Peloton's Sam Yo Opens Up About His Past as a Buddhist Monk: 'It Was a Huge Shift'
"You don't have to reinvent the wheel, you just have to turn it 'round," Sam Yo often repeats to his Peloton riders.
The mantra contrasts with the intensity of his spin instructor peers, known to use a more aggressive approach to motivate their classes. But Yo, 41, is not your typical indoor cycling instructor.
"I think with most first-generation kids, you kind of have this feeling where you're not part of either world," Yo tells PEOPLE of his upbringing in London with his Thai family. "From an early age, I always saw monks as a place to draw that cultural knowledge."
In addition to telling him stories of their childhoods in Thailand, Yo's parents took him to Thai lessons in Wimbledon, London, where he was taught by monks. At 23, he decided that the best way to connect with his heritage was to become a monk himself.
Yo, who had been working as an actor, left his role in a West End theatre production. He admits that his colleagues were confused by his decision at the time.
"As a performer, you take every job you get, because you don't know where the next one is," he recalls. But he knew the move to Thailand was the right one.
"Within a week of that, I was a monk in orange robes," Yo says. "It was a huge shift."
While he was nervous about how his parents would take his decision — "Do they think I'm wasting my life?" Yo thought to himself — he beamed when they attended his monastery inauguration in Thailand. "They cried at my ceremony because they were so proud," Yo says.
And so began Yo's new daily schedule: Wake up to the sound of the gong at 4 a.m., go to the temple for prayer and meditation, and head into the village to give offerings, merits and blessings to people in the community. "I was fascinated by how people would get up at four or five in the morning to cook you a meal, just so they can offer it to you before they go to work, just so you can bless them," says Yo.
Then it was back to the monastery for lessons in scripture, followed by chores or participating in community service.
Some of the older, more "advanced" monastery members remained silent for days at a time, but for Yo, the best parts of his time there were the deep conversations with other monks. The way they really stopped and listened seemed foreign after a life lived in Western civilization
"I think we are somewhat trapped in conversations in society where people are waiting to talk," Yo explains. "When people are [really] just listening to you, there's so much more that we can draw from each other."
Though he planned to stay in the monastery for a month or two, he ended up staying for 10, saying, "I know it sounds very cliché, but it was just so peaceful." Missing his family and feeling fulfilled by the experience, Yo moved back to London with a new outlook.
Craving the routine lifestyle from the monastery, he turned to exercise, which led him to pursue a career as a fitness instructor.
After eight years of teaching spin classes, he got a message from Peloton. He'd never heard of the company, having steered clear of social media until then, but it felt like the perfect fit. He taught his first class in November 2019.
Now, Yo is beloved by his Peloton fanbase. (Yes, fanbase. They even have their own chant: "Yes, Yo!") His monastery training helps him stand apart from the other instructors on the exercise platform.
"I've been told I'm very calm in the way I teach," he says. "There's a lot of different ways of coaching. A lot of people like the drill sergeant deal."
That's not Yo's style, but his is just as galvanizing. His riders turn to him for the nurturing, supportive atmosphere he creates, with a nugget of wisdom when it's needed and a touch of humor when it's least expected. "I always feel like I'm not here to kick your ass," he says. "I'm here to make you realize that your ass is capable of going further."
Starting Dec. 16, Peloton users can find Yo on and off the bike as he begins teaching Pilates as part of the company's expansion into other types of fitness types. Kristin McGee, Emma Lovewell, Aditi Shah, and Hannah Corbin will also instruct sessions in the 20-class collection.
Classes range from 10 to 45 minutes long, don't require equipment and are suited for everyone from beginners to advanced athletes. "It's a low impact, non-aerobic modality, which everyone can do," Yo says of the mat Pilates workouts, which will focus on strengthening and lengthening muscles and improving posture, alignment and flexibility.
Yo especially encourages spin-lovers to add the new format into their workout schedules to improve their results on the bike. "When we're cycling, if you lack the stability in the saddle and you're constantly moving over 30 minutes, you're losing all this power," he says.
As for his days in the monastery, Yo doesn't think they're completely in the past. When asked if he's thought about returning, he smiles. When he's "much older," and his family is in a "great place," the 4 a.m. bells of the gong may once again call Yo's name.
"I think the two main things were self and service: How can I do things to better honor myself and better myself, and how can I do things to service and honor people?" he says. "That is a huge thing that can fulfill you."
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