She isn’t a big name on the British yoga scene (yet), but the New York-based Colleen Saidman Yee is a huge deal in the States. Dubbed ‘the first lady of yoga’ by The New York Times, she has studied and practised yoga for 28 years, and has taught the fashion designer Donna Karan (who endorses her new book), Def Jam’s Russell Simmons and the model Christie Brinkley.
I came to Saidman Yee via her husband, Rodney Yee. One of the first ‘celebrity’ yogis in America (though he probably hates the term), Rodney has sold millions of DVDs, in which he instructs and demonstrates his own-blend, Iyengar-based yoga. I had the pleasure of being taught by him many moons ago in the paradise of Parrot Cay in the Turks & Caicos, where he still leads occasional retreats. I had to review his retreat (a tough job!), having done almost no yoga before. As a journalist on a freebie, I was under no obligation to attend all Rodney’s sessions, but from the start I loved him and his approach, and went to every class – five hours a day for five days – often turning up so stiff and sore that I could barely walk. For while he is clearly very serious about yoga, Rodney sparkles and focuses on the joy yoga can give both in class and beyond the mat. He makes classes fun – I occasionally found myself wobbling, through belly laughter rather than a lack of balance, desperately trying to hold an asana – but he also talks with wisdom about philosophy in an insightful but light and fascinating way.
So when I found out that the instructor Colleen Saidman Yee had just had a book published (in June), I was immediately drawn to it – anyone Rodney Yee respects in the yoga world is bound to offer something of interest for me. And so began my new yoga crush…
The first thing that’s likely to strike the reader picking up Saidman Yee’s book is that she is beautiful. Draped in a Donna Karan dress on the cover, waves of golden hair cascading over her shoulders, she looks like a mermaid standing in Vrksasana (Tree Pose). It’s hard to believe she is 55 years old. She could be – indeed was – a model. A very successful one, too, gracing American Vogue and many other glossy mags. She has travelled, seen amazing places, met inspiring people, wears designer clothes – it’s easy to think her life must have been idyllic, but read on. A serious car accident that fractured her skull and affected her concentration at the age of 15, heroin addiction, sexual assaults, issues with body image, a miscarriage, back surgery, two divorces, being struck by lightning, unpredictable epileptic seizures… Saidman Yee has been through them all – indeed, still suffers from the seizures, which mean she can’t ever swim or drive alone. And yet she always seems to find a silver lining. ‘If my accident at age fifteen had any upside, it’s that I have a heightened empathy for the traumas, large and small, that my students have experienced. At times, I can see where trauma is held in their bodies, and I try to figure out sequences that can create relief and release for them.’
It’s this dedication to teaching and to the wellbeing of her students that comes through strongly in Yoga For Life. The book is less of a didactic manual and more of a memoir punctuated by yoga sequences that Saidman Yee has tailored to specific requirements – a yoga handbook for those times when life throws up hurdles. The yoga sequences include: ‘Relief from Anxiety and Trauma’, ‘Observing and Letting Go of Habits’, ‘Strength and Courage to Stand on Your Own Two Feet’, ‘Loving Kindness Toward Ourselves’, ‘Letting Go of Expectations’ and ‘Practising Truthfulness’. Each has photographs of Saidman Yee demonstrating the asanas, so they are easy to follow (though, in my case, not always so easy to achieve). There is nothing here that anyone who can find their way around the Astanga Primary Series will find difficult – the difference is that the sequences are there to be applied to your particular needs. In an afterword to the book that is also the most sincere of love letters, Rodney says that ‘Colleen’s struggles as a human being have helped her develop compassion for others – and to that point, she’ll stay up at night practising sequences that will help others with their predicaments’.
I found myself turning first to the yoga sequence ‘Facing What Scares Us’, as I’ve become much more of a feel-the-fear-and-run-away-from-it type since reaching my forties. This series of asanas follows the chapter ‘Fear’, which is about Saidman Yee’s seizures and how she tries not to let them rule her life: ‘For years, I have lived in fear of seizures, of the embarrassment of having one in public, of getting badly hurt, even of dying. I’m now trying to be grateful for my seizures and the lessons they have taught me.’ It’s that silver lining again. And – wouldn’t you know it? – the yoga sequence she proffers to help face up to fear involves backbending, which – as my teacher Kathryn will tell you – is one of the postures I am most afraid of and find excruciatingly difficult. Saidman Yee writes, ‘Mr Iyengar believed that backbends help us face our fear – of death and of the unknown… You master fear by mastering backbends; they pierce the shell we think keeps us safe and make us face the unknown behind the illusion. This sequence is designed to gradually soften hardness or resistance that results from fear. We build up to it. Open your heart and embrace the day for its beauty.’ I’ve been trying it, and although I know it will take me a while (if not forever) to master, I am at least now slightly less fearful of attempting Urdhva Dhanurasana and will just keep doing my best. I might not be able to do a backbend, but it seems as if this book has already had an impact on my outlook. For, as Saidman Yee says, ‘Life is full of acceptance and rejection. Unfortunately, many of us focus on the rejection. Yoga tells us it’s more useful to practise swaha, the idea of which is do the best you can, and let go of the rest.’
If Yoga For Life were merely an autobiography, it would be totally absorbing. It is certainly searingly honest. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll all show up – the subject of Saidman Yee’s affair with Rodney and the ructions it caused in the yoga community in America is taken by the horns (some saw it as a ‘betrayal’ by a yoga teacher to his student). But the yoga aspect completes the book, as it clearly completes the writer, whose humility, compassion and understanding also feature. You only have to know that next to the designer frocks in Saidman Yee’s wardrobe hang two very simple cotton dresses – the only two she had to wear while working with the sick and the dying for several months with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta – to realise this is a kind and sympathetic woman. ‘No matter how much these people were suffering, they were grateful for our attention. Whether you were changing a bandage, bringing food, or giving an injection, they would always put their hands in prayer position and bow in appreciation. This is the true meaning of namaste, which we say at the end of yoga class. It means, ‘The divine in me bows to the divine in you.’
Saidman Yee is, understandably, particularly in tune with women and inspires strength. A whole chapter is dedicated to women and addresses, among other things, the importance of female friendships and dealing with the menopause (‘a breakthrough, not a crisis or an illness’). Saidman Yee’s encouraging tones pervade the prose. Heaven knows what she’d get me doing in class if I met her in real life, but I rather like the thought.
Review written by Victoria Reeves
Yoga For Life: A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom, by Colleen Saidman Yee is published by Simon & Schuster (RRP £15)