Chatting with Carson Clay Calhoun
Internationally Acclaimed Yogi and Handstand-Up Comedian
By: Mary Von Ahnen, Co-Owner Horizon Hot Yoga in Frisco
Conducting an interview with Carson Clay Calhoun is just as easy as being around him in a yoga workshop. Carson is open and friendly, and he laughs a lot. His easy-going nature and sense of humor (which I learned in the interview he gets from his dad) makes our conversation chock-full of fun and wisdom! The description of Carson on his website (carsonclaycalhoun.com) certainly conveys our experience at Horizon Hot Yoga with his workshops.
“A self-described Handstand-Up Comedian, Carson combines his love for being upside-down with his natural ability to make people laugh. During his workshops, trainings, and retreats, students are encouraged to push their limits and explore their edge, while maintaining a playful attitude. In every instance, one can be sure to break a sweat, learn something new, and leave with a smile on his or her face.”
I spent an enjoyable and informative hour with Carson learning more about this funny, sensitive, authentic man who has guided thousands of students, from all corners of the world, deeper in their yoga practices. Carson will be leading Horizon’s 200-hour teacher training in February 2020.
I first wanted to know the answer to a basic question for which there are as many different answers as there are yogis. Carson, how do you define yoga?
- I define yoga as the quieting of the mind. We all live such busy lives, and we run around with monkey mind as a default switch. Yoga is designed to lead us into silence. This silence in the mind becomes even more important in difficult postures. It seems like it might be harder to achieve this quiet in difficult postures, but it’s actually essential to quiet your mind to DO difficult postures. A peaceful mind extends so far beyond the yoga mat. It becomes the foundation of a fulfilled life.
I know your mom has a studio, but apparently you did not get into yoga until 2010. What was your early life like growing up in a yoga environment and what finally brought you to your yoga practice?
- I was always into sports when I was young…soccer, basketball. I was so close to my dad then because he was in it with me, taking me to games, coaching my teams. I didn’t have any use for yoga. That was just something Mom did. But over the years, yoga must have worn off on me. Mom finally convinced me to start practicing. It was a wonderful reconnecting with her and now I feel like it’s my mission in life to spread the word to young athletes who see yoga as “stupid” or “only for girls.” I want them to see that yoga is a great complement to any sport. The best thing about yoga is that you don’t need much of anything… just a mat. It’s all organic body-weight exercises. It’s challenging for everybody. I love that I came from an athletic upbringing, and I can work with athletes to make a “bro” try a little bit harder.
What styles of yoga have you trained in? What is your favorite?
- Mom’s studio was an Ashtanga studio. That was the first style of yoga that I adopted and practiced. I love the rigidity. The systematic sequence helps to quiet the mind. It’s all about repetition. I’m in love with the power of breath and movement, and Ashtanga was my first intro to this. Then I got into Rocket Yoga. It’s like Ashtanga but with more freedom and fun and room for creativity. There is still discipline of breath. It’s hard to pick a favorite yoga style. It depends on the day and my mood. Usually I like an Ashtanga practice because there is nothing to think about, but if I feel creative, I like the play of Acro yoga. Picking people up or letting people pick me up or fly on my feet like an airplane is fun. It’s a connection between people when we play like children together. We are a human-contact deprived society with cell phones. Acro yoga brings connection.
Whom do you admire and why?
- Mom and Dad for raising the family they did. I have two older sisters. As a kid you don’t realize what the world is. Our parents didn’t spoil us, but they made sacrifices to make our childhood great. Dad worked for the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). He went into Washington DC everyday 8am to 6pm, but when he got home, he took us to soccer and basketball practice. Maybe my parents had free time, but not much. My oldest sister and I are 6 years apart, so that means my parents spent 25 years of their lives raising kids. And they’re still raising us! We still need Mom and Dad. I am the exact combo of them. Mom is the yoga teacher, community builder, and I have some of that. My dad is a goof. If people know me and then they meet him, they get it. I got my humor from him…he is super funny.
- My other dad is Ben Lampert. He’s my best friend from the second grade and now my business manager. I admire him so much for so many reasons. He doesn’t come from the yoga world. He’s a jock. But he is a yogi in the way he lives intuitively by the yamas and niyamas. For someone who can’t touch his toes, he’s living a more yoga life than someone who is flexible but doesn’t have his mind right. He helps me so much with my business. His professionalism and work ethic are amazing. The yoga world is run by flighty, free-spirited people, and it’s refreshing to work with Ben, who is really what professionalism in the yoga world should be like. When he’s not taking care of me, Ben is a full-time realtor with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Innovative Real Estate, covering Boulder County here in Colorado. Ben found me my home! I see Ben’s work ethic and serve-first attitude shine through in that business too. No surprise, his team has won several excellence awards. (Shameless plug for my bro…check him out at https://www.zillow.com/profile/ben893/)
- LeBron James is my favorite athlete of all time. He is such a team player and is freakishly athletic. But he is more than an athlete. He started a school in his home town where any kid who graduates receives a full-ride scholarship to the University of Akron. LeBron is my celebrity crush.
