At age 56, yoga teacher Colleen Saidman Yee is proof you can lead an active, healthy lifestyle at any age. With retreats around the country and a huge following, her most passionate message to women is: “Be proud of who you are.”
We caught up with Colleen on the set of our Fall photo shoot in Big Sur, and we loved spending the day getting to know this vibrant woman. She even led a mini class for some of our crew and model athletes on set. She’s a force of nature in not only the New York yoga scene (she owns Yoga Shanti, a yoga studio with locations in New York City, Sag Harbor, and Westhampton), but worldwide, through retreats, DVDs and an online yoga studio she leads with her husband, Rodney Yee (yes, that Rodney Yee!).
Get her thoughts on music, the recent evolution of yoga, and even ice cream, below! Keep an eye out for a few upcoming yoga sequences Colleen will share on Chi blog.
Are you a rise-and-shine workout type of girl, or do you prefer evenings?
I prefer evenings, personally, but I don’t have a choice. Heaven to me is a morning that you don’t have to set an alarm. But I get up every morning before I teach, and Rodney and I sit facing each other to do our pranayama practice, which is breath work. It sets up the day. Then I do my asana in the yoga room. If I don’t do it in the morning, chances are I won’t get to it later. My body, in particular, is much happier as the day goes on. It’s much easier for me to practice later in the day. But in the morning, the body teaches you certain things because you’re a little more stiff and you can’t push. Not pushing is an important part of yoga, it’s an important lesson to learn.
In the morning, the body teaches you certain things because you’re a little more stiff and you can’t push. Not pushing is an important lesson to learn.
Where do you love to get away for the weekend?
I would love to get away for a weekend! That’s not happening. Rodney and I teach workshops almost every weekend. We have four kids in college, so we are work-work-work right now. We love our work, which is amazing. If I were to get away, I’d love to go to Nashville. I have this Nashville fantasy. I love music, I love Americana and country western music, so to go to the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville would be the perfect weekend getaway.
What’s one yoga item you can’t live without?
It’s ridiculous. They’re these really cool hair ties. They look like a key ring. Usually I practice with my hair down, it bugs me to have my hair up, I just don’t like it. But for certain inversions, like headstands, I like to be able to just whip it up, or if I’m in the car on the way to or from yoga, this hair tie is always on my wrist.
If you could master anything, what would it be?
Singing! I am tone deaf, but I love to sing and I love music. When I first started teaching, actually, I went to my teachers at the time, and told them I couldn’t be a teacher. I gave them a list of reasons, but one of them was that I’m tone deaf. I don’t know if I actually am, but I can’t sing a tune. And chanting was a big part of it, so how could I lead that if I couldn’t sing? They sat there and listened to me, and then said, “Yeah, that’s exactly why you do need to chant. It will lessen others’ inhibitions, and they will chant back at you.” So here I am, and I chant all the time. But if I could sing, there’d be no stopping me!
What women have inspired you?
I am so inspired by women, period. I love women, I love to see women thrive and find their voice in this world. I grew up thinking I wanted to be Christiane Amanpour. To see her out in the field, getting her hands dirty and reporting, and being so brave and courageous and honest, she inspired me to speak the truth and to not be afraid. I went to journalism school for a short time because of her.
Christiane Northrup, she was a gynecologist at a time when there were no female gynecologists, and she has been such a women’s advocate for so many years. So many women like that inspire me.
I love Melissa Ethridge’s music. I think that she speaks very loudly for women to stand up and not shrink into the background. And my literary agent, Esther Newburg, is a spitfire of a woman. She’s so honest, she inspires me enormously. Honest women who are not full of fluff, who are strong, who are not afraid to speak their truth. They inspire me.
Honest women who are not full of fluff, who are strong, who are not afraid to speak their truth. They inspire me.
What music do you listen to before or during a class?
Music has been my companion since I was a little girl. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, music was, and still is, the backbone of our growth. I started out with Carole King. Natural Woman, that just lit me on fire. Bob Dylan, I used to know every lyric of every Bob Dylan song! He is the greatest poet.
