Photo credit: Christopher Golden
My friend Colleen Saidman Yee has written a beautiful, powerful book called Yoga For Life. It’s a riveting recounting of her personal story interwoven with insightful and relevant yoga philosophy. Part memoir, part guide, this book speaks to the struggles we all face. I was so excited to talk to her about Yoga For Life, but really I wanted to hear more about the story behind the making of her book—specifically, the work she did to excavate and articulate her own truth.
But as I sat down to interview Colleen, I had this feeling in my guts that I had set myself up. I do this to myself all the time. Desperate to work through whatever obstacle is currently blocking my way in, I somehow orchestrate the exact circumstances necessary to break through and move closer to myself. Listening to Colleen open up and share her process so honestly confirmed my suspicions: I was here to address my habit of self-editing in the medium where I practice it the most—writing. Stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, I’m now forced to write my way out of my own mess.
The excruciating intensity of my writing process is painfully purifying—tapasya in its truest sense—and while I ultimately trust the process, I’d much rather avoid it. Yoga has given me the awareness to observe my inner editor at work, a gift that has made my life both better and (much) worse; while I have the tools to identify and unravel this habit, I’m also forced to stand by and watch as I deem my own words irrelevant or unworthy before they’ve even reached the page. Paralyzed by self-criticism, I just keep praying that this thing will write itself. I sneak away to file my nails, or polish my copper pots, and then return to my computer only to find a blank page staring back at me. I sleep with a copy of Bird By Bird under my pillow, praying that Anne Lamott will speak to me. And she does: “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do—you can either type or kill yourself.”
Practice often reflects and illuminates the larger practice of our lives. To that end, I’m well aware that the insufferable self-editing I endure in my writing process is symptomatic of a larger issue of Self-editing in my life. Rooted in a belief that I’m somehow not enough, it has become an excuse to hide the real me. Thankfully, I also believe that once you’ve made a conscious decision to live your yoga, life will conspire to show you the way h(om)e. Case in point: While drowning in what Anne Lamott mercifully coined the “shitty first draft”, I decided to re-listen to the recording of my interview with Colleen. No more than five minutes into our conversation, she tells me that the original title of her book, Yoga For Life, was actually, Know You’re Enough.
This is how it goes, the path inward; once you’ve identified the lesson you’re meant to dig up, you will see it everywhere, in everything and everyone. Life starts to feel a lot like that MTV reality show, Punk’d. Maybe Patanjali said it best: ‘The seen exists for the sake of the Seer’ (Sutra 2.21)—everything we experience and endure is offered to us as a means to liberate ourselves. That said, the path is hard as hell. Colleen put it beautifully. “It’s not like the whole thing opens up and it’s all wonderful and blissful, and that if it’s not, you’re not on the right path. The road to finding out who you are is incredibly painful, especially since it’s been covered up by so many things for so long; it would be much easier to just shut the door and go back to being who you were. No, it’s not an easy ride, but that’s not a reason not to do it.”
Yoga For Life is Colleen’s journey into what Richard Rosen calls “the country of the Self”. It has all the trappings of a sensational story: a smart, beautiful girl from the midwest with dreams of becoming a nun gets hooked on heroin, suffers brain damage after being run over by a car while she was high, becomes a successful model, gets struck by lightning, makes a pilgrimage to India to work with Mother Teresa, almost dies on a train in India from what would be the first of a lifetime of epileptic seizures, gets her ribs broken by a cop in a professional boxing fight the same month as her Cosmopolitan cover goes to print, becomes a yoga teacher, survives two divorces and finds true love with her yoga teacher, Rodney Yee.
Believe it or not, the story doesn’t really interest Colleen. “Everyone has a story. It’s that we spend so much time pretending to be something we’re not, and thinking that that’s better than what we are. I hope my story strikes a chord—that people will see themselves in the pages and that it will inspire them to practice yoga.”
I believe that we often hide behind our strengths—that our greatest strength is actually our biggest weakness, and that our weaknesses are actually our greatest source of strength. You can see it clearly in yoga teachers, for example, who mask their insecurities with their greatest asset, be it a skilled voice, a deep library of knowledge, or the comfort of experience. In my own writing practice, I tend to hide behind witty word choices and carefully structured sentences rather than putting my insecurities out there for everyone to read. I asked Colleen to share what she feels is simultaneously her greatest strength but also her greatest obstacle. “I’ve had to be the tough girl. In some ways it’s my strength; I can barrel through. The tough exterior is my strength because it’s gotten me through a lot of dramatic episodes in my life, but it’s also my greatest obstacle because what’s hiding behind is a very vulnerable, real woman who’s afraid to be exposed.”
