• Marsha’s Dharma: Yoga and Social Justice

    Marsha P. Johnson was a drag queen who climbed a light post and changed the world. When she stood before a judge and was questioned about her gender, she answered blithely that the ‘P’ stood for “Pay it no mind.’

    Born in a time where the language didn’t make space for choice of pronouns or gender that diverged from the binary, she was a crusader for acceptance.It’s arguable that much of the progress we enjoy today can be traced back to those nights in 1969 when she and her friends rioted for gay liberation.

    I’m so grateful for Marsha P. She is an icon, a spiritual figurehead and in that sense, mother to a new way of being in the world. She is the Patron Saint of Being Fed Up with The World’s Bullshit. Her legacy is my self love. My self acceptance is due to the yoga that she did in the world, maybe without even knowing it. Because of her and her Stonewall compatriots, I have the ability to be out. To be proud. To do yoga intentionally.

    Pride is political.

    Yoga is political.

    Those with the luxury to say otherwise are out of touch with the reality of life on Earth. The fact is that the power structures at play are designed to keep people in their place and change comes only in equal measure to the will of the people to protest the status quo. The progress that has been made for inclusivity in our society did not come easily. Women threw stones through Parliament windows as they sought the right to vote. African Americans refused to move to the back of the bus, an act of rebellion that often left them bloodied. At Stonewall TLGBQ threw punches and set fires that said enough is enough.

    Yoga is absolutely an internal practice that helps individuals find their own healing, but inner peace that bypasses the struggle for universal equality is just an illusion. Compassion for the self that falls into this trap of ignoring the suffering of others easily transforms into self centeredness. A more whole compassion says, ‘May WE be happy,’ not only ‘May I be happy.’ Informed with this awareness, the yogi in training should take action…

    Yoga most certainly has a political point of view. One of the moral imperatives built into our practice is Ahimsa, the willingness to seek a path towards non harming. This component of yoga does not imply passivity at all, rather it demands the hard work of digging up the roots of violence.

    Ahimsa is one of the first virtues defined in the Yoga Sutras, and as such the path of the yogi should include deep contemplation of the concept. The classical texts ask us to cause no injury in deed, word or thought. This direction should not be taken as a simple commandment however. We must critically evaluate the actions of others, especially those who enjoy privilege over a minority.

    When powerful and corrupt political and societal factions leverage injury and violence against minorities, the yogic action is to advocate for the reduction of harm against those minorities.

    When you understand that police forces routinely oppressed gay communities, arresting them en masse, then you can understand why it was Marsha’s dharma to drop a brick on top of the paddy wagon.

    When you understand that police are killing black people at alarming rates, then you understand why communities are in the midst of an uprising. From deep inside, a voice of knowing is saying: Act up, speak out, fight now or nothing is ever going to change.

    Unfortunately the world is chaotic and truth can be hard to find. We must be discerning and wary of our fears being used to divide us. Fox News and Mr. Trump thrive on stirring up fear and tapping into deeply ingrained racism and phobias to create an unjust anger. This is an anger that is rooted in the idea that the other will come and harm you, attacking your moral sensibility and stealing wealth from your community. This anger is rooted in the delusion of superiority, the mistaken belief that one type of human being has greater value than another.

    Alternatively, sometimes we get angry righteously, but do nothing out of fear that our anger is wrong. The internet is full of memes and ignorant people that make anger seem like the enemy. Being angry with racists and abusers is not poison and your energy is not wasted by feeling this way… These feelings are catalysts of change.

    The question at hand is not ‘Should I be angry?’, because we all definitely should be. The better question here is ‘‘How do I work with all this anger?’

    Yoga teaches me to pause and take a deep breath and find the space to respond skillfully to the pain of injustice. It’s only by seeking conscious contact with the greater powers of my understanding that I keep momentum and know what action is right. When the world mislabeled my anger as hatred, I must tap my soul’s conviction to keep strong and not back down.

    Donate to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute

    I grew up in a small town in the South. My community and even my family installed a program of self hatred into me. The word faggot was thrown around with venom and teeth. I responded to these wounds with a valiant attempt to self destruct through drugs and alcohol. That I’m still alive today is a testament to the great suffering I found when I reached my rock bottom and my subsequent relationship with yoga and the higher powers of my understanding.

    So yes, the truth is that I am very angry and my suffering was so great that it left my convictions crystal clear. I know the damage that white, heteronormative ignorance inflicts. I also know that the fact that I’m still alive feels miraculous, and I should not let a miracle go to waste. Not everyone is so lucky after all. My hero Marsha had suffering greater than mine, but never the sweet comfort of healing.

