The latest in the series…
There was a period in my life when I went to multiple yoga classes a day. It was the September after I graduated college. My summer job had just ended, and I couldn’t begin my next job until obtaining a foreign visa from a notably anti-American country. It looked like I wouldn’t get the visa. I had no plan-B. The future looked bleak. I woke up each morning on edge.
So I bought the “new member special” at Downtown Yoga in Melbourne, FL for a month of unlimited yoga. And it helped. While I tried to answer the “what now?” that visa denial occasioned, I was too tired and sore to be nervous. Plus, the yoga teachers said things like “We are surrounded by the love of the universe,” and I believed them. What I wouldn’t find out until years later, was that the studio itself, the very successful Downtown Yoga, was one woman’s answer to another “What now?” moment. But while my period of flux lasted little more than a month, hers lasted over a year.
Soccer, Soccer, Soccer, No Soccer
When we sat down in a lull between classes, and I asked Downtown Yoga creator and owner Annette Armstrong to give me some background on her life, she began with soccer, at the age of 3. Of course, by high school, or middle school even, she was extremely good. By college, Armstrong had earned herself a soccer scholarship to Florida’s Rollins College. She played professionally in Orlando, Florida. Then, still in their mid-twenties, she and husband Scottie started the Three Lions Soccer Academy in Melbourne, Florida while working day jobs as high school teachers. In 2002, Armstrong won U.S. Youth Soccer’s girls coach of the year. So why did she leave?
“You have a husband and wife, two very competitive individuals, and very young, moving into a small town where there are parent-coaches,” Armstrong explained. “And [these parent-coaches] were successful in their own arenas, as doctors, lawyers, engineers. But when it came to the developmental skills, tactical, technical skills . . . It always reminded me of the Bad News Bears when we moved to Melbourne. . . [Scottie and I] created a lot of tension.”
After soccer practice one day a father of one of the children came up to Armstrong and said “Hey Annette, I have a question for you — actually, I’ll ask Scottie. He knows what he’s talking about.” Armstrong describes this dig of just one in a slew, but the one that “finally put a bug in my ear.”
“At that moment, I realized that I was starting to take it personally, and that I had to let go,” Armstrong said. “I had to ask myself, Annette, you either save your marriage, or you maintain your role in the club. So I came to a crossroad where I had to decide to stay or go.”
Armstrong was 31 when she pulled out of the club. “And that was a very interesting part of my life,” she said. “Because I had to decide, what was I going to do?” The temporary support that Armstrong grabbed on to was yoga.
Because she had free time, because she came from California, “where there’s a yoga studio on every street corner,” and because she was a long-time athlete, Armstrong did a lot of yoga in the wake of pulling out of the club Then she did a lot of yoga trainings. And then, in Seattle, in a prenatal yoga training, of all places, there was the breakthrough/ Yoga started to be something bigger to Armstrong.
“We were pretending to be pregnant, and I was practice teaching. [The instructor] she was reminding me of everything that I was not bringing up,” Armstrong said. Armstrong would tell the class to get into Downward Dog, and the instructor would say “Wait Annette! This woman has Sciatica! She can’t do this pose!” Or Armstrong would get the class into Tree, and the instructor would bring up the uncomfortable swelling in the legs of another pretend-pregnant woman.
“All of a sudden,” Armstrong said, “I’m getting hot. My breathing is going a little bit. There goes the bottom lip. I looked at the instructor and ask if I could be excused. She said no.”
“I couldn’t perform. I got everyone in child’s pose and broke down crying like a little baby. It was a controlled cry, because that’s who I am. But I was crying, and I was in public.”
At this moment in the interview, Armstrong reminds me that her whole life up until the prenatal yoga class in Seattle had been about soccer, and she was good at soccer.
“My whole entire life I had only made decisions to put myself in positions where I was going to succeed,” Armstrong said. Back at the hotel Armstrong thinks to herself: “Why am I even trying to teach prenatal yoga? I don’t even have children. I can just skip the rest of the training.”
Then she considers the hassle involved in changing around her flight home. She calls up her four best friends, and they say “It’s about time Annette. You have this ability to turn your emotions on and off like a faucet.” Armstrong ended up staying. And it was at that prenatal yoga teacher training that she really started to teach.
So she continued yoga trainings, but her endgame was never just to teach yoga. For one, at the time, there was only one existing yoga studio in the area, thus the area couldn’t support more than a handful of yoga instructors. For two, she had been an entrepreneur before. Why not be an entrepreneur again?
Hurricanes Inside and Out
For Florida, Armstrong couldn’t have picked a better time to build a business. She arrived home from a three-month yoga training to absolute chaos. Hurricane Frances had hit Melbourne head on. Electricity was out, buildings were razed, homes flooded. A close friend invited Armstrong to spend the heaviest months of hurricane recovery (which takes years) with her in Paris, to study the European yoga scene. She accepted, because “ I really didn’t have commitments, and [because] one thing Scottie said to me when we got married was “You haven’t travelled enough.” [I said to Scottie] “You mean to tell me go and travel the world? We just got married!”
With a homebase in Paris, Armstrong and her friend, “who had the ability to catch planes like taxi-cabs” observed the most successful yoga studios from London to Rome. They looked at everything, “from the light fixtures in the restrooms to the fliers at the front desk, [from] the greeting at the door, to the Namaste after class.” Then, they took the studio owners out to lunch to understand the financial side to the business.