This book is definitely an exposure, one that she didn’t want to write. “I felt I sort of got coerced into writing it. When the NYTimes article came out, Esther Newberg was in my class and she basically told me I was writing a book. I had no idea she was this powerhouse literary agent, and so it sort of happened from there.” The fear of exposure went beyond the reality of opening herself up to criticism. “I did really stupid, harmful things in my life that I’m actually not proud of. People are fascinated by the drama of being struck by lightning and kicking heroine, but it’s not cool. I hurt a lot of people who really loved me. I was selfish and stupid, and I didn’t want to relive all of that.”
I remember Colleen warning me last summer, days before her first draft was due to the publishers, that I should never, ever write a book. Watching her suffer through the process gave me a sort of selfish comfort that I wasn’t the only one for whom the practice of writing felt suicidal. “It felt like I literally bled on my Macbook for a year and a half. I’m not a clean person; my house was spotless while I was writing the book. Anything to procrastinate! I remember one time walking down the street in winter; it was snowing and quiet, and I was talking to Rodney and I said, ‘I’m giving the advance back. I can’t do this. It’s digging up way too much stuff that I have no desire to look at,’ and just then a car came down the street and I thought, I would love to lay down and let that car run over me right now. That’s how strongly I felt. So I actually made some phone calls when I got back to the house and asked, ‘Can I give the advance back?’ And the answer was yes.” The gift of choice changed the game. “I feel like something broke after that night, and the writing became a little bit easier because it was my choice at that point.” Colleen’s revelation is incredibly relevant to everyday life, where we don’t always feel like we have a choice. Taking full ownership of the hand we’ve been dealt can shift something seemingly permanent into a decidedly different direction.
Throughout our conversation, Colleen emphasized how much of her life she spent either covering up her true self or running away from her story. It made me think about my own struggles as a writer, but mostly as a human being, to exert control over things I can’t change. I can’t edit my life, so I edit my words. I asked her why she thinks we feel the need to run or hide from our stories. “I think for a couple of reasons,” she said. “I think one of the reasons is that we’re afraid to be great, especially as women. And I think we’re afraid of being what society says we shouldn’t be, so we cover it up.” She paraphrased a Marianne Williamson quote. “It’s our light, not our darkness that most scares us. Who are you to be talented, gorgeous? There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that others won’t be insecure around you. What a powerful, powerful message.”
In that moment, I understood why I had asked Colleen to do this interview, and why I found myself seated across from this beautiful teacher, soaking in her words. I needed to hear them. The truth behind her story struck a deep chord with me. “For me, it was about finding my voice. Being brought up by five brothers and feeling like I was not really to be heard in our big Irish Catholic family, you know . . . I had my place. And then I became a model and I was revered for my looks; no one cared what I had to say. And then I married a man with three masters degrees and always felt like I had nothing to say there, and so it’s really crazy that I’ve written a book.”
Colleen found a way to express her voice without actually having to use it. “Ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to be of service. I was sure I was going to be a nun. Every Halloween I dressed up as a nun. I didn’t know about sex then. As soon as I found out about sex and that you couldn’t have it as a nun, that went out the window.” She later made a pilgrimage to India to work with her idol, Mother Teresa. “Working with Mother Teresa in the middle of my modeling career was such an amazing juxtaposition. I was actually happier there, even though I loved modeling. And the funny thing was, nobody understood me because there wasn’t a common language there. We communicated through feeling, energy and manual expression.”
Yoga, the force behind her story, has obviously played an integral role in Colleen’s life. A compulsive exerciser, Colleen was reluctantly dragged to her first yoga class by a friend. “I thought, ‘I’ll go for a five mile run afterwards.’” Exercise, for her, was a way to beat up her body. “It was about escaping, but I could fool myself that it was healthy,” she admitted. Her competitive spirit had no place in the class, and she found herself watching the other students with awe. When it was over, she felt like everything had changed. “I went out into the street and I literally couldn’t talk. I was in this sacred land, but it was Broadway, you know, with all the smells and the sounds and the lights . . . but it just seemed different. I walked home more alive than I’d been . . . ever.”
Her journey to become a teacher was equally as reluctant. Her then husband, tired of her traveling the world as a model, gave her a teacher training application from Jivamukti yoga in the hopes that it would keep her closer to home. “It took me a year before I even filled out the application.” Once enrolled, Colleen expressed a strong ambivalence about teaching. A year into the training, she marched into Sharon Gannon and David Life’s office to tell them exactly why she couldn’t be a yoga teacher.
