In this episode, I sit down with Christopher Howell on squeaky chairs in a church conference room to talk about personal growth, spiritual exploration, addiction, work, cancer, and taking yoga out of the studio and onto the trail. He is doing what many people dream of doing: earning a living doing what he loves. Yoga Hike is a deeply satisfying experience. I've done it twice, and will be out on one of Austin's many trails with Christopher and his team again soon. Check it out on the web at yogahike.com or on Facebook ( you can also search Facebook for "Yoga Hike"). He's also on Instagram at @yoga_hike.
Here's the transcript:
I tried college out of high school. I wasn’t a disciplined student, but I was a good salesman. And in those days, it was still believed that you could get by in life with a good handshake and a smile. And so I went that route. I was up in College Station selling shoes at 18, 19, 20, and she would drive in on the weekends, got pregnant one weekend, and as a good Catholic boy, that’s what you did in those days.
And I wasn’t good at relationships. And I was in my 20s. I was in my 20s. I mean, that’s just it. I hope no one ever gets married before they’re 30. Wasn’t for me. And no birth control as a Catholic, and so, you know, we had 3 boys and a miscarriage. We were pregnant the whole time that we were together. I was money-driven. That’s all I wanted. I wanted to be successful. I was one of the top Chevrolet salesmen in the country, number 3 in the state of Texas. I like to, still like to brag about that 25 years later. The only path for me after that was to buy a dealership, and that wasn’t a path that was going to suit me.
I was an alcoholic in my marriage. I was just very irresponsible 20 year old, had 3 kids from 20 to 27 like that. I wasn’t actually, I’m not that kind of guy. I’m not the father of 3 children kind of guy. And so the cocaine came as a way of covering the feelings that came with all of that, all the shame around even saying, “Hey, I’m not that kind of guy.” You know, I can say that now, 27 years later, but I couldn’t say it then.
For about a year following the divorce, all I cared about was being successful. I didn’t really deal with the pain of making my first mistake. I was kind of a golden boy growing up. I didn’t make a mistake until that divorce, and it hit me pretty hard. I mean, I got in trouble as a kid, but that was part of the adventure for me. That was the first time that, because I had a pretty strong Catholic background, that was the first time I’d ever failed at anything. I really never made a mistake. And I didn’t really deal with that.
I felt if I were successful enough, it would make up for it. I got introduced to cocaine, did coke for about 9 months and then, I think I probably had a psychotic break, a drug-induced psychotic break, quit my job one day, left my demo, walked from the dealership to my house. That was about an 8 hour walk, went to bed for about 2 months.
Then got in my car, started driving around. I drove from here to California, and then I was making my way, I was going to go to Florida, and met these hippies down in South Padre. I was 28 at this time. I even remember the night before meeting them. I mean, I got down on my knees, and I prayed with all of my might to try and find a way out of the hell that I was in. And that showed up for me. And they invited me to go on a meditation, and I was pretty much a confirmed atheist following my divorce and such. But the girls were hot, so I said I would join them.
We met on the beach at dawn, swam out to this sandbar, and the leader of the group gave us a mantra to use, just saying a series of words over and over again to confuse the brain. And we’re doing them silently. He also told us to visualize dolphins while we were doing these mantras. I played along. Peer pressure. About 20 minutes into the experience, there was like a simultaneous breath, and everyone opened their eyes at the same time. We all kind of looked in one direction, like satellites, you know, and there was a school of 15 dolphins that went swimming by, the same amount that was in our circle. And so, that was interesting to me. It reawakened me to the possibility of some kind of mystery beyond my understanding that I’d pursued in the Catholic church as a child. The only thing that I’ve come to is that there’s this idea that Jung has of synchronicity.
So these people that I met down in South Padre were from Austin, and so I moved to Austin to study with these guys. The excuse I gave my family was that I was going to learn how to do massage therapist. I didn’t tell them I was coming up here to study with a hippie.They were intense. They used breathwork as the therapy for cleansing the body to make that realm of possibility more accessible to the psyche. The guy that was leading the group, I sat outside of his house for half an hour bawling, trying to get the courage to walk up and ask him if he would be my teacher. He was connected to something that was, that I very much wanted to be connected to.
What I’ve done since shortly after that experience, I got introduced to The Power of the Myth. that was an interview with Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell. And I have chased the references of that conversation for the last 30 years. So all of my reading has been on the authors that he’s referenced.