When Annette arrived home again, her friend put an offer on the table. Why don’t they partner up? The friend managed Versace, but was in the process of moving to the U.S. She would provide the money. Annette was a people-person, and could provide the experience. “Annette,” said the friend, “you greet them at the door, and I’ll collect the money.” They settled on a location: the ritzy Winter Park Florida. Melbourne, for a yoga studio, was a bit too shabby, a bit too suburban. But then, because of business details we won’t get into here, another party entered the partnership, a husband-and-wife yoga-studio-owning team from Berkeley, California. Annette made the hard choice of pulling out of the deal, because with four people running the show, she knew that there would be drama. “Things were starting to not feel good, and I had to honor that,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong had been volunteer-coaching a local girls soccer team the day she called her friend, and told her that she was out. Right after the call, she bent over and threw up everywhere. She drove home and sat in bed, sick, and thought to herself “Here I am again, having to figure out what the hell I’m going to do.” Then, the cat peed on the bedroom rug, and for a short while, that gave her a lot to do.
“The next morning I wake up and say to Scottie, “Drive me to Home Depot real quick before work. I’m going to change the carpet in the bedroom. The cat had an accident and there’s no way we’ll get rid of the smell.” Scottie says to wait till the weekend, because what about the furniture? I’ll have to move the furniture by myself if I change the carpet. Well Scottie gets home that evening, and the furniture had been moved out, new flooring put in, and furniture moved back in. Now what am I going to do?” Armstrong laughs. “I can’t do that to the whole house.”
“The very next day, I had a dentist appointment,” Armstrong said. “And in the office, they all seemed so happy go-lucky. I thought I could be a receptionist. So I talked to a dentist and he said, “Annette, this is a whole new direction for you.” I said, “Look, we would not be having this conversation if I didn’t think I could do the job very well.” And I liked it. I enjoyed it, because I was dressing up every morning. I had somewhere to go, and it was so easy.”
Armstrong’s time as a receptionist didn’t last long, however. She caught the wife of the dentist, co-owner of the office and a dental assistant, charging a man of a certain race unfairly. She resigned in such a way that showed respect to the dentist her short-time employer.
“He deserved that,” Armstrong said, “and I had peace with myself, ending it in the appropriate manner. I walked away, then thought, “What the hell am I going to do?”
Soon after the receptionist jaunt, Armstrong turned 33. That morning, she went to The Sun Shoppe cafe in Melbourne’s small, old downtown. She drank coffee and read her favorite book, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. Armstrong saw a lot of parallels between the book and her life then, like “the little ball of energy that won’t stop, and failing forward.” Armstrong had done well in the face of what others might see as smooth succession of failures. She had kept her sanity by “not taking things personally.”
When she got up to grab something from her car, she glanced up and saw, on the shop window of the building next to The Sun Shoppe a “For Rent” sign.
“It was a dinghy old sign that looked like it had been used many times already,” Armstrong said. “I stopped and went through every little thing like a card catalogue. Nothing happens by mistake. I was in a situation where everything fit.” From the previous partnership, a lawyer had already done the corporate paperwork. An accountant had already put that paperwork together. The bills had been paid, and Armstrong had a wealth of information and know-how. She went straightaway to the owner and told her that she would like to rent the property long term. She told him that her yoga studio would be open for business in a month. That night, when Scottie comes home from work, she hugged him, and told him that she was now in a position to open up a yoga studio. He answered “fantastic.”
Starting a Yoga Studio 101
Armstrong had $9,000 in personal savings to open the studio. She never took out a loan. Because this was in the recovery period after Hurricane Frances contractors charged top dollar. The studio space was divided up into tiny little rooms, and wouldn’t do at all for a yoga studio. Armstrong balanced what she needed on what she could afford, and used two thirds of her savings to have walls knocked down. She had more and more walls knocked down as the studio started bringing in money until the space became the wide-open room it is today.
She differentiated her product from the yoga that was already available in the community: specifically, Bikram’s yoga. Some people think Bikram’s yoga is only for masochists. Armstrong herself, as an athlete used to pushing herself to the brink, liked the almost martial Bikram’s yoga. Out of respect for this studio though, she chose not to offer Bikram’s yoga. To appeal to potential yogis that Bikram’s yoga, by its nature, would never appeal to, Armstrong further differentiated her product. Bikram’s yoga is always 90 minutes, Armstrong’s classes were just an hour. Bikram’s yoga is practiced in silence, Armstrong played music. Bikram’s yoga is hard, and because it’s the same 26 poses every time, it’s always hard. Armstrong offered a variety.
She also worked to quell the community’s fear that yoga would unseat their Christian faith. While in California on every street corner there’s a yoga studio, says Armstrong, “in Melbourne on every street corner there’s a church. . . Teaching yoga in a community that’s deeply rooted in its faith — you have to respect that. You have to honor where the town is.” So she had artwork (the rights to which had already been bought by the previous venture) of ancient Roman gods and goddesses doing yoga reproduced on her walls, to show that anyone can do yoga. “Medusa [over there] is smoking. You could be a smoker and still do yoga,” Armstrong said. “You could be a mother who’s pregnant and still do yoga. You could be any ethnicity of all the ethnicities on the wall, and still do yoga.” In the end, it was a woman whom Armstrong had met through her time as a receptionist who did the murals.
Since then, Downtown Yoga has grown to two locations. It offers yoga retreats abroad, too. It employs more than a handful of instructors, and has boosted business in the previously-struggling downtown area. Armstrong’s father, a real estate mogul with a cut-throat business ethic, had always told her “The first person you pay is yourself.” Instead, Armstrong went her own way. In the early days she reinvested all profits in the business, “because I felt that if I wasn’t 100-percent truly invested in this business, then what the hell am I doing with it?” She does pay herself now, but she’s still 100-percent invested, and busy, too. The period of flux may have ended, but things keep moving.