A Look Inside Tarzana’s Hypnosis Motivation Institute

Getting a certificate requires a year of training—and $15,000

If you’ve spent any time on the 101 going through Tarzana, the phrase “Hypnosis Motivation Institute” has likely crossed your mind. In some cruel trick of the subconscious, I must have driven by a hundred times before noticing it: a green-and-white sign along the freeway marking the off-ramp to one of the preeminent hypnotherapy institutions. Founded in 1968 by John Kappas, HMI claims to be the first nationally accredited school of its kind in the country. It has certified thousands of hypnotherapists along the way, leading the field’s slow march from ostracized novelty to legitimate profession.

Although hypnosis has been used for centuries for pain management, it was still considered mostly a gimmick at the time of HMI’s inception. Back then the public was more familiar with “stage hypnosis,” a scripted performance that featured audience ringers mooing like cows. In fact, hypnotherapy—the clinical application of hypnotic methods to assist in behavioral therapy—has been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association since 1958, and your insurance probably covers it.

Even so, I rode the elevator of the Ventura Boulevard strip mall that HMI calls home with fantastical notions of a real-life Hogwarts, a shadowy kingdom populated by colorful characters performing magical feats. Inside the brick-and-glass building, HMI feels like it’s somewhere between a doctor’s office and a Home Shopping Network studio. The main classroom doubles as the backdrop for Hypnosis TV, a 24 hour stream of educational content—subjects include breath work, laughter yoga, and sound therapy—and hypnotherapeutic sessions that deal with everything from anxiety to hoarding to cancer pain management. Though there are free “life improvement” classes, most students are here to earn a certificate so they can make a living inducing trances in others. Two classes a week for a year, with additional supervised practice, and $15,715 will suffice (there’s an online option as well).

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“We enter into hypnotic states all the time without realizing it,” says HMI’s director, George Kappas, who’s 58 and has the bright smile, good hair, and poise of a talk-show host. The son of HMI’s founder, he gave his first lecture as a boy. “Watching movies, driving—you can’t go to sleep without going into hypnosis first,” he says. “We’re tapping into that naturally occurring process. Hypnosis creates a heightened sense of suggestibility that allows us to feel and experience things that help us shift our beliefs.”

Despite hypnotherapy’s fairly widespread acceptance—more than a few M.D.s and Ph.D.s carry it in their tool kit—the practice can certainly appear to lean toward the fringe end of science. In one HMI video, a hypnotherapist guides a young woman through a meditative state in front of a class of students. “You’re ready to release the past. Breathe the word ‘trust’ into your beautiful legs,” she says. “Bring the word ‘trust’ into your pelvis. Your pelvis has intuition, creativity, motivation, and joy. Trust it.”

Kappas isn’t blind to the skepticism. “We don’t treat disorders; we’re aiming for self-improvement,” he says. “Compared to traditional therapy, hypnosis is a little more behavioral, a little more spiritual, maybe a little more metaphysical. Yoga and meditation—they’re all different roads up the same mountain, but hypnosis is a more directed approach than either.”

As another group of midlife lane-changers, curious university students, and New Age explorers files into the classroom, the scene is like any college course in a more mundane field. Even bending the subconscious requires PowerPoints, attendance sheets, and quizzes.