I’m Just Here For Savasana

“Final rest” can lend itself to macabre thoughts. Contrary to the cute T-shirt slogan, the pose is serious – even difficult. In Sanskrit, sava translates into corpse. When we practice savasana, we arrange our limbs in a funereal manner, sometimes with a bolster under the knees and a blanket beneath the head.

In America, we don’t like to talk about death, even though we see it each time we read about another shooting, another vigil. In less sensational terms, how many of us have lost jobs, family members ,or even a beloved restaurant that closed and gave way to Starbucks? These are all deaths, but in our culture, we don’t have a healthy collective way to process or celebrate them.

When I approached my 40s, I wanted more calm in how I approached change. The laugh lines around my mouth reminded me that my body was only a temporary structure for my infinite spirit. While my muscles loved to run and stretch, my soul — which was so big it frightened me — also needed tender care.

For my body, I began researching anatomical donation. Eventually, I donated it to a major hospital (I’m still using it right now), even going on a tour of the gross anatomy lab and attending cadaver memorials. In order to move forward, I wanted a better relationship with letting go.

To my surprise, med students often told me about unusual forces within the lab. Their beloved cadavers — spread open with bone saws — held secrets of scars and old surgeries that made them as real as any yia yia or abuela. Despite religious beliefs, many of these future doctors felt like the bodies watched them, not in a threatening way, but with the benign matter-of-factness of elderly aunts at a wedding.

In the memoir Body of Work, author Christine Montross, a doctor and poet, describes cutting off the face of Eve, the cadaver she shared with her fellow students, one of whom had a panic attack. “Despite the inertia of the dead,” Montross writes, “they actively affect us. Even now as the term winds to a close.”

In Thai medical schools, Montross notes, cadavers are especially holy because most citizens are Buddhist and therefore reluctant to intervene with reincarnation. Students refer to their bodies as “great teachers,” giving them ceremonies before and after dissection.

In a dance of intimacy unknown to most of us here in the West, Thai medical students memorize their donors’ names, forever walking with the dead in order to heal the living.

When we lie down for savasana, we are likewise communing with our ancestors. Corpse pose is not for the weak, a powerful conduit between space and time that is more than a slogan.

This article first appeared in YogaCity NYC.

Meet The Teach: Alex Litvak

In a Skype session, the instructor Alex Litvak, a former Marine Corporal admitted that his newest venture — earthquake relief for Nepal — had him too excited to meditate.
Grinning widely on his couch, Litvak, aka the Namaste Warrior, sat in front of an artificial stone wall in his Sheepshead Bay apartment. “Welcome to my tiger cave,” he said, laughing. When his three cats began fighting, he told Zhara, Tiger Yogi, and Tashi, “Hey, I’m trying to conduct an interview here.” YogaCity NYC’s Ann Votaw introduced her own felines, Malcolm and Leah, and discussed Litvak’s journey from Camp Lejeune to Columbia University to fundraising classes in “the other Brooklyn.”

Alex Litvak: The tacky wall tiles are something my dad came up with, and I agreed to it. My dad is a retired sheet metal worker who lives a block away from me. He just installed these cat shelves.

AV: You have an accent. Where are you from?

AL: From Odessa, Ukraine. I moved here when I was 9.

AV: You’re in school now?

AL: I’m at Teachers College at Columbia University studying clinical psychology, a three year graduate degree. My concentration is in spirituality and mind-body. I’ve just completed my first year.

AV: How did you come to this?

AL: I’m a disabled veteran from my service in the Infantry as a machine gunner from 1998 to 2001. I was honorably discharged before 9/11. When I quit my last job working for the government as a civilian, I applied for the Vocational Rehabilitation Program, to help disabled veterans find employment or go back to school in a new field.

AV: What made you take the big yoga leap?

AL: I had to get out [of the Marines] because I had problems processing food. I developed heartburn. I was battling to get out of bed. I decided to quit in 2012 and try teaching yoga full time. I had a small pension, a disability check coming in. That helped me pay my rent for my apartment. The rest I supplemented from teaching yoga at places like Hot Spot here in Brooklyn.

AV: How long have you been studying yoga?

AL: Nine years. I came to yoga being completely messed up. Any repetitive motion like swimming and baseball would give me pain and suffering. I started yoga at a great studio calledYoga Spot in Coney Island. Then I started private lessons with Kim-Lien Kendall there who was more into therapeutic yoga. My first teacher training was with

Yoga to the People in Manhattan in 2011. My second was in 2012 in with Vikasa Yoga in Koh Samui, Thailand.

