Chris Dwyer leads yoga classes at SunWater Spa in Manitou Springs, Colo., with a sense of ease and humor. On and off the mat, Chris offers honest evidence of his practice. By how he shows up. By how he teaches, writes, engages in the community.
That’s what has drawn me to the mat in Chris’ class, and to the occasional conversation with him over a post-class breakfast at a local coffeehouse.
We recently sat down again with a cup of tea, and a plate of croissants and latkes his wife Jillian gently set on the table for us at their home, The White Yarrow Inn.
We talked about the practice of yoga and asana in the West, and the art of allowing. We considered the merits of the 21-Day Yoga Shred for Men we see in social media ads.
We walked into the spiritual gap we’re all looking to fill. And then there’s the radically simple life mission that came to Chris, 49, during a native plant ceremony in Costa Rica.
Humanitou: What is yoga to you?
Chris: The explanation that I hear most teachers give, and that came out of my training, is yoga is simply union. One hears that so much you can become numb to it, but it is the basic truth.
The teachings of Kashmir Shaivism, which is the root tradition that I practiced from, believe that there is a great oneness and we’re all facets of it.
In our life journey we don’t necessarily identify with it and, in fact, that’s what the journey of lifetimes is all about, returning again and again to how our Atman, or individual soul, is actually not separate from this greater consciousness, Brahma.
So, for me, that’s the root of yoga. And, honestly, it’s the challenge of humanity. We don’t identify as divine. We identify ourselves as people or we identify with our roles: father, worker, instructor, husband, wife.
Where the gap comes in between seeing ourselves as individual and the union that we all are, this higher self that we all are, is we over-identify with the roles, attach ourselves to the roles, attach ourselves to the thoughts that lead to the roles.
What I see time and time again, to varying degrees, is everybody is trying to address this gap between where we think we are and who we are, and the supreme potential of who we can be.
I suppose if it was as easy as identifying ourselves as God or Source or the Oneness, we would just do it. Somehow it’s not that easy.
Maybe because we have physical forms. Maybe because we do perceive a universe that is full of objects that would appear from the outside to be solid. It raises the question of why?
Why do we have to be incarnate forms that see ourselves as separate? Kind of like billiard balls on a cosmic table, crashing into each other from time to time, trying to find that pocket.
There are no real simple answers. Everybody’s got a process for getting there or getting some of the way there. I hear all these wonderful aphorisms that can become cliches, like: Live in the mystery. Love the questions.
They’re all true and, yet, they don’t really answer the question.
Humanitou: There’s so much depth and breadth to this study, this experience.
Chris: It’s telescopic. It’s kaleidoscopic.
I want to make two points on this. The first is that when I’m in the yoga studio teaching, or when I’m in somebody else’s class, I am at once astounded by how much people are able to journey in this space.
Not just their physical bodies, which is important, but how much they’re able to work with their physical bodies to take what appears to be a bigger journey.
At the same time, it’s an overwhelming and daunting task to be an instructor. I know from how I go home that when I leave the yoga room I’m going to face all the pressures and distractions and all the other things that comprise a modern, Western life, and I may backslide into a lower state of consciousness. I guess, that’s part of it.
It’s hard to hear yoga instructors dumbing down or narrowing their practice to make it fit a business model that involves keeping people interested or subordinating their practice to their lifestyle. At the same time ... it’s a gateway to something more.
When I think about it from an instruction point of view, I think, wow, if in a single class we can get people to just step out of that for an hour, that’s a huge accomplishment. To consider themselves, to experience themselves in a bigger way.
Maybe that’s really all we’re doing in there.
Which brings me to my second point, and that is that so many things that I’ve done in my life that have been interesting and have taken me to new realms of self-understanding and growth have been because my wife, Jillian, pointed them out as an opportunity.
One such time was going to Costa Rica for native plant ceremonies, specifically ayahuasca ceremonies. I’m not into plant medicine, honestly. I don’t have much experience with it and don’t have a lot of plans for it in the future of my life.
