Just after 7 on a late October evening, a small crowd had begun to form outside a mansion off a quiet street in North Hollywood. It wasn't a velvet rope or beefy bouncer holding up the line, but the fact that each guest was being enthusiastically embraced by a host they didn't necessarily know.
"Here, we hug!" said the greeter at the front, clasping her arms around guests as they made their way through an entryway leading into a candle-strewn grassy courtyard, where they were spritzed with rose water.
About 200 people clustered in small groups inside and outside the house; in one room, someone was leading a laughter meditation session; in another, there was a talk on the connection between the health of the planet and the human body. Others helped themselves from heaving trays of vegan Indian food and cups of coconut water and kombucha.
This was the sixth Conscious Family Dinner, a monthly event that is the brainchild of Benjamin Rolnik, 26, a Los Angeles talent manager and tech entrepreneur who says he began meditating at age 10 and is now "obsessed with the art and science of personal transformation."
Through the dinners, he wanted to provide a social and casual forum for people — they are open to all ages, but skew millennial — to gather and discover more about the healing arts, whether that is to attend a “play shop” on psychotherapy or do a 30-minute yoga class, have tarot cards read, scrawl their loftiest goals on sheets of paper and mingle with like-minded peers.
"We want to give people a great variety of stuff they can participate in," said Rolnik shortly before he was to deliver a talk on problem-solving. "We curate talent to lead our play shops in the same way as I work with an artist or musician."
The event takes place in a 7,000-square-foot house that otherwise serves as a clinic and work space for herbalists and other therapists. Rolnik's company, Integral Fitness, puts on the dinners, varying the content each month; at the October event, there were shoulder rubs offered as well as an appearance by Poem Store, a performance art project in which a woman at a typewriter created poems on the spot — you name the subject — for a donation. Taoist tonic herbalist Rehmannia Dean Thomas, founder of Shaman Shack Herbs, concocted hot drinks made with astragalus, shilajit, honey and almond milk. Also on hand was hip juice brand Juicero with its cold-pressed pouches for instant fresh fruit and vegetable juice.
Regular Evan Kleiman says he's drawn to the get-togethers because "there isn't a specific methodology or teaching.”
"This has become a platform for anyone who supports helping people in their lives," said Kleiman, 30, who works in industrial organization psychology, assisting companies in creating healthful work environments.
"People come here and discover what makes them feel alive — dancing, or yoga, or being in a great conversation with someone."
The mood was certainly upbeat; Rolnik said he wanted to create a festive environment without the attendant pressures of the Los Angeles party scene.
"The point of coming here is not to look good and impress people but to relax in a community that is accepting and loving and supportive," he said. "We wanted to remove the layers of complication that separate people to create something that feels like home."
Singer-songwriter Daniella Watters, 29, said that attending the dinners is "restorative." "I feel rejuvenated," she said. "It's a welcoming environment and a healthy atmosphere. It's the same feeling I get after going to a yoga class."
Rolnik is expanding the concept; the first East Coast Conscious Family Dinner took place in early December in New York. He also runs regular Intimate Family Dinners, where fewer than 12 people pay $20 a piece to sit around a table and break bread with new friends while Rolnik facilitates conversation and getting-to-know-you games. He is constantly seeking out speakers and therapists of any health discipline ("from Kundalini yoga to Tony Robbins") to introduce at his events.
"I feel like my generation is not yet quite equipped to deal with the 21st century," he said. "Personal development is important for people 35 years and older. But it's essential for those under 35, because we're going to be the future leaders of the world."
The next Conscious Family Dinner is Dec. 29. Tickets start at $20 and then climb to $35 closer to the event, $25 if you bring a friend. The cost includes dinner and access to the 10 play shops. Services and products from vendors may be extra.