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Aaron H. Levine (Avatar) 1954-2000

What does it mean when your yoga teacher calls it quits?

You know that something has gone badly awry in the universe when your yoga teacher hangs himself. In the higher order of things, there are some people who just aren’t supposed to do such things. People like yoga teachers. People like Avatar.

Avatar seemed to materialize in Washington out of nowhere a few years ago. One day, fliers for his 10th Street yoga studio just started appearing regularly at the Connecticut Avenue Whatsa Bagel. And then, it seemed, he was everywhere—teaching yoga at the Y; Results, The Gym; the International Monetary Fund; HUD. I didn’t really know him. But periodically over the past few years, I joined other uncoordinated white-collar stiffs at the Rhode Island Avenue YMCA and tried to stretch my creaky back into the Bow or teeter precariously into the Tree under Avatar’s tutelage.

Often, as I listened to him chant soothingly, “Inhale, exhale,” in the dark seventh-floor Y studio, I thought Avatar would have made a good cult leader. The name, of course, helped. And his hypnotic voice. Avatar radiated a kind of intensity and seriousness that seemed to work like a tractor beam, pulling certain people into his orbit. People in his classes worshiped him, but Avatar mostly seemed interested in helping stressed-out Washingtonians chill out and get their Plows up higher. He sometimes wore a T-shirt that read, “All’s well that bends well,” suggesting a sense of humor under his serious facade.

After class, students would consult him about their various lower-back troubles; others, in ethnic-print palazzo pants, would remind him of upcoming potluck dinners, which is exactly where I pictured him spending time when he wasn’t leading us in sun salutations. When a woman named Shakti started teaching lunchtime yoga at the Y, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn that she was Avatar’s wife.

I’d see Avatar riding around downtown on his bike with his yoga mat strapped on his back, like a courier delivering messages of relaxation and inner peace. Those of us who only knew him from the other end of the mat would never have guessed that he wasn’t finding inner peace himself. But last Monday, two months shy of his 46th birthday, Avatar tied a noose around his neck and quieted his mind in a profoundly different way.

As Avatar’s dramatic exit might suggest, there was much more to him than his Ohms, most of which I’m only now discovering. For people who knew him a long time, Avatar the yoga instructor was just the latest incarnation of the artist Aaron H. Levine, a gifted sculptor whose work has been circulating in the D.C. area for more than 20 years.

Born in Portsmouth, Va., in 1954, Levine studied art at the University of Virginia before coming to Washington in 1977 to teach art to special-ed kids at the Lab School and elsewhere. When he wasn’t teaching, he pursued his own work in marble, an unforgiving medium all but abandoned by modern artists. Levine’s work was critically acclaimed and shown in a variety of galleries and competitions.

In 1986, he won a Fulbright grant to study pre-Renaissance and Renaissance carving techniques in Pietrasanta, Italy, the town whose quarry provided Michelangelo’s marble. Levine, who spoke fluent Italian, spent four years in Pietrasanta, working at the Studio Palla and Studio Balduini, Flora, & C. before returning to Washington in 1990.

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That year, after a show of many of his latest works, the Washington Post wrote that with his “stunning” marble pieces, Levine had used a traditional medium to pull off “a genuine postmodern trick or two.” Critic Michael Welzenbach wrote that Levine had created “modernist works that wouldn’t look out of place amid the ruins of Pompeii.”

Levine’s marble sculptures can be found in downtown corporate offices, private collections, and galleries from Slovenia to Singapore. He made obelisks and broken columns carved with intricate designs of Biblical tales, and inlaid marble tables that were commissioned by downtown lawyers and wealthy collectors in the Virginia countryside. Two years ago, his work even appeared at the National Gallery of Art in New Delhi, India.

In 1994, Levine married his biggest fan, Marian Galeano, a Washington dancer, photographer, legal assistant, and kindred spirit. At their Rome wedding, they consecrated what their friend Cathy Delcoco calls an “artistic partnership.” Another friend, lawyer John Hornick, whose law-office desktop is a marble piece commissioned from Levine, says, “I don’t know of two people whose lives were as intertwined as theirs were.”

Together, the pair started a yoga studio on the third floor of their house on 10th Street NW, in Blagden Alley. Levine did the renovations himself, adding windows and woodwork to create a peaceful, bright, and airy space for teaching classes. One of Levine’s marble sculptures—The Third Eye—sits in the corner. Galeano says they would ride their bikes all over town teaching and advertising for their new business. “With yoga, it’s like a service you give,” she says.

Levine’s yoga practice was a late-blooming passion, though, which he discovered after being involved in a moped accident in Italy that resulted in shoulder surgery. When Levine returned to Washington, he started swimming at the Y to rebuild his shoulder. There, he saw someone teaching yoga. He was intrigued and eventually took it up with enthusiasm, as he did with all of his pursuits, according to friends. Levine received his teaching certification in 1996, becoming Avatar, and Galeano followed, later earning the yoga name Shakti.

For Levine, yoga offered more than an artist’s supplemental income. In the ancient exercises, he sought the serenity he was often unable to find elsewhere, taking to heart the mantra he repeated after every class: “Shanti, shanti, shanti. Peace, peace peace. Peace for the body, peace for the mind, peace for the spirit.”

According to Delcoco, Levine had struggled with serious depression for most of his life. He tried to tackle it naturally by using yoga, becoming a vegetarian, and consulting a Chinese herbalist. When his demons proved too powerful, Levine sought medical help, but he hated the medication, to which his yoga-cleansed body reacted badly, and he took it only sporadically.

Over the past six months, Hornick says, it became increasingly hard for Levine to teach yoga as he struggled to maintain his outward composure. After he cut his hand on a saw—an injury that hampered his ability to pursue both of his passions—his despair only deepened. Delcoco says that Levine knew things were getting bad and had recently sought medical intervention. Unfortunately, Delcoco says, thanks to HMO complications, he could not get an appointment to see a doctor until May 22, a full week after he took his own life. “We never thought this would be the end result,” Delcoco says.

In Sanskrit, “Avatar” means the incarnation of a supreme being in human form. Galeano says Levine earned the name for his perfectionism, which is evident in his work. His art—candlesticks; funky clocks; a light fixture in the bathroom; inlaid, marble-legged tables; and large sculptures—graces every corner of their 10th Street house. But along with the beauty that remains in his marble work, Levine has also left behind a collage of human sorrow.

Many of Levine’s friends saw him the day before he died, at an open studio show of his work. They are left with an especially acute sense of collective guilt for failing to see the warning signs. “I’m still mad at him,” says Levine’s college roommate and local lawyer Roger Goldman. “This is a story for which there is not a satisfying answer.”

More than 250 people attended Levine’s funeral last week—friends and family who are still trying to find some meaning in his death and wondering what they could have done to save him. Even his dog, Tito, hasn’t been spared the trauma of Levine’s intentional passing. Unable to eat and so tense he couldn’t walk for a few days, Tito has been to the vet twice since Levine’s death; the vet diagnosed him with grief.

But no one is more shattered by Levine’s death than Galeano. Their sixth wedding anniversary would have been this week. “He was just a great man,” says Galeano. “I loved him so much. He was my life. He touched so many lives.” But in the end, she says, “the disease just took over.” CP