International Fitness Guru Scott Sonnon Shines Light on Las Vegas
Author's note: I originally penned this article a few years ago for an online publication, but since it's a new year and the information largely relevant, I'm sharing for my refreshed blog. While figures are updated, the rest of the information was accurate as of original publication time of 2015. Lastly, I receive no fee or exchange of goods and/or services for my features so the observations and opinions are strictly my own unless otherwise noted. -sc
Ishy Ishaya took his sanskrit name years ago when he was a yoga devotee. Today, the 39 year-old chiropractic student from North Carolina is donned in workout gear as a devotee of another fitness discipline, FlowFit. He hopes to be certified in the program's inaugural certification class held in Las Vegas, a city more well-known for its endless buffets than Buddha.
The host facility, TruFusion Yoga, is also a bit of a Vegas anomaly, located in a utilitarian office park where the buildings are drab, concrete cubes. A short winding path reveals a welcoming entryway with a couple of brightly painted pub tables serving double-duty propping open the doors. This is Apple store meets Lulumon, a place where guests use iPads to sign in and browse the small retail area for a pink Kettlebell or sip on one of the organic juice options available at the bar that resembles the one at the Sands where the Rat Pack used to swig martinis.
The studio has four large rooms. A yoga class is in process as the male students wait for today's FlowFit Bodyweight System certification. They sit on a sumptuous 20 foot long bench, too preoccupied with anticipation to notice the fetching females in downward dog through the adjacent glass-wall classroom. Instead, they fidget in their seats making small talk, their excitement palpable. The collection reflects a United Nations assortment of robust 20s to 40s aged men, but no hulking Cena's. A couple sport slightly rounded tummies. Others have Neoprene-covered knees, elbows and wrists from a life of activity and the occasional injury. There are a few females attending today's class but they're already in the training room, stretching and meditating silently in the corners.
In the lobby, the students' energy escalates as the minutes slowly tick until the man of the hour is due to arrive. Who is this man for whom those lucky enough to garner a seat have traveled from all over the country and as far away as Brisbane, Australia to see? What about this professional athlete turned coach has earned him such a respected following particularly amongst the elite warriors of the world's special operations communities? Named by Men's Fitness magazine as one of the world's top fitness trainers, he recently added acclaimed author and speaker to his CV. He's the holder of numerous titles including being a world champion in the martial art of Sambo, but now he is learning how to fight in a court of law to preserve his intellectual property rights. And as much as his reputation continues its ascension, he fully admits the journey has not been easy nor has it been without detractors who take particular delight in ridiculing him for his philosophic social media musings. Despite sharing his deepest thoughts on life and his beloved family, he remains guarded, attempting to balance his followers' appetites while maintaining a modicum of privacy.
Who is this enigmatic person?
That man is Scott Sonnon.
Scott Bradley Sonnon was born in Hershey, Pennsylvania in 1969. The son of a Korean War veteran who used his military skills in the private sector after he left active duty, and the state's first female steelworker, Scott was introduced to hard work from an early age.
His early years were modest and fraught with strife, much of it borne from his father's struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder even if that term wasn't used in those days. It would a condition that would eventually claim his father's life in the form of stress-related heart disease.
Scott suffered from a rare vision disorder that rendered him legally blind, plus he was overweight thanks to osteochondrosis joint issues. If that wasn't enough for the shy kid to deal with, his learning style didn't comply with the rote convenience of the school system and so he was labeled “retarded.” Ironic since Sonnon is now a respected member of Mensa (high IQ society) and his chiseled physique would make Adonis envious.
The family struggled financially so Scott pitched in from a very early age and estimates he had more than 52 jobs before he went to university. Though teachers couldn't see it at the time, his mind synthesized systems easily and he wrote his first computer program at 13 years, long before computers were commonplace in school. Odd jobs included roofing and selling time-share properties, anything to assist his mother who herself had two full-time jobs. She was his greatest champion and he wanted to make her proud.
