A Studio as a Home for Devotion
Russell Simmons is a visionary on the move. Co-founder of Def Jam Records, early promoter and pioneer in the hip hop movement, famous philanthropist, prolific author, television and film producer, and entrepreneur with multiple businesses, Russell is also a devoted yogi with more than 20 years of practice. Along with a dedicated team, Russell spent years searching for a location in Los Angeles where he could build a center for the way he wants to practice—which combines a heated vinyasa flow with an in-class emphasis on philosophy, including the eight limbs of yoga and the ethical precepts known as the yamas and niyamas. At the end of 2016, Russell opened Tantris Center for Yoga Science Studio and Boutique on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood.
On one of the walls of the boutique, the three pillars of the studio’s philosophy are boldly painted: Devotional Study, Daily Practice, and Karmic Duty. The name of the studio is derived from the Sanskrit words tantra or tantric, yet it is a new word that evokes these tools for spiritual evolution. The home for these practices is a gorgeous space that spans two floors and since the stairs are painted with lines from the Yoga Sutras—you can literally walk your talk as you climb from the boutique to the two studio spaces, spa-style bathrooms, and sunny lounge.
The inviting boutique features Russell’s innovative Tantris yoga clothing line—also the result of years of development (the men’s line is on its way this Spring). In addition, a number of other lifestyle brands can be found including Jen Stock Designs, Sattva Collection, Ria Ray, and J Lew Bags. An expanded style bar with blow outs and more is reopening in March. Coffee, tea, juices, and more are available at the tonic bar.
While the setting certainly has its share of bling, everything about the space pays homage to Russell’s commitment to the devotional practices of yoga. From larger-than-life images of his teachers Sharon Gannon and David Life (founders of devotion-steeped Jivamukti in NYC), to portraits of teachers such as Paramahansa Yogananda (author of Autobiography of a Yogi) prominently hung in the lounge, to an upstairs hallway covered in images of temples, scenes from India, and the chariot of Bhagavad Gita heroes Krishna and Arjuna, to altars in the studio themselves. For Russell, all of this is yoga and he is a man on a mission to share the benefits of what he sees as his moving prayer with as many people as possible. The address on Sunset Boulevard is only the beginning.
LA YOGA: You’ve been working on this studio for years.
Russell Simmons: It’s a process that took years. Even though I’m a Jivamukti student, I started to like practicing in the heat, which I did when I was traveling, in places like Hong Kong, Australia, and then here in Los Angeles. I noticed that a lot of yogis, didn’t like the heat very much because of their experience with that whole kind of aggressive vibe that came from Bikram and those that borrowed from his inspiration. There was very little devotional talk before or after the class. I wanted to practice in a heated studio with devotion. For me, yoga is my moving prayer, and I was looking for something that reflected this: A devotional place surrounded by people whose goal is to achieve yoga.
In the teacher training at Jivamukti, we studied The Yoga Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita, Textbook of Yoga Psychology (by Ramamurti Mishra), three books by Yogananda, anatomy, Sanskrit, sequencing and the rest. I was surrounded by teachers. I had a teacher training scholarship that I paid for for many years. They’re also all vegan. We all fall short in so many different ways but one of the most abusive things human beings do is eat animals and participate in the slaughter of 200 billion animals.
LA YOGA: You emphasize the importance of devotion. How are you setting up your commitment to devotion within the Tantris community?
RS: At Tantris, it’s fun but devotional at the same time. We’re not going to preach, but we take the goal, the journey, seriously. We’ll begin and end classes with chanting and in between, the teachers, who have studied philosophy, will talk about the theme of the month.
We’ll be featuring different musicians, different playlists, like Krishna Das and Kanye West. I mean, everyone likes Krishna Das. You play “Mere Guru Dev” in savasana and people are going to let go. This is nada yoga, devotional music, played by the melody king. I doesn’t even matter if you know what he’s saying. Krishna Das is my man, I don’t always know what he is singing about. When I first heard that song, I felt like I was an A&R Director, and I said “Oh my God! What was that?” It was during a class at Jivamukti. I said, “That’s gotta play forever!” I felt like I did when I first heard Bobby Womack or Dr Dre, something when I was like “I know that’s a hit” and in our little yoga circle it is.
