His newest enterprise, Tantris, came out of his own need to have a dedicated place to practice hot yoga in a devotional way. Los Angeles is not short on places to practice yoga or buy yoga clothing—when I asked him what Tantris would bring to an already-crowded scene, he admitted that, “it is difficult to teach yoga in a commercial environment and be successful.” But ultimately, he said, “practitioners who are inspired by the yoga community, that love the philosophy and the science of yoga—beyond their love for stretching and bending—will come to know real yoga.”
As a devout yogi and hip-hop head, I find the similarities of hip-hop and yoga culture interesting. The godfather of hip-hop, KRS-ONE, lyricized that real hip-hop is intelligent movement. Similarly, The Bhagavad Gita, relays this exact idea in scripture: Yoga is skillfulness in action. We sat down with Simmons to learn more about his thoughts on this.
YOGANONYMOUS (YNON): People who don’t know the history, associate hip hop with gang bangers and loud beats. In reality, the music is one aspect of a greater culture and that culture respects a lifestyle that started as a protest to the status quo. It was a medium to express what people were not willing to say out loud and to say it in a smart way—so that people will listen. They think about yoga: leggings and stretching. From these over-generalizations, people disregard the culture as a movement. But when you study the cultures and embody their philosophy, you realize how deep it gets. What similarities do you see in these two subcultures?
Russell Simmons (RS): Poets and artists, they express reality [as it is] in the section of their community. It may be a shock to hear what’s in the hearts and minds of men… Artists, from the inside out, are more compassionate, loving people. Both cultures support progressive ideas.
Every artistic culture, every group of poets and artists have this in common: They’re more compassionate. All poets throughout history, not just today, have been judged the same way that rappers are being judged today. People don’t like their language…like, semantics is small—but actions are what matter.
YNON: The current hip-hop genre, rap culture, is not geared towards spirituality. Rappers and their songs promote materialism, classism and indulgence. Yogic lifestyle, beyond practicing yoga poses, doesn’t support that. How do you personally work with that juxtaposition?
RS: Poets always seem to oppose the world. In hip-hop culture in general, poets are expressing their reality, which is what art should do. They’re saying things that are not politically correct because they're artists. But they’re saying things that other people are thinking. They’re not running for president and they should say what they’re feeling. It’s what all artists have been doing throughout the ages. I totally support them and their music.
The reality is that there are other components, which we can address as yogis. The prison industrial complex, which created prison culture [where a lot of rappers come up from], those people would not be heard from if not for their music. Now, kids in Beverly Hills have to hear it and maybe [they will] feel compassionate and do something about it. Practicing yoga is not a guarantee to happiness…Our reality isn’t always happy. But as it’s written, “God is in all things,” and seeing the reality that comes from the poetry is inspiring if you read it properly. “
YNON: What about commercializing yoga culture—does the real message get lost?
RS: Commercializing sounds like it’s gonna' do something to yoga. We’re gonna' do the opposite. Simplified scripture—yes. Simplified yogic science—yes. Making more the asana practice, I couldn’t do it. It’s already happening. Steve Ross commercialized yoga asana… We want to teach you how to be happier, how to move towards Yoga.”
YNON: As a yoga teacher, I find that people want to use yoga as a way to escape their unhappiness. They don’t know going in that it is a process. Real yoga allows us to radically accept life—to become self-actualized—and then to use this knowledge to make conscious choices that reduce suffering.
RS: I think the study of the Self is a process by which you move towards a happier state... Self-actualization. There’s something to be said for calling the asana practice “yoga” and believing that that’s the yoga practice. It’s not hatha yoga practice if you can smile and breathe and ride a bike. All the alignment is good to know but the goal is to realize Yoga. The asana is helpful in [realizing] that because you get graceful, because you go through the practice and you keep your mind on the realization of Yoga.
YNON: What about the people who are within earshot but aren’t listening? What about the people who don’t see that yoga asana and realizing Yoga are different things?
RS: I feel like I’m in a position to give that messaging. My whole being is how people’s lives can be empowered… That’s what I try to do. I’ve empowered myself by empowering other people. I’m a vehicle. As a business, my job is to make others good so I can get good. I get good as a result of what I give. Always, the artist first. Always, the community first. Those things pay off. Good givers can be great getters, but you have to know how to receive. Sometimes you can’t even do good unless you make it into a business.