But these were sacred ceremonies that were beautifully held by self-described medicine men. One of the peak moments in my three nights of ceremony was, actually, an encounter with what I believe to be that supreme voice. What it said was surprisingly simple.
I thought, at that time, and I still have ambitions along these lines, it would tell me, “Chris, your mission is to be someone who leads a tribe of people to some new level of consciousness. Step into that quote-unquote leadership role, and this is how you do it.”
What I got instead was an image of this universal flower, literally a flower the size of the universe, open and myself walking around the perimeter lifetime to lifetime. And the voice said, “All you have to do is appreciate what is given.”
It’s radically simple.
That kind of experience, I think, is a microcosm of the gap that I referenced earlier, or the opportunity, if you will, that we’re all facing as human beings on the planet right now.
Can we have enough presence, enough trust, faith — call it faith in God, call it trust in the universe — to walk the perimeter of that flower and just appreciate what’s here?
Humanitou: That is a practice, isn’t it?
Chris: To me, that is the practice.
Humanitou: My practice, learning and teaching of yoga includes use of dharma talks, something that usually focuses on a theme for the class.
I know you don’t use dharma talks, but you do use themes. I’m curious to know through your lens how you incorporate that into your teaching of an asana class.
Chris: As a background, I’ve listened to a lot of dharma talks over the years. The thing that strikes me most about them, even though I’ve enjoyed so much of what’s been said, is that words don’t really teach.
The way the person speaking shows up teaches. In the Buddhist world and, perhaps, in the Hindu world, as well, this is called a transmission.
Many yoga teachers that I’ve known believe in shakti pad, namely that you could gaze upon a picture, not even necessarily the actual person but the picture of a yogi, and receive some kind of energy, some kind of learning.
So, when I reflect on my own classes through the lens of that experience and what you ask, I think that, on one level, I’m giving off all kinds of things. Hopefully, I’m conscious of a lot of what I’m giving off, right?
At the same time, people are learning from their own embodied experience of the practice. It is true that we can plant seeds with our words. There are pivotal moments.
And I fully appreciate a little dharma talk at the beginning of class to introduce a theme. At the same time, I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary.
The way I would introduce the theme might be at the beginning of class. I might say, “Hey, we’re going to do some sun salutations because of whatever is going on astrologically.” It could be something like that.
Or it could be something like making sure that when I’m cuing I’m talking about the language of the body, that I’m mentioning how certain poses are more expressive of bowing to the highest self, or feeling joy or opening the heart.
So, I’m seeding, but it’s more integrated into the class than simply talking at the beginning. Although, I fully realize a dharma talk continues through the practice.
Humanitou: So often in the U.S. asana is seen as yoga in its entirety. There is not an understanding of how broad and deep and historical yoga is.
Chris: And we reduce it further. We reduce it to simple movement exercises.
It’s hard to watch. It’s hard to hear on podcasts yoga instructors talking about this, in a way, dumbing down or narrowing their practice to make it fit a business model that involves keeping people interested or subordinating their practice to their lifestyle.
At the same time, there are some amazing things that have happened as a result of yoga’s arrival and expansion in the West. It’s a gateway.
It’s a gateway to something much, much more for those who are ready to embrace that step. Many will choose not to, and that’s all right.
Humanitou: I saw an ad on Facebook the other day for a 21-day yoga–
Chris: –Shred. Yoga Shred for Men. (laughs) Exactly. I’ve seen that ad as well.
Humanitou: Yoga has been adopted and adapted in so many ways. It is seen much more commonly in our country as a fitness approach than a spiritual approach. For a long time that’s all I knew it as, too.
I think my first yoga class experiences were about 15 years ago. After a few classes, the instructor asked me what I thought. I told her I enjoy the meditative aspects more so than the physical part.
Then the conversation dropped into silence. I went the next almost 15 years not knowing what I didn’t know.
How do people take in the depth of possibilities if they only know the asana experience to be one of fitness and follow-the-leader performance?
Chris: I think there might be a point here about allowing.
Let’s face it, most of the stuff we think about we really don’t know the answer. We don’t know why people do the things that they do.
