If you follow the world of yoga, you most definitely recognize Yoga Shanti studio founder Colleen Saidman Yee. Named “The First Lady of Yoga” by The New York Times, she’s also been featured on the cover of Yoga Journal four times and in numerous other publications including Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan. In 2015, Colleen published her inspiring book Yoga For Life: A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom, blending practical yoga instruction with her captivating autobiography — she also offers a wonderful 12-week online course based on her book. And recently, she became a Peloton Cycle yoga instructor, teaching yoga classes for Peloton that can be accessed any time on the bike or through the Peloton app! We caught up with Colleen to learn more about her yoga journey, her experience as a mother, and the exciting community of Peloton.
HOW DID YOU FIRST “FALL IN LOVE” WITH YOGA?
CSY: I was resistant, but my best friend and next-door neighbor at the time was into yoga, and she finally forced me to go to class. I wasn’t in love with yoga after that one experience, but I was in awe of the effect it had on me: I was clear and present. When I walked out of the studio onto Broadway that day, the colors, sounds, and smells all seemed like crystal. I even thought for a second that someone had spiked my water. That was in 1984, and I continue to marvel at the effects every time I get on the mat.
IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT ARE THE MOST POSITIVE OR LIFE-CHANGING BENEFITS OF YOGA?
CSY: Yoga puts you in touch with your body. Most of us are running around disconnected from the wisdom of the body, and we cover up any feelings or discomforts with our habits—over-exercising, over- or under-eating, over-shopping, and drinking too much, just to name a few. If we get our hearts broken, we reach for a pill so we don’t feel the pain. If we need sleep, we reach for coffee. If we have a little physical pain, we reach for an aspirin. We do anything to avoid connecting to the humanness of the body. There was a study that said that most people would rather spend 15 minutes with self-administered shock treatments than to spend 15 minutes sitting with their thoughts, emotions, and physical difficulties. Yoga practice is about stepping off the treadmill of escapism, and stepping into the present moment.
DID YOU HAVE AN “AHA” MOMENT WHEN YOU KNEW YOU WOULD DEDICATE YOUR LIFE TO YOGA?
CSY: The first “aha” moment was that first class. And the second was the first time I taught. I’ve always been a competitive jock—I have five brothers, so the spirit was instilled in me at a very young age. Even after my first class, I continued to box, run, and take step classes until I ruptured a disk and ended up horizontal for three months. Eventually, I had the choice of doing nothing and possibly having my leg amputated, or having back surgery. I decided to go under the knife. That was in 1994, and since then, I’ve only done yoga. I’ve recently made an exception to that rule, and have been riding my Peloton bike. I don’t think I’m a natural teacher. But because I believe in yoga wholeheartedly, it doesn’t feel like teaching so much as sharing a passion. I really want everyone to fall in love and receive the benefits of yoga.
SPEAKING OF PELOTON, YOU NOW TEACH YOGA CLASSES AVAILABLE ON THE BIKE AND THROUGH THE PELOTON APP! WHO DO YOU RECOMMEND THIS WORKOUT FOR? AND WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF MERGING YOGA WITH THE BIKE?
CSY: There are many benefits that come from adding yoga to the extensive collection of rides on the Peloton bike and app. On days that you want to take off from cycling, you can do a stand alone yoga class. On riding days, the yoga balances the ride, and will leave you feeling relaxed and open. I have a Peloton bike, and this is how I did my R&D to determine what kinds of classes to offer. I have filmed dozens of programs from 5 minute basics classes for the complete novice, to 45 minute flow practices for the more experienced. We also offer: restorative classes on days when you need to take it down a notch, classes that address lower back pain, classes that target your hips (which are notoriously tight for riders), your upper body and your core. Basically, it’s a one stop shop — get your ride, get your yoga, and get an amazing, supportive and enthusiastic community. You don’t need a bike to do the yoga programs (or a ton of other workouts). Just download the app and take us with you wherever you go.
YOU’VE HELPED WITH INTEGRATIVE YOGA THERAPY IN HOSPITALS. HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH THIS PROGRAM?
