by Lindsay Miller
“Authenticity will lead to a rich life” according to Tony Robbins, star of the Netflix documentary I Am Not Your Guru. Following Robbins and his team over the course of a six-day seminar, the film records personal breakthroughs in live, life-changing conversations. Robbins runs through a series of examples and testimonies to ensure the attendees leave the event with a new perspective on the thoughts that motivate their behavior and help them take control of their lives. He digs deep into buried wounds and dysfunctionalities in order to help each person discover more about themselves. In the simplest terms, Robbins helps people help themselves. In so many words, Chris Byford does, too.
Chris Byford regularly instructs at Shakti Power Yoga on Music Row, as well as guest teaches at special events and other classes around town. Everything from Yoga for Dudes at Vigor Fitness and Wellness Studio to the Music City Yoga Festival at Rocketown in front of large yogi crowds, Byford throws his whole heart into his work through his devotion to community involvement. He enables his clients, spreads his love, and shares his joy. Just picture him like a real life Buddy the Elf—always creating authentic relationships every where he goes. But Byford would never tell you that. He may not even know that. Although his friends and colleagues see him as all those things and more, Byford is just being himself.
“I realized I could make the world a better place through yoga,” he says when discussing his occupational transitions. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Originally from Nashville, Byford began college at the University of Tennessee but eventually moved to graduate from the University of South Florida in Tampa. But it wasn’t until 2006—nearly 10 years later—when he pursued his calling in life as an educator. Byford began as a teacher of social sciences for middle schoolers and later high school students. He coached a variety of sports ranging from swimming to basketball. These early beginnings would later influence his charity work and attitude toward teaching that he practices today.
Much like Tony Robbins, who claims to not be your guru even though everybody calls him one, Byford claims to simply be a student of the universe when he is really our trusted yogi.
I am not your judge.
When I asked Byford what the hardest yoga pose was, he responded with,“Whichever one you can’t do.” As a follow-up, I asked him what his favorite yoga pose was and he answered similarly, “Whichever one I can’t do.” Then he proceeded to do a headstand and fall backwards onto the floor with a huge thud and a laugh. But instead of getting down on himself and expecting more, Byford uses many of his experiences with yoga as lessons for improvement.
“Mostly, you learn to be humble,” he says, ensuring us he is not here to judge. He is not here to condemn another person’s skill level. He is here to make you connect to your soul. And he has plenty of ways to do that.
The story of his first yoga class is likely the most revealing of his character. Byford says he fell from a pose and immediately got frustrated. Pounding his fists on the floor out of anger, he was asked to leave the class. His pride kicking in, he came back to try again. When he failed a second time, again there was irritation and he was asked to leave another time. This continued until he learned to calm himself and respect the flow. His persistence evolved to outweigh his competitive nature and he began to open his heart to the power of yoga .
You don’t try yoga once and then have the heavens suddenly part to reveal a spiritual gleam of sunlight. Life does not immediately get better; it takes time just like anything else. But life puts weight on us and everyone carries a burden—whether we choose to recognize it or not. To Byford, his practice and his mindset makes that weight a little bit lighter each time. And even if we only feel lighter for a moment, we owe ourselves and our well-being that piece of relief and peace of mind.
“Anyone could say, and they do, ‘I’ll never be able to do something like a headstand’ (or whatever scares them), and then one day, after they keep showing up, it happens! And they realize, all these things they said they could never do are possible when they keep showing up,” Byford explains. “Once these impossible things become possible, you start to question all the other things you thought were impossible. And that is how you become empowered in your life.”
There is no judgment passed by showing up. In fact, quite the opposite. Byford says, “Everyone comes to class for a different reason, so I always make sure they know that by verbally communicating it every session.” It’s an opportunity to hit the reset button each class.
I am not your master.
“In order to be a master, you must also be an artist,” Byford says. In 2013, Byford and his wife, Mandi, were living in Tennessee and because they had studied and attended yoga classes for some time now, they decided their attendance was necessary at the Wanderlust Oahu festival in Hawaii. It was here Byford was introduced to his personal vision of a master and artist: Baron Baptiste. Baptiste’s style is more of an expressive art. After a few classes and some meaningful conversations, Byford’s commitment to yoga was solidified even further.
Baptiste runs the Power Yoga Institutes in Boston and Philadelphia and is known for his Vinyasa Flow classes that combine elements of Bikram, Ashtanga, Raja, and Iyengar yoga. Due to Baptiste’s influences, Byford sees every soul as a pupil and as an artist—he believes we are all capable of being taught and mastering something.
Byford says, “One of my dreams is to create a [yoga] teaching certification for high school students with classes they can take during the school year. That way, by the end of their academic calender, they have a teacher’s certificate.” Byford is shooting to have this implemented in 2018 and has been getting a lot of support from the Mayor’s Office. Nashville would be the first city in the country that carry this type of curriculum in the schools.
Not only does Byford have this innate desire to pay it forward, he wants to involve as many people as he can in sharing his experiences. “We are also partnering with St. Thomas and trying to make it fit within their programing as well,” he gratefully expresses.
Practicing yoga with high schoolers means more than a certification though; it means building strength of character. “For high school kids to be confident at leading a group or team [in the real world], they should be able to lead a class that empowers others to do internally empowering things,” he says. “It just puts kids on the right path.”
I am not your savior.
Byford most commonly teaches hot yoga and says he enjoys how “the heat takes away physical resistance.” This particular style melts away the doubt and fears that can physically hold us back. When the high temperature and sweat force you to focus on breathing, then your headspace can become clearer. “When you take that physical resistance away, you get access to everything else. It’s mainly about forming a foundation,” he explains.
He encourages his students to embrace self-control. Byford says that if we view the path as the obstacle, we begin to notice that following our heart and creating our own path yields greated results rather than following expectations. “We are missing self-acceptance,” he states, “but once you realize you’re the one building the fire then you realize you’re in control. When you are in control of the fire, it’s no longer burning you, it’s cleansing you. And the resistance melts away.”
Byford doesn’t teach in order to liberate his participants. He is a teacher in order to show each one how to save themselves.
I am not your guru.
Byford’s willingness to serve as our leader, but continue to follow his own spiritual compass, is what makes him our faithful yogi. Integrity means everything to him and his practice isn’t important because it works, it is important because it matters.
“The practice is called a practice because you do the work on your mat and then you go live it in your own life,” he explains. “It’s not just a practice for your body. It’s a practice that works in your life and in your relationships. Once you’ve found that inner solitude you should value your individual strength, but also learn to share it.”
Byford believes Nashville is heavily community-driven. “We should celebrate personal growth, but we should go beyond that to make it work within a community. This is what we do at Small World Yoga. We want to bring empowerment to communities so they can empower themselves from within. It’s no longer us showing up to make a difference, it is them making a difference of their own.”