Former Infantry Marine Finds Peace in Yoga

Name: Alexander Litvak
Location: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher and Founder of Namaste Warrior Yoga

Alexander Litvak MarineLiterally in the same month that I was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps, in September 2001, my body came undone. I was physically broken from multiple injuries suffered from years of punishing Marine infantry training, always pressing my body to its limits and beyond. I further compounded my injuries with additional trauma from my beloved hobbies of body-building and running. These sports, plus rigorous military training, had left me dealing with a badly dislocated shoulder and chronic muscle knots in my neck and the muscles running along the right side of my spine and scapula. With time, unbeknownst to me, the cartilage in both of my knees was worn out as well. By the time I was discharged from the Marine Corps, I was in urgent need of surgery for three major joints of my body and no amount of physical therapy was going to bring back the quality of life I enjoyed back when I was a healthy Marine.

I remember complaining bitterly to the head of the orthopedics department at the Veterans Hospital, about all of my various problems and my struggles to find a way out of my predicament. I was on heavy joint pain medication at the time and unable to participate in any athletic activity – I was only 21 years old. The doctor, after hearing me out, in response suggested I try ‘power walking’ as form of daily exercise. POWER WALKING?!!!! This is what my life had been reduced to?!

When the news hit me, for a long time I was depressed and disillusioned with life. I could not come to terms with being disabled to such an extent. I didn’t want to hear that I had to give up all the sports I loved: bodybuilding, swimming, snowboarding, bike riding, etc….and assume the role of a disabled person. As far as I knew, life was over; power walking could not deliver me into the freedom that a healthy, young, adult male should enjoy at my age.

Luckily, I had become a resilient person, determined not to give up on myself. The Marines taught me that. I decided to seek medical advice elsewhere and to find ways to improve my health, no matter what. With post-military medical insurance, I started physical therapy and sought out other medical opinions, settling on taking the risk of going through a series of reconstructive surgeries. The procedures offered some relief, but I developed arthritis in both knees and the shoulder and I still had trouble going to the gym, lifting heavy weights or engaging in any other sport with repetitive motions, as they caused me tremendous discomfort, including chronic pain and swelling in the affected joints.

This struggle to get back into shape and live pain free went on for four long years. I felt like I was never going to get back to looking and feeling good again. Slowly, my hope waned and I lost my motivation to find the answer to personal fitness; I gained weight and tried to find solace in other areas of my life. That is until one day when a friend recommended that I try a beginner’s yoga class. When I first started practicing, I noticed drastic, immediate pain relief in the arthritic joints, and less inflammation from the workouts, something that was a problem with all of my other sports. The yoga postures (asana) left me feeling stronger and more self-empowered, and the tendons and ligaments which had tightened during my period of inactivity began to loosen up and became toned and more pliant. I was starting to lose the fat and build muscle again, and specifically those muscles which supported and helped to stabilize my damaged joints, thus decreasing my pain. I felt stronger and more enthusiastic each time that I practiced, which I was doing 2-3 times per week.

Alexander LitvakAfter a couple of years, with the help of a private yoga instructor, I was able to strengthen the damaged parts of my body and I was able to resume some of the other sports that I had so missed and craved. I also noticed the stress-relieving benefits associated with a yoga practice; the calmness I felt deep in my soul, the centering, and the increased energy I felt after each new class. Furthermore, as I stayed with my practice, I learned that yoga was an ancient Indian science with an unparalleled variety of postures, self-healing techniques, and a spiritual practice for self-realization and enlightenment. I had learned effective stress relief and had achieved a lightness of being from the varied breath control (pranayama) practice. That, coupled with the art of alignment in postures and the yoga philosophy of life all intrigued me, and soon I was hooked on the entire system – the Ashtanga Yoga system, and the Eight Limbs of Yoga.

As the years went on, I immersed myself in the yogic studies; in classroom, through books, DVDs, workshops, and retreats – I loved it all! As my practiced excelled and I became more advanced, I felt it was time to share my yogic knowledge and secrets learned, signing up for my first teacher training at Yoga to the People in Manhattan, New York in June 2010. My next teacher training was in 2012, and took me to an exotic island of Koh Samui, Thailand to Vikasa Yoga, where for a month we trained outside in sweltering 90-degree heat, every day, for up to five hours per day. Since that time I have continued to study and continue to seek out and study with living yoga masters, gurus and teachers; learning their methods and techniques to stay current, and to evolve my own understanding and practice of what is ‘yoga.’

