September 18, 2018

A different kind of Hollywood party spirit

On a recent Tuesday night, a couple hundred or so 20- and 30-somethings gathered in North Hollywood to eat vegan Indian food, join such activities as collective breath work and laughter meditation, and meet other spiritually minded people. But before they were even allowed to enter the rented health and wellness center, they had to hug someone they did not know.

Creating a community is one of the goals of the Integral Fitness Conscious Family Dinners, its founder said.

Benjamin Rolnik, 26, a talent agent from Beverly Hills, started Integral Fitness earlier this year and described it as a personal development program aimed at millennials. The program encompasses various practices, such as mindfulness, meditation, forgiveness work, yoga, cognitive behavior therapy, and neuro-linguistic programming — with a goal of improving people’s lives. Integral Fitness is not a religious organization and Rolnik said it is not incompatible with religious belief, including Judaism.

Rolnik said he hopes to help people “fully step into their potential and live with more happiness and love and joy. … We want people to take their mental and spiritual and emotional fitness the same way they take their physical fitness. You need to work out not just your body but your mind and heart.”

The first Integral Fitness events were intense meetings for small groups of people facilitated by Rolnik. He characterized them as “a mix between AA and Tony Robbins,” adding that the life coach and self-help author Robbins is his “No. 1 teacher.” But Rolnik wanted to expand and make Integral Fitness’ offerings more accessible. So in May, the organization hosted its first Conscious Family Dinner, held at a rental space in Hollywood. Since then, the monthly dinners have moved to a striking, historic, two-story Spanish house and former residence in North Hollywood, and they have grown in attendance and scope.

While growing up, Rolnik and his family worshipped at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, a Reform congregation, and Rolnik recently helped to lead a modern Kol Nidre service with a colleague through Beth Shir Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Santa Monica.

No doubt Rolnik inherited at least some of his interest in spiritual pursuits beyond traditional synagogue life from his mother, talent manager Trudy Green, with whom he now works. She has been “a spiritual seeker forever. … She is sort of a gravitational force for different spiritual leaders and teachers,” he said.

The Biala Rebbe, for example, a Kabbalist based in Israel, regularly visits his family home, he said. His mother worked with “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” author John Gray. And Rolnik spent the good part of one summer when he was a teen with his mother at the Tree of Life Center US in Patagonia, Ariz., run by rabbi and holistic physician Gabriel Cousens.

The Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Tree of Life Center, with their dancing, singing, and meditating, resonated with Rolnik. Before that, he said, Shabbat “felt like a chore rather than: ‘This is special, this is magical.’ ” When Rolnik returned to Los Angeles, he started hosting small groups of friends for Shabbat dinners. “We did everything from a meditation on the food … to speaking about our favorite spiritual concepts from the week.” Though the line is hardly direct, it is easy to see these dinners as the seed for the Conscious Family Dinners.

“A lot of the things I do in Integral Fitness have replaced Shabbat,” Rolnik said. “It has become my secular Shabbat.” 

Another influence was Rolnik’s work assisting “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series co-creator Mark Victor Hansen. That was his first job after graduating from USC, where he studied psychology, biology and philosophy. 

The core audience for the dinners is millennials (ages 18-35) “who are looking for authentic connections, looking to have a real experience, and to join a community that is open, loving, and honest,” Rolnik said. He suspects that many of the attendees, who come from various backgrounds, may be disillusioned with traditional organized religion.

The Conscious Family Dinners are billed as three-hour-long gatherings but often last longer. Guests pay $35 apiece. (Rolnik said this basically just covers expenses and that he and other organizers receive no salaries.) If they bring a friend, they get a discount. Most people hear about the dinners through friends or social media; no formal advertising is done.

Marketing consultant Brian Frankel, 28, for example, who attended the October dinner, his second, heard about the gatherings on Facebook. “It’s great to meet other people interested in spiritual growth,” said the Calabasas resident, who identifies as Jewish-Buddhist-Taoist. “People let their guard down more here than in the other social settings in Los Angeles.” Another plus, he said: “no alcohol, no one’s drunk, no one’s smoking pot.”

At the most recent dinner, guests were welcomed by a volunteer who offered to spritz rose water on their faces and touch their third eye with a crystal. Next they filled out a placard that asked what their “highest excitement” is. They could sign up for various one-on-one services, included with admission, such as a tarot card reading and reiki, a Japanese healing technique using touch that was accompanied by a sound bath from a didgeridoo player. Massage therapists did mall-style mini massages throughout the night. The most popular offerings were the 10 half-hour interactive “playshops,” including the laughter meditation that from the sidelines looked like some crazy college acting workshop but also terrific fun. Another, called “Limitless Bliss” and led by Rolnik, focused on transforming personal problems into actionable, positive questions. For example, instead of just saying, “I hate my job,” a participant was encouraged to ask: “How can my work be more creatively fulfilling?”

This month, Integral Fitness is launching a new program, Intimate Family Dinners, gatherings intended for fewer than a dozen attendees, in Santa Monica. And in December, Integral Fitness will host its first Conscious Family Dinner in New York City. One of the L.A. regulars recently relocated there and was eager to build a similar community. She reached out to Rolnik, who will likely attend along with Grace Hazeltine, whom Rolnik described as the director of operations for the Conscious Family Dinners and who works the events along with volunteers.

“The more we live in a world with people who are integrally fit, the less problems we will have, the more happiness we will create, the more love, the more bliss,” Rolnik said. “It’s a selfish thing because that’s the world I want to live in.”