What changes have you seen in yourself in your nearly decade-long practice?
- I am a lot more open-minded. I came to the practice from a close-minded point-of-view. I was a stellar athlete. In my mind, what else is there to know? At 23, I felt I had arrived. It was humbling to learn I didn’t know anything. The more that I learn, the more I realize how much there is to learn. Although I feel confident in my trainings and that I have wisdom to share, it is because I have learned from experiencing so much. It’s all about context. There isn’t a right or wrong. I want to be humble and have a beginner mindset, even if I am going into something that is not challenging. I can find the joy in it and keep my judgments to myself. I am interested in discussion, not lecture. I like to go deeper into the “why.” Even in my physical practice, I play more and do a lot of sampling. I don’t push myself in the risky ways I did when I was new in my practice. I usually tried the risky things just for the cool picture, like doing a handstand on a balcony. Now I’m not concerned with putting on a show. I also feel it’s irresponsible to encourage others to do that, and it doesn’t represent what a yoga practice is all about. In addition to being wiser and more humble now than when I was new, I also have a much nicer beard. I’m slowly losing the hair on my head. I’m transitioning the hair from the top of my head to the bottom…people won’t even notice. (Classic Carson chuckle)
What tips do you have for someone brand-new to yoga?
- Just show up and keep showing up. Everyone was new at one point. You are no different. This stuff works, but it’s not a quick fix. You might have “ah-ha” moments that will change your life, but mostly it’s about showing up and doing the work. Try learning from lots of teachers, styles, studios, temperatures. Find a teacher you vibe with. The right teacher will inspire you. Yoga asana practices are so beautiful. It’s not an equipment-dependent practice, like Orange Theory or Pilates. You can do it any time, anywhere in the world. It’s with you wherever you want to take it. Some of the coolest stuff to see is the body transformation, whether the personal goal is to build muscle, lose fat, increase range of motion, or anything else.
You have built a business around yoga, in addition to being deeply committed to yoga as a way of life. How do you balance making time to continue to grow your own practice with making yoga your business?
- This is one of my biggest struggles. I’m still learning about how to build a yoga business. A big part of success is having a team, and it’s a huge team if you think about all the studio managers where I do workshops, etc. And then I have an inner circle of Ben and Carson…it has been super helpful having Ben’s perspective. I’ve struggled with not burning myself out. I like to be impeccable with my word. I honor my commitments. I sometimes find myself in multiple cities in a few weeks. I get over-excited because I just love teaching. If you are going to give me space to train teachers, I’m going to say yes. I need to find balance and know when to say “no.” I just returned from 3 months on the road: Denver, Wisconsin, Washington, Chicago, London, and Dublin. Now I am at home for 6 weeks so I can ground myself. Some days I am physically so tired that my teaching takes the place of my own practice. I want to have enough energy for myself and others. I am learning how much space and “me time” I need so I can give 100% of myself to others. People say I am living the dream, and I am, but there is a dark side to being on the road a lot. I was in a hotel recently with a lot of leaks in the roof. Each leak was playing a different musical note when it dripped. It was water torture. (Pause for a rich Carson laugh.) I try not to complain because I know I am so blessed.
What does your yoga practice look like on a daily basis?
- It’s very different day to day. If I am teaching at a studio, I like to drop into their classes. A lot of times if I’m in a hotel, I put my mat out between the bed and the mini- fridge. I sometimes can’t do a handstand in a hotel. I’m nearly 9 feet tall in a handstand! I also do a lot of soft yoga, like rolling around on the ground, intuitive movement, not scripted or a set sequence. I sometimes do whatever an animal does…stretching and moving my joints in every way I can. The one thing that is consistent is my meditation practice. It could be morning, night, or whatever, but it’s a large chunk of time breathing and doing nothing. Sometimes on overnight flights, there’s not a lot to do so I breathe…I count my breaths, alternate nostrils, etc. I can breathe really loud, like I’m fogging up my ear drums. (Interesting visual).
What do you do to continue to deepen your practice and learn?
- I love consistency and routine when I can get it. I like going to the gym every day and lifting weights and tracking numbers and progress. If I could do the splits for a minute yesterday, I want to do it for a minute plus 10 seconds today. I go through different stages. Right now I am recovering from the grind of flying and teacher trainings, and now my body is ready to begin another phase. In the past, I could get overly obsessed with postures and goals, and then I would get really busy and lose progress. Now I just embrace the opportunity to practice and not worry if I am not achieving goals. I’ve been stronger and more flexible than I am now, but it’s ok. It feels great to just try to trend upward with no attachment to achieving a goal.