Sometimes I’m not even sure I know why I show up at yoga class. I can tell you the specific circumstances of why I became a yoga instructor and kind of connect the dots. But we probably don’t really know.
So, there is an art of allowing everything to be just as it is.
I don’t know why it took you 15 years to come back. You could say it was, maybe, an instructor who let you down. Or maybe you could turn your analysis on yourself and say, “I let myself down, because I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
But it’s really pointless. You came back when you were ready, and look what’s happened since. Nothing short of amazing.
In terms of the societal ills about yoga, a lot of us could wring our hands about what’s going on or what should be happening, or what the opportunities are, even.
Really, everything has its own divine and perfect timing. I think that’s broadly true, probably, beyond the community of people that call themselves yogis or yoginis.
My sense would be, if you really want to make progress on or off the mat — and I mean spiritual progress here, not nakedly, doggedly striving for success — I think a lot of it has to do with letting go.
Following the heart, following the desire to grow in spirit, to grow as a being, and trusting that whoever needs to come along with you to assist you or to be assisted by you will be there as needed.
This is going to sound, maybe, like a disempowering statement from a Western perspective: There’s not much I can do about the world out there when my psychology is I have to fix the world out there.
And when my psychology is, “Ah, there’s a whole world in here that’s full of high-play opportunities, that’s full of desires to be worked out,” then what I can do out there ends up being limitless.
That brings me back to the idea of a transmission. I’m not directly teaching anybody anything through my words, but how I show up and the actions I take change the situation, bring it to a new level.
That’s my personal aspiration.
Humanitou: Beyond the yoga mat, where are your energies going these days?
Chris: I have been co-producing a podcast called The 40 Fight (with Tom Reber, of The Contractor Fight). It’s about men in their 40s and the issues that we encounter, things like how to raise your kids in ways that make some sense, how to co-parent, dealing with husband-wife relationships, all matter of things.
It’s less about a channel that’s trying to direct men to some particular pathway of life or some program, and it’s more about a conversation between two friends who are male in their 40s, and keeping it real with each other about what the issues are.
We’ve recorded several episodes of the podcast, but we haven’t released them yet.
Overall my focus is, you could think of concentric circles. The center is my own development as a being, lifting up my own consciousness.
Yoga teaching is very much a part of that. My meditation practice is very much a part of that. Reading, writing, embodiment. All of the things that I do to put myself first in a day and grow.
The next concentric circle would be my family, Jillian and (our 16-year-old daughter) Ahna. These are incredible beings. I feel so fortunate to be on this life journey with them. It’s not always smooth. We’re all learning a lot together. It’s been tremendous. I love being a husband and a father.
My third-level priority is our livelihood. I’m continuing to run a pretty brisk short-term rental business based here at the homestead, The White Yarrow Inn. We have two vacation rentals here and two in Old Colorado City. I’m excited about the sharing economy. It’s been a fascinating experiment.
The next level out is things like The 40 Fight, and my writing. I’m publishing more and more on medium.com. I am focused there on writing. I write under the pen name Chris Conscious.
Humanitou: How do you see and experience masculinity in today’s world?
Chris: This is an electrical environment right now, with the MeToo Movement, with the Supreme Court hearings, just two recent examples. Everything that’s gone on in Hollywood over sexual abuse.
Some would say it’s a scary environment, for men and women. Others would say this is a great opportunity for change, because so much is coming out about the pattern that we’ve been playing out.
I personally see that pattern coming out, which I’ll stick a label on it for convenience: patriarchy. I see that as a pattern that’s existed for thousands of years.
So I’m inclined to at least try to be very understanding about what women are saying in their courage, in their rising up, in their coming into their own power, because it’s been tamped down for so long. The cost to all of us, men and women, has been enormous.
Any time that we’re playing out roles that aren’t really reflective of our deeper selves, if we’re coming from a consciousness that’s much more shallow than we really are and have swallowed down a bunch of ideas about what it means to be a woman or a man, there is a penalty.
The penalty is called grief for life energy lost, life energy misspent. There’s a reckoning that’s happening at an individual level across society and across society as a whole right now. That’s a contextual piece that’s really important for me.
