“I was used to standing out, from a very young age,” says Nichelle Hines. Born and raised in San Francisco, where she was one of five black students in a graduating high school class of 340, Hines recalls her diverse upbringing with fondness. Today, as one of the most beloved instructors at Los Angeles’ highly sought after Cycle House, and a part-time actor, Hines continues to stand out. Bold and enthusiastic, Hines attracts fitness enthusiasts, professionals, and celebrities alike. Hines’ classes have an entirely different timbre than other boutique fitness classes of similar acclaim. Hines commands her room of riders, packed in bike-to-bike—an enthralling mélange of ethnicities, fitness levels, body types, and style.
She moves about the room pronouncing Jay-Z lyrics with gusto, and calls out individual riders with verve—moving them to work harder, and give more. The feeling post-Nichelle is more than a typical exercise-induced euphoria; it’s also one of communal excitement. Hines toes the line between warm and intense in her pedagogical style, undoubtedly polished by her refined acting technique from her early years at graduate school at NYU. A young talent, Hines continues to act today, honing her art, but not placing too much weight on what she considers a craft that’s never been the perfect fit for her path.
Here, the charismatic powerhouse shares some details about her personal journey, practice, rituals, and her feelings on the power of gratitude.
I know that you went to Catholic school growing up. How did that study shape your life and beliefs?
I’m not a Catholic now, and I wasn’t really a Catholic growing up, but I have very fond recollections of the rituals of Catholicism. I have a lot of respect for the religion, culture, and its rich and interesting history. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to understand what’s really going on in the politics of the religion—and it’s pretty scary and intense—but I think the ritual was really good for me as a child who was wild and loud. It gave me structure and discipline, and at the time, I saw the innocent side of it.
As a result, I gained respect for every religion. I feel like we’re all talking about the same thing, we just go about it in different ways. I always have considered myself to be more spiritual than anything else. Because I didn’t grow up with too much pressure, I was able to gain a healthy respect for whatever path someone chooses.
When you say that you consider yourself spiritual, what exactly do you mean? How does that manifest in your day-to-day life?
I end every single class I teach with a spiritual thought. I focus on trying to be as fully present as I can. Trying to take time to meditate, because I have a wild brain, as I like to say. I try. I would not consider myself a gold star meditator, but I would consider myself an “A for effort” meditator. I do try a lot. I try to try every single day. I have moments were I feel like I can’t—that’s when you have to the most.
So when I say I consider myself spiritual, I mean that I try to attack every situation from a perspective of empathy. I think that’s spiritual. For me spirituality is trying to be as connected as possible to other people in the room I’m in, and sensitive to their energy, so that I can respond accordingly while fully being myself and present.
How did you start meditating, and do you practice one particular kind?
I don’t do a type. When I was in acting school we had a teacher who’d often get asked what type of acting he taught. He’d say, “I just try to teach people how to be.” For me with meditation I just try to shut up. Sometimes I use tapes and words. I really like the Oprah- Deepak combo where they have different intentions. Sometimes I need words. Other times I just try and sit there and shut off my brain. I’ve got a mantra, a meditation teacher, and I resonate with sounds. A lot of times for me, I just sit down and picture everything in my life simply floating away. The sound helps for me a lot. Or I’ll pick a word and sort of inhale and exhale that word. So it’s whatever I need in that moment.
When did you start acting?
After graduating from UC Berkeley, I realized I wanted to be an actor. My dad told me which were the best schools for acting, and so I just started by calling up Yale. When they found out I was 21, they told me their average entrance student is 27. I thought, “Well, okay, but you’ve never met me!” But at the time, I thought they were so ageist, that I just didn’t apply. I auditioned for NYU and ACT. It’s 2,000 people auditioning for 16 spots. A lot of times in my life, things would happen to me because I’ve been too stupid to be afraid, as I like to say. I just jump. I was lucky enough to get in to NYU. We were in school for 16 hours a day, six days a week for three years. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
When you were in acting school, did you have a fitness or meditation practice?
Though I grew up athletic and healthy, I actually had gained a ton of weight in college, and when I started acting school I was about 200 pounds. And at the time, I was so busy, I didn’t have time to do anything about it. It sort of all turned around I got cast in a role where I’d have to wear a bikini on stage. That’s when I rediscovered fitness again. I lost 40 pounds in four months; it was crazy.
Then, of course, as soon as I was done, I gained 20 pounds back, and then I started finding my niche and I just fell in love with it again. I’m so naturally competitive and goal-oriented that at first it was really hard for me to take the pressure off of fitness. I still work to let that go, and just enjoy. It’s for my spirit, not for winning.
