Peloton’s Alex Toussaint Didn’t Realize He Was at Rock BottomPlus, the last time he cried.
I don’t want to generalize (OK, maybe I do), but anyone—literally anyone—who takes Alex Toussaint’s Peloton classes knows that mental health is his jam. He’s there to help you do a great workout on the bike, sure. But the vibe is more about inspiring you to push through difficult moments and feel all of your feels.
Toussaint’s journey to becoming one of Peloton’s biggest mental health champions in 2016 wasn’t linear. There were grueling years in military school, a strained relationship with his dad, and moments of depression. “But all of that failure, that pain, that darkness, is useful if we make it so. It can become our superpower. I want to tell you the story of how I made it become mine,” Toussaint writes in his new book, Activate Your Greatness.
Here, Toussaint talks more about overcoming rough times, embracing his emotions, and changing his mental health for the better through fitness. “I never realized how much joy, how much light, I was going to receive from moving pedal strokes that went absolutely nowhere,” he tells Wondermind. “But mentally and emotionally and spiritually, my mind went somewhere.”
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WM: How are you doing lately?
Alex Toussaint: I'm amazing right now. I took time this weekend to let my body and my mind align. A lot of positive things in life are happening right now travel-wise, career-wise, and personally, so I'm just taking time to make sure I'm still present with myself. So as of today, I'm aligned and I feel great. Thank you for asking.
WM: What is one aspect of your mental health that’s still a work in progress?
AT: I'm still learning how to disconnect to reconnect. I truly love the grind and love what I do for work, which is not really work—it's life for me. So I get caught in the hustle from time to time, where I need to just make sure I disconnect myself from it. [I need to make sure] I put myself on the sidelines and just mentally recover and physically recover before life puts me on the sidelines. So just taking the proper recovery is something I'm still working on and will always continue to work on.
Because my life is so camera-facing and social media-oriented and based in human interaction, simply just being at my house by myself [is how I disconnect]. If I can't get away to the nearest beach, I try to create an environment where I feel safe, where I disconnect unapologetically and feel present with myself. So I sit at home and isolate, in a healthy way, in my place of comfort, my place of love, and make sure that my cup isn't just full, that it's overflowing. What I do on a daily basis [means I have] to overflow into other people's lives.
[At home, I do] anything from cuddling with my dogs to watching Law & Order by myself. I'm also very big on sitting in silence. I love sitting in my backyard and just taking the opportunity to be connected with Mother Nature, especially walking in the grass. My house is surrounded by trees, so I have the ability to walk into the backyard and completely disconnect from technology, social media, the teaching of classes, and interacting with people and be present with myself.
WM: You talk about depression in your book. Do you remember the first time you felt depressed?
AT: I didn't realize I was living in depression until I got to the fitness industry. I felt that I was in a dark space, but I didn't understand what depression was. I didn't have any information or the resources to even identify what depression could feel like nor seem like. I felt like I saw other people go through way worse levels of depression. So, for me, I wasn't able to identify it, but, over time, when I was able to start moving my body, moving my mind, when I got into the fitness industry, it started to help me understand mentally that I was in such a dark space.
It took me until 21 years old to realize I was going through depression, and I think there's a lot of people out there who feel that same way and may not even realize it and think, This is how life is. … I never told myself I was depressed. I was sad and didn't know it was full-on depression.
I've been in therapy since I was 4 or 5 due to family trauma. But I never understood that I was depressed. Nobody ever told me I was depressed. I never knew I was living at rock bottom until I started making my climb back up. Then, I was able to identify where I never wanted to go back to.
WM: Did anything help you deal with those feelings even if you didn’t know that’s what was going on?
AT: Fitness. That's why I preach how I preach, and that's why I'm so happy to do what I do for the last 11 years of my life. Moving pedal strokes has allowed me to move my mind, move my body, move my spirit. They say you attract what you are. Ever since I started in fitness and moving my body, I started to become way more of a light in my own personal life, which allowed me to track the light for others and be a light for others. So that was definitely that turning point, without question.
I try to remind everybody in my classes that I don't teach for their body, I teach for their mind. If I can train this, the body will follow. [If you’re] confident up here and think different up here, you'll open up new opportunities for yourself and find a new version of yourself along that journey. … That's what we're trying to preach every single day.
WM: Are you still in therapy?
