Colleen Saidman Yee is an internationally respected yoga teacher and has been teaching yoga for almost 20 years. Prior to that, she had many chapters ranging from a heroin habit to a top fashion model working around the globe. The first time she took a yoga class, she left feeling inexplicably different—something inside her had shifted. She felt alive—so alive that yoga became the center of her life, helping her come to terms with her insecurities and find her true identity and voice.
Colleen sat down to talk with me about how yoga can be a powerful tool, and companion, helping us in areas of physical health, emotional health, and spiritual health.
How has yoga helped you?
Early in my life I ran away from a lot of things. I looked for relief from anxiety and trauma through drug abuse.. Later, I was a professional model for three decades, and very confused about my value beyond my looks. I discovered yoga halfway through my life, and it has helped me discover my body, and through it, my voice. It helped me become a more honest person. It continues to do so.
When you navigate the inner landscape of your body through postures, breath work, and mindfulness, you start to become more aware. The key in yoga is to investigate and listen to your body. Beyond the poses, you start to notice if what you’ve just said or done or thought makes you feel lousy or good.
Yoga helped me get back to myself. It helped me realize that the magic I spent my lifetime searching for was never missing. All we have to do is stop covering it up and running from it.
What have you found most helpful in getting people to develop a regular yoga practice?
Get on the mat every day, even if it means lying on the mat and having a good cry. The discipline and consistency is the key. Sometimes it can feel like setting aside this time to pause and just be is selfish. What we need to realize is that the most important thing we can do for other people is to find that calm and love. If all you have is exhaustion, you can’t really be of much use to others. And, let’s face it, we feel better and look better when we practice yoga. I don’t think that is disputable. Isn’t that what we want? So, no more excuses.
What common changes do you see once people start practicing yoga regularly?
It’s almost like they let down their armor and a real person starts to shine through. You wouldn’t believe the number of testimonials I’ve gotten from students saying that yoga has brought them through the darkest time of their life. Many have even said that yoga saved their life. It is a tuning in, rather than a tuning out. One of our main teachers says that if you don’t want your life to change, then don’t step on the mat. You just can’t do things the same way once you get in touch. We have seen unhealthy relationships end; jobs that felt wrong, let go of; bodies reclaimed; voices found; and empathy and compassion for our fellow beings surface.
Besides being exercise, what kinds of things can yoga help people with?
Yoga’s benefits extend from strength, flexibility, optimum weight, mental health, to honest relationships, self-acceptance, the ability to speak the truth, and, ultimately, inner peace.
How does yoga help our habits, dependencies, and addictions?
When you start asana practice, you can see your physical habits: which leg you usually stand on, if you collapse your chest, where your head is habitually placed. If you have played a sport, such as tennis or baseball where there is no symmetry, there can be a lot of favoring one side, which can take us out of balance. There is a sense of grace and ease when the body lines up. You become intimate with the body that many of us have spent a lifetime either alienated from, or waging war with. Yoga practice can pierce emotional places that most of us guard or avoid. Our bodies are intelligent—more a source of direct truth than our minds—but we rarely listen to the wisdom that’s buried inside.
We wring out the body so that we can sit with less distraction, and this is where the real work begins: when you are face to face with miserable, beautiful you. You watch how much time you spend berating yourself or complaining, or just simply telling stories in order to not have to just sit with what is.
What are the most common issues you see that people need help with, that yoga can help?
Well, for starters, the problems of overweight and obesity in our country. The Center for Disease Control says that 69% of Americans over 20 are overweight, and 35% of us are obese. Crash diets are unhealthy. They don’t help.
Yoga can bring us to our ideal weight. Yoga is about creating a relationship with your body; you get in touch with it, and learn what it needs and doesn’t need. (It doesn’t need 10,000 calories a day.)Yoga improves posture, circulation, and digestion, while keeping the joints fluid and the muscles toned. It hones the body and stabilizes the mind. The body talks and we listen. There is an ideal weight. It’s not too fat or too thin.
Does yoga have anything to say about our obsession with youth, about of discomfort with aging?
Unfortunately, our society doesn’t respect our elders. We shove them away in disgusting places, we stop seeing them, and they lose their value, which is a crying shame. I love youth. Rodney and I have four kids between the ages of 19 and 24. It is a lot of fun. But, why do we not relish the insights, depth, wisdom, and even the skin of an 80 year old who has been through it all?
When I was promoting my book, a magazine editor said that she and her colleagues would love to feature it, but they have a policy not to ever use anyone over 39. Really? It’s truly sad. We teach yoga to everyone from babies to those on their deathbeds. Humans seeing humans heart to heart no matter what age, gender, sexual preference, race, or religion is where beauty lies. From what I can see, the next generation seems to be far less biased, thank God.
Yoga may be the best anti-aging regimen we have. One of the biggest problems facing the aging community is falling. Most old people die from the results of falls. In yoga, you take your shoes off, and you keep your proprioceptors—your nerve endings—alive. We do a lot of poses that require practicing and maintaining balance. People who are elderly have spent 80 years with their feet shoved into shoes.
What about health in general?
I believe that yoga—turning yourself upside down and twisting—keeps the organs functioning properly. Yoga improves digestion, respiration, and circulation. It also addresses the mind. Yoga helps us still the fluctuations of the mind, which tend to lead us to places where we feel “less than.” When we calm the mind, we calm the ripples on the surface of the lake. We’re able to see to the bottom, to our true selves.
Yoga For Life: A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom is available on-line and in bookstores.