Is change possible? The Hoffman Process thinks yes

One week at a Katy Perry-approved self-help retreat in Northern California

Tommy Fang
Human Parts
8 min readNov 14, 2023


Newton’s First Law of Motion states that an object in motion will stay in motion, unless acted upon by an external force. Or in other words, inertia’s a bitch. And one of the hardest things to change isn’t just an abstract “object in motion.” It’s you.

The Hoffman Process, founded in 1967, is yet another approach in the world of self-help. One week of intense effort at Hoffman’s remote retreat center, free from internet or outside contact, and you too could emerge refreshed, changed, and happier. Seem a little too good to be true? That’s what I thought. Yet, I was intrigued. I was recommended Hoffman by a mentor of mine a few years back. A quick Google search yielded hundreds of positive stories about the program, many of them describing unbelievable transformations. My birthday was in a few months — a perfect time for a change. I’m at the age where half of my friends are getting blackout drunk on the weekends, while the other half are having babies. I decided I wanted neither, so I signed up to spend my 28th birthday at Hoffman. I circled June 23, 2023 on my calendar.

The Hoffman Center is located in the tiny town of Petaluma in northern California, just off Highway 101. I felt my heart pounding as I pulled up to the retreat grounds. A wooden sign hung at the entrance gate: When You’re Serious About Change. Woah. I was already feeling a bit doubtful in the lead up to Hoffman — based on the stories I had heard, I was 50% sure I was entering a cult. It didn’t help calm me that the overly friendly woman helping me with my luggage seemingly already knew my whole life story. “I memorize everyone’s names and faces before they arrive,” she proudly stated. I handed over my cellphone, and felt naked immediately after. I reached into my pockets several times, only to find them empty. 30 minutes into the week, I already felt myself counting, “10,000 more to go.”

First day of class was Saturday, 8 AM sharp. Every minute of every day from that point onward would be meticulously planned out, with days ending around 10 PM. If you’re looking for an idyllic meditation and yoga retreat, Hoffman ain’t it. The head instructor, Drew, welcomed 38 of us with a warm smile and congratulations for showing up. I scanned the room. Most of the people in the class were older, in their forties. The room was mostly white, and skewed female. I felt a bit out of place, being the only young Asian guy in the group, and could already feel myself withdrawing. I tuned back in to Drew, who had just announced it would be our turn to talk. Who? Us? Already?

One at a time, we were to go up to the front of the room and say 1) Why we were at Hoffman, and 2) What we were most ashamed of at the moment. What the fuck. I hadn’t even said hi to most of the people in the room. You could feel the awkwardness as each of us went up and spoke. The room was dead silent. Some people rushed through what they said. Others cried mid-sentence. When it was my turn, I ran up, muttered through the answer I had been rehearsing for the last 10 minutes, something about being too self-critical, before quickly sitting back down. Phew.

Hoffman teaches that each of us is made up of our 4 Selves: the Physical Self, Intellectual Self, Emotional Self, and Spiritual Self. Problems arise when a particular Self is neglected. Most of us tend to be run by either our Intellectual Self or our Emotional Self. For me, it’s the former. My Intellectual Self is hugely overdeveloped (read: overthinking), like an overtrained muscle on a body. I’m always trying to think my way out of things. Everything’s gotta have a logical solution. I’m gonna fix X, Y, and Z. Preferably today. Preferably now. You can imagine this is quite popular with girls I date. For those where the Emotional Self is louder, it’s all about feelings. You go with your gut, but maybe you’re a little too impulsive. You’re expressive, but sometimes in the wrong situations. It was quite easy to tell who at Hoffman fell into which bucket and which Self was being ignored. Our Hoffman teachers wanted to help us find a balance between our 4 Selves. For many of us, this was the first time in our lives’ addressing our forgotten Selves.

“The body (the Physical Self) is the battleground for the Intellectual and Emotional Selves”

Every activity at Hoffman was a surprise, with the goal being to get out of our heads, and into our bodies — into our Physical Self. I can’t count the number of self-help books I’ve read or discussions I’ve had with my therapist on the same 5 issues. But I always end up stuck in a cycle where I know a certain thought is unhealthy, but I can’t stop thinking the damn thing. Hoffman has a term for this: being trapped in Awareness Hell.

It was a new sensation for me to pause thinking and literally just do whatever physical things Hoffman threw at us. Hit pillows for an hour straight. Handwrite a letter to your parents when they were your age. Now add 5 more pages to the letter. Now add 10. Every exercise (don’t worry, I won’t spoil everything) was simple, a bit odd, and illustrative of a much deeper concept. Working the body and expressing through writing, movement, and imagination, we became more attuned to the Physical Self, and as a consequence, started hearing the Intellectual or Emotional Self we had been neglecting for so many years. I was able to pull memories from my childhood I had forgotten, even if the memories were only hazy feelings. “The body always remembers,” they repeated to us. I broke down and cried 4 or 5 times — for others, this was 40 or 50 times.