CSY: Donna Karan’s late husband’s dying wish was that all nurses and patients have access to the alternative modalities that brought him comfort during the seven years he suffered with lung cancer. Donna asked Rodney and me how she could make his last wish come true. Rodney and I knew that yoga teachers would love to get involved, and began a training program that consisted of yoga therapies including breath work, in-bed movements, and restorative poses. We coupled the yoga with essential oils, reiki, nutrition, and contemplative care. Since that beginning, we’ve trained hundreds of yoga teachers and healthcare practitioners, and are in dozens of hospitals. We have enough stories to write a book that would make you never stop crying.
CAN YOU SHARE ONE OF THOSE STORIES WITH US?
CSY: Here’s one example that a nurse from UCLA Medical Center sent us: “I had to take a patient off life support today. I practiced a walking meditation on my way to the room. I stood outside the door and practiced breathing into my feet. I put my hand on the door handle and mindfully opened the door. The whole family was sitting around their loved one. I gave each person a drop of lavender oil and taught them chair yoga while administering reiki to the room. I reached down and unplugged this person. I feel like it was the first time in 15 years that I truly did my job.”
WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF IN YOUR CAREER SO FAR? DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE MOMENT OR ACCOMPLISHMENT?
CSY: I don’t like the word “proud.” But I’m happy that I overcame my intense fear of teaching. (Actually, I have to overcome it over again each time I take the teachers seat.) I’m thrilled about the way our four kids have incorporated yoga into their lives, and I’m thrilled in general about the people they’ve become. It’s been rewarding bringing comfort to people in pain through the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program.
Writing my book, Yoga for Life, was incredibly painful; I wanted to quit so many times. I even called my editor at Simon and Schuster and told her that I was going to scrap the project. But I went on and poured my heart into a Word doc for 18 months. I cried a lot. When the book launched, I felt so vulnerable. But I can honestly say that I’m happy I endured. I’ve connected with hundreds of people who I otherwise wouldn’t have.
And, I think it takes courage to be on the cover of First for Women, with a circulation of 4 million, in a string bikini at 58 years old.
AS A MOTHER, HOW DID YOU USE YOGA DURING PREGNANCY, CHILDBIRTH AND BEYOND?
CSY: I had back surgery a week before conceiving, so I did very little during pregnancy. If I knew then what I know now, I would have had a daily practice including movement, restoratives, and breath work. But back then I was only into sweaty vinyasa, which wasn’t going to happen right after back surgery.
But we’ve taught the kids yoga tools since they were babies, and they utilize them. For instance, if one of our girls has cramps, she’ll set herself up in a supported reclined cobbler’s pose, put peppermint essential oil on a cotton pad next to her face, and place her hands on her belly while scanning her body in meditation.
YOUR ONLINE YOGA COURSE, BASED ON YOUR BOOK iS AMAZING! ANY TIPS FOR THOSE PRACTICING YOGA AT HOME, AS OPPOSED TO IN A CLASSROOM SETTING?
CSY: Have a designated space and time. It’s so easy to let it slide when you aren’t held accountable. Some days, practice to a video and sometimes try just getting on your mat and do what feels good. Don’t skip savasana.
WHAT IS THE ONE MOST IMPORTANT PIECE OF ADVICE YOU CAN GIVE YOGA BEGINNERS?
CSY: My main tip is to be consistent and not be too ambitious. Ten to 20 minutes a day several times a week is more beneficial than two hours once a week. If you don’t like your first teacher, don’t assume that yoga isn’t for you. There are so many wonderful teachers. You’ll find one that suits you perfectly.
AND THE MOST IMPORTANT PIECE OF ADVICE FOR EXPERIENCED YOGIS TO IMPROVE THEIR PRACTICE?
CSY: Never think that you’ve “got” it. Keep a beginner’s mind. There’s always a next level of subtlety. Also, don’t put emphasis on range of movement. And keep studying. When you’re uninspired, get on your mat, anyway. The cycle will shift, and soon you’ll be back in love.
DO YOU HAVE A MANTRA YOU LIVE BY?
CSY: Know you’re enough. We spend so much precious time waging war with ourselves. We’re never enough. Our bodies aren’t good enough, we aren’t smart enough, we aren’t successful enough, we aren’t good enough parents, etc., etc. There’s some strange, unattainable perfection that we’re striving for. I believe that’s the number-one thing between us and contentment.
IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT MAKES A WOMAN BEAUTIFUL?
CSY: Believing it’s true.
Photos by Zev Starr-Tambor