Colleen Saidman Yee is one of the most radiant people we’ve ever spent time with. Her joie de vivre is evident in everything she does. A world-renowned yoga instructor and owner of the popular Yoga Shanti studios, she spends much of her time traveling the world, learning, and teaching. We thought she was a lovely embodiment of our Zenergy line, which is all about living life to the fullest, from morning ’til night. Here she shares her words of wisdom on taking care of yourself, why yoga is more than poses, and why we need to reframe the conversation on aging.
Introduce yourself—name, age, and occupation.
Hi. I’m Colleen Saidman Yee. I’m a yoga teacher, and I am 57 years old—and very proud of it.
What drew you to yoga?
I’ve been practicing yoga since 1984. I actually wasn’t drawn to yoga. I was a jock—I have 5 brothers and a sister. A girlfriend of mine was into it. She kept trying to get me to go with her. Finally, I was like, “All right already. I’ll go to this yoga thing with you. Then, I’ll go for a run afterwards.” But the energy in the room was unique. I looked around and I thought, “Something’s happening here.” There were things I couldn’t do; I’m very competitive, especially with athletics. After the class, when I walked out onto the street—a street I’d walked down a hundred times—it was like everything was different. The smells, the sights. It was just crisp. I feel like I was present for the first time maybe ever. It was beautiful. I’ve been practicing ever since. I did not give up my boxing, running, and all of the other sports that I was doing, until 1994, when I had back surgery. I’ve been monogamous to yoga ever since.
Why is yoga something that you practice?
Yoga is thought of as fitness, which is fine. Whatever gets somebody in the door is great, but I guarantee you once they’re in the door, they will get so much more. It does keep you in amazing shape and it keeps you healthy internally, but what it’s really doing is training the mind. The postures, which are called asana, that we think of as yoga are not really the yoga. The yoga is the state of “nothing missing”—when the mind is not constantly chattering, or making up stories, or running after something that you want, or pushing away something that you don’t want. That’s what we call “monkey mind”. The asana practice clears out the stories in the body. Your body is a roadmap. Every fear, every insecurity, every trauma, it’s all encoded in the body, and we just keep covering it up. When we get into a yoga class it’s possible for the whole world to open up for you, if you’re willing to take that next step and unlock in the body what is hidden and buried there and, in some ways, make friends with it.
Why is it important to take care of ourselves, especially women?
We do too much. We’ve decided somehow that we need to be superwomen and there for everybody. What ends up happening is we’re exhausted. We’re resentful. We don’t really have anything to give because we spend it all. We’re depleted. If only we could convince every woman in the world that everyone they love would be better off if they practice self-care, if they took that time to restore their batteries.
Cut some things out. Instead of having to be everything for everyone, stop. Take an hour every morning, take your cup of tea, look out at the birds, take a long shower. Take a yoga class—you can even do one online for 15 minutes. For women, we never think we’re doing enough. My favorite mantra is “Know you’re enough.”
What does that mean to you?
It’s like there’s an internal war that women have going on a lot of the time. We attack ourselves. We tell ourselves all the time, “I’m not enough.” Turn it around. “I am enough.” In some ways, it’s our light, not our darkness, that we’re most afraid of. So shine. Shine brightly. That in turn gives other women permission to shine. How many times has somebody given you a compliment, and you can’t even take it? You have to say, “Oh no, your hair’s prettier,” or, “Oh, you have much better style,” instead of just saying, “Thank you.” You are enough means you can accept yourself. Speaking for myself, I just wrote a book called Yoga For Life. When I was asked to write it, my first thought was: “That’s so not my wheelhouse. I can’t write a book! I’m not smart enough. I don’t have enough to say. There are so many other people that would be better at this.” All those things that we tell ourselves all day long. My literary agent said, “Every single day, write for an hour and a half. I don’t care what you write. Just tell me any story.” I did it, and I still felt like I wasn’t doing it well. Then, one day, I was listening to this song by an artist named Jason Isbell, and the lyric hit me: “Know you’re enough.” I was just like, “Okay. I can do this. I was asked to do it. There must be a reason.” It was like a lightbulb flipped on, and stayed on. So I keep it with me.
