“Know you are enough.”
As I open up to the first page of “Yoga for Life: A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom” by Colleen Saidman Yee, my attention is immediately drawn to this handwritten note scribed by the author herself.
I find the note comforting, and also a great representation of Colleen’s hope for all students who visit her two yoga studios in New York or take her classes online. “The key is to realize you are already enough, and to stop comparing yourself to others,” said Colleen.
Colleen, a world-renowned yoga instructor and fashion model, opened her first studio in 1999 in Sag Harbor, New York, with the goal of creating an inclusive and welcoming environment.
Since, Yoga Shanti has grown to two locations — a second opened in Tribeca, New York, in 2018 — both co-led by Colleen and her husband, Rodney Yee. Together, the duo founded the Yoga Shanti method of practice, which has roots in Iyengar and Ashtanga, while also being responsive to the needs of an ever-changing Western culture.
According to Colleen, today’s Western culture is increasingly in need of places like Yoga Shanti where students can feel like part of a community and experience human-to-human connection.
“The biggest problem and cause of suffering in our country is loneliness,” said Colleen. “Yoga Shanti provides a strong sense of community, and that is what I am most proud of. Yoga Shanti is not intimidating and truly is for everyone at any time of life — from complete beginners to advanced teachers, from zero to 100 years old. We even offer classes for cancer [patients and survivors], and classes that address issues such as anxiety, exhaustion and sadness. We are inclusive.”
This inclusive environment is cultivated in a variety of ways — the first of which being the way Yoga Shanti approaches newcomers to yoga, ensuring all who enter its doors feel welcome and comfortable. A great example is the Beginner’s Club, which started out as a one-month opportunity for students who wanted an introduction to yoga at a lower price.
“The only thing we’re coming up against is the beginners don’t want to move on,” added Colleen. “They form this community and they want to stay in the community. So now I let them stay as beginners as long as they want.”
The inclusive environment is also supported by a deep sense of caring among Yoga Shanti’s employees — from front desk staff to the brand’s leadership — for each and every student.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, let’s sell a product and let’s put on a smiley face so people will buy the product,’” explained Rodney. “We truly care, and that’s the big difference.”
This deep sense of care is apparent immediately upon entering each of Yoga Shanti’s two locations, with no detail being overlooked. There is oil being diffused, the lighting is perfect, and the staff are not only knowledgeable, but warm. In addition, elements like a copper Ganesh altar hand-carved by Colleen’s son bring intimacy to the design.
“Just to walk in the space melts stress and brings one into a calm,” said Colleen. “It is immaculately clean, but not austere.”
Another aspect of Yoga Shanti that Colleen and Rodney take great pride in is the quality of instruction, with classes being led by a group of experienced and talented instructors. “Yoga Shanti has the best teachers in the world,” said Colleen. “We pride ourselves on expert sequencing and alignment so the student leaves feeling alert, balanced and relaxed.”
To ensure its instruction remains world-class, Yoga Shanti places heavy emphasis on continuing education. The studio offers 200-hour and 300-hour teacher trainings and mentorship programs, in addition to specialty seminars held throughout the year.
According to Colleen, continuing education is vital to ensure its teachers continue to feel inspired and have opportunity for growth. “A lot of times teachers who get popular enough develop their schtick, and they just keep doing it,” she explained. “What ends up happening is the teachers become uninspired, and then it’s not an evolving art form. It becomes sort of mundane and routine. So continuing education is exciting for the teachers, and I think that’s part of the reason why they’re so devoted to Yoga Shanti, as we’re constantly offering continuing education opportunities.”
In fact, Yoga Shanti treats teaching as a true career path — allowing instructors to climb up the ladder from trainee to mentor, assistant mentor, assistant faculty and so forth, so there’s always another step for an instructor to take.
“It’s difficult because it’s hard to make a good income as a yoga teacher, but it is a career,” added Colleen. “If you really love this, then it’s nice to be able to dedicate yourself to it if you can afford to do that, and you do need to continue to up your game because there’s so many yoga teachers. Not that it’s competitive, but you want to show up armed with as much information as possible, so you can to be the most helpful for the students.”
In addition to benefitting the teachers, emphasizing continuing education and trainings allows Colleen and Rodney to ensure the same quality of instruction at both the Sag Harbor and Tribeca locations.
“All of the teachers are trained by myself and Rodney, and there’s a consistency of messaging, of teaching, of sequencing, of alignment, of safety,” explained Colleen.
However, that doesn’t mean operating two studios isn’t without its challenges. Although the Sag Harbor location has a large following, Colleen said they’re essentially building from scratch at the newer Tribeca location — requiring the studio operators to think outside the box.
One solution that’s proved fruitful is collaborating with nearby organizations and businesses such as ONDA, a beauty supply company, and The Corcoran Group, a real estate broker that’s building a luxury condominium right next door to the Tribeca location.
“The Corcoran Group reached out to us to see if we wanted to partner with them, and they have a very wide reach,” explained Colleen. “We’re going to offer tenants private yoga classes, we’ll do some sort of an incentive price-wise for the people in their building, and we’re going to teach a free class for all of the Corcoran brokers in the city, which are numerous. And then they’re putting ads in all of the downtown magazines that state they’re a partner of Yoga Shanti, so that’s great exposure.”
As Colleen explained, partnerships with brands like The Corcoran Group and ONDA deepen the brand’s ties in the neighborhood, and further emphasize its community feel. “It’s turning out to be very neighborhood-oriented through these collaborations,” she said.
Another best practice that’s proved helpful in growing the brand’s reach is its retail offerings. As a fashion model, Colleen explained she takes Yoga Shanti’s fashion seriously, viewing it as an opportunity for students to represent the brand they’ve grown to love — a form of marketing in and of itself.
“We sell high-quality T-shirts in a multitude of color combinations that proudly carry the same Yoga Shanti logo I have inked on my back,” explained Colleen. “I am in the process of designing Yoga Shanti leggings that will be delivered any day now. We also sell all of the yoga props — mats, blocks, straps, bolsters and some books. When we get new merchandise, literally before we can hang it up, everyone is clamoring around they’re so excited.”
As Colleen looks back on the last 20 years, she feels happy knowing Yoga Shanti has become a place all community members can be proud of.
And she credits its success to the hard work and determination of the Yoga Shanti collective.
“We are all stronger together,” said Colleen. “The Yoga Shanti team is what makes the company successful — managers, teachers, bookkeepers, printers, web designers, the social media team, blanket folders and more. This is why we have been in business for over 20 years.”