• 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

  • A Time To Listen

    We are living in a challenging and powerful time. A bright light is being aimed at our shadows of racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, prejudice, violence, and hate. These elements of our nature have always existed, though sometimes they have changed forms, sometimes hid from view, sometimes remained visible but ignored. Systemic, institutionalized oppressions are being identified and called out. Claims of injustice are beginning to be taken seriously. Evidence via phone cameras brings horrors that have always been experienced by some to the consciousness of the many. Groups are collecting, unifying to bring about change. What certainly may be an increase in hate and violence recently is coinciding with greater illumination of what has always been there.

    The marginalized populations have always known. Women have always known the degree to which they experience harassment, assault, manipulations of power dynamics. People of color have always known that systems of racism were alive, well, and strong. Trans people have always been aware of the dangers they face when confronted with fear and ignorance. Oppressed people are gaining agency in spaces where they had little or none. Now, those of us that have never been affected personally are becoming aware. And now, we are faced with choices. We can continue to bury our heads in the sand, deny and fight the truth, or we can join this building wave, support the voices demanding justice and change, contribute our efforts to something important and right.

    My two children are biracial. While I think of myself as someone who always believed in equality, a feminist and anti-racist, having children that are directly affected by racist ideologies and institutions has certainly made it personal – to a degree. My first son was born six years ago, and at the time I had an idealized view of interracial relationship, and the biracial offspring born of them. My immediate community was diverse and had been for years. I had minimal negative experiences related to my relationship, my friendships, my work, etc. Of the very few I had, I was able to package them up as isolated, fringe, and atypical. Discussions in my personal life or online that became racially charged were a place that I felt comfortable standing up, speaking out. I would passionately share what I believed and then move on with my life.

    As the Black Lives Matter movement gathered strength, and my boys got older, and a new president was elected, I found myself speaking out less and listening more. I began from a place of desire to identify, to myself and others, as non-racist, or anti-racist. It took a while to recognize how self-serving that desire was, and that it literally benefited no one but myself. I decided to only offer my voice when it would benefit the conversation, when it would positively contribute to the fight. In conversations where I used to know exactly what to say, I found myself at a loss for words. I don’t want to say the wrong thing, to offend, to appear ignorant, or arrogant. I felt helpless. And I think this is appropriate. This has been a part of my process. I gradually came to recognize that I, as a white female, will never, ever know what it is like to exist in our culture as a man, as a person of color, as a non-cisgendered person. I came to acknowledge when and where my voice is not needed, not beneficial, not helpful. As I found myself in spaces, both virtual and real, where important conversations were being had, instead of speaking, I learned to listen.

    I listened to the points of view of bigoted, ignorant, racist people. I listened and heard their beliefs, I learned of their pain, fear, anger. I learned what I shared with them, how I was like them. I listened and learned from the privileged, from the saviors and light workers. I learned that people don’t feel comfortable exploring and acknowledging their darkness – that of their culture and that of their soul. I listened and learned from POC. I came to recognize how little I knew, how little I understood, and how great was my own participation in, and benefit from systems of inequality and dynamics of power and marginalization.

    I am still immersed in this process, but through listening I am coming to acknowledge when my voice should stay silent. There are organizations and forums and conversations where the voices of POC are strengthening and getting louder and finally being heard. In these spaces, my voice is not needed, or wanted, or beneficial. There is nothing I can add to the conversation from my perspective, from my life experience, that produces anything beyond a salve to my own white guilt and sense of helplessness. In these spaces, I can offer myself as a soldier at their command, an additional hand set to a task. I can offer myself as a support to their work.

    There are places I have decided I can affect change, where my voice can be heard. It is in conversations with other white people. There are spaces where POC are not invited, where their voices are silenced. Those people that would not hear a black person, might hear me. A message that would be resisted if coming from a person of color, might seep through the barriers when spoken by me. When I am in a white dominated space and racism is present, my voice needs to be heard. For too long, we have been silent as our uncles tell inappropriate jokes, when we observe our boss passing up qualified employees because of their name, when a random comment by a stranger in line at the grocery store is said a little too loudly. These are the places we should be speaking. Our silence is complicity.

    Each day that passes and my boys get older, I become more and more unsure of how to raise them in this world. I mentioned above that this issue has become a personal one only to a degree. I am limited in my understanding of what they will experience by my whiteness and my gender. I have no idea how they will experience the world as children born of such different truths as mine and their father’s. What I can do now is listen: To the world as new voices and truths rise to the forefront, and to my boys, as they begin to share their world with me. Their experiences will form their truth and will inform my reaction which will, in turn, influence their reality. I will make mistakes, I have already made so many. But if I listen, I may continue to learn something along the way.

    A spiritual practice, like yoga, asks us to be present. To face our challenges, to sit in difficulty and just breathe. We aim to find steadiness and peace in our discomfort, pain, and ugliness. As you struggle to find your place in this time of change and activism, I ask you to take this method of self-study beyond the mat. Stay in moments of discomfort, pain, and ugliness. Don’t avoid the darkness, in fact, seek it out. Join Facebook groups that you wouldn’t otherwise be a part of. Go to community meetings. Go to social venues that stray outside of your usual. Have conversations with people different than you. Stay, breathe – and listen. As you absorb the truths of another’s experience, you will learn where you fit. You will learn how to apply your unique circumstances, perspective, skills, and talents to something important.

    By Angelique Sandas

    Practice With Angelique On OMstars