So how did you become a fitness instructor?
A complete and total accident! Once I moved to LA, I was exercising at Crunch Gym. After about four years of being a regular there, I was in class one day, waiting for it to start and the manager of the gym ran in ran up to me and said, “Nichelle, Todd’s not here, can you teach this class right now?” I said, “What?! I’m just a student.” He looked at me and said, “Nichelle, I need someone to teach the class.” That’s how I became a fitness instructor.
Wow! Were you scared?
Yet again, too stupid to be scared! I just jumped in. It fit like a glove. I was longing for something a little more interactive. I was working as an actress, but I wasn’t cast as the lead in anything, and so I always felt like my energy was being wasted a little bit.
The whole film and TV thing, to me, felt like, “Hurry up and wait.” I just felt like I had more to give than a few lines on this show, or a tiny little arc on this show. It wasn’t even about wanting to be the lead or anything, it just didn’t fulfill me. I still love acting very much, but now I know it’s not the only thing for me.
In life, opportunities arise and you either say yes or you say no. Then whatever happens, happens. So I just said yes. It completely changed my life for the better. I felt better. That’s when I started meditating, when I started doing all the things that made me feel more myself than ever before. And now, my job involves watching people change and get stronger, and get better…how great is that! That you can be a part of someone’s evolution and just be that helping hand. Especially in a town like LA, people need that.
When you’re teaching, what’s happening in your mind and in your body? You are clearly channeling something really profound. What’s happening for you? How does it inspire you?
Oh my God, it fills me up. It’s a delicate balance because there’s so much energy coming and going. For me it’s so focused on the class, and every class is so different. I change songs in the middle of class. That doesn’t work, they need this. I feel like that’s sort of my meditation practice coming into action. I’m fully present so I can help my class be too.
And there are 8,000 things going on and nothing at the same time. It’s really a very cool feeling. Once you’re really comfortable with the physical aspect and what needs to be done, that becomes background noise. It feels like a drum circle of sorts. We all vibe off each other! Weird things happen! Curve balls constantly.
It’s such an experience. I get to meditate every single day, in there, with all these people. There’s such transference of energy, and in order for that to happen, I have to give up all expectation, and empty out my thoughts. I’m simply there.
Do you have a mentor or a teacher?
I don’t, not in the typical sense. I think the great thing my parents just sort of let me be. They realized very early on, I was a little different. They were okay with that. They’re business people from San Francisco, but when I wanted to go acting school they said, “Okay. Figure out how to pay for it.” It was never a “no.” They let me explore, and that was really cool. They were supportive of me when I went to school. I think there’s something to be said for really just letting people do what they need to do for them, whether or not it’s necessarily the right thing.
In acting school, my teacher was the great Ron Van Lieu. He taught us to strip all the other stuff away. Like I said, it wasn’t a type of acting, it was just peel everything else away and then see what’s left. What’s real. Learn how to be authentic. What I did have growing up was a lot of fear of being me. I was always afraid I was too much, or too loud, or too large, or too black, or too this. I knew that the kind of energy that I posses can overwhelm people, then I realized I just had to find the right people. We all do.
Have you had any breakthrough moments in your teaching, any “ah-ha” moments, or something’s shifted over time?
When I first started teaching, I just taught by the numbers. Then, at a certain point, I realized that I could feel people’s energy. I knew when to push them. To tell them they could go faster. Actually saying something and calling my students to the carpet on it was a huge breakthrough.
It was hard at first because people are sensitive. No matter what you do, people are going to be offended or not be offended. As a teacher I try to be sensitive, but I also push the boundary. It’s about me saying, “I see potential in you, and we’re going to work on that.”
And then the breakthrough became: If they’re not into what I have to offer, that’s okay, they can go to another teacher. They can go somewhere else but what they’re going to get from me is challenge. And that’s the joy of it all.
It’s not up to me to decide whether or not they can handle it, it’s up to me to simply deliver the message. My intention is never to hurt feelings. It’s always just to tell to tell my students, “This is what I see, and this is a perspective of someone who cares.” What happens in this room is sacred to me. It’s important to me. It’s not going be just another workout.
If somebody only had five minutes a day to do something for wellness, for health, for fitness, for meditation, anything, what would the first thing be?
Take five deep breaths, and get centered. Before you do anything, especially if you only have five minutes. Don’t worry about trying so hard all the time, just worry about how you really feel. Work on your stability before you do anything else. If you’re here and you’re grounded and you’re present, life won’t pass you by.
Photos by Chloe Crespi