I LOVE SUMMER IN THE HAMPTONS. It takes ten seconds to get dressed in the morning, and you don’t even have to bend down to put your shoes on; just slip on flip-flops and you’re good to go. Convertibles are almost like enlightenment. I love the feel of sun on my skin. The light in the Hamptons is always beautiful, but the summer evenings are surreally beautiful. We cook with produce from the farmstands, which are glistening with local fruits and vegetables. Our four kids (ages from 19-24) come home—at least for some of the summer. We are so happy to have the house full and loud—and even happier when they return to their lives, and the house is quiet and peaceful.
I always try to be mindful that we are very fortunate people, living in a beautiful area, while also being in the company of the world’s economic, social, artistic and political elite. It zaps me into thinking about santosha—“contentment”—which is yoga’s second niyama or “observance.” When I was younger, I spent most of my time thinking, I’ll be content when I have all A+s. Or, I’ll be content when my boyfriend proposes to me. Or, I’ll be content when I have enough money. You can wait your whole life and never happen upon contentment.
As a child—a Catholic child—I dreamed about becoming a nun. When I was about 12 years old, I read a magazine article about Mother Teresa, and pored over the photographs of her feeding hungry children and saying the rosary in beautiful blue-and-white robes, her face luminous. I wrote her to ask if I could work at her mission in Calcutta. I got no reply, but over the years I continued to write and ask if I could volunteer.
One day, when I was 29 years old, out of the blue, I received an envelope from her Missionaries of Charity. Inside was a letter: “You are ready to serve the poorest of the poor.” Even though I was at the height of my career as a fashion model, I took a leave from work, bought a ticket, and left the next week.
The Missionaries operated “homes” around Calcutta that cared for the poor, the destitute, and the dying. I chose to work at a home called Prem Dam, which means “gift of love.” It was for adults who were sick, homeless, or mentally unstable. During the six months that I worked there, Mother Teresa and the sisters taught me a simple lesson: If you want to find peace, you must serve.
At Prem Dam, one of my jobs was to help bathe the residents. One man had elephantiasis of the testicles. I think the nuns may have been testing me; as I got used to bathing him, I understood the sacredness of the task. As Mother Teresa used to say, we were bathing God.
In India, I observed compassion in action. The sisters walked their talk. They weren’t lecturing us on how to be caring and kind—they were showing us. The nuns at the Missionaries of Charity bestowed powerful lessons on me without ever saying a word.
My good friend, the fashion designer Donna Karan, is also a person who wants to serve. When her husband, Stephan Weiss, was dying, he was cared-for by extraordinary nurses. One day he said to Donna, “Caregivers are such beautiful people, but they’re exhausted.” His dying wish was that Donna do something for the caregivers of the world. So Donna asked my husband, Rodney Yee, and me if we could help her make Stephan’s wish a reality. We said yes.
We talked about how we could transform yoga practice into service. We could bring yoga to the sick, the elderly, the disabled—and, just as importantly, to the people who care for them. Over time, we developed a program called Urban Zen Integrative Therapy, which adapts yoga practices for people who have to sit or lie in bed for long periods of time. We use postures (in bed movements and chair yoga), restorative poses (propping up the body in postures that can give full release), breath awareness (non-verbal practices on which to focus), and guided meditation (helping them to practice “body scans” such as noticing different parts of their bodies: eyes, arms, torso, legs, feet, etc.). In addition to these practices, we train yoga teachers in Reiki, a practice of healing touch, and administering essential oils to help relieve pain, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, constipation, exhaustion, and depression.
We train caregivers to use the modalities of yoga to care for themselves. Nurses run from patient to patient to patient, often in twelve hour shifts. Their breaks often consist of sitting down for a few minutes, gobbling down unhealthy food, and then going back to their work. Donna’s question was, “How do we put the health back in healthcare?” How do we care for the caregivers who bring comfort to people who are ill and dying? How do we help them practice self-care?
UZIT has now trained hundreds of doctors, nurses, caregivers, and yoga teachers in these techniques. We include nutrition and contemplative care (how to practice compassion without falling apart). Today, many hospitals in the U.S. are bustling with yoga teachers who are working with doctors, nurses, and patients. Nurses are practicing restorative yoga poses on their breaks, drinking nutritious green juices, and giving each other Reiki.
We recently received a letter from a nurse who said that she had had to take someone off life support. She said she practiced a walking meditation on her way to the patient’s room so she could be fully present. The family was in the room, surrounding their loved one. She opened a small bottle of lavender and led them in watching three cycles of their breath. She proceeded to lead them in several chair yoga poses, then opened a small bottle of lavender and gave them each a drop of to smell. Finally, she led them in a meditation. Afterwards, she reached down and unplugged the patient’s life support. She told us that she felt like it was the first time in fifteen years she had truly gotten to practice her vocation.
Mother Teresa said a prayer that I’ve always remembered. The fruit of silence is prayer; the fruit of prayer is faith; the fruit of faith is love; the fruit of love is service; the fruit of service is peace. Teaching and sharing yoga is my service; my hope is that yoga sequences will bring insight, comfort, and relief to people, to help everyone find her or his own form of service and peace.
Colleen Saidman Yee is an internationally respected yoga teachers and the author of Yoga for Life: A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom (Atria/Simon & Schuster). Colleen opened her first studio, Yoga Shanti, in Sag Harbor, New York, in 1999, and today co-owns additional studios in Westhampton Beach and New York City. With her husband, Rodney Yee, and Donna Karan, Colleen created and runs the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program, which is utilized in healthcare facilities around the country. Mother to a daughter and three stepchildren, Colleen teaches retreats, workshops, and conferences internationally. She calls Sag Harbor her home.