Yoga with the FT: Russell Simmons

Russell Simmons, aka the co-founder of Def Jam Recordings (launch pad of Run-DMC, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Jay-Z), aka the philanthropist behind the Diamond Empowerment Fund (a foundation geared towards using gemstones to empower Africans), aka one of USA Today’s “Top 25 Most Influential People of the Past 25 Years”, has a regular tendency to turn his world upside-down.

Not just metaphorically, by morphing his identity in various directions, moving from music to Broadway, rap to race relations (he is also chairman of America’s Foundation for Ethnic Understanding) but literally: at least once a day, if not more, you can find the 53-year-old on a yoga mat, body inverted, doing a handstand.

That’s how I saw him, anyway, when I joined him recently for a Jivamukti masterclass in New York. Simmons was wearing loose orange yoga trousers and T-shirt; his eyes were closed, and he had a sort of beatific grin on his face. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t doing a handstand – he was doing a forearm stand. He has injured both wrists in various ways, and to protect them he had his arms bent at the elbows, forearms flat on the mat to support his weight – but the rest of his body was straight as a broomstick, toes pointing at the ceiling. And since, though most people consider me flexible, I couldn’t do much more than point one leg up and hop up and down on the other, I was pretty impressed.

Jivamukti, a form of yoga that began in New York in 1984, involves practice both physical (the positions) and spiritual (chanting and a dharma discussion). Simmons has been a devotee for more than 15 years. He will do almost any kind of yoga – Ashtanga, Hatha, Iyengar – though rarely Bikram (which involves extremely hot rooms and heart-rate-elevating speed) but Jivamukti is his favourite, because of the teaching and philosophy.

Simmons was introduced to yoga by “Bobby Shriver and his girlfriend, Emma Watts, who is now President of Fox movies and used to be my intern, because I wanted to see hot girls, and I knew I’d be in a class with 58 women and us two guys.” They went to Maha Yoga in Los Angeles, to a class taught by Steve Ross (who is known for using loud rap music) and Simmons came away amazed. “All this noise that was always in my head, and which I associated with my success – this anxiety that I thought fuelled my drive – had stopped; I was totally calm, but I also felt so relieved, and I realised that was what I needed.” He went back the next day, and never stopped.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” he says, of both the postures and the philosophy. “You just realise how much more you have to learn.”

Since developing an interest in yoga, Simmons has also become a practitioner of transcendental meditation, a vegan and an animal activist; every year he also sponsors one to three students who want to become Jivamukti teachers. He says he doesn’t read much, but he has the yoga sutras and the Bhagavad Gita beside his bed, and has written two books himself, the latest entitled Super Rich, based on yogic principles.

He meditates for about 25 minutes every morning, does yoga for at least an hour and a half every afternoon, and meditates again at night. It is, he says, the part of his day that is “non-negotiable”.

“They know,” he continues, talking about his staff, “that every day I have to do yoga. It’s the most important thing in my life.” It is, he says, the place where he gets all his ideas and inspiration, where he can “quiet his mind”. This despite the fact that he prefers to practise in a class, and the more crowded the better.

“I like being surrounded by people who are also dedicated to yoga,” he says, which is why he asked me to join him at the masterclass, a three-hour session taught by David Life (Jivamukti’s co-founder) to 250 students. The class was so large, it couldn’t be held in the Jivamukti headquarters on Union Square, but had moved to the Prince George Ballroom, an early-20th-century 4,800-sq-ft event space, on 27th street; Life wore a head mic.

Simmons knew many of the people in the class; they passed him in the halls and said “Namaste”; one woman approached to ask about him joining the board of her charity (“that happens a lot, but not here so much,” says Simmons); another man chatted about how difficult the class would be (“it pushes you to the edge of whatever you can take”). Simmons had decided to give his books away, and afterwards he did a Q&A with Life and signed some copies. (The book was also in the ballroom, on the stage where Life spoke, next to the pictures of yogis.)

“I wanted to do it, because the text is really derived from yoga, though most of the people here would probably think it was baby food,” says Simmons. A teacher, Ruth Lauer-Manenti, came up and he told her that she inspired him, and that he had put a story from one of her dharma talks in his book. She smiled and said thank you and then told me: “Russell comes and supports everyone; he attends class with all the newest teachers. He is so humble.” When we went into the ballroom, she took the mat next to his. Before the class, I had explained that, while I have done some yoga, I’m not that familiar with it, and he said, “Don’t copy me! Copy Ruth.” Then he told me not to worry, everyone just did the best they could. When Simmons talks about yoga he is very serious, and I asked him if he had ever thought about becoming a teacher himself.

“I live with a woman who has gone through the Jivamukti program, and did her apprenticeship, but I can’t remember my Sanskrit, and I forget half the names of the postures,” he says. (Simmons was divorced from Kimora, the mother of his two daughters, in 2009 but they are still friends.) Then he laughed, and knelt on his mat, and Life began to murmur instructions: “Downward-facing dog to plank; bend knees and chin; upward-facing dog to downward-facing dog; jump forward, straighten legs, prayer up, bend back, dive down, step back to downward-facing dog.” Trying to follow along, I looked over at Simmons, and he – who is responsible for 13 different businesses and foundations – had a face as clean and cloudless as a summer sky.

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor.

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