    I remain confident of my calling to be a voice for change by tuning into the great mystery within me. Looking inward, I am reminded that the nature of the soul is an unanswered question and as such the divinity within each life force must be considered created equal and that we must be willing to fight and sacrifice for this end.

    Yoga Sutra ll.16 teaches us a bit about things that cloud this divinity. This Sutra tells the story of ‘ego’, casting it as all the things that obscure the true self. It names this quality of being ‘Asmita’. It’s the sense that we are something that we are not. It’s a feeling that our value is related to what we DO IN THE WORLD. A problem here is that one might also come to believe self worth is determined by what the WORLD DOES TO YOU.

    Transphobia. Racism. Misogyny. These all stem from the mistaken belief that one kind of human being is superior to another. When I tap my intuition, I suspect that the truth may be that we are all a kind of transgender being. I suspect the immutable soul does not identify with the genitals. Or skin color. Or religion.

    That said, here we are having a human experience that comes with a sexual identity. And race. And social status. We live in a world where the passionately delusional among us leverage intolerance to increase their own status. They fear scarcity and suffering, so they act in ways that force us all out of balance and towards chaos.

    Yoga reminds of us what we still might be. It reminds us of our potential, the possibility within and beyond earthly dramas. It encourages to look past the veil of Asmita, not as a way of disregarding Earthly strife, but rather as a way of remembering why action is demanded. The evolution of our personal soul and collective consciousness is on the line.

    Practice provides practical tools. It reminds us how even the world of the mind, body and senses rage like war, even though we may bring a little peace to them. When I sit still to mediate, sometimes there is great pain. Great internal battles are fought as I try to maintain stillness. In my asana practice, there is great struggle. Finding steadiness in the pose comes only with firm effort and some amount of physical discomfort.

    Yes, I dare say that acute physical and psychological pain are, in my opinion, some of the selling points of yoga. Practice helps me cultivate the desire to stay present. When my entire personal history and future constantly elaborate themselves, arguing they are fated by powers beyond my control, I stay present. When today’s choices seem bound to mistakes made what feels like lifetimes ago, I stay present. When the legacy of prejudice and oppression exert their force, I stay present.

    Yoga reminds me I am not those terrible things I did before. Nor am I the weak and sickly thing that broken human beings would have me believe.

    When I practice, when I connect to a spiritual community, when I turn inward, I sense that there is so much more to me. I feel a deep longing to seek balance for myself and others. This calling is rooted in a knowing that humanity is destined for so much more and a sureness that we must fight for our right to transform and transcend.

    I am a seeker. I am a gay human. My pronouns are he/they. I am a creature made of universal love, just like Marsha P Johnson.

    She started this work of reprogramming all these old beliefs of ‘him or her’ or ‘us and them’. It’s my honor to continue it, standing up for self respect, societal equality, justice and insight.

    The divine gave us a beacon in the form of Marsha. Fueled by a glimpse of our own Godliness, what can’t we fight?

    By Joseph Armstrong

    Donate to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute

    Joseph Armstrong teaches yoga rooted firmly in tradition but with an eye to the future. His search for a more present and peaceful life first led him to the practice in 2008. A few years later he was in India studying intensively. After finally overcoming a long struggle with addiction, Joseph began experimenting with Ashtanga Yoga. He understood quickly that the lineage was calling to him to deepen his practice. He underwent a 2 year apprenticeship program at the world renowned Miami Life Center, continuing his education under his dear teachers Tim Fieldmann and Kino MacGregor. More recently he has completed 2 months of study in Mysore under Sharath Jois. Joseph teaches yoga because attempts to do any and everything else ended disastrously. But when he finally devoted himself to his passion, he became an asset to himself and others. He hopes his practice allows him to be ever more loving and to exist gently.

  • An Interview With Joseph Armstrong

    How much do you know about your favorite OMstars teachers and they’re relationships to yoga? Get ready to find out! Earlier this month we hosted the #ActualizeYogaChallenge with Joseph Armstrong, and if you joined the challenge, you had the opportunity to practice with him on OMstars – The Yoga Network. So this month, we reached out to Joseph to ask him all about his experience with and relationship to yoga, plus a whole bunch of other yoga related questions. These are his answers…

    1. How long have you been practicing yoga and why did you start?

    I began my practice in 2008. I started when a friend invited me to class. I dabbled casually for quite a while, unknowing that it would eventually transform everything.

    1. What is yoga to you?

    On a physical level, Yoga is a process of creating stress in the body and learning to remain calm and relaxed at the same.