I got the impression from many, many points that talking about my feelings when I was coming up was not safe, not cool, somehow made me feminine, swishy, gay.
I am a white male who is almost 50. A lot of the privileges that I have I’m not even aware of, because I benefit from them invisibly.
Part of the benefit of this whole thing that society is going through right now is to become aware of the ways I actually am quite privileged, which contribute to a certain kind of thinking about the world, about women, right?
It’s this way for many, many men. We have been the dominant group for so long. So it’s only natural that this pendulum, this female rage, this female coming into power, female calling us out, all the stuff that’s unfolding, it’s only natural that’s happening.
And it’s probably natural that the pendulum is going to swing maybe a little farther than many of us would be comfortable with.
At the same time our job, I think, as men is to understand the terms of the deal that we’ve been involved in, the way we came into the secret deal that we’ve been playing out.
One example of this, I grew up in a family of boys. I was, for 10 years, the youngest ones. It’s not that my parents ever actually said, “Chris, you can’t talk about your feelings.”
But I got the impression from many, many points that talking about my feelings when I was coming up was not safe, not cool, somehow made me feminine, swishy, gay. Maybe you can relate to this experience.
Humanitou: Oh, sure.
Chris: Many of us have had it. Compound that over a number of years and you see how easy it is to become a young man and, eventually, an adult male who can’t relate to the world, can’t relate to the people in his life, can’t function effectively in a group unless he is the alpha or unless he shuts down in order to, almost make a show of aggressive passivity, if that’s possible.
Humanitou: Yeah. One can exude that.
Chris: So my observation of most men today, at least in the United States, is we’re not particularly attuned to that deal that has been struck in our lives.
Not all of us had the same deal but, generally speaking, that was kind of the silent directive, “Hey, you don’t want to be in the least bit emotional. You just rein your feelings in. If there’s a problem, fight it out.” There are all kinds of these messages.
As for women, the message we get from an early age, for many of us, is that, “Yeah, they’re irrational. You can’t contend with them. They’re not relatable. They’re kind of superfluous.”
Of course, quite the contrary is true. But this is the head trash that we inherit, and it’s all the contextual stuff. Bringing it back to what do we do now, I think we, men as a whole, have a lot of maturing to do.
Being a man is not what we allowed ourselves to believe, so we’re in the process of redefining what that really even means. For me, the most important thing is to be an aware, high-functioning human being.
As men, I think that’s the best thing we can do for ourselves right now, to look really deeply at how we function in the world, what our assumptions are.
That’s really what women want from us, if you want to make it about what women want. They want us to grow up and show up as who we really are.
Who we really are to me, the essence of male, is someone who is grounded in his own truth.
Humanitou: How does this connect with yoga as a spiritual practice, a place of exploring ourselves and making these deeper connections? I often am one of few men, if not the only man, in a yoga class. Where are we?
Chris: Men aren’t showing up.
This brings me back to that Yoga Shred for Men. I look at that with some ambivalence. On one hand, it’s spiritual materialism, or could be. It’s a very targeted marketing piece that’s about men having great abs. (laughs) It’s so shallow, right? And materialistic.
If you didn’t know anything about yoga, you could just look at it that way and show up for a class and, actually, maybe even get your shredded abs. It can be a bit of a crutch for your self-esteem.
Or I could look at it like, here’s the gateway, this is an opportunity for men to experience yoga. It’s one limb of yoga, of the eight. But what if you were teaching it, someone who had this experience of knowing there’s so much more?
Humanitou: I wouldn’t be very representative of the shred.
Chris: (laughs) I don’t know that I would be either. But I’m saying there’s a possibility in the situation to open a door.
Think about if more men had the attitude that we’re discussing. I’m actually encouraged by the number of men who are stepping up, even though as a whole we’re catching up, growing up and showing up. I think there are some encouraging signs.
I think this time is really asking all of us to look at ourselves and how we’re showing up in our level of consciousness and apply that to gender issues, to how we raise our kids, the kind of world we’re creating.