I want to do some events to draw people in to devotional practices so that they can experience them and know that there is something they’d been missing. You know you have this experience of stillness after a physical practice of asana. It sets in, this feeling of how great it is, and then you hear that there are other tools to get you there such as meditation, practicing the other eight limbs of yoga which includes the yamas and niyamas (the ethical precepts), the asanas (the poses), and how you breathe.
At the studio, I want my teachers to be smarter than I am for sure. I’ve written many books and they’ve all been taken from basic yoga philosophy and yogic science. I think Super Rich is probably the most instructive of my books. It’s really yoga.
LA YOGA: So you’re a yoga devotee; what inspired you to go to your first yoga class?
RS: My intern Emma Watts—who is now Vice Chairman of 20th Century Fox Film—took me to a class around 22 years ago. It was a transformation obviously. I went in there for the cute girls, and then I came out high as fuck.
Steve Ross was my first teacher (who also teaches at Tantris offering “Happy Yoga” classes); I love him. I mean how could you not? He’s playing The Police in class; I mean you gotta show up, right? He’s been a raw foodist as long as some of his students have been alive. I met Eckhart Tolle through Steve, when Eckhart living in his backyard in a shack. He asked, “Would you like to spend some time?” and we sat and meditated for a bit. I gave Oprah Eckhart’s book after that.
I can take credit for teaching Oprah and Ellen Degeneres how to meditate. I figure that’s my purpose – to give people who’ve got big mouths yoga! Big mouths influence people.
LA YOGA: You talk a lot about the practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM); what brought you to meditation?
RS: I was meditating because of yoga. Then I went to Africa to meditate with some students who each have their own personal mantras and they talked to me about it. When we came back, Bob Roth (Executive Director of the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace) came to me when he was making a video for the students. He explained Transcendental Meditation (TM) and I took my first TM course years ago.
Because of that mantra, and because of a teacher like Bob Roth—who is so still himself that he puts his spirit on you when you meditate with him and when he teaches you— I use that mantra daily.
Just recently, I was with Bob in Chicago with students in schools in the hood meditating. We had beautifully still experiences with these students who have such stress and trauma to deal with. It is amazing for them to have meditation—they call it quiet time—in schools. I support it and I’m on the Advisory Board of the David Lynch Foundation.
All the different types of meditation work. It’s okay to just have a mantra, candle-gazing is fine, whatever suits you. I think people gravitate to their own mantra and their practice.
LA YOGA: With your busy schedule, how do you fit in your own practice?
RS: There is nothing more important than my practice. If I were in here with world leaders like Putin and Obama and I was negotiating a deal I’d say, “That’s the last class of the day, ya’ll gotta figure this out,” and I’d leave. You have to take care of the first chakra first.
For more information about Tantris Center for Yogic Science and Tantris Clothing, visit: tantris.com
Felicia Tomasko has spent more of her life practicing Yoga and Ayurveda than not. She first became introduced to the teachings through the writings of the Transcendentalists, through meditation, and using asana to cross-train for her practice of cross-country running. Between beginning her commitment to Yoga and Ayurveda and today, she earned degrees in environmental biology and anthropology and nursing, and certifications in the practice and teaching of yoga, yoga therapy, and Ayurveda while working in fields including cognitive neuroscience and plant biochemistry. Her commitment to writing is at least as long as her commitment to yoga. Working on everything related to the written word from newspapers to magazines to websites to books, Felicia has been writing and editing professionally since college. In order to feel like a teenager again, Felicia has pulled out her running shoes for regular interval sessions throughout Southern California. Since the very first issue of LA YOGA, Felicia has been part of the team and the growth and development of the Bliss Network.