Scott's formative years forged a man whose vulnerabilities added to his mettle. A man who possesses a mesmerizing energy, yet shows fleeting moments of reflective grief that he quickly intellectualizes and assigns the resultant emotion to learning. From the mines of pain, Scott excavates the precious elements of wisdom that contribute to the community that is RMAX. In doing so it fuels a growing fitness powerhouse.
When Sonnon arrives, it's right on time and with no fanfare or entourage. Slung over his left shoulder is a large, canvas bag as he purposefully strides into the mens dressing room. He wears dark aviator-style sunglasses that seem slightly out of place with the plain t-shirt and camo surfer board shorts.
The participants notice and in quick succession do a sort of Paul Revere-style head nod alerting others that the coach has arrived. A couple jump up and grab their gear, some discard their sweatshirts to reveal toned Under Armour clad torsos while others wait for a chance to catch the coach on his way out.
Minutes later Sonnon emerges from the dressing room. He's met with a half-dozen students who enthusiastically greet him. Sonnon responds in kind with a warm if not slightly subdued smile together with a firm handshake or hug. The informal receiving line follows as we make our way into the primary training room, a large air-conditioned space with full-length mirrors on two walls and a series of windows on the opposite. It's practical without being cavernous. The overhead structural beams are painted sunset colors of red, orange and yellow, and TRX Suspension Training nylons hang together in the corner to avail as much space as possible. The stained concrete floors are cool to those who are barefoot, a habit encouraged by FlowFit principles to build connection with the environment.
FlowFit is the third aspect or “ring” of Sonnon's Circular Strength Training Systems (CST), a series of professional coaching development programs intended to achieve optimal, natural movement functionality and strength. It's not just about being able to achieve a particular milestone weight or endurance threshold as much as it is about training to weakness and recovering with greater efficiency. These are the hallmarks of true fitness and this basic approach differentiates CST from other fitness programs. Some even claim its superior.
FlowFit's efficacy comes from its mobility drills, myofascial spiraling, strength activation drills, breathing routines and much more. The research put into Sonnon's programs have earned him the respect of academics as well as colleagues.
Fitness is big business. Not only are we bombarded by marketing and social influencers reminding us our lats are limp, we need to go keto, or buy the shakes, our very own friends and family often do the same. There are hundreds of exercise facilities, programs and equipment products today represented in the U.S. estimated annual health club industry expenditure of $87.2 billion.
Sonnon's competitive advantage is his understanding of how the body works, moves and behaviorally responds to emotional triggers. He considers himself a human optimization performance scientist. He's taken his knowledge and made adaptations to his many programs, which includes FlowFit--a series of sequential movement patterns that allow for age or physical limitations such as chronic conditions or missing limbs. While he endorses fitness equipment such as his modern-day version of the Indian club called a Clubbell, his conditioning foundation is little more than a return to how our bodies were biologically born to move: natural, intuitive, complete, strong.
The genesis of Sonnon's approach, and consequently tools, began upon his realization of his own kinesthetic learning style. Integrating the mind and body without the use of supplemental weight is Sonnon's preferred tool.
Students eagerly line up at the table in the back to receive a certification packet and bright, blue shirt emblazoned with the FlowFit logo. Class starts when the students take the cue from the coach standing at the front and quiet falls. There is no schtick or formal introduction as much as a conversational greeting that one might give to an intimate. Students are rapt.
Sonnon introduces his training assistants, all of them personal trainers in their own rights and who are certified and licensed to provide his programs. One chap is from Australia, another Costa Rica. All are part of the RMAX family having been vetted by Sonnon himself, which is no easy feat. He expects unwavering allegiance to the code of conduct that ensures referrals made to these professionals are well-placed. There's a lot at-stake. Those who become part of “the legion” stand to benefit more than financially.
RMAX is the corporation owned by Sonnon and business partner, Nikolay Travkin, a union that started nearly 20 years ago. Travkin is the hands-on CEO finding himself manning the table for today's event in between taking photos and updating social media. Sonnon the COO.
