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.

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The Dance of Breath

Name: Paulina Julián
Location: San Francisco, CA
Occupation: Yoga and Spanish Instructor, Writer, Life-long Student

paulina dancing warriorAt 17 my life was pretty full. I was a high school student, editor in chief of a literary magazine, a professional ballet dancer, a college applicant, a seeker of romance, a perfectionist, a daydreamer, and an anorexic.

My life felt like a fast freight train, going at full speed with a ticket to a destination of which I was unaware. I woke up in the mornings with a highly altered pulse, ready to jump up and take on the world in a rush.

It seemed my mantra at that time was “do everything, say yes to everything, and do it quickly, for you might run out of time.”

On one of my high school summer breaks, I decided to advance my ballet career by attending an intensive ballet camp, with rigorous teachers and other professional dancers. I felt a deep passion as I set out to class each day, and I relished the rush of adrenaline every time my body moved in unison with the piano music. And yet, along with this passion, there was also the accompanying urge to achieve a perfect ballerina’s body, a compelling drive to attain more in life in order to feel satisfied with who I was. I constantly looked at myself through the eyes of one for whom nothing is enough, and for whom there were plenty of reasons to be unsatisfied. I compensated by taking more dance classes outside of my regular schedule, practicing extra hours, and making more plans for advancing my dance career.

My body finally gave in. It was during a rehearsal for an important performance. My dance partner lifted me, and as I landed, my foot twisted and my Achilles tendon tweaked. I cringed for a moment, looking worriedly at my foot, and impatiently at my body for not keeping up with the beat.

Art by Gibran Julian (www.gibravo.com)

Art by Gibran Julian (www.gibravo.com)

“Just keep going,” said the teacher. “This is not the time to stop.” And so, I did. I kept going on my fast train, as my pained body and self-disappointed mind danced along.

Finally the time came when my foot could no longer hold me up on pointe shoes. I reluctantly went to the doctor and after a thorough checkup and x-rays he said the words I had been dreading all this time: “You need to give yourself time to rest and slow down.”

In panic I asked, “But, will I ever dance again?” I felt my entire life and self-image crumbling down to pieces.

“Maybe, maybe not.” said the doctor. “But for now, it’s time to stop.”

I cried endlessly for the next month, as my sore foot and leg lay immobile in a cast, and the life I had planned for myself started to turn in front of my eyes. For years I had taught my body the art of dance. It taught me, in generous return, the art of surrender.

When enough time had gone by that I could walk again, something had shifted inside. I had given myself (or life had pushed me to give myself) the time to look at my life from a quiet -and physically still- standpoint. There was an unexpected sense of serenity in letting go of my expectations. Beyond the fear and nervousness, a deep longing for “something else” was slowly arising.

A good friend of mine saw the sudden change in my passionate drive, and out of compassion (and a bit of worry for my suddenly quiet state), invited me to a meditation and yoga retreat. I figured I that I had nothing to lose. So I packed up my bags and headed for the weekend retreat.

As I sat down to meditate for the first time in my life, I felt myself “arriving” in my body. I felt my healing foot, the sore muscles on my back, even my worked- up brain. Although I had been a dancer for many years, it was like meeting my body for the first time. It was my own body, not the body I had been urgently trying to fix and improve. And then I came upon a long-time companion, so present and yet just now meeting for the first time: my breath. A turning point.

Now, looking back at myself as a teenager, I realize I am not that much different. I treasure art, dance, writing, seeking new vistas, growing, overcoming limits, and seeing things from new perspectives. I am still passionate, and I am definitely still a perfectionist! And yet, yoga has allowed me to let go of the extra baggage that shrouded this passion.

Paulina yoga pose As I move through asana, my ballerina self is present, however she now follows not only an outer music beat, but also the inner, quiet rhythm of breath. Although I never achieved the ultimate perfect body of a ballerina, yoga inspired a new respect and gratitude for my body. Although I didn’t get into the Ivy League college that I wanted, I met the love of my life at my second choice college. And, although things usually don’t turn out exactly the way I plan them to, yoga teaches me every day there is a sacred flow in life: filled with surprise, with wonder, with love.