These days, Jason Isbell. Only in the last three years I’ve discovered him, and rarely do I go through a day without listening to him. There’s a line in one of his songs that says, “Know you’re enough, “ and it just gives me chills. Just that one simple line. Music, I feel like it hits me viscerally. It’s something that just creeps in and grabs your soul and shakes you up in a way that is just beautiful.
In class, I used to play a lot more music than I do now. But I still always play at least two tracks in class. I try to make them go with the theme of the class. If I have a spiritual theme, like love, for instance, then I will play All You Need is Love, or Adele’s version of Bob Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love. I’ll play it usually when we start to come down into the cool down poses, to leave them with something hopefully congruous to the practice.
What’s your nutrition like?
I’m a vegetarian, and I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 40 years. My father is a hunter, and he used to hang deer on the back of the porch and that was our dinner. As soon as I turned 18, I became a vegetarian. Because I’m on the road all of the time, it’s pretty hard to find varied vegetarian food. I tend to live on avocados, peanut butter, eggs, and cheese!
How did you get into yoga?
I started practicing yoga in 1987. I’ve been a jock since almost the day I was born – I was a runner, a hurdler, a high jumper, and then I became a boxer. I was into martial arts. A girl who lived next to me told me to just come to class with her. I thought “Oh geez, I don’t want to just stretch, I want to go for a run.” But I went with her, and it was amazing. There was no competition, which was a relief after all those years of being competitive. And I looked around the room, and people could do all these things I couldn’t do. After that class, when I walked out on to the street, I thought, What just happened? Suddenly the smells were clear, my vision was clear. I saw, felt, heard, tasted, in a way that I never had experienced before. It was like my whole perspective of life shifted in one class. It was amazing. I still wasn’t ready to give up my hardcore, pounding sports until 1994, when I was carried out of a step class. It turned out I had a ruptured disc and had to have back surgery. After the surgery in 1994, I have done no exercise except yoga and walking. And yoga continues to save my life.
After surgery in 1994, I have done no exercise except yoga and walking. And yoga continues to save my life.
How have you seen the culture of yoga evolved?
When I started, there were a handful of studios in New York City. It was still considered cultish and crunchy. Then, gradually, it evolved and evolved and now there must be hundreds of yoga studios in the city! It’s become much more of a ‘trend’, even though I think it’s a trend that’s here to stay. I don’t think it’s a fad. It’s changed in a way that it’s so popular. It’s often used just for exercise, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Exercise is something we all need, we all need to move.
But yoga is so much more than that. I’m afraid that is getting lost in the hard core workout classes. The practice of yoga is really to clear the body so that the mind can be calm during meditation. It’s really about training the mind. The definition of yoga means that the state of yoga only happens when the chatter of the mind is ceased. We’ve lost that, but by doing breath work, by doing asana, by doing chanting, by doing mediation, you learn to focus the mind. And you also learn to be intimate with the body. Once you’re intimate with the body, you know which poses are going to release the area that’s screaming when you sit down to meditate.
I think that yoga has mainly changed in that way. We’re losing the part of the practice, the art form of yoga, by turning it into just fitness.
What’s your secret to a balanced lifestyle?
Living a balanced life is obviously important. What does that mean for a yogi? It means sometimes treating yourself to ice cream. It means, for me, tonight Nashville is on TV. I’m obsessed with the show. I love it. To look forward to that, to sit down with the remote and a cup of chamomile tea to watch Nashville, I feel like that brings balance to my life. Not being extreme in any one way. If you’re someone who likes to go hard out and do vinyasa all the time, balance could be adding in two days a week of restorative yoga. And if you’re someone who likes to practice with really slow alignment, two days a week shake it up and do some vinyasa.
Balance is going away from your habit, not going deeper into what is familiar. And literal balance is actually the most anti-aging thing you can do.
Balance is going away from your habit, not going deeper into what is familiar.
Do you have a favorite yoga position or sequence?
I am a huge fan of forward bend. I love forward bend. Actually, karnapidasana. It’s plow pose, but if you bend your knees and take your shins to the floor, and if you hug your ears with your inner knees, you can hear your breath, which is so calming. I love poses that calm me down. Which is probably why I should be doing backbends, to bring that balance!