We are absolutely thrilled to have you with us February 4 – March 3, 2020, to teach Horizon Hot Yoga’s 200-hour teacher training. Tell us a bit about your approach to sharing your wisdom with people who are looking to become teachers.
- I am so stoked to spend a month with you. I am already familiar with your community. They are happy, hard-working people, which is exactly who I want to work with. I’m so excited for the depth we are going to achieve by spending all day, every day for a month together. I can’t teach my life’s work in a two-day workshop. We are going to learn through doing. There will be theory, but yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory. In order to even understand the theory you have to do the practice. It will be a physical experience. You can only share your practice with the world by experiencing it. We won’t burn out our bodies, but the physical transformation from day 1 to 28 will be incredible. What I love in these trainings is not just me leading the trainings, although I will lead and want you to be challenged. But I love when the trainees teach. Even on the first day, we will break into small groups and teach sun salutations. Every day, I want people to practice teaching. I did my 200-hour training 10 years ago, and we didn’t practice much at all. We didn’t graduate as teachers. We just graduated as students. I got a job teaching this crappy gym yoga. Through 2 or 3 years of teaching bad yoga, I got to be a better teacher. 200 hours is not enough, but we are going to do everything we can. I want to get as much practice into our month as possible, and we will give each other positive and constructive feedback. I want to see postures, bodies, and shapes improve and see yoga teachers come out. I want to see the growth as leaders who can talk to the room. I want people to be on the path to becoming authentic. Being in a small group of yogis is a good time to make a mistake. In the beginning, students will be nervous. I will even be nervous! Then it will become the easiest thing. First comes the work as a student. Face your demons and confront them with a daily practice. I want people to find their voice and step into the role of leader.
Outside of your yoga fun, what do you do to enjoy yourself?
- I love to golf. I love to play…play anything. I love to play outside, with a dog, or play catch and run around in the grass. I love Colorado because nature is so beautiful here. My favorite place in the world is a specific beach in Costa Rica. I’m spending three months in Costa Rica next year hosting a retreat and taking a 500-hour teacher training. My favorite place is to be neck deep in waves, floating around, body surfing. I’m guilty of watching Netflix. I’d rather do that than go to a party because I get so much social interaction with all the great yoga connections. I love the alone time, preferably with sunshine. Oh, and I love to play Fortnight! It is the most popular video game in the world. It’s introverted recharge time for me to put on headphones and explore the beautiful world in this game, even though I am shooting people. (Somewhat sheepish laugh) I love basketball. Being a contact sport, basketball speaks to my inner athlete. There is physical contact with a group of other humans and the use of different positions of your hips and legs in order to score a basket. I love the teamwork of basketball and the cardiovascular physicality of it. Playing 1:1 basketball sounds miserable, but 2:2 or 5:5 with friends is great. Doing anything with friends. I also love Settlers of Catan. It’s a solid board game. I say I’m 33, but I’m closer to 18. I never had to grow up. (There’s a lot of glee in this laugh!)
What else would you like to share with us about your life or practice to inspire and guide those of us reading this interview?
- Have I ever told you I was a professional poker player? I grew up playing. My dad is a very good card player…bridge, gin rummy, spades, hearts. My senior year of high school, we were skipping class and playing cheap $5 poker. Then we got to college, and I found online poker, which was huge. It’s cool online because you can play multiple tables at a time. By the time I graduated, it was a full time job and my source of income. I never went to job fairs after college or anything. I didn’t care that much about GPA. I got my degree in computer science and systems engineering. I knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. I was making as much money as my friends doing consulting for Deloitte. I was living in a house with a bunch of poker players. I never had to get into a suit. I did that for 5 years. In 2010 the Department of Justice shut down all internet poker, and that was right when I was getting into the yoga world. It was a great segue from running my own business into the world of yoga. I never lost my spark. I never had my enthusiasm ground out of me. I never had a daily commute or had to work for The Man. (A smirky laugh here.)
Carson will be leading Horizon’s 200 hour Vinyasa teacher training February 3 through March 4, 2020. Early bird discount price through December 2, 2019 is $2500; price after December 2 is $3000. To register and for more information, visit www.horizonhotyoga.com.
About the Interviewer:
Mary Von Ahnen has been in corporate leadership positions for more than 25 years. She just retired as the CIO at Fossil. She has also held leadership roles on many non-profit Boards. Mary and her husband Mike own Horizon Hot Yoga in Frisco, which offers Ashtanga, Rocket Yoga, Vinyasa, Hot 26, and other types of yoga.