How would you describe your personal style?
My personal style is a little eclectic. It’s colorful. It’s a little hippie-ish, and sexy. I like to have fun with clothing. I like to wear stripes with polka dots. I like to break all the rules. I draw style inspiration from pretty much everything. Our travels—we just got back from Bhutan—had amazing color everywhere. I love color and texture, and fabrics. I’m madly in love with my flower garden. That inspires me. It’s more of an intuitional thing. I walk in someplace and something resonates in my core, and I go for it.
Why is style ageless?
Style is ageless, though I think it does change with your sensibilities. I no longer wear micro-miniskirts, but I do still feel like I can dress really sexy. I can rock it. I’m almost 60. Who cares? I am a viable, living, sassy, sexy human being, and I’m not going to shy away from that. Sexiness is a state of mind. You look in the mirror and you say, “I got this. I’m the bomb. I’m sexy.”
What are you enjoying about this particular moment in your life?
There’s so much that I’m enjoying about being 57 years old. I love my life. I love that I no longer need so much affirmation. To believe that who I am is okay. The kids are all out of the house. The last one went to college last year. I thought this was going to destroy me… and it did for about a month. Then I was at the grocery store one day, and I was like, “Whoa, I don’t have to buy $400 worth of groceries and then come home and have the kids say, ‘There’s never anything to eat in this house.'” That was completely freeing! Although it’s not that I don’t still worry like crazy about the kids. I’d like to say I take a lot more time for myself, but I’m actually working very hard right now.
How do you feel about aging, the good, the bad, the ugly, all of it?
I think that we need to change the way that we think about aging. Aging is a privilege. It’s not a disease.
Where we are is a result of where we’ve come from, where we’ve been, what we’ve been through, what we’ve overcome. Do I wish that my skin still fit the way that it did when I was 23? Sure. Do I wish that I still had the same insecurities that I had when I was 23? Absolutely not. Am I proud of my wrinkles? Yes. I would not go back for anything. I think it’s important to eat as healthy as you can. I think it’s important to move your body. I think it’s important to be around people that inspire you. That’s what keeps you feeling vital. I know so many 20 year olds that are dilapidated inside. They don’t have that spark, that vitality that a lot of the 70 or 80 year olds that I know do. It’s a state of mind. It’s up to us to change the way that the world sees aging, as a disease, as something that is shameful. The alternative isn’t very good, right?
What’s the alternative?
Not being alive! Aging is nothing to be ashamed of. If you were to see somebody who is 95 years old with wrinkles that just showed their whole life, is that someone that you would want to take a picture of? To me, yes—that is beautiful. We all age in different ways. We all deal with it in different ways. We’re all doing the best that we can. I just would love to promote changing the way that we think about aging. We are beautiful. We are vital. We have so much to contribute. Wisdom. It’s an old cliché, but it is true. I only wish that I had listened more to my elders when I was younger, instead of thinking that I knew it all.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell myself: “You don’t know it all. Be quiet. Listen. Learn. Enjoy what you have.” Even at 22 years old, you’ll look at a picture of yourself at that time and think, “Oh, this isn’t right; that’s not right.” Then you look back 10 years later and you’re like, “Whoa, I looked pretty good back then,” but you didn’t appreciate it at the time. Appreciate every second of who you are.
To get a sense of Colleen’s wonderful energy, watch this interview we did with her in her hometown, Sag Harbor, NY. Fun fact: we had to interrupt shooting frequently, as her students kept coming over to say “hi” to her.
For more of Colleen’s tips, tricks, and advice, follow her on instagram at @colleensaidman, on Facebook at Colleen Saidman Yee, and at her homepage here. Her book, part autobiography, part yoga guide, Yoga For Life, is available here. We dare you to read it and not want to go out and find your nearest class. Special thanks to Colleen’s team at IconicFocus.