At 60 years old, weighing in at more than 200 pounds, and with a 45-year history of substance abuse, Dwight Armstrong had tried nearly everything to stay clean and sober.
The Sacramento native has been in and out of the prison system, totaling roughly 15 years. The hold that drugs had on him was out of control. “I didn’t want to hear nothing from nobody, it was my way or no way,” Armstrong said.
Only a few months ago, in late 2012, Armstrong found himself back in drug court, after failing court-mandated drug treatment for people convicted of non-violent drug possession offenses. Instead of doing what he’s tried and failed at in the past, Armstrong enrolled in a nutrition, yoga and acupuncture program. It may have saved his life.
Before starting, Armstrong couldn’t reach his toes, and had to drop down to one knee just to tie his shoes. His aging body started talking to him more, and like most people, he initially started practicing yoga for the physical benefits.
Armstrong began attending Sacramento’s weekly Yoga in the Park class in McKinley Park, a free yoga class offered by the non-profit Yoga Across America (YAA), headquartered in Sacramento. Eventually he built up to five classes a week throughout the city, including another free class at the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services in Oak Park, also provided by YAA.
“After the third session of yoga, it began to click,” Armstrong said on a recent evening before a class at the food bank. “At first I thought it was just a physical activity, you know, hold the position, but a couple months later I began to see it was more about me and how I felt and how I responded to different stimuli from the outside.”
Since attending YAA’s free community classes, Armstrong has not only dropped weight – more than 40 pounds at this point – he’s also dropped old patterns and ways of thinking. It turns out, flexibility extends way beyond being able to touch your toes. Earlier this month he celebrated 250 days of sobriety, which he attributes largely to his new lifestyle.
“I can’t even express how this has changed my whole life,” he said. “You can’t un-ring the bell, the milk is already spilled, but I wish they had something like yoga in these (drug rehabilitation) programs, the therapeutic movement, it’s almost like a spiritual type of thing for the soul.”
Armstrong says drugs controlled his life since age 15: using, getting, and how to get more. “Yoga has been such a powerful instrument, I believe, in giving me the ability to quit using, and find something else, to find out who I am and what strengths I have, and how to look at stuff,” he said.
Armstrong’s life is one of thousands touched by the outreach programs provided by YAA. The non-profit brings yoga to the people in underserved communities, high schools, cancer centers, hospitals, military bases and more. In an effort to keep the organization alive and growing, YAA is holding a marathon class this Saturday, Sept. 14 at McKinley Park from 9 a.m. to noon. Show up early, around 8:30 a.m. for a chance to score free yoga gear.
Billed as a practice of 108 sun salutations, hundreds of yogis will unite under the morning sun and move through the sequence of poses. The extreme practice is a way to raise consciousness and funds, while building and serving the community.
"This event is all about connection, service and love,” said Gina Garcia, founder of YAA. “We have more than 15 area yoga studios coming out to teach and take the challenge. It’s a chance for the greater Sacramento yoga community to come together and illustrate what this practice is all about. It’s a gift for us to receive and to give."
In addition to funding current programs such as yoga with U. S. military veterans and yoga at the food bank, money raised will also help support some of Yoga Across America’s newest outreach, including yoga for the deaf and yoga in prisons.
"We love this practice and we want to share it with people from all walks of life,” Garcia said. “It’s drastically changed our lives. Co-creating transformation and inspiration is what this all about.”
For Armstrong, this practice has given him a new shot at life. Together with a 12-step program, he has discovered something that can’t always be put into words, but he experiences it in a powerful way.
“In this short period of time I’ve seen tremendous peacefulness within me,” he said. “Every time, after every yoga class, I feel wonderful. I might sweat a little bit, but there’s something magical to it.
“I wake up in the morning refreshed. Friends say, ‘What are you doing?’ I say, ‘Warrior 1, I’m holding my warrior through this bullshit we’re going through.’” He said. “Mentally I hold it.”
He recently underwent a significant surgery – he had more than 10 of his top teeth removed at once – and right after entering the dentist office, Armstrong meditated for a few minutes, and then held one of his favorite poses – Warrior 2 – for a couple minutes. “It took the fear out of me,” Armstrong said. “And I could see even if I’m nervous or scared about it, it’s gonna pass.”
It’s more than stretching and toning the physical body, he said. The practice starts to feel real when the inside shifts. For example Armstrong no longer gets angry if someone cuts him off while driving. He doesn’t stress out when traffic backs up. There’s no more blaming people, or holding onto pain and anger from the past.
“I feel more human, I guess that’s the best way to put it,” Armstrong said. “I just think it’s a miracle that I found it, and Yoga Across America has exposed me and a lot of other people to something you can do at your house, at a studio, at free classes.
“It’s more than movement, it’s inside movement, something that changes inside,” he said. “I just tap right into it.”