Guru Richard Simmons

Originally appeared at Recovering Yogi

What Richard Simmons Taught me about Teaching and Practicing Yoga

In this age of disgraced gurus, I would like to introduce to you one that has yet to fail me. In the misty water-colored memories of my mind, an evening is forever ingrained… I’ve arrived at the Slimmons Studio in Beverly Hills for an aerobic fitness class called “Sweat!!!” taught by the one and only Richard Simmons. Now, you may find it odd to be reading about the curly-haired, short-shorted, Swarovski-crystaled tank-top wearing proprietor of Sweatin’ to the Oldies on a yoga blog, and, well, let’s be honest – it is. However, this sweaty evening, set to a soundtrack of disco, pop, and impassioned shrieks and screams continues to inspire me. Enter Richard Simmons, the guru.

1) Have Fun and Don’t Bore People

Richard flies into the studio like a whirling dervish of sass and inspiration. As we begin the class, he asks me about who I am and what I do for a living. When I explain myself as a fledgling yoga teacher he looks slightly aggrieved and says “Yoga is boring! I took a yoga class and fell asleep!  You – don’t you bore people!” As Richard dances, mugs, and makes assortments of noises both human and animal in nature, it is clear he is anything but boring. The joy on the faces around me is further testament. I wonder now as I teach and adopt a supposedly calming “yoga voice” if I’m being legit or just on an autopilot of affectation that might as well be set to a soundtrack of gongs and whale songs. Later on as I am concentrating deeply on a biceps curl, Richard stares me right in the eyes and says “You’re not that serious.” Maybe I’m not, and maybe yoga isn’t either. Lighten up, Adam.

2) Exercise is not a dirty word

We lunge, we jump, we spin as Richard guides us, all the while singing along to Beyonce. I’m exercising and I love it. I’m flooded with childhood memories of popping in a Jane Fonda VHS, pulling my socks up to my knees and gyrating on the living room floor. Yet, in the temptations of fun exercise have I been diverted away from a more meaningful practice? I hear echoes of “I’m not an exercise teacher” or “yoga’s not just exercise” in the serious yogi part of my mind. But what if it was just exercise? Is there something wrong with strengthening the body, losing weight, and doing a crunch that isn’t “yoga crunch with consciousness of the mind and the breath” and having fun at the same time? As Richard squats down next to me and shouts desperately into my face to encourage just a few more push-ups, I have never felt more strong or inspired. Sure, yoga is more than exercise, but it also is exercise – and through that exercise, if properly pushed along, we can become greater champions of our bodies, minds, and hearts.

3) Everyone is on their own journey

The “Sweat!!!” class is filled with men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes. Some, at their present weight, can participate only from a chair in the back of the room. Some older women, well into their seventies, do most everything, albeit with a little less intensity. But no matter what version of the current exercise they are doing it is just right. I know that in yoga I may never work with unmodified classical alignment, achieve every pose in some prescribed series, or jump through. Who cares!? As long as I show up and work to my capacity, connecting with my body and mind safely, what does it matter? My yoga practice is no less advanced or serious than those who can cirque-du-soleil their bodies.

4) It’s a group practice

Suddenly we’re forming a dance circle and my friend Lauren and I are dragged into the center of it with Richard to dance to “Macho Man.” Admittedly, this is not the most macho moment of my life. As others make their way to the center, we clap, we cheer, and we give each other high fives. Instead of a room of people doing a guided self-practice, we are working together and finding strength and inspiration from each other as a group. Alright, I’m not the type to go and add a yoga dance mandala into my class, but there’s something to learn here (and it’s not just awkward partner yoga). We go to class together, and it is this mixture of people and motivations that create the dynamism and experience of the practice.

5) Speak From the Heart

After a stretch and cool-down not dissimilar from what I’m used to, we all sit down, gathered closely together. Richard tells us incredible stories of weight loss, persistence and overcoming adversity. He leaves us with the imperative to make every choice and moment count, be it choosing a healthy meal over junk food or kind words over those spoken in anger. His words are personal, authentic and simple. I realize I don’t have to quote Patanjali, recite Rumi, be an expert in philosophy, or make grand proclamations – I simply just have to be myself and communicate honestly from the heart.

Before we leave, Lauren and I pose with Richard for a photo. We make our way back to her car and scream for a solid minute with delight. Not quite om, but a fitting way to close our practice. I know you’ll never disappoint me, Richard.