On Twitter, he’s “Uncle Rush,” and upon meeting hip hop mogul and philanthropist Russell Simmons in his midtown Manhattan office, I immediately understand why. He’s an intimidating presence, even in a track suit and sneakers, as he walks in, thirty minutes late, and sits behind an elaborately carved oak desk. But he’s also warm and inviting as he apologizes profusely for his tardiness in an instantly relaxing kind of way. And when I bring up the reason for our chat—an interest in understanding more about his life as a yogi and practitioner of transcendental meditation—he does what uncles do: he teaches.
“Yoga simply means union with God or union with the self,” Simmons says, aiming to put to rest any concerns that the practice of yoga may conflict with other religious practices and beliefs. “Yoga practice is a science for sharpening the spirit. It’s a science for Christ-consciousness, you could say, as well. The yogic scriptures are 5,000 years old at least and can be found in the Yoga Sutras [of Pantanjali]. It’s a text book, a science book. I’ll get you a copy.” He pauses to make a phone call and a minute later, an assistant appears in the office with the book. He hands it to me and continues.
“It includes a study of the 8 parts of yoga. The first part, the Yama, is like the 10 Commandments for Christians, the social laws. The Niyama, the observances: cleanliness, contentment, hard work, dedication and focus, study of self, giving all of your efforts to God. Then you have the Asanas, the physical practice of yoga. Every pose, you smile and breathe. Asanas also translates as seat. All we want in life is a comfortable seat, and the physical practice of yoga is practicing comfortable seats. Through every difficult pose, you smile and breathe. There’s the Pranayama, the study of breath and life force; the Pratyahara, the withdrawal of the senses; the Dharana, for concentration; Dhyana the total absorption, which is meditation or being fully awake. The meditation’s purpose is to bring you to yoga, or to Christ-consciousness. The idea is to let everything go, to be here, now, to be fully awake. [That’s] when you see all of God’s miracles. Awakened states come when you’re fully here. Some things, like a car accident (when everything is moving real slow) or a sunset might shock you into presence, but living fully awake, this is Christ-consciousness. This is God-consciousness, if you’re not a Christian.
“Then, the eighth part is Samadhi. Samadhi is equal to Christ-consciousness, or Nirvana or Taqwa for Muslims. Every religion has a space for heaven on earth, this union with God or the self. This idea though of Samadhi, Christ-consciousness, is something Christians teach, but some Christians don’t. Jesus said ‘Ye are all gods; all these things I do, you can do, and even greater.’ This idea of being fully-enlightened is a mysticism in the last part of yoga, the idea of operating from needing nothing attracts everything.”
As a yogi, Simmons incorporates the yogic practices into every part of his life, from starting each morning with meditation, to spending his evenings getting “high,” as he says, off of the physical practice of sweating and breathing and posing. Yoga also directly infiltrates his business life, with a new yoga line, Tantris, launching in March, carrying everything from exercise clothes, to yoga mats and devotional jewelry, and a new book, Mass Mantra, which provides practitioners with one mantra, rum, for practitioners to utter to clear their minds. He explains, “As you build a brand that speaks yoga, you promote yoga. It’s a business that makes sense for me. If you’re a vegan you don’t sell steak.”
Yoga also spurs his progressive activism. He is adamant about his legacy, saying, “I don’t want it to be just that I made Def Jam Records.” Instead, he says, “I like for my kids to think I was a good philanthropist. I like the idea of taking on the prison complex and changing the drug laws. I think that’s a big ambition. I like being at the forefront of animal rights.” All of these ideas, he says, are rooted in yoga.
“Yogis are progressive in nature; they promote freedom. One of the chants that come up the most in American practice, Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu, means, “May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may my thoughts, words and actions promote that freedom and happiness.” With that chant, you know that the mass production of animals, 40 billion animals born into suffering every year is not part of that mantra. You know that the abuse of the animals and the planet and other people is not part of it. And with the deep teachings of Jesus and Mohammed and Abraham, it seems impossible that these people could produce some of the leaders who teach their religious principles the way they teach them. This is the message that’s deep-seated inside you. An enlightened being could find these truths and repeat them.”
And then, he shows me. He sits up straight in his leather quilted chair, closes his eyes, and controls his breathing, slowly moving his chest up and down. “Meditation is a way to let the noise settle and see what’s inside,” he says. “God sits inside, too, so when you let the noise go, all that’s left is God. Through the yogic practice, you get rid of the noise and bring you into the self.”
So it’s thinking about nothing? I ask. “Not thinking about nothing,” he corrects. “Thoughts come and go. Gently come back to your mantra. The mantra I gave is rum. But just sitting,” he stops, closes his eyes, and breathes again before continuing, “everything calms, the noise goes away. So you don’t think about ‘nothing,’ but the end result is that the thoughts disappear. Presence takes over. It’s like, if you were to focus when you read a book. You’re so engrossed that you forget everything and you even forget to breathe. Or you could be running and everything moves slower, you’re awake. You’re playing basketball and you get in the zone and you don’t even know how you get there. That’s a meditative state. So if you sit and say, ‘I’m not going to move,’ repeat the mantra, “rum,” and be patient. Your mind is going to go crazy, but you just sit, and if you sit, no matter what you do, your mind will eventually settle. This is the practice of meditation.”
But my mind doesn’t settle. I start to voice concerns to him that our society doesn’t value or promote these ideas of needing nothing and leading a life free of material strongholds, but, he interrupts. “It’s in every scripture: ‘Be still and know.’ So, just because people put people into ovens, just because they enslave people, just because they abuse 40 billion animals every year doesn’t mean you have to do it. You have to have your own compass… And even with the scriptures, you abide by them despite what everybody else is doing.”
But as I think about his philanthropy and activism and the many frustrations and stalemates that define the many political fights he’s involved in — voting rights and marriage equality, to name a few more — I ask if there’s a special mantra he has for dealing with stress or failure. “I don’t know that winning anything makes any difference in the amount of stress you carry — or losing. This is your own choice. You could put weight on losing and you could make yourself stressed if you wanted. You could put weight on winning and you can have just a few seconds of elation. But it goes back to the same level of happiness or unhappiness that you have in your heart. It’s your own choice how happy you are or how stressed you are.
“I have lots of failures, I guess, by public perception, but every day’s work is its own reward or failure if you want to call it [that]. Just going to work is where happiness comes from. Every experience is valuable to bring me to where I am now. I want to always try and be here, now. I’m aware that putting weight on results is not fruitful. In the Bvahad Gita, Krishna says, ‘You have control of the work alone but never the fruit.’ And he goes on to explain how the work is the prayer; the work promotes the happiness and the results are for ego’s sake.”
Lest anyone believe that Simmons has achieved this Christ-consciousness, desiring nothing and having no ego, he is quick to say, “It’s just [my] practice. I’m not enlightened. I don’t live a life where I don’t want [stuff]. But I know that [material things don’t] have any fruit and I have this idea [that happiness is internal]. I have faith in it.”
The Spiritual Life is a weekly look at various spiritual practices and practitioners. To recommend a subject, email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Brooke Obie writes the award-winning blog DistrictDiva.com. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.