Travkin is congenial but quiet, efficient and engaged. When he's teased about his DVD merchandising, he wryly retorts with a laugh. Make no mistake, however, Travkin and Sonnon are serious about business. Their empire has not only amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, but diversified products sufficient to penetrate into the world of big-fitness. When European issue's of Men's Health magazine named Sonnon's TACFIT (a contraction of tactical fitness) program the ultimate home workout, a global fitness equipment behemoth came out with their version of Tacfit. RMAX's promptly issued a cease and desist. Sonnon grins and remarks that that's when you know you you've made it, but he of all people knows that you really never make it. Work to your weaknesses and not to your strengths is one of his driving mottos as he continues to re-invent RMAX and himself.
One crappy day, Las Vegan and ballroom dancer, Eddie Guerra, scrolled a web post that caught his eye. He doesn't recall details other than it was inspirational and something to the effect of having a six-pack won't make you beautiful because beauty is a given. The post was written by Scott Sonnon, a man Guerro hadn't heard of until he read that post.
“I had no idea he was a fitness guru,” says Guerro, a professional ballroom dancer and fitness professional. “It was an eye opener because most attitudes in the fitness industry are about the visual impact of the body, achieving that at all costs, whereas this was a deconstruction of that pain and gain paradigm. After that, I started to research his philosophy behind fitness, his programs and I was hooked.”
Inspired, Guerro travelled to Washington state shortly thereafter to become certified. He now has his TACFIT field level 1 certification and his FlowFit level 1 certification. “It [class] was full of so much information and brilliant insights of how the body worked, biomechanics, coaching psychology, etc., that I was determined to bring a certification to Las Vegas and Trufusion Yoga offered to host it,” Guerro says. He recognizes the importance of exposing individuals in Las Vegas to a new fitness paradigm that puts health and wellness as a priority, rather than merely a means to achieve a body that looks good, but is riddled with injuries.
Southern Nevada's primary gaming and entertainment industries sell us what is really of value: youth and beauty. Las Vegas is not only home to professional athletes from hockey to baseball to UFC fighters and very soon, NFL players, but to cocktail waitresses who are “interviewed” according to their waist size and not by their customer service ability.
Sarah Hartley* a 26 year-old cocktail waitress at one of the Strip's ultra-lounges recently had to re-apply for her job. The interview consisted of a full-length mirror, studio light and a measuring tape. Even at 5'8” and a slim and trim 120 lbs, she wasn't asked to return to her job.
Couple Hartley's experience with a higher per-capita rate of cosmetic surgery procedures, and you have the recipe for a looks-at-all-costs philosophy even if it's anathema to real health and fitness.
“This was something that I knew Las Vegas was in desperate need of and understanding that culture like anything else, can be reshaped, but first you must have an experience of something new, a game changer and Scott's programs are that,” says Guerro.
Guerro half-heartedly says TACFIT has made him smarter, but he's serious about its life-giving versus life draining aspects. He notes, “In reality we have to release our stress, learn how to combat it effectively, and increase our output of life by investing in ourselves in a new way, honoring our body, being compassionate with ourselves and having sincerity in our movement, the second thing is you have to experience it for yourself and believe in your intuition. In other words it can't be explained.”
Today's arduous course goes over movement fundamentals and student sensibilities. Sonnon is a perpetual student given his own learning experiences. His recent book, A Mountain Stands: Confessions of a Suppressed Genius, comes on the heels of his first TEDx talk. Though he found it nerve-wracking, the audience was mesmerized and it opened up speaking engagements for advocacy and a new online audience. The event's video went viral propelling his book in its wake, which is an homage to the issue of learning differences and Sonnon's personal and painful journey dealing with dyslexia, a condition that affects many creatives including Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein. Fashion designer Donna Karan, herself dyslexic, is said to have read the book since it is written in a format suitable for people with and without the condition.
The room is now laden with moisture despite TruFusion's high-tech circulation system. Ishaya and Guerro, like the rest of the students are wringing wet by the first hour's evolutions. Tomorrow will be even more daunting.