    On a psychological level, Yoga is a revelatory process that helps us realize behavioral patterns that we are stuck in and emotional tendencies that are repeating and controlling our lives.

    On a spiritual level, Yoga is about seeking. Perhaps finding we are neither the body nor mind, but something else entirely.

    1. How did you feel after your first yoga class and how do you want students to feel after they practice with you?

    I have an addictive personality. After my first class I knew I wanted more.

    I don’t care how my students feel after practice. 🤷🏽‍♀️ It will vary. Sometimes they’ll feel great. Sometimes they’ll feel like shit. How they feel after any given practice is less important than the fact that they show up with regularity for the long haul. It’s this dedication that will light the fire of yoga in their lives.

    1. What impact has yoga had on your life? Who were you before you started practicing and how have you changed, evolved and transformed?

    The inevitability of everything has become very clear. No matter my grasping or great revulsion, life will happen just the same. The external world will unfold as determined by laws of cause and effect. My opinions and ideas are equally a result of that phenomenon.

    Sometimes I feel yoga is a tool that has helped me restructure my life. Before yoga I was a drug dealer, a liar and a thief. I was existentially morbid and inconsolable. I could not make peace with my place in the world.

    Sometimes I feel that I am a tool that’s helping yoga restructure the universe. I am hopeful now. I’m certain that I am power for good, because I aim to be of service. I am to help those who are suffering as I once did. I have blueprints for living.

    Where once there such great doubt and terrible fear and need for answers, now there is comfort with uncertainty. There’s an adventurers heart. There is a love for possibilities and questions that creation poses.

    1. Why did you decide to start teaching yoga and what makes a good yoga teacher?

    I failed miserably at everything so tried before I committed to yoga. I managed restaurants, sold kids furniture, worked in a carpets factory in the middle of nowhere. You name it… Yoga is the only thing I’ve felt might allow me to devote a life time to it.

    Whenever someone tells me I’m a good teacher, I tend to respond: I’m only doing what my teachers taught me to do. I believe my skill as a teacher derives from my own mentors and our shared devotion to tradition.

    On the other hand, I do have a curious and questioning heart. So I tend to seek both the scientific and spiritual underpinnings of practice. I seek common ground between the two.

    1. What style of yoga do you practice and what makes that style most effective? Do you have a teacher in your style of yoga?

    I practice and teach Ashtanga yoga primarily. It’s very effective in that the sequence is highly structured. Using the Tristhana Method (3 points of convention, movement, gaze and breath) the practice is directed and stabilized. Once these details are memorized, and with substantial practice, the process becomes a meditative one.

    My teachers are R. Sharath Jois, Tim Feldmann and Kino MacGregor.

    I also teach multipractice classes which incorporate Asanas, breath work and mindfulness meditations. I call the practice Actualize. These classes are structured to increase self-observation and utilize the power of the parasympathetic nervous system for relaxation response.

    1. What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out on their yoga journey?

    I kept a practice journal when I first committed to a regular practice. On my second day, the notes read something along the lines of: ‘Hopped on bike and headed towards studio. Turned around half way. Too nervous. Did sun salutations at home instead.

    Starting can be intimidating. And it’s okay to be nervous or scared even. For me the vital part was just not to give up. No matter what keep coming back, even if there are some fits and starts.

    1. What has been your biggest struggle and your biggest milestone in the practice?  

    I struggle with maintaining a deep breath. I smoked my first cigarette when I was 13 and then half a pack a day from the time I was 18 until I was 35. I have had to put a lot of thought into what breath control is in my practice and how to make peace with my very reduced lung capacity. Everyone’s experience of practice will be a bit different, it’s important to see that and fit the practice to differing abilities.

    1. What is your favorite yoga pose and why? And what’s your least favorite yoga pose and why?

    I feel my current work in second series Ashtanga has been a milestone. This sequence has tested my resolve and required me to develop a new level of physical strength from a never-before-tapped well of determination.

    I’ve learned to appreciate that I will not love every posture every day, but it’s important I do them all the same. Likewise, I shouldn’t get too attached to the ones I sometimes gravitate towards, because who knows when injury or illness might make them go…

    Karandavasana has been my buddy for some time now, though. It’s been the slowest progression of my yoga asana development. For over a year I’ve gotten steadily stronger. Recently I lifted my lotus up with some amount of control and confidence. A year ago my nervous system was a wild electrical storm every time the pose approached. Today I remain calm and focused. Something deep within me has shifted. I feel at peace and proud of my long-term dedication. Proud because I suspect I now have something to offer others, because of my devotion and determination I can now be of service to others.  