The problems of the modern world are much different from what they were when Bob Hoffman started the Process in 1967, yet the struggles of people are still the same. The male loneliness epidemic is a neglect of the Emotional Self. Female body dysmorphia in the age of social media has created problems for the Physical Self. The rise of brain-numbing entertainment like TikTok has squeezed the air out of the Intellectual Self. And the decline in religion and air of societal distrust has cast a shadow over the Spiritual Self. None of us were thinking about the outside world while at Hoffman, but at so many points, people questioned:

“How much of a better place would the world be if instead of trying to change other people, we all just focused on healing ourselves first?”

In a way, Hoffman felt like being back in college: Change University. If journaling wasn’t an “assignment,” I probably would have given up on the second page of writing, if not by my fourth hand cramp. 90% of Hoffman was about the embodied, physical experience of being and learning with others in a classroom setting. Although we all went through the same Hoffman experience — the program hasn’t changed much since it was founded — each of our takeaways was vastly, and importantly, different. It was personal.

We shared our struggles openly, showing raw vulnerability I often don’t even experience with friends. One woman spoke of the shame she had experienced over the years of being overweight and hating the feeling of being in her body. A man described the hurt of being in an abusive relationship and sending the signal to his young daughter that it was okay to be mistreated. There were stories of death, of divorce, of miscarriage, of infidelity, of loss. With Hoffman’s hefty price tag, attendees weren’t exactly running in the oppression Olympics, but the stories of the week really hammered home the idea that struggling is a human experience. I was especially inspired by the oldest participant in the group, a sassy 83-year-old woman who had announced on Day 1: “I’ve tried everything under the sun. If this doesn’t work, I give up!” She’s since been one of the most active participants in the post-Hoffman WhatsApp group.

Core to Hoffman’s teachings is the idea of the Spiritual Self: the best, idealized version of yourself. The fork in the multiverse where everything goes right and you live up to your full potential. The Spiritual Self needs something to believe in. Something larger than itself. Traditionally, that “something” has been religion, which has now waned in modern society. While Hoffman doesn’t promise that you’ll worry less, live longer, or get sick less, research consistently shows that these are benefits associated with religious participation.

“Everyone’s gotta believe in somethin.’”

Hoffman draws a unique audience, one that is well-educated, affluent, and mostly agnostic. Past attendees have include Justin Bieber and Katy Perry (yes, even the rich and famous have problems). A tough crowd to preach spirituality to. But one looking for answers. Just like the modern version of most things doesn’t look like what it did in the past, Hoffman doesn’t look or feel like a religion. No priests dunking babies into water. No ancient texts or oaths. And that’s the whole point. What Hoffman did was to “soft launch” religion, to show attendees the value of leading a spiritual life. Though I didn’t sprint straight to Mass post-Hoffman, the week did leave me believing in something more than myself. As I became more aligned with my Spiritual Self, I felt a sense of balance inside me. A “Serious Change,” if you will. Unlike many things in life, I didn’t try to look for a logical explanation. Maybe that’s a sign of progress.

In the days following Hoffman, I was in bliss. Food tasted better. Music sounded more beautiful. All my problems magically disappeared. Just kidding. Amazingly, the world did not change while I was away. I remember how uncomfortable I felt without my phone at the start of the Hoffman Process. Being handed it back, I didn’t even want to look at it.

I saw the sign on the Hoffman gate again on my way out: When You’re Serious About Change. Change? I did feel different. Happier. But had I changed? Maybe change isn’t about becoming a different person, but more about becoming who you really are. Through peeling back layers of societal, familial, and self conditioning, like layers of an onion, I was able to find an inner voice and peace I didn’t know existed. One of my biggest realizations was that I didn’t need to put so much pressure on myself all the time, taking everything so seriously, ironically, including my idea of “change.” I left feeling like I had taken out the metaphorical stick up my ass, which I had been carrying around my whole life.

Hoffman shows that it is possible to have an “enlightenment” experience without the guru in a cave or ayahuasca trip in the desert. Maybe we’re easier to change than we think. Or maybe we’re just all the same, going through life experiencing variations of the same struggles. Or just maybe, even more radically, change is less about “change”, and more about acceptance. Regardless, Hoffman describes itself as the beginning of a journey, and says that it often takes up to a year to ingest the learnings of the week. Lately, I’ve been feeling pretty good, but life has a funny way of dishing out lessons at just the right times to keep you humble. Growth can kinda suck sometimes. I guess some things just take time, living through it, and a shit ton of reps. Inertia’s still a bitch.