In a Skype session, 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 spoke with Litvak about his journey from Camp Lejeune to Columbia University to fundraising classes in “the other Brooklyn.”
Ann Votaw: Tell me about that interesting wall in your cave.
Alex Litvak: The tacky wall tiles are something my dad came up with, and I agreed to them. 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 nine.
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 new fields.
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 Yoga here in Brooklyn.
AV: How long have you been studying yoga?
AL: Nine years. I came to yoga completely messed up. Any repetitive motions, like swimming and baseball, would give me pain and suffering. I started yoga at a great studio called Yoga Spot, in Coney Island. Then I started private lessons with Kim-Lien Kendall, who was more into therapeutic yoga. My first teacher training was with
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, and 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 the occasional Aleve, I have been medication-free for 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.
AK: Can you see that it’s a demon offering the Buddha a pill? There are 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?
AK: 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 PaKau Martial Arts & Yoga 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.
To learn more about Litvak and see videos of his practice with cats, visit hisFacebook 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, Brooklyn. Cost is $20.