    1. What has been the most inspirational moment you’ve experienced as a yoga student? And how about as a teacher?

    As a student my most inspirational moment was walking into the KPJAYI Shala in Mysore India for the first time. To be called in by my teacher, Sharath Jois, and given a spot to practice under his guidance was pure magic. There’s something very special about that place and I’m so lucky to have been, and to be returning in June of this year.

    This Mysore Magic inspires my teaching too. It’s only because of this method that I am able to share yoga well, with a sureness granted by the thousands of teachers and practitioners who have come before me. Every practice of Ashtanga yoga begins with the count ‘Ekam, Inhale’. Each time I hear this count, I raise my arms above my head and look up. It’s like I’m moving in unison with every Ashtangi throughout time. It’s powerful.

    1. What’s your favorite yoga quote or mantra?

    I think often about the Amit Ray quote:

    Self-observation is the first step of Inner unfolding.

    I also am very inspired by the quote from drag queen superstar, RuPaul:

    We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.

    1. What is the single most defining issue facing the global yoga community today?

    Yoga is and always has been about developing a more neutral mind, so that we might see the world as it truly is and not as we want it to be. This stillness may offer some revelation. I can’t speak for the masses, but for me this search for clarity defines my practice more than anything else. Even if it’s just my doubts I’m seeing more clearly. I believe many in the modern world are yearning for a neutral, secular yoga. Spiritual, not religious, practice.

    1. What’s the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you as a student and as a teacher?

    Being a recovered addict, it follows that I burned up a lot of valuable brain cells in my misspent youth. Learning new things can be a challenge. Memorizing the sequence of Ashtanga yoga was overwhelming for me initially. I was so embarrassed every time I had to ask my teacher, yet again, what the next pose was.

    Today when I have students who struggle with memorization I feel such empathy. I almost always tell them they can ask me as many times as they need. I joke that if they weren’t there to ask me so many questions I’d be out of a job completely!

    1. Do you have any recommend yoga reading?

    Moola Bandha: The Master Key is a great, easy read. Filled with practices for and philosophy of deep core awareness, it’s been so helpful in my own practice.

    1. What is your dharma, your life mission? 

    In recovery lingo, we say: If you wanna keep what you have, you have to give it away. That’s why I’ve devoted myself to the practice and sharing of yoga. I was a destructive force in the world for so long, but something miraculous occurred when I surrendered to powers greater than myself. My teachers in Ashtanga and my sponsor and peers in Recovery are those greater powers. These people helped me reshape my life, they did for me what I could not do for myself. They set me free to thrive. They gave me a gift that is transmissible, I can help others now. This is my sacred responsibility.

    Joseph Armstrong

    Learn More About Joseph On OMstars

  • The Tristhana Training Ground: Breath, Gaze and Pose in Ashtanga Yoga

    Life feels like it’s been going through a slow-motion upheaval for some months now. Relationships tumbled out of the place I thought they belonged. Teaching opportunities I hadn’t even imagined pushed themselves to forefront. The political vibe of the world has felt erratic and powerful social justice movements have shaken me. The landscape of my life has been changed radically. Amid all this disturbance I have remained dedicated and devoted to my practice, thanks to the 3 stabilizers at its core.

    The Tristhana Method teaches us how to concentrate our attention using the breath, the gaze and both the outward (and deep internal) posture of the body. In Ashtanga yoga we always begin by lifting the arms over the head, drawing our navel in and up. This combination of internal and external movement shapes the pose through outward alignment and the inward bandha. We pair this alignment with a deep inhalation that matches up precisely to the duration of the arms rising. As the palms press together overhead, the drishti (gazing point) becomes fixed on the thumbs.

    This first vinyasa (a term signifying the matching of any one breath movement with any one body movement) of our practice sets us up to expand the mind/body/breath complex in new and intriguing ways. A slow rhythmic breath has a powerful effect on the nervous system. It’s a fact of our biology that as we exhale the heart rate decreases. So we breathe with sound, giving the breath texture, something we can hold on to and extend. The sound is like that of fogging a mirror, but through the nose. This breath control leads to a greater awareness of the inner spaces of the body. We see how the breath creates an openness where calm, dispassionate self-exploration is possible. There is a play of aliveness here that’s suitable for working to balance effort and ease.

    We settle into a gentle coercion around the breathing. We imbue it with just the right meter (even on inhale and exhale) and feeling tone (not too quiet, but not too forced).  When the dynamics of the breath are correct they fuel the practice with a sensation of harmonious propulsion.

