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September 2020
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Meet The Teach: Melissa "Mati" Elstein
Saying Goodbye To The Litigious Lawyer Forever

Melissa “Mati” Elstein danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor when she was a federal judge and loved being a lawyer with the NYC police department. So as you may imagine teaching yoga was not part of her story, until a class at Rasa Yoga, changed everything for the young attorney

Ultimately leading her down a path where a decade later she has become a yoga warrior, teaching yoga and giving her classes her own unique and spin by adding in different aspects of Qigong, Tai Chi, Reiki, and dance.

Yoga City's Dar Dowling recently caught up with her to find out how yoga propelled her out of the courtroom and into the yoga studio – and get the inside track on her fusion classes. 

Dar Dowling: You were a dancer and then a lawyer.  Did you ever think you would become a yoga teacher?

Melissa “Mati” Elstein: In 2002, when I walked into “Rasa Yoga” (a small Upper West Side yoga center no longer in existence), I was a practicing attorney with two Federal clerkships under my belt, and three years at the NYPD’s Civil Enforcement Unit.  I was not intending to leave the law.  But my first class at this little-known space on the fourth floor of an artists’ building changed my life.  Since I had enjoyed practicing public-interest law, I never imagined that only two years later, I would be a yoga teacher and not a lawyer! 

DD: Why was Rasa Yoga so special?

MME: Pratima Raichur, an Ayurvedic doctor I was seeing in NYC, recommended I start a yoga practice - specifically Rasa. I followed her suggestion, mainly because the studio was conveniently located near my apartment.  From the moment I experienced Rasa yoga, I knew it was different from any other yoga class. 

There was a lovely incense fragrance permeating the space, the class was conducted in a candle-lit room on soft maroon futon mats, the flow was exceedingly slow and gentle, and most strange to me was the sounding we were asked to do during the asanas (humming, toning, chanting).

Prior to that, I never participated in chanting “Om” in yoga classes, because “Om” seemed too “religious” for me.  But during this first Rasa class, I decided to try the vocalizing (albeit barely audibly).  And at the end, while in savasana, it was the first time I was able to fully relax during corpse pose.  Most yoga classes I had previously tried were more physical, and tended to increase my energy and exacerbate my mile-a-minute mind. 

Yet at Rasa, I felt a deep peace and calm, and a mental stillness I had never experienced before that moment.  I also felt tingling throughout my body as prana flowed along the energy channels most likely blocked until the end of that pivotal class.  Well, as you can imagine, my life changed at that moment. 

DD: What inspired you to become a yoga teacher?

MME: That first day at Rasa, I found the sounding, the slowness of the class, and the long pauses in restorative-like postures, such as child’s pose, to be very challenging – not physically, but mentally.  But somehow intuitively I knew that this was beneficial for me; that it seemed to be a balance to all that speed in my life and in my mind. I never made the conscious decision to quit the law for yoga, but it felt so healing and spiritual to me that I knew I had to make it the major part of my life at that juncture.

I wanted to learn about this particular practice of yoga, and to experience that peace, calm, and tingling energy again.  I enrolled in what would be their last teacher training, and then became a Rasa yoga teacher and their studio manager until the center closed in December 2004. 

DD: Going from law to yoga must have been a big change for you, what did you learn about yourself?

MME: During this past decade teaching, I've realized how much more I enjoy working with people, rather than arguing in court against other attorneys.  Because my two prior careers and trainings valued competition, I believe I had a more Darwinistic view of humanity before studying yoga.  Although there definitely is competition in the yoga world, at Integral Yoga, (one of the studios where I now study and teach), we are reminded every class to let go of competition with one another as well as oneself. 

Additionally, through yoga, we learn to try to observe ourselves and our thoughts from that “witness” perspective.  Dancers tend to be very self-critical, and I was able to become aware of my own negativity and try to find more self-acceptance.  Many non-dancers can relate to this as well.

DD: You teach many “fusion classes,” combining yoga with other modalities, like Qigong, Tai Chi, Reiki, and dance.  How did that come about?

MME: Rasa opened the door to my other trainings, including Hatha I and Chair/ Gentle at Integral, breath-centered yoga at The Breathing Project, Tai Chi Easy™ and Qigong, and Reiki - all leading to my interest in slow, gentle, mindful movement and healing. 

I often combine those gentle styles of yoga with qigong, as it feels very meditative and flows well together.  I still value the sounding that I learned at Rasa Yoga, and often add it to my classes.  My belief in the gentle movement practices stems from my first-hand experience that they are such a necessary and helpful antidote to our busy “Type-A” New York City lives. 

DD: Are there any other ways yoga has inspired you?

MME: Yoga opened the door for me to see our connection to one another and to nature.  That belief in our interconnectedness and the importance of human cooperation led me to actively join with many local environmental advocacy groups.  Presently, we are seeking a fracking ban in NY to protect our water, land, air, farms and agriculture from toxic chemical and methane gas contamination. 

Yoga teaches us to be the spiritual warrior for inner work and the common good! 

DD: I know you have a pretty busy teaching schedule.  Is there anything you want to share with us?

MME: I'm teaching Gentle Yoga at Integral, Core Strength Hatha I at Upper Westside Yoga & Wellness, Tai Chi Easy™ at Dorot for Seniors, as well as “Chair, Chi & Prana” – a yoga/ tai chi/ qigong fusion class at Integral.

You can get more information about Melissa “Mati” Elstein on her website by clicking here or on facebook by clicking here.

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