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Soul Warrior Avi

Maybe it’s possible after all to find true meaning at a Malibu yoga retreat

by
Armin Rosen
February 11, 2022
Shutterstock
Shutterstock
Shutterstock
Shutterstock

About half of our current lifespans had gone by since the last time Avi Nimmer and I had seen or spoken with one another. Ever since the 2005 edition of Nesiya, a pluralistic six-week Israel summer program—attractive to me for its lack of affiliation with any American youth group or religious movement—I knew the lanky and easygoing Angeleno as another once-familiar face cycling through my Facebook feed, made notable only because it had been present for something that I remember with greater vividness than almost anything else from my late teenage years.

But as I scrolled through the unending blotter of the life events of people who had, through the natural attrition of passing time, mostly drifted further away, Avi had recently moved in the other direction, going from a bit player in a distant-yet-formative life event to someone I constantly wondered about. In a new life leading yoga and guided dances and other events for LA-area seekers, Avi had seemingly found what a lot of people eventually realize they’re looking for. One photo and mini-essay and event notice at a time, it became clearer that he had effectively channeled, and perhaps even overcome, the existential angst of one’s early 30s, a time when the scope and stakes and length and briefness of life can finally be grasped as something approaching their true possibility and horror. He was now Soul Warrior Avi, a “warrior on behalf of souls,” a baal teshuva of the spirit.

And here he was, after 16 ½ years, gently sweeping a burning sage stick in a long snaking pattern, welcoming me to a spacious rooftop lounge in Malibu. Avi was dressed in a charcoal purple shirt and baggy white pants that ended at the shins. He launched into an invocation, a single half-whispered sentence broken up by massive lung-inflating breaths, during which he’d close his eyes and allow some deep wave of feeling to surge through him. “The mind is like an iPhone with too many tabs open,” he said, accurately. “Just concentrate on breathing … focus on being here, on the place you chose to be out of all places in the world … see yourself in this space.”  A smile burst across him, spreading from the tresses of blond hair that curtained the back of his head to the delta of his craggy beard, as he said his concluding words of welcome: “And so it is.”

The Liber8xperience—a curated ceremony of “yoga flow,” “ecstatic dance and guided movement,” sound bath, and cacao—took place not amid a New Agey clutter of incense and hemp weaves but under the half-moon on a sleekly designed terrace overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The people who came to the lush green AstroTurf, palm umbrellas, and tasteful Indian statuary of Rafi Lounge didn’t look like crunchy types either—most of them were young women in Californian states of rude physical health. The music for the evening, a continuous guitar, violin, and light electronic groove, was improvised by a multi-instrumentalist named DPak who scores shows for the Disney Channel and who’d worked with composers and producers that you and I and seemingly everyone who watches movies or listens to enough music has heard of. Los Angeles is a place where coolness really can exist without hauteur, and where Soul Warriors, film industry types, long-bearded photographers in biblical robes named Eliyahu, environmental activists, recent Eastern European immigrants, and physically inflexible writers from New York can all strive toward self-liberation together.

I experienced the night as a buildup and release of tension. First came the grueling awakening of the guided yoga, where I was gratified to learn that I can hold a three-legged upward dog for as long as two entire seconds, though I also came away with my body bunched in pulsating knots of anxious flesh. Maybe this was by design: Avi’s job was to release the energies built up over the yoga. Don’t look at your phones, the Soul Warrior urged as the 50-odd attendees rolled up their mats and the experience moved to its second phase. Stay with us, here. We formed a circle, and Avi’s first instructions arrived through everyone’s individual headsets. First, be perfectly still, because “stillness is a very important movement form,” the thing that settles the discomfort of our having to move and to be. Then, the opposite prompt: Just start moving, and see what happens.

“Explore the space,” Avi suggested as he pranced through an undulating crowd that was easing into its new freedom—he slapped high-fives, hugged, danced, or made eye contact with everyone at some point over the next 30 minutes. “Any movement you do mindfully can’t be done wrong,” he said as people flapped their arms, dropped to the ground, or just swayed in place. The only admonishment was not to shout too loudly, out of respect for the neighbors: “Don’t explode out, explode in!” He traced long, speeding circles with both arms: “Do a movement you’ve never done before. There are infinite numbers of movements. New movements open new neural pathways!”

Avi Nimmer

Avi Nimmercourtesy of David Markus

“This is how I get high now,” I heard one participant say, amid possibly the most weed-free live music and dance-related event in all of Southern California. Another remarked that she could keep doing this forever. “This is the dress rehearsal,” Avi said, in reference, I guess, to life and existence in general. “It’s the real show! But it’s also practice.” As the music resolved and the circle reformed, I was reminded of the end of one of those eight-hour Rosh Hashanah services at the pilgrimage in Uman, another very different journey to a similar mental and spiritual state of feeling simultaneously empty and full.

When the program concluded there was only one thing I really wanted to know from Avi: What was the nature of the discovery that had led him here to this rooftop, to life as an LA soul warrior? What had he found, exactly?

With his face engulfed in a broad smile, Avi gave me the short version of the past 16 years of his life. He had gone to college in Canada and lived there for a decade, drifting into a “quote-unquote normal life,” with a girlfriend and nights out at the bar and plentiful weed and a job running a travel agency that he partly owned. Actually his life sounded better than normal, since his job meant he was constantly getting paid to go somewhere interesting. But the doubts became harder to ignore, especially when things were going well. He recalled that in 2016 he was sitting on a beach in Nicaragua on a surfing trip, drinking a beer, surrounded by women in bikinis. He opened his journal and realized: “I don’t feel good. And if I don’t feel good here, where do I go? What do I do?”

A happy event soon transpired. Thanks to a series of immigration snafus, he was kicked out of Canada. “I energetically created the conditions to get myself deported—unconsciously.” In the space of a few days in 2017 he broke up with his girlfriend, left his job and his apartment, and went back to LA. He met a “soul coach,” a woman who helped him understand that “life is a fleeting gift,” and who allowed him to go “deeper into myself.” He began studying “embodied movement leadership,” which he turned into a sustainable living—Liber8 is just one of several regular events that Avi helps organize and lead.

The great “truth” that he had discovered, Avi said, is that there are infinite truths. “I feel I found the truth is that we actually don’t know. We don’t know why we’re here in this human experience. We don’t know what happens after death.” Religion was a matter of “semantics,” he said, different languages for dealing with “the great unknown, the great mystery. It resides in each one of us, in our own heart.” We talked sitting cross-legged on the AstroTurf as the gathering thinned out. “Malibu sky medicine!” Avi bellowed when someone remarked on the constellations and the half moon. “So good! So good!” To him the amazing thing wasn’t that the sky here was beautiful, but that it was even there to marvel at.

I am more of a shul-goer than a yogi, someone for whom the possibility of infinite truths is personally unsatisfying and even unsettling. And perhaps Avi was himself rooted in various certainties about what could be meaningful, and had made a life where he helped other people work toward a similar kind of meaning, even if he was careful to use methods that didn’t resort to pressure or shame. But as we talked, the bigger questions about life or God or the composition of reality or the roots of human motive felt distracting or cynical or even pointless. Contentment was possible here, on a rooftop over the Pacific Ocean, the evil white glow of the city safely hidden behind a mountain range. Avi had found it. Maybe nothing else mattered.


Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.