And during those moments of rush and stress, I now catch myself in the old freight train. Yoga reminds me that I can ask for it to stop; I can step off, pause, and reconnect with my heart: where I can be, where I am enough, and where all is perfect, in its own perfectly unexpected way.

Paulina bio with Dan and kittyPaulina Chandani Julián, originally from Guadalajara Mexico, recently moved to San Francisco with her dear husband and lovely kitten. She is a dedicated yoga and meditation practitioner and loves to write and learn. Above all, she cherishes family, friends and Nature with all her heart, and is a firm believer that life is a cool, rare, and sacred gift.

Paulina shares her inspiration at Now is the Time for Yoga, and she teaches Yoga in Spanish at Yoga Garden, San Francisco.


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Yoga’s Dharma is to Heal

Name: Elizabeth McGlinchey
Location: Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Occupation: Graduate Student

Photo by Flickr User st_gleam.

Photo by Flickr User st_gleam.

When I was a teenager, a drunk driver drove into me as I crossed the street, leaving me severely injured. Weeks passed, jam-­packed with surgery, radiology tests, laboratory tests, and diagnoses. I changed into someone with whom I could no longer identify.

Once my health became stable, I was admitted to a rehabilitation hospital, and was soon able to move around independently… in a wheel chair. I remember the first time I stood up and the excruciating pain that surged through my body. Reminiscent pain still comes and goes in my legs, but it is something I have tolerated well in the years since and it has never stopped me from wanting to become stronger and athletic. Twelve years later I am still healing physically and emotionally. Continue reading

Yoga Helped Me. Now I Help Others.

Name: Stacie-Saraswati Dooreck
Location: San Francisco Bay area, California, USA
Occupation: Yoga Instructor & Author

Photo attributed to Flickr user dietmut.

I was blessed to be born into a family that was already introduced to yoga as it came to the west. A dedicated yogi, my father took a yoga teacher training with Swami Sachidananda (Guru of Integral Yoga), he was involved with Siddha Yoga, and when I was young, he took us to meet Swami Muktananda for ‘spiritual awakening.’

My mother and father became full vegetarians after learning of its health and non-violence benefits from the Gurus. They ate no meat, poultry, or fish by the time I was born, so I was also raised vegetarian and I have never tasted meat or fish in my life. This upbringing planted the seeds for a lifelong journey of teaching and practicing yoga.

My introduction to Hatha Yoga (the yoga of postures) began when I saw my father doing shoulder stand in his meditation room as I grew up. But my own practice did not begin until I needed it, at the age of 17.

In high school I developed chronic neck pain from working out in a gym and waiting tables. My chiropractor actually suggested yoga to treat my pain. I tried a 30-minute yoga video and by day two of doing the video, all of my neck pain was gone; no MRI needed, and I was hooked. The feeling of deep peace and relaxation I felt at the end was like nothing I had experienced before. I did that video daily throughout my senior year in high school and also as a freshman in college.

Photo by Doug Beasley, http://www.dbpics.biz

The next thing I knew, I signed up for a Sivananda teacher training, living for a month at the yoga ashram in Canada. The experience was challenging and ‘different’ for a 20-year old, but it was life-changing too. It planted additional seeds for my lifelong practice and eventual teaching of yoga. I saw yoga as something that put you on a spiritual path, gave you discipline, and was a tool for wellness and balance of body and mind.

I felt that I had to share this amazing gift with others. Soon after I returned to my college dorm, I started teaching yoga to my friends and conducting relaxation workshops for my dormmates. I watched with fascination to see how yoga helped others as it did me, and my passion for the practice grew deeper and deeper. Ever since, the learning and sharing continues.