“There were so many reasons why I couldn’t teach. I mean, I’m a complete introvert. I’m shy. I know those are very similar, but they’re different. I’m tone deaf, and Jivamukti was all about chanting. I’m dyslexic; I get my rights and lefts mixed up all the time. I’m epileptic and was scared to death to have a seizure in the middle of class. And so the list went on and on. I told Sharon and David all of this and explained to them that I was not going to teach, and they nodded and were like, ‘Okay.’ So I left their office at one o’clock, and at three fifteen I get a phone call from Sharon who said, ‘You’re teaching the 6:15pm class. It’s my class. It’s sold out, and I’m going to be taking the class.’ So I taught the class. I still remember it. In fact, that class is one of the sequences in my book. It was one of those moments, afterwards—I mean, just that I got through it—I was as high as a kite, and I just felt, if I can do that, there’s nothing I can’t do.”
Our conversation then turned to teaching, and a moment of silence ensued as if to acknowledge the weight and meaning of our shared profession. We dove right into our insecurities, because, well, that’s how we roll. I told her that teaching has been and continues to be the practice that’s liberating me from my insecurities, to which she responded, “I completely agree. I mean, people listen. I’m talking and people are listening. I feel like I’ve done the work. But still, after class, I’ll wait for people to tell me that it was a good class.” I blurted out, “Me too!” She laughed out loud, and we sat there laughing together for a long time.
There’s a deep comfort in knowing that experience doesn’t necessarily feel like certainty—that even if you’ve done the work and feel secure in yourself, there will still be more work to do. Despite the confidence I have in myself and my abilities as a teacher, I still find myself waiting for feedback after class, if only to make sure that I’ve done my job, but also because I need to know that people liked it (but really, that they liked me). It’s a relief to know that I’m not alone. “Just this morning I woke up and practiced, thinking about what I was going to teach today, and I’m like, you know what, I’ve got nothin’. So I just start moving around and I’m like, I’m just going to teach this. It was very un-Iyengar. I go in to teach and everything is just flow, all round and voluptuous and feminine, and I could tell people were a little bit confused, and afterwards there was just silence.” She looked at me and I concurred—the worst. “So I go out into the parking lot and I’m thinking, hmm, and then someone came up to me and said, ‘I haven’t felt this good in my body since I gave birth,’ and I was like “Okay, good!”
So I asked her, ‘How can we, as teachers, as women, practice stepping into our own power?’ As the words came out of my mouth, I could feel myself trying to cover up what I really wanted to ask. Inspired by Colleen’s vulnerability, I decided to blurt out, ‘I mean me! How do I practice stepping into my power?’ She smiled. “I think consistency is incredibly important, even if it’s to lie on your mat and cry. The path is not easy, but I think once you start down it and get to a certain point, the turning back becomes less enticing. Don’t you think?” I wholeheartedly agreed.
Colleen and Rodney have an intense travel schedule. “We’ve been home thirteen days so far this year.” I know how much she loves being home, pruning her beloved roses and sipping tea while Rodney tinkers with his espresso machine, working his magic. I wanted to know what practices bring her h(om)e, even when she feels far away. “I have a daily pranayama practice which does that. And my showers are really spiritual!” Colleen continued to emphasize the importance of self-care. “Self-care can feel like a selfish indulgence, but I think it’s a selfless act to take care of yourself because if you’re exhausted and depleted, you’ll have nothing left to give to others. People won’t do what you say, they’ll do what you do, as a teacher especially—they’re going to look to you for that, and you can’t hide. When you’re exhausted, they know it.”
If it’s so easy to see what other people are trying to hide, why do we bother going to such great lengths to cover up or run away from ourselves? If everyone can see through to the heart of who we are, then who are we really hiding from? Why are we so afraid to go there, to be vulnerable, when what we crave and celebrate in others is their authenticity? Why does it feel instinctual to harbor beliefs of unworthiness within ourselves when it feels equally as natural to see beyond these limitations in others?
This interview has been a giant dig into my own practice. Colleen’s words have been my shovel as I excavate the truth behind my own story. The anguish of my writing process has dug up a gem: I’m the only one who has the power to enable the belief of unworthiness, and, more importantly, I’m the only one who has the power to dismantle it. Colleen’s story is immensely inspiring, but for me, even more so is her raw honesty and courage to stand in her own truth. Yoga For Life is a powerful reminder that the ultimate freedom is to be yourself.