And I added work by Stanislav Grof, who’s one of the leading technologists in brain studies, near-death experiences, and how to access that using breathing techniques. Grof’s background is that he was the leading psychology researcher of LSD research in Czechoslovakia in the ‘60s. And then when he moved to the U.S., he couldn’t use LSD, and so he found this breathing technique, which I think is more impactful than LSD. I think that breathwork is more substantive and accessible, and you get as much of it or as little of it as you want at any time.
Psychologists will work with having you exame decisions you made as a child from 1 to 6 years old, or something like that, and that’s kind of determined who you are as a human being. Well, a spinoff from the work that Stan Grof does with breathwork, he does what’s called holotropic breathing, and it’ll be deep, round, circular breathing, where you go beyond hyperventilation for 3, 4, 6 hours, and using different sounds and things like that, it creates a what he calls a non-ordinary state of consciousness which is also the way he describes near-death experiences. And so all spiritual awakenings, according to this theory, come from that edge.
A deviation from that work was there was some work in the ‘80s and ‘90s called rebirthing. And the rebirthing is using the same, similar, breathing techniques as Grof, but what you’re working on is the interpretation, what they were working with is that the decisions and the way your personality is shaped by the way that you interpreted your birth experience. And so what you’re working on doing is breathing deep, full breaths and clearing out the cellular memory of whatever decisions were made during that birth process. So when you have a thought, it creates a chemical reaction in your body, and that gets stored in your body unless you find some way to work it out, and then you get addicted to that chemical blend, and that influences your psychology. By using specific breathing techniques, they would use an affirmation process. You’d write affirmations over and over and over and over again to stir up a thought that you hadn’t fully integrated. Like it might be, “I, Christopher, am an innocent child of God. All my desires are holy and always have been.” That was the first thought that I worked with, and I probably wrote that thousands and thousands and thousands of times because just to work through the layers of where I wasn’t an innocent child because of all of the shame that I’d carried. And using these breathing techniques helped facilitate that for me. And then part of the work there was discovering what your purpose is, and helping people realize their oneness is part of what my purpose is using my charisma, my ability to learn.
I was introduced to a weekend encounter group. With the rebirthing work, there’s not a lot of emotional work done. You’re supposed to breathe through the emotion, and I think that’s one of the fallacies of the work, or one of the shortcomings of the work. I think you need both. And so I was introduced to this encounter group where we just cried and screamed and everything at 100%. The weekend was about expressing yourself at 100% through the entire weekend. And so every time I went, you found new expression, new levels of 100%. There was tons of healing that went on in those classes. I was able to do years worth of therapy in one weekend, all the time. And I went into a training to learn how to facilitate those weekends. 2 years worth of training once a month out at a corporate headquarters, a Thursday through Monday training, and then every other weekend at a local training facility, for 2 years. Only like maybe 5% of the people that went through the training ever graduated and became facilitators, because you have to go through your stuff. So I took my sales background, I became a good teacher, and I learned how to fill these courses for these folks. They didn’t have a machine that would regularly put together classes that they could count on in size that they needed, and so I helped build that machine and then helped build franchises for them and other centers around the country with that.
I didn’t get a buzz from putting people in Chevrolets any more. I really got a buzz in putting people into their lives. And so as easy as I could make that process for people to make the decision to take those steps and make those changes, and we finally found a path and you know, worked on it for 2 years.
I was teaching, I was facilitating the weekend events. And what those were was a male and a female instructor and 24 students. They paid about anywhere from $500 to $700 to be in the weekend. And then there’s 20 to 30 graduate assistants who come back to help provide the same course experience for other people. So I got trained on how to facilitate those, but in the path, along the road there, one of the things that the franchises had a problem with is they didn’t know how to put people in the classes. They were just weak at doing it. Attracting people to the class. Anyway, I found a path. I found an introductory workshop that made it easy for people to make the decision, see if it was good for them, found a way to get the graduates to make that available to their community.
So I worked in that for about 7 or 8 years, and then the facilitators starting going in another direction. I went to massage school. This was in my late 30s I guess. So through all of that work, you’re also working with the work of Louise Hay. Louise Hay’s work is that you store different thoughts, feelings, and attitudes in different parts of your body, and those can contribute to different types of illnesses. So she’s got this catalog of “here’s the illness, here’s the low quality thought that might be impacting that area, here are some high quality thoughts that you can add into it,” and that’s affirmations, and you would work to that.
So through that, I got to understand where thoughts, feelings, and attitudes are stored in the body. I can look at somebody’s posture and kind of have an idea about their psychology just from being in the work and doing it myself. And massage is a great way to work it out of people, so it was like doing the same kind of work that we were doing in these encounter groups, but instead, I could just put you on the table, have you practice specific breathing techniques while we’re doing massage, and we can work those thoughts and stuff out of your body in a massage. So it was all the same kind of work.