Sonnon is generous in his exchange of knowledge and humanity. He estimates only 60 percent will pass today's inaugural FlowFit course, but students have three months to correct deficiencies and re-test via Skype. He defers to his instructors for the small group teaching. He credits his team as a driving force in RMAX's success. There is a caution: Sonnon isn't easily impressed and isn't afraid to lead or challenge the status quo. He doesn't make a move without assessing the situation whether he's given 10 seconds or 10 months.
Sonnon is magnanimous, but not weak. He knows iron sharpens iron and the Legion use each other as whetstones with Sonnon at the apex. He takes a moment to demonstrate the proper form for the Roll and Sway move. It seems simple according to the companion booklet and Sonnon's execution makes it look easy, but then again Baryshnikov made his jumps look easy, too. Students stumble at their initial attempts including cocktail server Hartley.
Breath is foundational to FlowFit and Sonnon has exhaustively researched breath's role on heart function and its corollary to fitness in relation to progress, execution and recovery. It doesn't appear there is anything Sonnon does without intensity because even his afternoon lunch at the nearby health food cafe is planned.
Exceedingly focused, there are thoughtful pauses between questions. I imagine him composing his thoughts for online posts with the same deliberation and then I wonder if it's a consequence of his learning style and his mastery of compensation techniques? He wants neither misunderstanding nor misrepresentation which can make for a challenge since there's so much to ask and he has so little time. Still, he is gracious and accommodating, even apologizing when we're interrupted by a student's pressing question.
He's conducted thousands of interviews so his metered vocal cadence is a bit surprising too, but I come to realize he's simply distilling a response that is understandable to non-industry sorts. Just as I come to expect another methodical response, his mercurial mind delivers a refreshing blast of insight that is as welcome as opening the door to this now sweltering sauna.
And we laugh. In fact, we laugh a lot.
His shorn scalp and angled features give him a rather austere impression, but when he finds something humorous his face softens with childlike zeal and his grin elevates his vivid, blue eyes.
There isn't much time left before the end of the eight-hour day and Sonnon's being pulled by Travkin and Guerro for a schedule update. The exhausted students are sitting in various states of repose cooling their flushed frames under whirling ceiling fans. Sonnon returns to wrap up our chat with the challenges presented from being an “overnight success,” an inaccurate but amusing impression to the RMAX founders.
The increasing national and international prominence has resulted in many acknowledgements including Black Belt magazine naming him one of the most influential martial arts of the 21st century, and being runner-up to hundreds of men in Men's Health magazine's Most Fit contest. The winner was a well-deserving military veteran and triple amputee and Sonnon whole-heartedly supported this selection even before it was finalized.
These accolades along with his worldwide presence as a world-champion martial artist, inventor, entrepreneur and Hall of Fame trainer have garnered him both disciples and detractors. Ironically, some of the latter are bullies he grew up with who remember the awkward youth.
A web search reveals criticism from other fitness pros who seem to disagree based more on philosophy than physicality. One well-read fitness blogger reviewed the TACFIT program as being flawed, taking issue with the spiritual element and over-zealous marketing. Sonnon responded by sending him the TACFIT program to try. While it didn't dissuade the blogger from his original opinion, he was struck by the “unusual integrity” of RMAX's chief. Even those who dismiss Sonnon can't help but keep him relevant. Sonnon's sees criticism as opportunity for reflection but isn't overly concerned by the capriciousness of modern day celebrity—he focuses on driving further according to his guiding light.
What's next on the horizon? Sonnon won't say beyond it being much bigger even as I half-heartedly bribe him. He just grins, gives me an appreciative hug and disappears with his Legion.
With a world-stage at his feet, it remains elusive why Scott Sonnon chose Las Vegas for his inaugural FlowFit certification. The program's evolved spiritual, functional and even academic elements seem a bit out of place. As I merge onto the freeway overlooking dusk's emerging reflection of Las Vegas's glittering landscape, it finally occurs to me. Where else to express or exemplify the tenets of progress, reinvention, or bucking the status quo than the city founded on second chances—Las Vegas. And while Scott Sonnon and RMAX might not embrace the industries that typify the town, everyone, including him can always benefit by a little luck.