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.