My body may never be 100%, and from time to time I still have to visit physical therapists for maintenance. And I still feel pain following a long practice or sport activity, which is of course inevitable considering the extent of my injuries. Yoga is not magic; but it is a science, and armed with its techniques I now have the tools which help me to enjoy the highest possible quality of life. Additionally, I have learned to express myself through my practice and I have found peace and self-comfort. And there could be nothing more satisfying than reclaiming control of your life…. and keeping it.

Alexander Litvak mermaidAlexander Litvak is a former Infantry Marine, who left his military service with a series of chronic injuries and little hope of ever being able to enjoy the sports he loved. But then his discovery of yoga led him to not only healing his injuries, but to finding inner peace and calm. Now a yoga teacher and founder of Namaste Warrior Yoga, Alex’s classes are informative, humorous, and draw on the Hatha Vinyasa Yoga tradition, with focus on alignment, understanding of the pose, and attention to deep breathing and concentration. Alex’s goal in every yoga class is to help his students to feel safe while discovering their own true potential and the power of yoga. He wishes to impart the knowledge and wisdom that has helped him so immensely in his own recovery and journey through life. Follow Alex on Facebook here.

Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries™ wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.

Find The Yoga Diaries™ on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @TheYogaDiaries.

Advertisements

The Body I was Born With

Name: Sarah Bretton
Location: Portsmouth, United Kingdom
Occupation: College Lecturer

I have danced all of my life. It was rewarding for a while, but my body suffered greatly: I pushed it beyond my limits and forced it into shapes that were in-organic and painful. I was ok at dancing: I managed to get a scholarship to Laban, a contemporary dance school based in London and then won a competition to study at the Martha Graham School in New York, which was an enriching experience. I am ever grateful for the experiences I had at these schools and respect all those who passed on their knowledge to me. However, once I embarked on the professional dance path after my training, I learned that there is a world of anxieties that come with this otherwise beautiful art form.

I found that there is an unspoken law in the dance world, a law that relies on the performer possessing a variety of certain character traits with which I just couldn’t personally connect: a degree of narcissism and arrogance, to be competitively motivated, and there is an ever present jealousy and ego as well as the obvious critical judgment, both internal and external. The emptiness came quite early on for me. I attended an audition where the choreographer wanted to take a Polaroid of our bodies and faces before learning any movement. A decision was made early on about which body types should go and which should stay. Lots of auditions are like this. They don’t tell you this at dance school.

At dance school I was surrounded by a rich variety in body shape: petite ones, curvy ones, short legs, long torsos, willowy bodies and so on…. But in the real dance world? You must look a certain way to even get through the door. My body wasn’t long enough, lean enough, strong enough, thin enough, pretty enough for this or that choreographer, and I started to feel that my body had let me down. I worked hard and tried to get the right kinds of jobs, but rejection is a difficult thing and I punished myself. The negativity that I had experienced was so toxic that my mind and my body fell out of sync and eventually I began to feel a pull away from dance as my mind told my body that it wasn’t good enough.

My sister moved to Nashville, Tennessee ten years ago and I have been visiting since. Through a friend from dance school, I’d heard of a successful yoga teacher, Carly Mountain, who is based here in Sheffield. Carly suggested that when visiting Nashville, I should visit a studio called Steadfast and True Yoga and to look out for the owner, Gillian St. Clair. Walking into the studio, I felt Gillian’s energy as soon as I entered the room, and I knew from that moment that I wanted to dedicate myself to the practice. I didn’t know what the moves were, the language or the etiquette, but I knew that I felt an overwhelming urge to give, to yield to the mat, and to flow with the energy in the room.

At first, I felt a familiar anxiety, which came from my previous dance training; my body is in space and is waiting to be judged on its performance. However, after stepping onto the mat I realized that the anxiety was fading away as Gillian spoke to the group and said, “Today you are going to work with the body you were born with” …and my whole self just relaxed with peaceful relief. After being told for most of my life that my body wasn’t good enough, someone had finally said that my body was ok! And what’s more, we were going to embrace that individuality. During class she reminded us to be honest with our bodies and if it hurts- to rest, to get to know our bodies and learn to listen to what it needs. She encouraged us to let go of yesterday, to not think about next week, and instead to live in the person we are now and focus our bodies and minds into the present moment, in the harmony of the room.