So I had a lot of clients that we did an intake on what are your dreams, what you think your purpose is, if massage could facilitate that, that kind of thing. From there I opened the Center for Health Resources on Burnet Road. We had 4 rooms there. I rented out 3 of the rooms to other therapists, helped therapists coming out of massage school learn how to build their own business, and there’s 2 people still operating in that room now, and that was started probably in around 2000. So, after having a full practice for about 7 or 8 years, I was still traveling around, teaching weekend courses every once in awhile, but it wasn’t a full-time gig. And I had been exploring this breathwork more deeply.
And so, there’s one process where you can fast for several days, a vision quest kind of process. Fast for several days, and then I would go… this is the first time I went camping, actually. That was on my 40th birthday. So I fasted, and then I got to Enchanted Rock and started a silent meditation, stayed up all night Friday night keeping a fire burning, and then hiking, started hiking at sunrise, practicing these breathing techniques in hopes that I would have some kind of vision, like, you know, Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days, and Billy Jack got in the snake pit and got bit by a bunch of snakes.
You don’t know Billy Jack? It’s a great cult movie from the ‘70s, really influenced me when I was 13 and just after my father had died. Yeah, that’s how he had gotten his transition was, they like put him in a snake pit. You gotta see it. It’s a cult classic. Yeah. “One tin soldier rides away!”
So anyway, just to produce a non-ordinary state of consciousness along that lines without using mushrooms or LSD. And I had a non-ordinary experience for about 6 hours. So what I wanted to do was I initially wanted to start taking people on those kinds of adventures. I wanted to take you, have you start fasting, get to a campsite, stay up all night in silence keeping a fire burning, teach you these specific breathing techniques. You would have to learn the breathing techniques before we go on this adventure. There would be like an advanced thing, and then bring you into this other realm.
But to do that, I felt like I needed more credentials, and so I wanted to go back to school and get a doctorate in transpersonal psychology so that I could have an academic conversation about what I was doing. My wife’s business, was quite successful at the time. We were in a position we could do that, where I could go back to school. And in that process -- this was probably 41, 42 -- after selling the Center for Health Resources, back in school at ACC, and I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Then the testicular cancer really kicked a hole in all of that. I put too much emphasis on, “Why didn’t I catch that low quality thought in order for that illness to show up in my body?” So I had a little guilt and shame and stuff around that. I used to think Louise Hay was a bible. And we don’t know what the fuck cancer is. We don’t know, really know, what disease is. I mean, when you really get honest about it. There is so much variable.
And so that started tainting me. So after I got sick, I didn’t, I wasn’t interested in going back to school right away. I went to work at a plant nursery digging holes in the winter for, I think I was working $8 or $10 an hour. I mean, really just digging holes. And so, I didn’t say much, and when spring started coming around, I had a conversation with the owner and told him that I had some other skills. We had discussed partnering and opening a second location, and I recommended instead that we build something here, build something spectacular here. And it ended up going from a 6 employee place to 30 employee place. And 2 ½ acres into 5 acres, and it’s one of the top 100 destination nurseries in the country. And it’s fantastic.
While working at the nursery, I was just kind of slipping further and further away from any metaphysic healing, oneness. I don’t care. I’m working for this guy that’s a, just a… I call him this deeply rooted Aggie, deeply rooted into family in a spiritual way, but doesn’t care anything about any of the other… I don’t think out of the 7 years that I was with him, I might have hugged him once. And I hug everybody. Yeah. But we were buddies, you know what I mean? And he was a hunter. I started just becoming a Joe Six Pack. Worked hard, drank hard, and gained about 60 pounds...
So I went to the nursery just to heal from the radiation. I was really sick after radiation, and I didn’t have any juice. I didn’t want to think. And this was a nice… It was a great hobby. We were wildly successful in what we were doing, but it just wasn’t really true to me. And so I was just kind of slowly slipped into this depression, which I didn’t really realize. I was kind of in a panic mode.
I dropped 60 pounds on P90X. While I was working at the nursery. And I got almost an elite, fit body. First time I’d been fit in my whole life. And on P90X, there’s a yoga section, and I physically hurt myself every time I did the yoga portion. And so, about a year out of the nursery, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was 51 years old and didn’t want to do massage again, and so I was kind of freaking out again. You know, I was having a spiritual crisis that I had like when I was 27.
