Creators of Toronto | Academy of Lions

By BrainStation September 1, 2016

Recently, we sat down with our friends from Academy of Lions and learned so much of what they do in Toronto’s fitness community. Read more below!

Tell us a bit about ACADEMY OF LIONS and your role in the Toronto fitness community.

Academy Of Lions a community united by a strong commitment to personal growth, embracing challenges, optimal health and helping others.

We started as a CrossFit gym 8 years ago, and since then we have evolved to offer diverse programming including Personal Training, BootCamps, Metabolic Conditioning (MetCon), Gymnastics, Olympic Weightlifting, Bodyweight Classes, Mindfulness, Mobility, Yoga, Nutrition and Chiropractic.

We don’t lie to people. The fitness, health & nutrition industry is filled with gimmicks and promises and we wanted to stand for what we believed in.
Most gyms make their money from people who DON’T come in regularly but still pay their monthly fee. This always upset me, and I wanted to have a place that people enjoyed coming to all the time.

Our role in the fitness community is to lead, innovate and inspire our members and the fitness industry as a whole.

How would you describe the fitness experience? What about your community experience?

We specialize in skill based group classes and high­end personal training and our approach get’s members to higher states of fitness very quickly & safely. The typical bad stuff you hear about CrossFit doesn’t happen here ­ we take our coaching very seriously.

Community is probably the word that most people will bring up when they describe the Academy. I personally was never a big fan of gyms or fitness clubs ­ I always felt isolated and never welcomed in those places. Our goal when starting Academy was to create a place that everyone would feel comfortable and welcomed in immediately. Our members are more like teammates and the workout is their competition. I think this way of thinking brings out the best in ourselves.

We work very hard and play hard too. There’s some kind of social gathering every couple of weeks, and we use our 3­story building on Ossington as a place to host events and parties for our members and the neighbourhood.

How did ACADEMY OF LIONS start?

10 years ago, I was a director at a tech company, making good money and living a very comfortable lifestyle. But there was something missing; I was like like the Ed Norton character in Fight Club.

At the time I was working out at a regular commercial gym, but I could never stay motivated. I started doing martial arts and that rekindled my passion for sports. I was learning real skills that I could apply in the world and I was getting really fit in the process.

It was through the martial arts community that I became aware of CrossFit. 10 years ago CrossFit was this obscure thing from California just a few people knew about. I became obsessed, trained all the time and started getting certifications in everything I could from CrossFit to KettleBells and various forms of Strength & Conditioning.

I was never the best athlete or even the strongest CrossFitter, but I loved the community and the way people supported each other. The workouts were just an excuse to be a kid again, playing around with your friends ­ falling, failing, but getting back up again & again. I knew this was the direction my life would head in.

I started working as a person trainer at a “regular” gym, coaching clients from 6am ­ 9am before my day job, heading back in the evenings again to train more clients. I would bike to the gym with a backpack full of KettleBells because my “regular” gym didn’t have any; it was also a great workout. So yeah, I was kinda nuts back then.

At the time there was only one CrossFit gym in the city, in the east end. I was living in the west end and wanted to open a gym there. My friend and I talked it over and a few months later opened Academy in the Queen West neighbourhood. It’s been an 8 year journey that has seen many ups & downs. We had to move locations twice because our building was being demolished to build condos. But we never quit and always found ways to get better using the same lessons & values derived from our intense workouts.

What has your experience been like as an entrepreneur? Any tips or words of advice for the entrepreneurs in our community?

This is the best way I can describe it…

A couple of months ago, I ran a Marathon. I’ve hated running my entire life, and only until recently the thought of running even a 5k was revolting to me. But I believe in doing things that are uncomfortable at least 20% of the time. It helps you grow and learn how to deal circumstances you don’t like.

This was my to be my 4th marathon, and I had trained harder for it than any other before it. But in athletics much like in life, things don’t always turn out the way you want them too. A week before the race I got really sick. I decided to run anyway despite being in rough shape. I felt

decent for the first 10 kilometres but shortly after my energy vanished and I hit a wall like never before. The pain in my legs was excruciating and my mind was playing all kinds of tricks on me. I’ve never want to quit something so much in my life.

