If you were to drop into the Yoga Shanti studio in Sag Harbor, and were lucky enough to have as your teacher, the founder, Colleen Saidman Yee, you would surely gasp. As she moves gracefully among the yoga mats, you would marvel at the statuesque woman with long ripples of blond hair falling over her chest, and limbs supple as reeds bending in a pond.
She smiles broadly and begins speaking in a voice with the gentle vibrancy of a flute. This is a woman who has cultivated serenity. You can’t help wanting what she has. But how did she get this way?
You would think to yourself, ‘How old is she? 30s? 40s? How does she find such peace?’ She has beauty, the admiration of thousands of students, an adoring, handsome husband and teaching partner, a thriving business, and a blended family. It looks like it all came easily. Wrong.
A book party for Colleen Saidman Yee was held this week at her newest Yoga Shanti studio in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. In an area where yoga studios proliferate, some rather grungy, this high-ceilinged space has the feeling of sun and sky. Walls and ceilings shimmer with sponged gold paint, moldings are accented with turquoise, and one room is layered with color-coordinated Turkish rugs.
Colleen admitted she was feeling nervous and vulnerable. She signed many copies of “Yoga For Life: A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom,” and graciously bent for her friends’ selfies. When it came time for Colleen to talk about her book, her acolytes (including me!) sat on the floor in comfortable variations of the Lotus position. It felt natural. Colleen spoke honestly about feeling nervous and vulnerable. “I’m putting my life out there; the book is very honest and raw.” Then she injected a giggle. “It does have sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.” Her story is anything but an easy ride to success and significance. In fact, when I asked her what was the most daring thing she had done in her life, she replied, “Daring to be a teacher of yoga.”
With all her natural born beauty and charms, this woman, like countless others, including Marilyn, has always battled the conviction that she is not enough – not smart enough, not pure enough, not brave enough. And yet, as she reveals in her book, to this day she must confront the real fear of convulsion and even sudden death. She is vulnerable to occasional epileptic seizure. How to accept such a fate and continue moving forward, moment to moment, with appreciation, is the secret imparted by her book.
The book moves through a sequence of passages, many of them harrowing. But in between each chapter, Colleen takes the readers by the hand and leads us through a carefully thought out sequence of yoga poses.
The book begins with her birth in 1960. Yes, this youthful woman is now 55. She grew up a child of the Catholic church, certain she would become a nun. Instead, she was later disheartened by the pedophilia of priests and the doctrine of original sin which tormented her mother with guilt. Many years later, Colleen found her “amazing grace” by teaching yoga every Sunday morning, with words that encourage loving and caring in our everyday lives.
Desperate to be a perfect child, Colleen stayed up nights rewriting her homework to be certain to get A+. By the age of 11, she was diagnosed with ulcers. When the family was uprooted from a tightly-knit Catholic community in upstate New York and moved to a rural area in the Midwest for her father’s job, she felt completely out of place. Amidst her family of six hippie children, she was not easily accepted by unworldly conservatives.
At the age of 15, she was confronted with the first of many traumas. She and her friends were playing chicken in the middle of the road. Teams of two piggybacked on shoulders, were pushing and shoving each other off when a car came over the hill and smashed into them. The impact scattered bodies in every direction. Colleen woke up in the hospital with a skull fracture and broken collarbone.
After that, her post-accident brain never worked quite the same way. She could not accept the changes and did not seek medical attention. Instead she began walking on the wild side, seeking relief from marijuana, hash, and alcohol, finally settling on Quaaludes as her drug of choice. Running was another escape from berating herself for never being good enough.
Immediately following this disturbing chapter, Colleen calms the reader with a chapter on “trauma.” She writes about how yoga helps to unlock areas of tension “slowly, calmly, methodically, and mindfully… with care, we can chip away our habitual ways of being in the world that cause us habitual isolation and suffering.” In the most precise instructional poses of yoga poses that I have ever seen, Colleen demonstrates “tree pose,” and “downward Facing Dog, etc., explaining how to get the most from each posture. She takes you through warrior poses and then relaxation poses using a chair to encourage scanning the body from head to feet and watching sensations of fear pass over like clouds.
Convinced she wasn’t smart enough, she dropped out of college and became a fashion model represented by Elite and Ford Models. Working around the globe wasn’t nearly as glamorous as models’ lives are made out to be. In Paris, she writes, the models worked like dogs and ate together at McDonalds. She was often subjected to sexual assault. Seemingly for protection, at 30 she married a famous fashion photographer and thought of herself as the “mute wage-earner,” while her husband was the “smart one.” She believed that if only “I exercised enough, studied enough, dressed perfectly enough, made enough money, and was a good enough lover and conversationalist, the other people in my life would be happy, and so would I.”
It wasn’t until early midlife that she made the life-changing passage by taking her greatest dare—to become a yoga teacher. Colleen found in yoga “the devotion of prayer, the endorphins of running, and the altered state of drugs and running without the harm.” She also found in yoga a community of people who cared about making a difference in the world. Her identity gradually shifted from model to yogi…. It was time to stop trying to please everyone else. She hooked up with another jivamukti teacher in the Hamptons and dared to open a studio in Sag Harbor. I was one of the early students of the original Yoga Shanti, which means “peace.” Across 22 mats, we stretched out and fed off the energy and exhilaration of the group.
By her 41st year, Colleen had a 12-year old marriage, a 6-year old daughter, and a hip yoga studio where celebrities took mats beside teachers and pregnant moms and sweated through classes to rock ‘n roll music. She writes that she felt “validated in every part of my life except my marriage where I still felt stifled and stupid.”
The most beautiful chapter in the book is named, simply, “Love.” She tells the story of taking a workshop with Rodney Yee in 2001. He was also married and rumored to be a ladies man. “I couldn’t stand the guy at first,” she told us at the book party. “There was barely enough space in the room for him and his ego.” Rodney, a Chinese man and former ballet dancer, exploded with laughter. I won’t spoil her telling of the powerful, wordless connection she felt between them, in spite of herself. They started a romance that rocked the yoga world. Colleen admits the price of their relationship was high.
The chapter of yoga sequences that follows the “Love” chapter is about finding a balance. Isn’t that what we all seek? But as Colleen writes in her book, “Balance isn’t a set point or destination. It’s a constant play between opposites.” Yin and Yang. Rodney is earth-bound and provides a tether for Colleen, who lifts him to flights into the unknown.
Colleen and Rodney have now been together for a little more than a decade. The beauty of watching them is to see a true partnership on every level. They found that one had to teach the class while the other assisted silently; otherwise they would be frustrated by who was doing most of the talking. So they worked out a compromise. They alternate teaching and the other is always present in the class to assist.
To me, the most profound chapter in “Yoga For Life,” is called “Facing What Scares Us.” Colleen had to learn to elicit her fears through yoga, so she can walk courageously through them. Whether it was the brain injury she suffered as a teenager, or something else, it has left her vulnerable to epileptic seizures. At one time, she took medication to stave them off. But after being without seizures for several years, she decided to wean herself off medication. She paints a terrifying scene of being in the shower with her husband when a grand mal seizure overtook her. She writes about how she has tried every alternative anti-seizure remedy. She now takes medication every day and supplements it with diet, acupuncture, and yoga. “The biggest transformation has been my acceptance. I don’t feel defeated anymore. Instead, I feel awakened to the fact that I’m not in control of everything.”
To move through the day, aware that any moment might be her last, is what makes Colleen Saidman Yee, a standing figure of courage. Like a tuning fork, she radiates that serenity to all who surround her.