I could’ve ridden that at the nursery until I died, and I’d have been just fine. I’d have been as happy as anybody could expect to be in their life, you know? It would’ve been just fine. And I think what it was for me was, like I said, meeting those people down in South Padre, the night before I was on my knees praying with all my might. And I had one of those nights. While losing the weight had a lot to do with it. I do believe that that weight was a result of thoughts, feelings, and attitudes that I was carrying in my body, and I wasn’t carrying that anymore. So I had to take those layers off to get down to something closer to the core of whatever was going on, so it was more accessible then. Here I am, a 51-year-old guy. I don’t want to go back into car sales. The relationship business stuff is… the way that I was doing it was in the past. I didn’t have enough education or credentials to really start something new with that at the level of, there’s already work out there that’s great. There’s other programs that I send people to now for that kind of work because it’s better than anything I could’ve done. Anyway, so I was in a panic on what am I going to do, and it was a, I think, probably like a midlife crisis. It was that same kind of feeling of just getting down on my knees and praying with all my might on, I’m so fucking lost. I remember one night just really wailing and wanting it so passionately. And then it was probably within days of that that I found Sapphire’s yoga class.
And so I went to a beginner’s yoga class at Yoga Yoga with Sapphire Bell. Sapphire Bell’s parents were yoga teachers at Esalen in Big Sur. Right? So she was doing yoga in utero. But in her class, man, in addition to the asanas or postures that she was putting you in, she was getting people to breathe efficiently and deeply, and while they’re doing that, she’s just dropping in all these huge spiritual bombs that were in alignment with all the other stuff that I’d been… I was like, wow, this is really powerful.
The reason that I was hurting myself was because I didn’t have alignment. You know. P90X is an extreme workout. You’re going to get to an elite, fit body in 90 days, and that’s extreme. The yoga portion of it is extreme yoga. That’s for people who had been in yoga, they know the difference, you know, if you’re in Warrior I, you ought to be able to look down and see your big toe. I didn’t know that. My knee was bending over in the other direction. And all the modifications that were available. That’s why I was hurting myself. I didn’t know good posture, and I didn’t know modifications.
So I went to yoga every day for a year. There might have been a couple of 6-day weeks in there, but most of them were 7 days a week. Wow, my body’s starting to vibrate up right now just talking about it. I’d never been fit before, and so what I liked was the fitness aspect of yoga. I liked that I could still get my workout. But like I said, in that very first class, I knew what she was doing with breath. I had an understanding. I was like, wow, this is profoundly therapeutic. And they were bringing in high quality thoughts at the same time. And now, how can I maintain that same breath and state of mind while holding a posture? That was interesting to me. That added another dimension to the experience.
And rapid therapy started happening for me. You know, that depression I kind of slipped into over the 6 years started peeling away. So then I went to yoga therapy training with Genevieve Yellin at Sundara Yoga Therapy, and that was just 200 hours of training. It kind of teaches you how to learn how to be a yoga teacher, really. Then you have to find your practice and continue doing other training. I wouldn’t consider myself a yoga therapist until I’d done 1,000 hours of training with them and maybe 10,000 hours in practice with classes.
But it was incredibly therapeutic. I did a bunch of emotional release work, and it brought me back to that connection that I had before I got sick, brought me back to that mystery in a very powerful and emotional way. And in the middle of that training, I thought, “Man, if I make my way through this, I’m going to bring as many people with me as I can.”
And that’s how Yoga Hike ended up coming to be. It was after I did my year of training, now I’m a 52-year-old guy, I’ve only got 200 hours worth of training, and you know, who wants to go to that class? So I started inviting friends that I trusted to go with me to the Austin 360 bridge for sunrise, and I would just kind of practice teaching yoga with them. So then I put it up on Facebook as an event, and 4, 6,10, 12 people started showing up to the events, and I was making it donation-based classes. Then there was one event where 5,000 people on Facebook said that they were going, and so I had to build a website to filter that to something that was manageable, and something that was manageable all across the board. I didn’t know what was going to be what.
And so, but we had 100 people show up on a January in 37 degree weather, overcast, sprinkling a little bit, and we had to cross 100 feet of water ankle-high deep, and nobody turned around. That’s when I realized that there’s something larger than me that I want to try and ride with, and so the following week we had 80 people at the same location, and then 2 weeks later we had 90 people show up to clean up the Onion Creek trail that had been flooded the year before.
