Rupa Mehta is a top fitness instructor who blends the traditional Eastern ways of her family with the modern methods of today’s New York. But she does more than run a workout studio -- she’s trying to improve people’s health, especially young people, with an approach for body and mind. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One on 1" report.
If you're going to interview one of the top fitness gurus in New York, you can't skip the workout.
Rupa Mehta is a force of nature. Though she may be small, Vogue Magazine called her a pint size guru.
She's created a rather large and passionate following at her Upper West Side studio and beyond.
Her workout is called the Nalini method, named after her mother, probably in part because of a comment her mother made years ago that inspired Mehta to make her workouts more inclusive.
"When I first moved to New York, I remember when she came here and saw the studio classes and stuff, she’d be like 'Why are people so stressed out about their bodies? Like, they all look so beautiful,'" Mehta says. "She’s like, 'I’m heavier than all of them and I love my body.'"
"I want to be able to have a class that so many different body shape and sizes could come to and so I think in order to do that you have to make it more personal, less intimidating," she says.
In other words, a "Cheers" of workout classes -- where everybody knows your name.
Mehta's public profile is on the rise. She's been written up in Marie Claire and The New York Times and has spoken at Google.
"Staying true to who you are and your values and somehow gathering enough patience and desire to get other people to understand you, get other businesses to understand you is incredibly priceless," she told a group at Google.
She's even chronicled her career in a home video on her website.
But what separates this young entrepreneur from so many others teaching fitness classes all around New York?
The answer can be found a long subway ride away from her Upper West Side home, in Brooklyn.
Each week, Mehta travels to M.S. 354 in Crown Heights to teach a class about good physical and emotional fitness, connecting the mind, the body and the heart.
"The mind is captured by us going over the book club. The body is captured by the class," she says. "The heart, this culminates in them doing some type of service initiative on their own."
Her mantra is that good physical fitness leads to emotional fitness and improved classroom behavior and performance.
She's set up a nonprofit, Nalini Kids, in partnership with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the volunteer program NYC Service.
Her work in schools is the subject of a study at Columbia University and in March she attended the Childhood Obesity Summit in Washington keynoted by Michelle Obama.
Much of what she teaches -- the power of words, the language of emotions, not just physical but emotional obesity -- was initially met with skepticism by the students.
"It's a lot of chaos, they do not understand breathing, they don't want to quiet their mind. I don't know if I want to talk about my feelings," she says. "Now they're different. Want to share, raise their hands, making eye contact, these are all great things."
Mehta says keeping children on track can be difficult when they face hardships away from school.
"I'll see a kid for five weeks, doing great, all of a sudden family becomes homeless, go to a homeless shelter, they move away," she says. "Some of the things that they open up about, why they feel that they don't have the tools to be emotionally strong, is heartbreaking."
But Mehta says she sees changes in her students every week.
"This is an age where they are so reactive. Everything, reaction. I have a crush on a boy, someone doesn't like me, the teacher -- everything, reaction," she says. "If they can quiet their mind, calm down and say, 'I can make different choices in this space,' they may not always be right, but the fact that they have a choice is huge."
To hear Mehta talk about her work with students makes it sound like a spiritual quest, and in a sense it is.
She prays each day in the area of a small shrine in her home. She describes her book, "Connect To Your One," as a love letter and thank you letter to her parents.
Growing up in Virginia, she understood the connection between physical and emotional fitness.
"I grew up in a very spiritual home, Indian parents, Hindu parents, prayed every day," Mehta says. "My dad does a lot of yoga. I have uncles that are yoga teachers."
"What was stressed at my house was that you are the driver of your life that you control your happiness."
For example, one of her first jobs in New York was at People magazine. Because of her size, everyone thought she was the intern.
So Mehta had business cards made that said, "Rupa Mehta, not the intern."
"If you're having problem defining yourself to people, you know, through the generic way," she says. "You gotta kind of invent your own way."
She came here to go to New York University, undergraduate and then business school, and started taking and teaching the occasional fitness class.
She helped pay for the first business through the sale of her paintings.
"I knew I had to come up with a hobby and come up with a hobby fast," she says. "So I decided while i'm unemployed, I might as well paint."
Mehta initially handed out cards on the street. She was the teacher, marketer and receptionist.
She amassed a sizable following and partnered with Equinox.
It didn't work out.
"That was my dream, I mean my dream," she says. "I had this small business, I partnered with one of the biggest largest fitness players. It was very exciting, but it just, it wasn’t for me."
Mehta is back to building her brand client by client.
Now her dream is to expand Nalini Kids, her school program that started in Brooklyn, to classrooms around the country.
"My dream is liken how 'To Kill A Mockingbird' is taught in schools -- I would love this to be like required reading," she says. "You're taught math, you're taught science, but a language around your emotions. What does anger look like, what does happiness look like? Tying that into this English curriculum, where they're reading a book, eventually writing a memoir, learning vocabulary -- this is huge."