    This vinyasa method of linking each movement with an inhale or an exhale allows us to make transitions with fluidity and drives us into the second stabilizer- the posture itself. In Sanskrit we call the pose Asana. Its made up of two parts, the external shape and the subtler internal engagement. The outward appearance of the pose is created by alignment via the measured arrangement of limbs, torso, pelvis, head, toes and fingers. The internal engagement is created by bandha, subtle physical and energetic controls centered deep in the body.

    If the breath gave the inner spaces shape, the then bandha gives them a sense of mass and makes them movable. Uddiyana Bandha feels a bit like drawing the low belly in and up. Moola Bandha activates the pelvic floor. Imagine you have to pee really bad, and there’s a line for the bathroom. Those muscles you squeeze to hold it are the ones you should contract for Moola Bandha. When these two work together they have the effect of suctioning the outer body in. Like a corset, they pull the more external body tissues towards the center, slimming the waist. In this way, the gravity of your core increases and the mass of your body is more easily controlled, pivots more freely around this newly awakened energetic center.

    Bandha brings a sense of lightness. As these deep muscles that were previously unused step up and take on responsibility for some of the body weight, our posture becomes steady and still. To the observer there may appear to be and effortless grace about the practitioner.

    Perhaps the most easily understood of these three tools is the drishti, or gazing point. If the breath and bandha have worked together to cultivate an expansion of the mind/body awareness, then the gaze has the effect of locking it all in place. When we reach the arms over the head in Utkatasana and hold for 5 long breaths, the arms naturally become fatigued. But if the gaze is focused on the thumbs and unwavering, there is a psychic push. Under the strength of the gaze the background blurs out and the fingertips reach up further than you thought possible.

    This three-pronged approach is the proven heart of the Ashtanga Yoga Method. When practiced daily and for a long time, it seems to increase sensitivity, provide clarity and perspective.

    Presidents come and go. Lovers become friends. We wake up to important social truths with a start. Change is always coming, sometimes more quickly than were prepared for. But these moments are prime opportunities for carrying our practice off the mat. When our pulse quickens at the thought of a border wall, take a deep breath and remember that the next President might pull it down. The sight of our old lover with his new one is a cue to focus our eyes and hearts somewhere else. When you’ve heard ‘me too’ just one too many times, or see another black life disregarded and your heart wants to burst? That’s the moment bring the posture of your behavior into alignment with your core conviction.

    The three stabilizers teach us to move in ways that are healing and mindful, to turn our senses inward on the mat. Many Ashtangi’s are finding, as we move through the world of distraction and disturbance, that same self-sure steadiness is coming up. Harmony. Grace. Focus. We’re connecting with a voice of knowing that leads us more adeptly than before. Tristhana has been a training ground.

    By Joseph Armstrong

  • Cut To The Feeling

    In those classic Hollywood silent films, the big climax was always some exciting chase scene. The hero had lost something, and a mad dash ensues to get it back. Filmmakers of the time knew that too much dialogue would bore the audience and they would lose interest in the movie. Instead, the director would cut straight to the fun excitement of the chase. 

     Believe it or not, there is a similar philosophy in Ashtanga Yoga! 

    The physical postures that we practice, Asana, are not the first or even the second focus of yoga. Classic Yoga texts outline eight principles, of which asana is the third. 

    Instead of exploring all 8 limbs right away, our Guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois guided his students towards a physical practice that would include all the branches in one method. He summed up this philosophy simply, by saying that yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory. He laid out a detailed yoga sequence requiring strength, flexibility and focus, leading to ever-growing self-awareness.  

    In the west yoga is often synonymous with a physical fitness routine. Given Jois’ ‘99% practice’ suggestion, that might be an understandable conclusion. But what initially could be perceived as a form of exercise, is in fact a spiritual path.  

    So, ask yourself: In the movie of your life, what have you lost? What are you in pursuit of? Do you wonder why you’re here and what your purpose is? What are you chasing? What do you seek? Do you have big questions? 

    As a teacher of yoga, I could point you towards ancient writings or challenging seated meditations that could potentially help you find true, personal answers to these questions. But instead, I follow the lead of my own teachers and advise you to start a simple, daily practice of yoga asana. You will discover that all the questions and answers come together there! 

    So, when in doubt get physical and cut straight to the feeling. Start with what you know – get in your body and get on your mat. See what happens when you come face to face with yourself. Keep showing up every day, for a long time. Practice with the three big Ds: Dedication, Determination and Devotion. Chase that inner life! 

    By Joseph Armstrong 

    Joseph Armstrong is a yoga teacher at Miami Life Center and the Tierra Santa Spa. Follow him on instagram @josepharmstrongyoga or explore other available Ashtanga style practices on Omstars!

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