Stacie-Saraswati Dooreck is a Certified Gentle Integral Yoga Instructor, Certified Sivananda Hatha Yoga Instructor Since 1995, and a Certified Kundalini teacher, bringing a wealth of knowledge to her classes. Stacie used chair yoga while healing from an illness and continues to share with others the benefits of chair yoga. In 2011 she was featured on CBS Ch. 4 News Healthwatch teaching “Yoga for Seniors.” In addition, Stacie is a Certified Fall Prevention Trainer for seniors and trained as an Enhanced Fitness Instructor (evidence based chair exercises and fitness for seniors including cardio, strength training and stretching). She created and leads SunLight Chair Yoga Teacher Trainings in the US and The Bahamas. Stacie is the author of the book SunLight Chair Yoga: Yoga is for everyone!, a book designed to to teach those with chronic illness, injuries, in wheelchairs or at a desk (Yoga at work) how to modify yoga so all can benefit. Stacie can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/sunlightyoga and on Twitter @sunlightyoga, @yogainchairs and @yogainsf.

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The Yoga of Change

Name: Ina Sahaja
Location: Boulder, Colorado, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher

Photo by Flickr User mailumes.

One of the most beautiful and practice-affirming experiences I’ve had with modern yoga is through the healing process. Once you’ve been practicing for a number of years, you’re bound to go through your fair share of life phenomenon. The unexpected happens and you find yourself in transition. Be it a job change, a physical change (like pregnancy) or an injury, change is the only constant. It’s just natural. And, thankfully, modern yoga is diverse enough that it can accommodate all of these shifts in our life rhythms.

I will be the first to admit, I used to be a die-hard asana junkie. In my teens, it was all about the physical practice. Yoga was primarily a great way to stay fit, while sustaining my inner inkling for spirituality with little nuggets of wisdom. Yoga asana was my life-crutch. Heavy asana practice was always there for me, waiting for me just around the corner, in the next Ashtanga class.

At 21-years-old, I went out on a limb and moved to a ski resort in Utah. My native-Texas bones and skin dried right up, and less than a week into my new stint, I broke my arm snowboarding.

I was devastated – Absolutely devastated. Moving my arm felt like shaking a coin purse. Clink Clink. It felt like I would never do a down dog again, let alone a handstand or peacock pose.

All I could do for weeks was lie on my back and breathe.

Photo by Flickr user shawnzrossi.

I had studied pranayama before, but had yet to truly integrate the subtler forms of breath ratio and intent into my personal practice. Around week three, post-injury, I decided to go for it. Even if I never rocked a big, peak pose again, I knew I had to start somewhere. And what better place to begin than right where I was?

I dove into Gary Kraftsow’s book, Yoga for Transformation, and let the lineage stream of integrated yoga therapy guide my practice. Through his words and guidance, I discovered new methods for practicing asana and uncovered deep contentment with my situation.

Although, at the time, I was a total amateur of therapeutic yoga, starting with my own practice eventually gave me the confidence to work with my other mountain-dweller friends. Many of them were in pain from mountain sport injuries, too: ACL-s, necks, wrists, knees… the whole kit and caboodle. From their enthusiasm (and from my own!), the way I perceived the whole paradigm of impermanence began to shift.

Just because your practice needs to change, it doesn’t mean you’re no longer practicing. It simply means it’s different. From my personal experience, I now see that the evolution of our sadhana, our ongoing yoga practice, is far more satisfying, healing and empowering than all of the arm balancing poses in the world. The more we find freedom in the evolution of our own yoga practice, the closer we come to embodying the ultimate freedom that yoga itself represents.

Finding the courage to let my perception mature, along with the evolution of my practice, gave me the depth and strength to offer the healing power of yoga to others. And for this gift of being able to serve from a place grounded in experience, I am eternally grateful… Even if I never again rock a killer handstand.

Ina Sahaja is a committed yoga student, teacher and friend along the path. Along with teaching weekly classes in Boulder, Colorado, she travels to lead workshops and retreats. She is the founder of Yoga for You!, a phone-led beginners’ series for rural communities, and Embodied Sanskrit, her signature course for yoga teachers and practitioners; de-mystifying the ancient language of yoga through a unique somatic learning experience. She is a passionate kirtan artist and is writing her first book based on her thesis, about embodied ritual in modern yoga. She blogs regularly on her website, www.yogawithina.com. You can also connect with her at www.facebook.com/ina.sahaja and https://twitter.com/inasahajaa.

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