What I have found is that there’s something that’s informing the trees and informing the birds and the cosmos. Seems like there’s something there that has order, and the human ego seems to be the only thing in the universe that’s disrupting a natural flow with all of that. And so what I hope to do is have myself be more connected to whatever it is that it’s informing the trees and the birds and the sun and the oceans and the moons and all of that and have a heartfelt connection to that. And being on the trail seems to do it in a more profound way than being in a yoga studio where all that aliveness has been kind of manufactured out to make walls and air conditioning and all that kind of thing. So I think the reason that Yoga Hike has been so profound for people is because they’re more connected to whatever all that source is. I just open them up to specific techniques and mental games that connect them to that for themselves.
It’s because of whatever I’m synced up with, I’m sure, but I’m just amazed at how many people that I meet that, what the Austin experience has been for them is that they’ve had that transition like you speak about having, you know, 3 years ago, that this is a place that was an impetus for it. So there’s something magical here.
I think I’m a spiritual atheist. We may edit that out later. I don’t know. I’ve tried it on a few people. They don’t seem to like it. But the thing is, is that there seems to be some higher functioning in the brain that if we’ll surrender to it in a really powerful way, a higher brain functioning comes in and guides us on our path like it would a bird, you know? And I think it comes to that mental breakdown, where you’re just, “God, I can’t keep moving like this. I need something.” Where it’s a cry from deep in my soul. I think everybody gets to that. I think that’s what it is. It’s that final breakdown on, fuck, I’ve got nothing left. Help. And it feels like God comes in, so I could see why books would be written about that.
For the business of Yoga Hike, we’re hoping to expand that this year to where we can have 6 or 8 classes going every month instead of the 4 classes that are happening now. And then I’m interested in weekend adventures. I’ve tested a couple of them, camping locally, come out on a Saturday, set up camp. We do a sunset practice, or sunset hike and practice, a night hike back, have some dutch oven cooking overnight, a big campfire, have scotch and a cigar. It’s not a yoga retreat. It’s a yoga hike. And no pressure to have scotch or a cigar. I need to work on that marketing a little bit. And then a sunrise hike in the morning, and paddleboards, and a couple of kayaks, and that kind of thing. So Camp Yoga Hike is on the horizon.
Travel Yoga Hike, or Yoga Hike Travel, is also on the horizon. We’ve done a few trips where we went to Yosemite from a Thursday through Sunday and had a cabin a mile from the Yosemite park entrance. So all the food is catered by Whole Foods, a big, huge deck to do a morning practice on, go out to the hike in the park from can until can’t. And those have been great. So I’m hoping to do more of that. September this year, I feel pretty good that I’m going to take a group to Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, which has one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen anywhere, any time. You’ve seen it in movies. It’s a cool spot. And then, you know, if I’m smart enough, and I pull the right kind of team together, I’d like for travel, for Yoga Hike Travel, to expand to being international, trips to international locations. I’m interested in that landing out in Norway, and there’s other places, and then having nationally ranked yoga teachers be part of that.
We’re starting to hire teachers now. I’m starting to get the courage to ask people that are way better at teaching yoga than me. I’ve been a little intimidated by that, so we’re going to start branching out into bringing masters in and getting #OldGuyYoga off the trail, with the exception of adventures. The weekends and the long adventures, I’m interested in facilitating those, because we can incorporate a bunch of other work.
That’s the biggest challenge that I’m having with Yoga Hike right now, is that I think that I’m trying to open people up to too large an experience at their introductory experience. Right now, the hikes that I lead, I think I’m more intense than what people are expecting to show up for. Some of these other great teachers have the finesse to ease people into that in a beginner’s class without them knowing. I think that’ll come from experience. I don’t have that right now. I think I hit people too hard on their intro experience. That’s one of the reasons I’m interested in bringing in other teachers that are a little bit more gentle in that approach and haven’t had the experience of taking people as deep, so they’re not going to. I feel like I bring a whole encounter group, weekend encounter group experience, into the way that I say, “Deeply connect to your breath, your purpose, and your intention.”
How much of me are they coming to the trail for? Those people that are coming back, are they coming back for the experience of the trail, or for me, or…? I’m hoping that they’re coming for the yoga and for the trail. I don’t want the Yoga Hike to be a cult of personality. What’s been great is that me, as a dumb ol’ country boy from Beaumont, Texas, people have had profound experiences on those hikes. And I want anybody that has the desire, to provide that, to be able to do that by facilitating a yoga hike.
So the one thing that I would hope that everyone, that I do want to close my experience with everyone with is that, there’s something about this that is a calling for you, and I hope that all the things fall into place in order to make this kind of experience a thing that supports the kind of lifestyle that you want to live. That’s my biggest dream for you and for anybody that’s interested in listening to this conversation between you and I.