The gift of yoga, explain renowned yoga teachers Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee in this interview, is that whatever perceived limits we may hold of ourselves, there's an infinite amount of space to explore within.
Yoga is a practice that increases our range motion. However, our range of motion includes not just how we move our limbs through space, but also how we navigate both the external world and our inner world. In the process of exploring something as simple as a joint's range of motion, we may go from zero to infinity, e.g., accessing the infinite nuances of the body's "inner space," which we may not normally pay attention to.
It is easy to get caught up in externalized efforts to strike the perfect yoga pose and emphasize outer form over inner experience. Rodney and Colleen offer some welcome advice on how to let go and find ease and space within, rather than muscling our way into postures.
Q: I was struck by one of the things Rodney said in a class at a recent Yoga Journal yoga conference: "Yoga is not about range of motion. It's not about getting your foot behind your shoulders. Yoga is about finding inner space, finding freedom in your body." Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?
Rodney Yee: Certainly. A mathematician once told me that there is infinity between zero and infinity, and there's also infinity between zero and one.
How does that apply to yoga? Well, whatever our limits are in range of motion, no matter how small or how big, within that range of motion, there's an infinite amount of space to explore.
We often get caught up in stretching the body and finding greater range of motion. That's great, of course, because it helps us find more ease and a sense of being in our body in different ways. But it's also great just to feel what space is available for you right now, and not always force your limits, but actually stay within your boundaries. Then you can simply focus on just feeling the beautiful movement and coordination and rhythm that's available within these boundaries.
One of the things we always teach is to use the practice to feel what is. Not to become something necessarily, but to focus on the unfolding of the present moment. There's so much joy and so much beauty being offered to us in every moment. We always try to emphasize that the practice should illuminate what is unfolding in the present moment, not just what we desire to unfold.
Q: That's a beautiful point. In your own teaching, you are teaching a wide range of people, from those very athletic to people who are ill or even bedbound. How do you make that work?
Colleen Saidman Yee: Yes, we're trying to demystify yoga so that it is approachable for everybody, and it's not categorized as stretching or flexibility, or only for young healthy people with the physical abilities of a contortionist. Ultimately, yoga is not about mastering difficult poses, but about finding space. We spend so much time living in a congested environment, internally, with bound up emotions, bound up muscles, just being sort of dense and bound up inside - with no clarity, no freedom, no spaciousness.
Rodney Yee: There's no real physical limitation to the practice of yoga. We helped create the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program, and through this work, we're realizing that even when you're on your deathbed, sometimes you can do your most amazing practice. We see people who are incredibly healthy and physically fit and who have amazing range of motion, but they're not actually piercing the essence of yoga, because they're not coordinating the breath, the mind, the body and feeling the present moment unfold. They're striving, in some ways, for something that they only desire for. You could say it's the difference between a practice that touches the essence of yoga, versus something that's hung up in the fad of yoga, which emphasizes the outward form over the inner experience.
Q: What would you recommend to people who feel they may stuck in their yoga practice and want to explore that theme of finding your inner yoga, or connect with the essence of yoga in their practice?
Rodney Yee: Well, for example, when you do a really difficult yoga asana, you ask, "Okay, when I'm doing this asana, can I center myself? Can I watch my breath? Can I soften my face and my receptive organs?" No matter what the situation is, even if you're on the beach having an easy moment, you ask the same questions: "How am I responding to this unfolding present moment, no matter what the circumstances?"
Listen deeply. Meditate on that which is arising. Even if it's boredom or difficulty or maybe a feeling of being stuck, that in itself can be the work for your practice.
Colleen Saidman Yee: In some ways, obstacles are a teacher too. If everything is really easy, then you're not going to uncover the depth that's there, and get to the essence. As teachers, sometimes we challenge students, so that they have to come up against their own obstacles and sit with those obstacles. In some ways, that's the only way to move deeper into the practice.
At the same time, though, set goals that are reasonable, so that you don't go into this expectation-disappointment mode. We have enough things that we feel like we're failures about. Our yoga practice doesn't have to be one more way to beat ourselves up! Just to do something that is very reasonable and doable and set that intention.
Q: As you head towards the second half of your own lives, how do you feel your own practice is changing?
Colleen Saidman Yee: I think that it's definitely going more towards Pranayama, meditation, and hopefully more towards service. You know, as our kids start going off to college and we don't need to be out in the world quite that much, I'm hoping that our practice gets much deeper and more subtle, and that we can just become kinder, kinder, kinder human beings. That's my goal. And I think that our goal is to just keep using our practice to be kind.
Rodney Yee: Yeah, I agree with Colleen. I feel like our age and our body is changing also begin to demand really different things. A lot of times, again, our ego wants us to continue on the youth track. And that is, "Oh, you know, I'm going to acquire more poses and I'm going to get deeper in every pose. I'm going to be able to meditate longer and hold my breath longer."
There are a lot of habits that we've created in our own practice. Again, a lot of times, it's a lack of listening to what really is happening. Not that you have to bow to, "Oh, I can't do this and so I'm not gonna try." You're still exploring your limits, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. But again, you're exploring within your limits.
Q: It's not only our practice that changes over time. How do you find that yoga has changed your relationship with yourself and others?
Rodney Yee: Hopefully your practice gets you in touch with your body. The more you're listening to your body, the more skillful your actions within your practice will be. Hopefully, what is really changing is that we develop a greater ability to listen to our body, to tune in to the breath and the absorption of Prana, to concentrate with relaxation, and to see other people more completely and bring them into our hearts more deeply. Isn't that really much more valuable than putting your leg behind your head?
Colleen Saidman Yee: Through yoga, you become very intimate with yourself and your body. With that intimacy comes intuition and right action, because it's just such a visceral feeling when you know something is right and when you know something is wrong. You can't have that visceral feeling unless you're in touch, like literally in touch with your body. The body just gives you so much feedback, so much information and just getting to know that is huge. And again, the personal intimacy that yoga brings... that can be translated and transferred into our relationships as well.
Rodney Yee: What Colleen and I have learned through our yoga practice, is that a lot of times, it's the limitations that become the teachers. In some ways, the teachers become your own body, mind, and breath. The teachers actually become stronger. And if you are willing to listen to the teaching, to the limitation and what the limitation has to teach you about your inner space, then you can have a deep, rich practice to your very dying breath.
Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee are among the most-recognized and renowned yoga teachers in North America. They teach together both nationally and internationally, and their work has appeared in over 30 yoga video titles and audio recordings. Both Rodney and Colleen are involved with Donna Karan's Urban Zen project, which aims to "change the current healthcare paradigm to include integrative medicine and promote patient advocacy." They teach together at the Yoga Shanti studio in Sag Harbor, NY, and lead teacher trainings, workshops, and yoga retreats around the world.
This interview is an excerpt from a longer interview featured as part of the Sadhana Sundays series at YogaUOnline.com, a free series, which explores the transformative aspects of yoga practice featuring monthly interviews with leading yoga teachers. Go here to register for the free series and listen to the full interview with Rodney and Colleen and other leading yoga teachers.