Russell Simmons, L.A.’s High-Flying “Yoga King,” Falls from Grace

Russell Simmons, L.A.’s High-Flying “Yoga King,” Falls from Grace

Hip-hop's legendary impresario turned to yoga and meditation as he stalked and preyed on co-workers and starlets for decades.

Some of the cases border on the bizarre.  In 1991, Simmons seems to have charmed a woman to join him in his bath tub, despite her having refused to have sex with him.  To this day she has only a hazy memory of how she ended up there, and wonders if she was drugged. Simmons, next to her in the bath, was “positively giddy,” she recalls.  Horrified, she fled.

In the past, Simmons has never really denied his predilection to view women as “meat.” He’s a hip-hopper after all. “Bitches and hoes” are part of this movement’s public lexicon, and sex with under-aged women is tolerated if not encouraged (though, to be fair more than a few white rockers, including pop idol David Bowie, have been guilty of the same).

He’s also not the first hip-hop mogul to find himself in trouble.

R. Kelly notoriously bedded down a slew of often willing teenagers. But the Simmons persona has always been softer and gentler.  Since discovering yoga, he’s claimed to have become an “enlightened” man, a follower of an ancient and sacred spiritual practice that famously pledges to “do no harm.”

By all accounts, Simmons is a practicing vegan and has been a big booster of the animal rights group PETA.  He even won an award from the group for his outspoken criticism of ritual slaughter around the globe.  In 2015 he also won Variety magazine’s Philanthropist of the Year Award.  Oprah gave him a ringing endorsement.  Simmons claims to have turned the talk show host on to her first yoga teacher.

By Hollywood’s insubstantial standards, the former gang-banger has seemed, to many, like the “real thing.”

Simmons has opened his wallet to support the yoga movement. One of his favorite causes is yoga and meditation (especially TM) in the public schools.  Hollywood director David Lynch first championed the movement which Simmons says he backs wholeheartedly.  But in 2015, Simmons, who leans Republican, also caused a stir when he announced that he would fund his own yoga-in-the-schools movement in Chicago to combat street violence.

It was a move calculated to embarrass President Obama and Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel, the city’s mayor for the past 7 years.  But it turned out to an act of showmanship.

Still, for American yogis, Simmons’ highly publicized embrace of their cause has been a godsend.  While claiming more than 20 million adherents, the yoga industry has struggled for years to shed its reputation for spiritual eccentricity and frivolity and to become more widely accepted as a mainstream — and effective — “wellness” practice.  Mass marketing has helped; so has the presence of big-name personalities like Simmons.

Simmons had mega-star status and cross-over potential far greater than that of Hollywood actresses and celebrity yogis like Jennifer Aniston or Uma Thurman.  He promised to bring yoga and the music industry together.  He also seemed like the perfect vehicle for establishing yoga’s “street cred” with African-Americans, a neglected demographic stepped in Christianity.

Simmons has clearly benefited from the flattering and uncritical attention he’s received from leading yoga industry promoters on social media.  They include Waylon Lewis, publisher of the online magazine Elephant Journal, and Yoga Dork, an influential blog site edited by Manhattan yoga instructor Jennifer Carlson (with a circulation estimated at 100,000, compared to 50,000 for Elephant Journal).  The two web sites have celebrated Simmons as a genuine “guru,” breathlessly reporting on his every move, and eagerly spreading the “buzz” about his ventures.

Last January, Lewis held a an hour-long interview with Simmons just two months after the first woman came forward to accuse the Def Com founder of trying to force her to perform oral sex.   If there was any hint of controversy around Simmons – some lingering sense that all might not be well – you would never have known it, despite a spate of published media reports at the time.

Simmons was nervous and rambling throughout.  He seemed anxious to use the interview opportunity to burnish his name – and to ingratiate himself with Yoga World.  In a manner of minutes he dropped every prominent yoga name and Hindu theological concept he could think of, obviously eager to portray himself – and his new yoga enterprise, known as Tantris – as an expression of his own highly evolved being.  Lewis barely got a word in.

It was a revealing display of shameless self-promotion, and an embarrassing one.  Early on Simmons bragged that he’d recently attempted to purchase the rights to “Atman” – a Hindu word that means “higher consciousness” – with which he hoped to brand a future enterprise. (Even Lewis, no stranger to opportunism, seemed aghast).  But to Simmons’ dismay and chagrin, commercial appropriation of a sacred religious concept was deemed out of bounds.

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