Gillian taught me to let go of past anxieties and heavy unpleasant experiences. I cried that day. When I left the class I was lighter, happier, and clearer than any other day I have had on this planet. Gillian calls herself a renegade in yoga. Most of her body is adorned in edgy, striking tattoos, she plays an eclectic blend of the music she wants to play, she says sometimes you need to cuss, and other times you should sit and discuss. I found that she had a talent to listen carefully to the energy within the room and to read the metaphysical and physical responses from us and adjust her class accordingly. Gillian was there, she was present and at a time of emptiness within me, it meant the whole world.

Sarah Bretton leapingOver the years I have holidayed to Nashville and every time I bring a friend, or more recently my husband, and take them to a class of Gillian’s. Every one of my friends cried their first time! I don’t think Gillian’s desire is to make you cry! But the guidance that she shares is so intimate and personal that afterwards you feel so much clearer, kinder, and the feeling of being connected to something bigger than yourself, a higher plane of existence….. bodies and minds become released of their tension. Gillian definitely has a gift and I feel completely blessed to have been guided by her.

When I returned to the UK I was a little disappointed with the lack of yoga classes available to me in my area. Most of the classes are taught in gyms with no real guidance or spiritual offerings. I would read the yoga verses alone, but my body urged for something more so I purchased Short Forms by David Swenson and committed to practicing every day in my lounge. Kind yogis have uploaded various video demonstrations of Richard Freeman on YouTube and I have enjoyed practicing his style, but I really missed the energy of other people in the room during my practice. Maybe it’s my disciplined background in dance but I felt that I also missed the guidance of a teacher encouraging me and leading me through.

During one class, Gillian came over to my mat to assist my alignment in tripod position and she said “your body wants to go into headstand” and I thought to myself…“ok! Well I shouldn’t let my mind talk my body out of it.” It’s still a bit shaky but when I did it I felt so happy! My mind and my body united and I was totally blissed out.

I think a lot of people might think that dance lends itself well to yoga as there are similarities in terms of body positions. But as all yogis know, it’s not all about the acrobatics. Yoga definitely made me more symmetrical after years of anatomical abuse but what I gained from yoga, which I never got from dance, was the inner balance. I’m not talking about core strength, I’m talking about inner kindness and positivity; telling yourself that you deserve a healthy energetic body and that it is beautiful in every shape you do, whether it’s in savasana or something complex like scorpion. I don’t feel competitive as I did with dance. I don’t feel I need to compare myself. Obviously I would like to be able to hold my headstand for longer but yoga has taught me breath and patience and for the first time, I’m working with the body I was born with and enjoying its evolution every day.

Sarah Bretton headshot

Sarah Bretton is a 33-year old college lecturer who lives in Portsmouth, South East England. Sarah lives with her husband Paul, pet cat Ripley, and beagle Harper. Sarah will be embarking on the FRYOG foundation course in Yoga this September under the guidance of Victoria Bedford.

 

Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries™ wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.

Find The Yoga Diaries™ on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @TheYogaDiaries.

The Journey Back From Drug Abuse

Name: Anonymous
Location: Waitakere, New Zealand
Occupation: Graphic Designer

A close friend, who was training to become a teacher, first introduced me to yoga when I was about 20 years old.

I had grown up learning ballet, so my body responded quite quickly to the stretches and I soon became a guinea pig for my friend’s teaching practice. What first struck me was the reconnection to my body, and in particular, my legs.

As a typically self-conscious teenager, I realized that I had disconnected so entirely from my body (sadly out of sheer disgust), that I had not really looked at, touched, or engaged with my legs for about 10 years. It was quite a revelation to reacquaint myself with the lower half of my body and I’ll never forget how it felt when I realized the neglect that I had subjected on myself.

I had been through seven years of drug abuse, the last three of which were pretty significant and were getting gradually more and more dangerous in regard to me finding an escape route. Without question, yoga was that escape.

The breath refocused my desires and intentions. Motion and stretching released toxins and lifted my energy. Gradual progression taught me the metaphor of steady success. Everything together gave me the clarity I needed to know there was more out there for me, and helped me to see how attainable and achievable a better life could be.