I just kept asking myself the same question: “are you going to quit”? The answer was always “fuck no”
I knew that no matter how bad it felt in the moment, I could put up with a few hours of pain; the goal was important enough to me.

There was this one moment at about the 30km mark of the race that I thought to myself “this feels exactly like owning a business”. This thought gave me a strange sense of comfort and I actually used it as motivation to make it to the finish line.

So that’s what I think about being an entrepreneur. Most great achievements in athletics & business are simply matters of continuing to move forward and not quitting on the goal and yourself. It’s going to challenge you in ways you didn’t expect and you need to endure the pain and manage your emotions.

Did you always know this was what you wanted to pursue/create?

Not at all. In high school I wanted to be a musician and writer. I went to University because I wanted to be a psychologist and a philosopher.

If you had told me back then this is what I’d end­up doing I would have laughed or maybe even cried. I loved playing sports growing­up, but I disliked jocks, gym class, gyms and fitness.

But CrossFit changed my entire outlook on what fitness could be and it liberated my mind & body to be as creative as I wanted. There is a high level of skill and a lot of self­reflection & analysis. In a funny way, through being an entrepreneur and a CrossFit business owner, I’m able to fulfill myself creatively, philosophically and professionally.

How do you build community awareness? What has been the most powerful tool to help you build your brand and spread the word?

Partnerships, collaborations, trading services with friends and being open to opportunities. Toronto is an amazing city for all of these things and everyone I know is hustling & grinding to create something special. Most of my friends and many of my members are small business owners, start­up founders or creatives. We all help each other out, exchange services, do business, and promote each other’s companies, brands, stores & projects.

At Academy, we also believe in giving away a THIRD FOR FREE. We have a lot of classes & events that are completely free for the public like our CommUNITY Class, Run Crew and Lift Up

Class for people recovering from addiction & mental health issues. We also partner with schools and youth organizations to give kids fitness & health education.

This is why I wanted to start my own business, it’s a way of putting your highest values into the world in a very real way. We believe in what we do and community always takes care of us.

What are some things you do outside of managing the studio?

There’s no real “outside” for me. Almost everything is seen through the eyes of Academy. Even when I travel, it’s really about finding inspiration for my work and building relationships & partnership.

I get into a lot of disagreements about this with my friends about how I have to take more time off. I guess that’s true, but I have a hard time thinking about it that way. I’ve just believe in what I’m doing and also like to feel like everything I do contributes the larger vision.

I spend a lot of my time outside the gym hosting & producing podcasts and writing. Media has always been important to me and I love creating content that will make people think about things in a different way. I’m a conversation junkie and find podcasting & interviewing to be the most efficient and productive way to learn from people and satisfy my curiosities.

What’s your ideal weekend look like in Toronto?

I’m a cheap date and enjoy simple things. Shopping for good local food, playing some sports and just chilling with friends at a good coffee shop ­ we have a million in this city.

Favourite Toronto restaurant at the moment?

Skin + Bones in at 980 Queen St. East. My favourite burger in Toronto.

How can people reach you?

[email protected]
on social at @dhanioks
follow Academy Of Lions @academyoflions

Where do you see ACADEMY OF LIONS in 5 years? 10 years?

Our mission is to grow community through physical culture & mindful living, so logically we’re going to have more people around the world gathering at our spaces, doing our programs and participating in our events. We really want to put good things into this world and our culture is so strong and so caring ­ I want it to spread.

I’m also looking forward to more partnerships with people & companies that have a deep understanding of community building. I know in a few years, Academy will be working with more marginalized people, especially youth who need to be supported in living more positive, healthy and creative lifestyles.

Anything else you’d like to add?

If you’re in Toronto come and find us. Have a coffee in our cafe or try a class. The Academy is a really special place.

If you’re not in Toronto, you should find a way to get here. The creativity & energy in this city is powerful & contagious. I’m proud to be from here.