AV: Why a second training?

AL: Good question. I didn’t think I was ready for the 500-hour training. I thought I should strengthen my 200-hour training in a different style.

AV: May I ask about your injuries?

AL: I’ve had three orthoscopic shoulder surgeries and one reconstructive surgery. I have screws in my right shoulder, and I have arthritis in both knees.

AV: How did all of that happen in your four years with the Marines?

AL: Wear and tear in the Infantry. It’s grueling training. They don’t teach you technique. It’s impossible to teach a short dude like me to huddle hike with a 100-pound backpack with a machine gun on his back and his other gear to try to keep pace in a 15-mile march with a commander who might be going too fast for short legs. The cartilage in my knees wore out.

AV: Are you on medication?

AL: I used to take antacids. I also took anti-inflammatories. Now I take glucosomine for the joints, Omega 3s and fish oils, and I take anti-inflammatories like Aleve from time to time after a long practice. I don’t take anything for heartburn now because I know how to manage it. Besides vitamins and occasional Aleve, I have been medication free from the last two years.

AV: Tell me about your tats.

AL: It’s my whole front chest from a Tibetan thangka called “Buddha’s Awakening.” I don’t know if you can see this.

AV: Wow. Yes, I can.

AL: Can you see it’s a demon offering Buddha a pill? There’s all types of temptations and conflicts in this. The Buddhists talk about overcoming fear and temptation. I love that thangka, so I got a tattoo.

AV: How did you get interested in Nepal?

AL: I was a tourist there last year. I was walking around all cool with my tattoo, and then the earthquake happened when I was back in New York. I thought there was too much talk on Facebook about helping the people of Nepal without really doing anything, and I realized I was doing the same thing.

AV: How are your fundraising classes going?

AL: In the first week, we raised $400! I get the space for free at Pa Kau Martial Arts Center. It feels great that I can find this abundance in myself as a poor yoga teacher, to donate 100% of the proceeds to charities that help the Nepalese. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

AV: What can your students learn from a Marine?

AL: Mental strength, mental training, physical discipline and motivation. They can learn what it takes to be a warrior. They can gain strength and energetic endurance for life and how to fiercely pursue peace and balance.

This article first appeared in YogaCity NYC on July 13, 2015. To learn more about Litvak and his practice with cats, visit his Facebook page at Namaste Warrior. His Nepal fundraising classes are 8 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday at Pa Kau Martial Arts Center in Sheepshead Bay. If you like this piece, read Mission Accepted: Military Style.

July 4 Terrorism, By Cat

I woke up to destroyed yoga blocks this morning. The one on the right had already been slightly scratched. But the claw marks on the left are all new. Who did this?

I woke up to destroyed yoga blocks this morning. The one on the right had already been slightly scratched. But the claw marks on the left are fresh. Who did this?

by Ann Votaw

I woke up this morning to do some stretches and saw that I had left one yoga block too close to the kitty toy box. Guess which block. I suspected in-home terrorism, via cat.

To get to the bottom of this, I questioned both Malcolm and Leah, who were in bed with me this morning when I woke up. No one confessed.

Utilizing specialized interrogation techniques, I placed Malcolm by the blocks. He rubbed his head on a cat nip toy. Then I brought in Leah who immediately began slicing into the least scratched-up block on the left. Guilty.

Malcolm, my 17-pound cat was more interested in the cat nip toy than the blocks. Verdict: Innocent.

Malcolm, my 17-pound cat, was more interested in the cat nip toy than the blocks. Verdict: Innocent.

When I placed Leah, my 7-pound cat, on the block, she immediately began scratching the less ruined of the blocks. Verdict: Guilty.

When I placed Leah, my 7-pound cat, on the block, she immediately began scratching. Verdict: Guilty.

I’ve had these Gaiam blocks for about four years. When I first bought them, the felines took a few swipes and left them alone, until this morning.

It’s time to trim someone’s nails and admit that Mommy can’t have nice things.

Running with yoga intervals

Running in Central Parkby Ann Votaw

My running buddy kindly suggested yoga breaks at each mile of Central Park’s six-mile loop. Because I’m a newly diagnosed asthmatic, I sometimes need breathing breaks.

