Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee: Yoga’s First Couple
Globe and Mail
Rodney Yee is sitting cross-legged on the floor of his Intercontinental Hotel suite, nibbling on cantaloupe and stroking the palm of his wife's suntanned hand. Colleen Saidman Yee is perched on the couch, hugging her knees to her chest, her Botticelli torrent of blond tresses half-obscuring the mantra ("Remember Love") embroidered on her tight black T.
It's breakfast time, and the First Couple of yoga, the handsome poster children of the Om-spouting barefoot bourgeoisie - in Toronto for the Yoga Pilates Conference and Show - has just finished morning meditation. They exude an air of almost objectionable health and calm, not an apparent ounce of fat or self-doubt between them. Their euphoric contentment is only occasionally upset by startlingly loud storms of simultaneous laughter. One never laughs without the other joining in, usually with greater volume and enthusiasm.
Ms. Saidman Yee is recounting her first encounter with the great Rodney Yee. "I thought he was arrogant. I couldn't stand him. I walked out. It was the only class I've ever left." Cue trademark Yee guffaws.
Of course, their how-we-met story - like any worth its salt - is more complicated than hate-at-first-sight rom-com cliché. To put it in Yee-nese: There was more slamming up against walls then sailing through open doors. Ten years ago, Ms. Saidman Yee attended one of Mr. Yee's yoga classes in New York - and hated him. But a year later, urged by a friend, she took another. "My friend insisted I go and I said, 'I can't!! I'm allergic to Rodney Yee,' but she said that we could just sit in the back and make fun of him," recounts Ms. Saidman Yee gleefully. By lunchtime she knew she had to (euphemism alert) "study" with him.
"We didn't meet under the best circumstances," Mr. Yee says. "But life is messy sometimes." Code for the fact that both were married (each for 24 years) when they met. (He has three children with his first wife; she has one child and two stepchildren with her first husband.)
Dubbed the "stud-muffin guru" by Time magazine, Mr. Yee is arguably the most famous yogi in the United States. A heartthrob amongst North American deep-breathers, he's been on Oprah, claims Donna Karan as a longtime fan, and has released about 30 DVDs. ("At least 30. I've lost count," he says, as if dismissing the earthly banality and silliness of numbers.)
Raised in Oakland, Calif., the 51-year old Mr. Yee, a former gymnast and dancer with the Oakland Ballet Company and Tokyo's Matsuyama Ballet Company, remembers his first yoga class as a world-shifting fish-to-water moment: "I felt freedom and clarity and peace and relaxation and ease and ..." He trails off, presumably running out of nouns. Ms. Saidman Yee interjects. "Well, everybody remembers their first class," she says, flashing a made-for-Hollywood smile, as if talking about a first kiss.
Ms. Saidman Yee's introduction to "the Practice," as the couple calls it, came later in her life, one which has taken about as many improbable twists as an Ashtanga sequence. The 49-year-old Indianan started her career as a model with Ford, and continues to pose for Eileen Fisher, Lord & Taylor and, of course, Yoga Journal. "I'm the longest running model in the history of modelling," she says, inciting the Yees into wild laughter.
She has worked as a professional boxer (she had a Cosmopolitan cover out at the same time she won her first purse in a Manhattan boxing ring) and once moved to India for two years to work with Mother Theresa in her Missionaries of Charity. There, she shaved off her locks, worked as a nurse's aide and taught exercise classes to the poor.
In San Diego for a modelling shoot, Ms. Saidman Yee threw out her back severely during a step class. "By the time I made it to the doctor, he told me that it looked like I had jumped off the top of the Empire State building and landed on my feet." After enduring back surgery, she devoted herself entirely to yoga. "I grew up in the 60s and 70s, experimented with drugs, and couldn't believe I could feel as good as I did with yoga - without doing mushrooms," she says. More gut-busting laughter.
The couple is now based in Sag Harbor, East Hampton, and Mr. Yee deep-breathes and downward-dogs around the world leading yoga workshops and retreats. The couple's packed classes, with sometimes hundreds of students crammed mat-to-mat, have a cultish undertone. At a recent class at Toronto's Convention Centre, the couple took turns with the microphone, padding their way around their floor-side disciples.
They speak in tones both lulling and all-knowing, guiding their devotees toward sanctum-dropping, tailbone-grounding and finding the "courage to restore." Mr. Yee offers the occasional yogic commandment: "Be your hamstring," "Walk through the open door, don't slam up against a wall," "Find your internal river and be true to it." He's fond of the metaphors and sprinkles them liberally through his musings: "The tension in the body is like the talons of a bird. As you begin to release it, you become able to respond and not react, allowing yourself to engage in the present moment."
Hatha yoga, Mr. Yee explains, traditionally means sun-moon, expressing the balance between the masculine and the feminine. In efforts to honour Hatha's meaning, their contrasting teaching styles animate the stereotypic male-female divide. She tends toward a unicorns-and-rainbows touchy-feely approach, adjusting students' poses with a tenderness that verges on the sensuous and even seductive. She also cites poetry and plays songs about love being the key. "Colleen is more devotional," says Yee, looking up at her (she's taller) in what can only be described as worship. "She's my angel. I have to bring her down to earth sometimes."
His focus is on physical precision, sequence and what he likes to call "the geometry of the body." But their teaching style is seamless and fluid as, to borrow a Yee phrase, a running river: "We've become each other," said Ms. Saidman Yee at their post-class book signing. Her husband, as though in efforts to prove her point, entwined his fingers in hers. He untangled them only to autograph copies of his 2003 book Poetry of the Body for a lineup of Lululemon-bedecked groupies.
This kind of attention is a far cry from the couple's position a few years ago. Some in the yoga community were scandalized and outraged by their union: a guru, assigned godlike powers by his impressionable, often besotted disciples, falling for his student is considered a trespass of some cardinal rule of mat-side morality.
Yee's position on this issue is, fittingly, one of Iyengar-worthy balance: "We can see why people might have reacted the way they did. But life is messy sometimes." Out of his comfort zone, he closes the subject: "Do you have to write about this? Can't you just say we're in love?" And with that remark, the walls went up, the rivers dried up and the doors were closed.