushing my skin and taking baths with ginger to help regulate my low blood pressure and body temperature.
While her advice ranges from the über-practical—use a tongue scraper in the morning—to the somewhat less so—“stuck energy can be prayed out” of me, Soffer promises—it’s all based in Ayurveda. Soffer hands me a copy of several prayers, written by someone called “Howard in Hawaii,” and together we recite one with the intention of addressing the irksome pain I’ve had in my knee since sitting in a too-tight airplane row. “Stuff happens when I do these prayers,” she tells me. Soffer doesn’t touch the joint at all, but when we finish the prayer, stuff indeed seems to have happened: The soreness is gone.
For my foot pain, she orders up an ionizing bath, which actually does take that ache away, though I’m not sure if it releases toxins from my body, as touted, though the water has turned some funky green color. I’m told if it’s black and foaming, that’s a sign of some serious toxin build up; I feel relieved to have been only mildly toxic. Soffer also prescribes something called shirodara, an ancient—and, admittedly, soothing— practice of drizzling warm oil on the forehead in an attempt to open the “third eye,” or inner vision and wisdom we all supposedly have. I fell asleep snoring.
Michael Stone also teeters between the practical and the mystical as a “breathwork coach.” You say you know how to breathe already? According to Stone, you don’t know the half of it. He would posit that focusing on the act of getting O2 in and CO2 out can produce epiphanies. A scientist and chemical engineer by training, Stone made his fortune building and selling businesses before seeking a new path, which led him to psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, MD, and his work with Holotropic Breathwork, a practice Whole Foods founder John Mackey swears by.
The premise is that psychedelic drugs have been a way to connect to deep emotions and altered states of consciousness. To access those same neural pathways in our brains without the hard stuff, Grof developed a full-day breathing protocol set to loud music that shifts from tribal drumming to sweeping orchestral pieces to spiritual chanting. Most of us, however, do not have the luxury of devoting 12 hours a day to just breathing, so Stone created a 90-minute version he calls Neurodynamic Breathwork. He leads clients, who he says include CEOs and scientists, through the steps privately in his Venice Beach home for $250 a session or as a group online for $25.
Here we go then. Wearing an eye mask and lying on a mat with the music cranked, I begin with deep and fast belly breaths for the first 10 to 12 minutes, then let my natural breathing rhythms take over. Some clients, Stone claims, weep as they feel emotions wash over them, while others reach understanding about past trauma. Neither of these things happen to me. But the experience is still sort of mind-blowing. I had expected to doze off, but at the risk of sounding like I’m drinking the Kool-Aid, instead I felt I was pure energy. As the music dissolved into the background, I felt waves of energy sweep through me and my hands vibrate with it. (Stone, who was monitoring the session, says he could see my hands shaking.) Afterward, I could still feel the energy surging in my hands and feet. Decidedly odd.
“You get benefits from one session,” Stone says, “but when you make it into a practice you strengthen the neural pathways. Train your brain and master your life.” For him, the underlying principle is self-empowerment. “We already have inner intelligence. You just need to access the answers you already have. Breathwork isn’t the only way to do it, but it’s a powerful way.” Breathwork in various forms has been part of healing practices around the world for millennia, but Grof’s—and Stone’s—work takes it out of those traditions and into an entirely new place. (If you’re curious about Neurodynamic breathwork, you can try it out online for free at Breathwork Online.)
For other gurus, the answers are right at their fingertips. Lee Rittiner styles the hair of Chrissy Teigen and Jeff Goldblum from his Beverly Hills Totalee on the Alley salon, where he charges up to $300 for a cut. But his clients—famous and not-so—keep coming for the other thing they receive when sitting in his chair: a dose of Rittiner’s own brand of therapy. Hairdressers have long been the repository for clients’ secrets and troubles, but in Rittiner’s case, his first love was psychology before becoming a stylist. “I fell into this, but now I get to both practice an art and make people feel good,” he says. “In just 45 minutes you can feel incredible about yourself. It can make you feel like a whole new person.”
