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Talking with Melanie Fawer
By Deborah Crooks

Melanie Fawer, who lives and teaches Ashtanga Yoga in New Orleans, is one of less than a dozen Ashtanga Yoga teachers in the United States certified by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. With a degree in psychology from NYU, Melanie was working as a private investigator on capital murder cases when she was introduced to her teacher and practice while visiting India. Upon receiving verbal permission to teach the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series, she introduced Ashtanga Yoga to New Orleans, where she grew up and still has family. Later, when she received her certification, she returned to New Orleans permanently and opened her own studio. After Hurricane Katrina wreaked its devastation upon the city in 2005, she found a new appreciation for the practice and recently released a two-disk instructional DVD.

Q: What was your experience of the hurricane?
Melanie: I evacuated with other residents and went to my Dad's, who lives an hour away, which really was not far enough (he went to Houston.) Fortunately, the house did not take a tree, but he lives on a quiet road one-and-a-half miles from the main road, where so many trees went down that it was like a forest turned on its side. It took those who stayed behind four days to chainsaw our way out.

Citizens were not allowed into the city for three weeks after the hurricane, and there was looting of homes, too. For at least a week, I did not know if my house had flooded, which was torturous. It did not but was looted. For various reasons, I left the country for France while the city was closed off. I wish I had stayed close by in the chance I could get to my house and check on it and be a part of the activity within the city during those critical weeks. It was an unprecedented event and crisis in America and for the people of my city, my friends, my family. No one was a stranger anymore.

Q: How was practice at the studio affected?
Melanie: The city was so devastated. I did not know if I would come back to anything. The studio suffered broken windows and a broken compressor, which were easy to fix.

The hurricane happened on August 29, 2005 and on November 28th, I officially reopened the studio. Before reopening, students could self-practice at the studio free of charge. Classes were down over fifty percent in size.

People were so happy to have class. As of August this year, classes were "back to pre-hurricane" numbers but had been slowly built up. When I reopened, students told me how much their practice sustained them through the crisis and its aftermath. I returned to teaching with a new energy and approach. Students were so happy to return to class and rebuild some sense of routine and normalcy.

Q: Are many of your students still displaced?
Melanie: City residents felt and still feel abandoned by our federal, state and local governments on so many levels. It was a natural and a human disaster. Now, for example, there are FEMA trailers but people cannot access them. No energy, no electricity, no key—it is atrocious, and it has been a year since Katrina. A few students from my shala are living in trailers. It is difficult to live here. There is an underlying level of stress at all times. The city is devastated and we do not have strong or capable leaders.

The city is fraught with problems politically, economically and structurally, in terms of housing for city workers who might actually fix things, or for service-oriented jobs. The list goes on. The streets are in absurd condition. Streetlights still do not work in the one part of the city that is thriving with inhabitants. There are blackouts. There appears to be no organized recovery plan for the city. As for homeowners rebuilding, there is the sense that everyone is waiting to get through the current hurricane season. I just came back from a month in Mysore, India, and I can tell you we are as Third World down here as there.

Q: Did you think twice about returning?
Melanie: I am committed to the city. My family is here, and I cannot think of another place I would want to live. New Orleans is still an amazing city, truly unique and gorgeous to behold. We are very much alive. Eventually, the city will come back and we are hopeful it will even be better than before. But we are also emotionally tender and sensitive to the smallest kind gesture. It takes an inner reserve of strength to be here.

The Jazz Festival was amazing. Great food and music still abound, and the historic parts of the city that a visitor to our city would have seen are still here and thriving to the extent that they can. For the people who call New Orleans home, there is joy and devastation all around; yet, it is still a great place to call home and a great place to visit.

Q: How did you start practicing Ashtanga Yoga?
Melanie: I was introduced to the practice in Mysore by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. I had never heard of Ashtanga Yoga before that or seen the practice. At the time of my first trip to India, I was living in New Orleans. But I used to live in New York and took classes at Jivamukti for about six months. David Life suggested Guruji and Ashtanga to me when I asked him for a recommendation of whom to study with in India.

Guruji gave me all my postures from the Primary and Intermediate Series through the first third of Advanced A or Third Series—then I received the rest of the postures for Third outside India. I am learning Advanced B or Fourth Series now, and that has all come from Guruji. I arrived at Guruji's door without any prior knowledge or teaching of Ashtanga Yoga.

Q: At what point did you know you would teach?
Melanie: I never thought to be a yoga teacher; it was not a conscious idea or decision. It just evolved because that is what I was doing with my life. I fell in love with the practice of Ashtanga, and my life became about going to Mysore to study, going home to save money, going back to study.... When I finished Intermediate with Guruji, he gave me permission to teach the Primary Series.

Q: Was there much yoga going on in New Orleans?
Melanie: There was no Ashtanga in New Orleans at that time. No one had even heard of it, so I started teaching a little on my own when I would go home. I remember being so nervous because I knew I had so much to learn still to be a good teacher. As the years passed, I struggled very much with the idea of teaching for a living and teaching something I was so passionate about that was so personal and private to me. But then, teaching was what kept coming back to me. Finally, around 2000-2001, I accepted that I was and would be a yoga teacher. I did not open a studio until I was certified by Guruji in 2001.

Q: How many times have you been to India? How has that changed your approach to teaching—or has it?
Melanie: I have made eight trips to India and Mysore. I love India; it is a part of me. I wanted to go to India long before my first yoga class. After I found Ashtanga, yoga became my primary reason for returning so often, but now the impetus for going is shifting back to going to India just for its own sake. India is as much a part of my yoga "training" as anything or anyone. I feel it is important to spend time in India if you are to teach yoga.

And I try to stay as true to my guru's teaching example as possible. My example is my teacher—his teachings and his life.

© 2006 Deborah Crooks


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