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How hip-hop legend Russell Simmons plans to save the world with yoga

Few people have their finger on the pulse of American culture like hip-hop godfather and fashion-film mogul Russell Simmons.

The New York native, who has lived in L.A. for the last three years, co-founded rap’s first major label in the ’80s and went on to distinction in clothing, movie and TV production, including his own reality TV show. 

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Since 1994, he’s also made time for daily yoga and twice-a-day meditation sessions while also adopting a strict vegan diet, and has written several books about how his health-and-fitness regimens have fueled his success. Simmons, 59, has a long history with social activism, participating in a growing list of philanthropic causes that support environmentalism, the arts and ethnic equality. PETA, the animal rights organization, named him Person of the Year in 2011. Passionate about all aspects of yoga, the entrepreneur’s latest venture is Tantris, a West Hollywood yoga studio that opened in November. 

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The Internet is filled with photos of you doing handstands and other yoga positions. How did you get into it?

I was age 36. I wasn’t into fitness, just a little Stairmaster. One day, an intern took Bobby Shriver, my best friend, and I to a yoga class. I was so inspired that I kept going every day. 

What do you mean “inspired”?

As an ex-druggy, I knew what it was like to feel high. And I felt so high after class that I was shocked. The noise had been quieted in my mind; I had the rare feeling of clarity.  We all have seconds of clarity, but doing yoga gave me more seconds of clarity.

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Yoga is a state of needing nothing. I joked to someone, “If I keep doing this, I’ll lose all my money.” But I didn’t. I evolved into a different person, someone who comes from a calm, clear, quiet place. When the mind is busy, you get sick and sad. But go from cloudy to clarity, and happiness sets in.

There are many yoga studios in and around Los Angeles. How will your new studio, Tantris, stand out?

I made a yoga studio because there’s no popular, trendy, cool devotional yoga studio out there. Tantris will mix yoga with Kanye West. But more than that, it will teach you something, if you are open to it. The one-hour class will be a seamless blend of the physical and philosophical side of yoga, including meditation. There’ll be an invocation at the start and a Sanskrit chant at the end. You’ll hear a little from the Scriptures; the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most famous books ever; and the Yoga Sutras, the science book for happiness. We’ll have a monthly theme, such as “not harming” or “be graceful.”

A lot of women just do yoga for “yoga butt.” But the physical practice — known as “asana” — is just one of eight parts of yoga. Together, all bring you to a “state of yoga” — the clarity, the calmness. So I’m doing Tantris to give you the mental benefits — not just yoga butt. 

Why open it in L.A. and not New York?

I want to spread yoga everywhere, and L.A. is a trendy place where things catch on first. Also, people here have big mouths, like Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres. I gave them their first meditation teachers, and they spread the word to a lot of people. The big-mouth people who’ll show up at my yoga studio will help transform yoga being a physical practice to a physical and spiritual practice about consciousness and awareness. Then that will affect the country and the entire world in a very positive way.

Yoga can seem sort of a pricey upper-middle-class white thing. Can you make yoga cool for the masses?

It already is. I go to [Los Angeles yoga instructor] Ginny Bodo’s yoga class every morning. A few years ago there were no black people in it, except me. Now out of 30 people, there are five black men and two black women. To make it accessible for everyone, we’ll be putting classes online for free.

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There’s a tremendous shift in terms of African Americans and Latinos practicing yoga. It’s new and seen as slightly aspirational, but it’s happening. Sometimes, the minorities lead the way. … I became vegan out of a natural extension of yoga, but you got lots of people in the ’hood who were vegan before this whole craze. One reason for that is that so many minorities suffer from diabetes and heart disease. Also, there’s a cultural angle: In New York, there are lots of vegans in Jamaican-Rastafarian culture. Veggie patties caught on quicker in our community.

All these things go together. Veganism is 100% part of yoga. It takes care of yourself and takes care of the planet. Our current meat-filled diets are poison for us and the environment and a disaster for the animals.

Animal rights are just one of many causes you’re involved in, from the Elton John AIDS Foundation to US Doctors for Africa. Variety just named you Philanthropist of the Year. How big a role does yoga play in your social activism?

A big one. Celebrity gives you the opportunity to make an impact, and yoga greatly accelerated the process for me. A yogi is an activist. If he was really dedicated to the eight tenets of yoga, he would be an animal rights activist, a human rights activist  and would campaign for freedom and opportunity for everybody. He wouldn’t ignore suffering. He’d use his voice to cause change and reduce suffering. If you have a voice, a big mouth, a platform, use it. Colin Kaepernick used his platform to call attention to police brutality. I don’t know if he’s into yoga, but he’s campaigning for freedom and happiness, which is what this country — and yoga — is all about. In fact, we open every class with a Sanskrit saying that is translated as,  “All living beings everywhere be happy and free,” with the implication that all actions you take contribute to that freedom.

You have teenage daughters. With childhood obesity rampant today, have you thought about taking yoga’s health and activism message to their generation? Oprah reaches a different demographic.

We are getting the message out there to young people. DoBoy, a hip-hop comedian known for his “Fat Drake” parody, started going to yoga every day and eating vegan and lost over 50 pounds. It transformed his life. We filmed his journey to health on All Def Digital (his comedy video platform) and it got 2 million views. That’s a lot of young people learning about yoga.

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