After this initial introduction to yoga, I began practicing Hatha and Iyengar Yoga, and later Ashtanga Yoga at the Yoga Academy in Auckland City. And just this year I was fortunate to have found a wonderful teacher who has brought in subtle spiritual elements that have extended my practice even further to a deeper and even more fulfilling place; drawing prana from the earth to engage longer and deeper poses, opening and closing the practices with meditation and breathing exercises. It is truly beautiful and I am grateful every day for having found the yogic path and for the methods and guidance that continue to help me along my path today.

I am a 35-year old Mum of four incredible children living in Waitakere, New Zealand. I am married to a beautiful, awesome man and we have a cool dog. I am an artist and work part-time as a graphic designer, but love getting involved in voluntary community work wherever I can. Yoga is an important part of my life and although there are periods of time where I fall out of my practice, whenever I return it fills my heart with immense joy. I sincerely believe that if the world practiced this vital art, we would be a very peaceful, happy (stress-free!) and compassionate world indeed.

Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.

Follow The Yoga Diaries on Facebook here.

The Yoga of Everyday Life

Name: Anonymous
Location: Berkeley, CA, USA
Occupation: Student

Photo by Flickr user @kim.

Racing around the Oakland International Airport feels far from my comforting “om” space. “Do I have my photo ID? Do I have my confirmation number? Did I pack my liquids? Am I staying present?” My mind jumps from checking my luggage and getting my boarding pass to wondering if I will get through the security line by Christmas. Finally my body catches up to my mind and I find myself in the security line.

The way the line wraps around makes me uncomfortable — too much awkward eye contact. I notice my self-judgment and insecurities coming up. “Why is she looking at me? Do I really look that weird at 5am? I wonder if it looks like I’ve been crying…God, why don’t you take a picture, it will last longer!” Far from compassionate and patient, I reach the security officer who approves my ID and ticket. “Take a breath.”

Now, the rat race to take off the shoes, remove the jacket, take out the laptop. “Darn, the old couple beat me to the x-ray machine! Will my purse come out the other end before I do? What if someone steals my bag or my wallet or something?” Now I walk into this strange contraption that  looks like a new technology for x-rays. “Is this harmful? Can this cause cancer?” And then I come out the other end. A long sigh of relief. I gather my things and put my shoes on: I balance on my left leg, bring my right knee to my chest, and tie the shoelace on my right shoe. I do the same for my other leg. I then arrive at the gate and wait in line to board.

Photo by Flickr user Kelly Loves Whales.

This is yoga. From my balancing posture, to my quickening heart rate; from my reminder to breathe, to my concern about how I look; from my mistrust in others, to rushing through the process only to end up waiting in a line. The whole experience is yoga. Have you not felt any of these feelings and sensations during a yoga class? Perhaps you felt that you were not flexible, or forgot to breathe, or wished for the end of a pose, or felt like people were judging your ability or your appearance. From our hardships to our successes, and all of the seemingly mundane activity in between, yoga is life.

In my Forrest yoga teacher training I saw many people suffering. Yearning for some momentary relief, I saw people desperately seeking answers to their problems. And all of us wanting to arrive at the light at the end of the tunnel- the tunnel of death, destruction, addiction, and despair. And at the end of the yoga training, nothing had really changed for me, and I became disappointed. I stopped practicing yoga all together for several months. And then I slowly let it back into my life, and now am practicing Ashtanga Yoga, Mysore style.

The answers I was seeking finally began to percolate into my consciousness. Now, at the other end of the tunnel, I look back, forward and right where I am and I see the same things I had seen before: death, destruction addiction, and despair. But now I also see life, creation, love, and passion. And more importantly, I see that these aspects are not different and we cannot have one without the other.

Photo by Flickr user rabiem22.

Someone close to us may pass away, but only so that another beautiful soul can experience this life as well. We might suffer addiction, but perhaps we are blessed with this ailment so that we are especially motivated to learn methods of non-attachment and renunciation in our treatment. We might despair over the end of a relationship, but only so that we may grow stronger in our individual strength and fortitude and learn more about our deep desires and passions.

We see suffering so that we may also see compassion; we see hate so that we may love more. All of these are faces of the same coin. And yoga is breathing through the process and staying present with the beauty of emotion that is the human condition. Yoga is every experience- from the difficult to the easeful. And if we remain present through this life, using practices like yoga, we may soak up all the wisdom and pleasure it has to offer.

 

Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.