Who: Yee discovered yoga during his years as a professional dancer with the Oakland Ballet and the Matsuyama Ballet Company of Tokyo. After studying physical therapy, he continued taking classes and returned to the United States in 1983 to share his love and devotion to this ancient art. Now one of the most recognized instructors in the world, Yee has been featured in 30 yoga DVDs.
After enduring back surgery in 1994, Saidman’s commitment to yoga flourished and she began to teach. A graduate of Jivamukti’s Teacher Training, she serves as co-chair of the Urban Zen Health and Wellness Initiative, a foundation dedicated to bringing yoga, massage, and holistic therapies to hospitals around the nation.
Where: In bucolic Sag Harbor, New York, where Saidman co-owns Yoga Shanti. They spend much of the year leading retreats and international teacher trainings.
Why: Yoga is a conscious way of understanding the things you already do, and becoming more skillful at the way you do those things. Yoga is a tool that affects all of life. Basically, when you’re alert in your body, when you’re in the present moment, every relationship is better. “Be here now,” urges Yee.
How is practicing yoga inherently playful?
RY: The physical aspect of yoga deals with an internal and constant conversation about center and balance, one is always moving like a subtle dance. Because most of us move habitually, it takes playfulness to discover new patterns. When we are too serious and stuck in routine, the mind becomes narrow and hard. This is not the mindset necessary for growth and learning.
Can a beginner make yoga playful even if they find certain poses uncomfortable or downright painful?
CS: Keeping what we call a true “beginner’s mind” is one of the most important things in yoga, at work, and in daily life. Even if you have been practicing yoga for a long time, it’s incredibly beneficial to clean the slate and start all over again. I love to take introductory yoga classes because it reminds me of the basic beauty and importance of what I teach.
RY: They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and that’s a shame. Just like your bones may become calcified with time, sometimes the mind does, too. We have to welcome the “beginner’s mind” so we can drop all of our preconceptions, biases, and opinions. With beginner’s mind, we remain open to new wisdom, new possibility. When poses are uncomfortable, beginners and anyone else should back up and play with the pose. Usually the discomfort is locked in specific areas and, as we smooth out the rough edges during regular practice, an ease of movement occurs. For example, in backbends, a lot of times we can experience discomfort in the lower back, but once we discover movement in the upper back, the backbend becomes comfortable and lower back pain dissipates.
Can you give an example of how the practice of yoga truly heals from within?
RY: What I love most about yoga is that it really lets me be alive in the here and now. I don’t want to end up at the end of my life thinking, “I’ve just wasted my time here.” As the poet Robinson Jeffers said at the time of the cremation of his wife: “Burn these bones, burn this flesh because I have used it completely. I’ve been here. I’ve been in this life. I’ve been in this body and I have taken in the nectar of all that it has to offer.” Also, we believe the guru is within, and there’s no simple, easy way to contact that inner voice without creating quiet time for yourself. For many of us, our whole day is completing our to-do lists. There needs to be a time when you put down your cell phone and computer, and step away from even your family, to turn inward because the teaching really comes from within your own heart.
CS: I see yoga change people’s lives on a daily basis. There’s one student in particular that comes to mind. She’s had brain cancer and a double mastectomy, and she has never missed a Sunday class. The week of her brain surgery, with 36 stitches in her skull, her husband carried her into class, put her on the mat, came back after class, and carried her out. Using a breathing technique we taught her, she got through a very invasive, painful technique her doctors did without a whimper even though the doctors said they had never seen anyone go through this procedure without screaming or passing out. They told her she’d live four months. It’s been five years. She’ll tell you she has survived because of her dedication to her yoga practice.
How important is it for you to live an organic, eco-friendly lifestyle?
RY: We all struggle with living a more balanced lifestyle. We are aware how grossly we consume more than our share. It is becoming crucial that we all clean up our acts. The first way to do this in yoga is through acute awareness of our actions. The Indian philosopher Krishnamurti says, “Observation is action, and attention is love.” This makes us think that our observation is still not deep enough. But we are getting closer.