AT: I'm still in it because, now, it allows me to process my thoughts and also just be able to vent. Thankfully, I have a job that does feel like therapy. I'm able to get on a bike, truly be myself, and express myself whether I'm in a good mood or bad mood. My therapist allows me to connect the dots and the missing pieces when I'm not able to.
I’ve been in therapy on and off for 25 years of my life, and as my circumstances changed, so did my therapists. I moved. I went through different versions of who I was as a person. I would say find somebody that you're comfortable with but also makes you think different. Don't get too comfortable.
WM: You sometimes get emotional during the classes you teach. If you’re comfortable answering, when was the last time you cried?
AT: Literally two days ago [laughs]. Two days ago in a crowd full of Peloton people at an event. My mother surprised me out of nowhere. My coworker, who was leading the panel, asked me when the last time I saw my mom was, and, in that moment, I was like, “I forgot to call my mom back this week, and I’ll probably see her in a couple of weeks,” and then she surprised me at my event. So I bawled in front of 110 people. … Tears of joy, period.
WM: You say in the book that vulnerability is a taboo subject, especially for Black men. What has being vulnerable taught you about yourself?
AT: Vulnerability is ultimately my strength. I wish it was a lot more acceptable in our communities. So what I'm trying to teach within my classes at Peloton, being the first Black instructor and being able to have this platform, is to let other people who look like me know that your vulnerability is your strength, and once you tap into that, you find a new version of yourself and you become a lot more confident and sure of who you are.
You become way more stable from a mental and emotional standpoint once you tap into understanding vulnerability is not a weakness. But our culture and our community has been taught not to cry, to toughen up. I've learned who I am through vulnerability, through movement, so I'm trying to help other people find themselves and the best version of themselves through that process.
WM: Do you think your family has gotten more vulnerable since you have?
AT: They had no choice [laughs]. I'm the baby of the family, so if the baby is vulnerable and has that ability, it kind of shocks everybody, and I have to break through that core. It's so beautiful to see everybody go through their own process of vulnerability because everybody becomes stronger at the end of the day.
WM: A big theme in the book is your strained relationship with your dad. Have you seen that vulnerability in him?
AT: I think he's gone through his own process of healing, and I've gone through my own, and I keep telling myself that it's such a beautiful thing of bridging this gap of love, peace, and grace. When you find internal peace for yourself, it allows you to find peace for others … allows you to build that bridge. My dad’s going through his own evolution, and I'm going through mine. We've kind of met each other halfway along this journey, and now we have a clear runway of love without any level of resistance because of that vulnerability.
Hats off to him. I know it's way harder for him to go through that process than it is for me because that older generation hasn't had those resources and tools to break through that shell. … Now I'm able to share my story with the world in an organic way due to the fact that me and my dad have this healthy relationship. It’s a beautiful thing.
WM: Gratitude is another subject that comes up a lot in your writing. What advice do you have for people who aren’t sure how to practice gratitude?
AT: The ability to wake up and be blessed with another 24 hours—that simple blessing is something you can count before you even touch your feet to the ground. If you count certain things in your life that you're grateful for before the day even gets started, you start to identify … the things you do have versus the things you don’t have.
Once you get into that flow, you start to identify throughout the day things that make you feel good, things that you accomplish, things that provide you a certain level of, Oh, I am worthy. I am great.
WM: What are you most grateful for today?
AT: I'm grateful for the fact that my mother flew up and surprised me over the weekend and gave me love. I knew I needed it, but I didn't know how much I needed it. It helped me just find a level of internal happiness.
WM: You help tons of people with your platform on Peloton and social media. What’s the best part about it?
AT: The best part is doing it as myself. Waking up and just getting to be me is the best feeling ever. There's no flip of a switch. There’s no costume. This is me. I'm thankful I get to be myself every single day.
Second, I would say, as I continue to evolve and go through my own journey and my own trials and tribulations and my own evolution, I feel like I'm going through this process with a community of people that are moving with me, not standing with me. So when I look to my left and I look to my right, I'm able to see my colleagues who I'm inspired by—Tunde Oyeneyin, Ally Love, Jess Sims, Robin Arzón, Cody Rigsby—but then I'm also able to see their communities as well. And being able to share information, love, light, and experiences throughout that process is probably one of the best things ever because I don't ever feel alone.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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