I didn’t know anything about Colleen Saidman Yee or her husband Rodney Yee, other than that they featured on a couple of yoga DVDs I’d bought. Turns out they are a pretty big deal in the big wide world of yoga, which I’m largely unfamiliar with – hence my not knowing about them!
Kramstable really got into Colleen and Rodney’s DVDs when I was using them, so I started following Colleen on Twitter. I was quite delighted a couple of years ago when she responded to one of my photos of Kramstable following her yoga sequences on the DVD and offered me some tips about keeping him interested in yoga.
Yoga For Life: A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom is the story of Colleen’s life, starting with her early life in a large Italian/Irish family in New York, who moved to Bluffton Indiana, where a teenage game of chicken on the highway changed the course of her life. The book tells of her early marriage, return to New York and four-year heroin addiction, the lowest point of her life.
Colleen then writes of how, after the struggle to kick heroin, she established a modelling career. She ponders the question as to whether her longing to find expression through her body would have led her to modelling in the long run; whether she would have become a model if a modelling agent hadn’t stopped at a restaurant not long after she’d stumbled on it and found a job at – and what, even with the break she’d had, were the odds she’d succeed as a model.
“Some people believe we make our own luck,” she writes. But she takes the view that what seems like good luck can easily turn into bad luck, and that bad luck can result in something good:
“In yoga we learn that there’s no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because everything is always in flux and rarely what it seems. The key is not to get too attached to any one scenario or outcome. . . . Life is sometimes beautiful sometimes ugly, sometimes sad, sometimes joyful. It’s a wild unpredictable ride. The best we can do is take the ride with love and a sense of humour. Notice your breath in the present moment, whether you consider it to be a ‘good’ moment or ‘bad’ moment. Because that moment is all we have.”
Colleen spent some time in India volunteering at Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity, a time which profoundly influenced her and indirectly became her first experience of yoga teaching. During this time she began to realise that “every encounter is sacred” and that everything will pass away. She writes that Mother Theresa had said even though everything is impermanent and could disappear at any time, that is no reason not to do your work.
“What you spend years creating someone could destroy overnight. Create anyway.”
On the theme of impermanence Colleen also writes about how clinging to what is impermanent prevents us from living in the present moment, and she tells of how distressed she was when her daughter left home to go to college. “I wanted to run back and grab her and tell her not to grow up and leave me.” I feel like this every single day when I think about Kramstable growing up and eventually leaving me.
“I have been studying and practising yoga for the last 28 years learning how to avoid clinging to what is impermanent as gracefully as possible, and to focus on what doesn’t change – call it the higher self, love, the soul, God, the divine, true teacher, essence, original nature, or the state of yoga – whatever you want.”
It occurred to me that this concept of impermanence connects strongly to what Brené Brown wrote in her book I Thought It Was Just Me. She writes of how, in a culture of shame, we see people as “us” and the “others”. The “others” are the people who we don’t want living next door; whose kids our kids aren’t allowed to play with; the ones we insulate ourselves from. But, she continues, we are the “others”. We are all one [insert unfortunate event] away from being “those people”, the ones we pity, the ones bad things happen to.
I think what this implies, and what Colleen is saying, is that it’s important to fully live in the present moment, but to know it’s just that: the present moment, and that if we get completely attached to it we’ll be unable to deal with what happens when things change, as they undoubtably will.
Likewise, if we get hung up on times things aren’t going well, instead of accepting that what’s happening is what it is, we can end up clinging to old pain long after the events have passed.
Of course, when things are hard, it’s difficult not to focus on the pain. Accepting that what’s happening is what it is, says Colleen, is something that she can grasp intellectually, but when something devastating happens, she’s still in excruciating pain. However, she says, feeling this pain is important. “If you can’t feel the fullness of any emotion you’re not fully alive.”
(I think I got a bit distracted here. Colleen’s comments on the impermanence of things, whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, reminds me of a difficult time at work when I was really struggling. Someone who was struggling with the same issue I was stood up and said publicly that yes what was happening was painful, but “there will be an end point”. Realising that the painful events were a stage I had to get through but that it wouldn’t last forever really helped me to clam down and take things one day at a time.)
While on a camping trip with her brothers, Colleen was struck by lightning, an experience which she says “zapped” her into contemplating santosha – contentment. At this point in her life she had thought that she would only be content when her grades improved, or she got married, or she had money. She writes:
“You can wait your whole life and never happen upon contentment. The key is to accept what is and not allow yourself to be jerked between liked and dislikes, attachments and aversions. Accept what is, right now, whether it’s comfortable or painful.”
At the end of her time in India, Colleen was ready to search for something bigger than what she had been seeking – a boyfriend, a career, a family – but she wanted to be able to “serve in a way that would enable peace to prevail in [her] heart” while living in the modern Western world.
Her story continues through her increasing immersion in the world of yoga while maintaining a career as a model, her struggle with epilepsy, her second marriage to photographer Robin Saidman, and a miscarriage, followed by the birth of her daughter. She then talks about how she moved into yoga teaching and how she and Rodney eventually ended up together.
In respect of her epilepsy, which she developed later in her life, Colleen writes:
“The biggest transformation has been my acceptance. When I take my little white tablets every day, I’m grateful for Western medicine. . . . I don’t feel defeated any more. Instead I feel awakened to the fact that I’m not in control of everything. Maybe we’re born into bodies that challenge us to learn lessons we haven’t yet understood. All situations, no matter how painful, can be opportunities for growth.”
She takes this lesson into her birth story, where like so many of us, Colleen had expectations of what her daughter’s birth would be like and was disappointed when it didn’t turn out as she’d wanted it to.
I remember one day at pre-natal yoga my beautiful teacher Julia was speaking about expectations, and something she said has stuck with me to this day. She said, “You don’t get the birth you want; you get the birth you need.” To this day I am trying to figure out what my experience was trying to tell me; what I need or needed at the time.
Expectations can make us unhappy when they aren’t met. Colleen observes:
“We all have small daily desires. Something as insignificant as expecting ripe avocados at the market, then finding they’re all hard can make us irritable and impatient. When you count on a future-based result you’re not living fully in the moment. Expectation can keep you locked in a narrow tunnel with no broader vision. Joy is right here right now. The key is mindfulness, noticing when your expectations have taken you out of the present and made you unhappy.”
Colleen also relates a story of attending a workshop with yoga legend BKS Iyengar, who told her that her problem was that she didn’t take the time to let anything absorb. “You are moving too fast from one pose to the next. Perhaps you do this in your life as well. Slow down.” Colleen says that he was right and that since then she’s started to notice when she’s rushing mindlessly from one thing to another. It’s a good thing to notice when we feel overwhelmed and rushed.
I loved this book. Colleen weaves her story into 14 themes, ranging from roots, addiction, forgiveness, service, fear, love and peace. Each chapter relates her story and the things she’s learned back to the theme of the chapter, and includes a yoga sequence connected to the theme.
It’s beautifully put together, and even though my life is completely different from Colleen’s, I could relate to almost everything she had written. I think this is because she has captured the essence of the human experience in her writing: Beyond the superficial differences that make up the detail of our day to day lives, we’re all human beings and we’re all making our way the best we can in this unpredictable world.
The Dalai Lama has said that we are more similar than we are different, and I think this is why I was so easily able to connect with Colleen’s story.
I got a lot out of this book. It’s one I want to refer back to again and again.