Recently, we tried our first yoga/run session, which was good for him too. He is one of the least flexible people I know, a yoga newbie. Starting at 59th Street, we took our first yoga interval just before Cat Hill, which was Mile 1. I taught him Crescent Lunge, which we did twice on each leg, holding for five breaths. This really woke up my quads and balance for the slow steady climb past the cat statue. The following is my best recollection of which poses we did at which miles:

  • At Mile 2, we repeated lunges and added Warrior III, which was REALLY hard.
  • At Miles 3, just before the Harlem Hills, we did crows, which recruited upper body. I found that this helped my arms pump up those killer ascents.
  • At Mile 4, we did Downdogs and Warrior IIs.
  • At Mile 5, we did Trees and Shivas.
  • At Mile 6, we did some basic stretching at the fountain. Then we went for drinks.

The whole process took almost 90 minutes and was more exhausting than six continuous miles. My friend was planning to do his Ironman bike training that afternoon, but he decided to skip and take a nap.

When a yogi can’t sit still, she writes

Lisa Kirchner's anti-"Eat, Pray, Love" memoir comes out May 31.

Lisa Kirchner’s anti-Eat, Pray, Love memoir comes out May 31.

by Ann Votaw

Thank you to author Lisa Kirchner for her insightful interview with me in YogaCity NYC where she discusses her first memoir, Hello, American Lady Creature.

Instead of true love in Bali, she got divorced in Qatar, the small wealthy nation between Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Public drunkenness was prohibited. Dating was illegal, even to ex-patriots.

Yoga was one of her few constants.

Mission Accepted: Yoga Military Style

150578_10151202503787159_1766971086_nWhen I met Terry McDowell, 44, a yoga teacher and former Army Staff Sergeant whose mat was near mine at a meditation training in Austin, Texas.

Me and Terry near Austin, Texas, where I challenged him to a Yoga Sprint run, the kind he did in the Army.During lunch, he impressed me with a passionate speech about his brothers and sisters in arms. “We don’t teach them meditation or how to get out of their heads or how to deal with anxiety,” he said. “Or about death and dying and destruction. It takes a toll on your soul. Your soul isn’t going to be repaired by prescriptions.”

McDowell introduced another concept, that ancient tribes knew how to re-integrate warriors by endorsing “softer” arts like poetry and music.

“Look at the Greeks. Look at the North American Indians,” he said. “They knew how to reintegrate their sons and daughters into society, so they could be investments and elders.”

“Did you ever do yoga with your guys?” I asked.

“In the Army, I led yoga sprints,” he said. “Yoga what?”

1461721_10151983781900340_269320988_n“Yoga sprints. I was trying to be creative in my physical training in preparation for deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. I developed a lot of balancing yoga moves in between my sprints instead of pushups we do in the service.”

I aimed my spoon at the tip of his nose. “Show me what you did in the Army.”

McDowell sat tall and agreed to meet me the next day at noon, when he outlined a gentler version of what he offered his men in Iraq (2006-2007) and in preparation for Afghanistan (2008-2009). “This is your safety brief,” McDowell said, projecting his voice at a trailhead on the property. “I don’t know your injuries. You do. I’m going to ask that you challenge yourself but with love and compassion.” He then tugged his moustache and dashed off through the Texas hill country.

A deer sprung from the low bushes. McDowell kept going, dropping down for crow pose, an arm balance with his knees resting on the backs of his arms and feet off the ground. I followed his lead. It had rained earlier in the day. Heat seeped from the earth into my hands, and I felt myself melting into an asymmetric blob.

31221_1124596331275_22199_nI couldn’t wait for the running interval that followed, but after a few minutes of sprinting, I fantasized about the next yoga move, a plank held for 60 seconds that lit my shoulders, lungs, and stomach on fire. Relentless, McDowell pushed through 10 more intervals that included uphill runs and sustained lunges on each leg.

Somehow, I found the energy to imitate him as he whooped and leaped over a sandy hole.

“Don’t forget to look at the clouds,” he said while we stood on one leg in tree pose. “Look at those birds. Hawks. SMELL THAT SAGE!” We ended with a cool-down walk toward our cabins.

My arms hung limply at my sides. I wheezed. My mouth formed two words: “Oh, God.” McDowell had just warmed up. He explained that the workout was more compelling than the gym because it cultivated evenness in the midst of chaos. If I had the strength, I would have hugged him for being so cool.