His sensitivity to men’s insecurities about balding or prominent ears has helped him build a loyal male following. “There’s no room for error,” he says. “Hair is the first thing people see when they look at you. Hair is that thing that can make or break you. You have a good hair day, and you feel invincible.”
If it ain’t your hair people notice, it’s probably your face. Facialist Marianna Zimmerman’s ministrations are right at the surface. Her bag of tricks is decidedly modern inside her Santa Monica spa, Quantum Rejuvenation, which leans toward European technologies, such as an ozone-infused, full-body, detox cabinet or the Hypoxi exercise pods that purportedly help burn through more fat, improve circulation, and reduce cellulite.
But what’s made her famous among a certain epidermis-obsessed set are her $550 facials. After an extensive round of noninvasive procedures—light microdermabrasion, microneedling, cryotherapy, mini suction cups (this feels better than it sounds), and little glass vacuum-like tools that perform lymphatic drainage—I’ll admit my skin feels pretty good and any puffiness has vanished, leaving my face looking thinner and more sculpted, like I suddenly lost 10 pounds. The results lasted for days, with no post-facial breakouts. Zimmerman isn’t afraid to tell her red-carpet regulars to lay off the fillers. She believes in enhancing the “individual’s natural beauty” but swears nothing beats an inner confidence: “If you’re happy with yourself, that shows on your skin.”
Happiness might show, but maybe not quite as vividly as a rigorous workout regimen. “When you work muscles in their full range of motion as Pilates does, they become stronger, less prone to injury, and just look better,” says Bloom, the Pilates instructor. But she insists it’s not all superficial: “A lot of what exercise is for, is to make our minds feel better, make better decisions, and tune in to our bodies.”
But while Bloom advocates listening inward, other LA gurus claim not all of us are up to the task—and that’s where they step in. Aiden Chase calls himself an intuitive. From his description, which is a little wooly, he falls somewhere between a life coach and a psychic. “There are a million different ways to tune in and connect,” Chase says, then ticks off a few. “Through auras, clairaudience (hearing things), clairvoyance, sitting on a rock in the woods.” By “reading the energy” of his clients for $395 a pop, Chase helps them “figure out what they want and to look for the blocks that are limiting them from getting to their hopes and dreams,” he says. “My goal is to help people illuminate their path with guidance from their soul and passed-on loved ones to fulfill their wishes and dreams.” This may sound like California-speak to the skeptical, but Chase does have a crowd of believers.
Angelenos such as Animal Planet star Lexi Beerman and Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dan Yamini, MD, regularly consult him in person, over the phone, or via Skype. “Before I started working with Aiden [in 2011], I would constantly get stuck in my head replaying an old story that I wouldn’t be able to ‘make it’ on my own,” Beerman says. “He has the perfect way of making you feel like, of course I can make it. And I did.”
Chase purports to fix real estate, too, assessing a home that’s not selling or a mall with too many vacancies to identify the places where energy is “stuck.” Potential buyers or renters, he claims, can feel the negative energy left behind by a failed business or angry fights, even if they can’t put a finger on it. Though short on specifics, Chase says he “clears” those past energies out. “I’ve done 40-story office towers,” he boasts, “and they lease right away.” Quite how remains a something of a mystery, as none of this can be proven, of course. And while that might make some of us raise an eyebrow at the least, others in California are less quizzical.
Energy is big in LA these days. Deganit Nuur also reads people’s energies, or, as she calls them, auras. “The aura is your energy skin,” she says. “It’s your first point of contact with the world. And just as your skin acts as a protective barrier, your aura is your psychological barrier.” Some are more porous—the person might be overly empathic—some are tougher, and a healthy one is somewhere in between, she explains.
With clients on both coasts, Nuur finds a clear distinction between New Yorkers’ auras and Angelenos’, with the former giving off the colors of power and survival chakras, and the latter, creativity and emotions. “It’s more touchy-feely,” she says.
“You can project your aura or pull it in—it can be like an invisibility cloak—or you can project it out, on dates, so you’re memorable,” Nuur says. “You have more power in it than you realize.”
Good to know, but, when in California, it’s still more fun to call in the gurus.