The book's fashionable whiff of sex, drugs, and yoga may pique surface interest, but her message is a deeper one of navigating obstacles like the hollow business of physical beauty, a car crash at 15 that left her with brain trauma, and a very public yoga-world affair that led to her divorce (and the judgment of many strangers). At points in her life, insecurity and addiction delivered the kind of one-two punch that could knock a person into a permanent state of anxiety. Instead of letting trauma win, she found the perfect tool to help her recover.
Prevention: What made you decide to write this book?
Saidman Yee: The truth is that there wasn't much logic or planning involved. I had never considered it. As a former model, druggie, and college dropout, I thought my job was to be mute. That changed when I discovered yoga in 1987. One of my longtime students, Esther Newberg, who is also a highly respected literary agent, suggested I try writing a book out of my pretty dramatic life story. I had no idea how to get started, but I kept getting up every day and writing, surprising myself.
How often do you practice or teach yoga?
There are about 5 days a month I don't teach, but every single day I drag my butt out of bed to practice first thing in the morning. Most days, my husband and I go to our Yoga Shanti studios in Sag Harbor or New York—or someplace else in the world—to teach. If we don't do our routine in the morning, chances are we won't get to it.
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How does yoga ease your anxiety?
With anxiety, you panic, feeling stuck and helpless, and hold your breath, creating pressure in the head. When anxiety begins to lessen, there is release: an exhalation, sigh, yawn, or a dropping of the shoulders and jaw. It's almost like putting down a bag you didn't know you were carrying. (See the 7 things only people with anxiety would understand.) When we practice yoga, we learn that we can sit with our anxieties and patterns and observe them instead of trying to escape. We become conscious and mindful. Gradually we may be able to let go of a familiar anxiety when we feel it, to change.
What would you say to skeptics who don't think yoga can address a problem like anxiety?
I'd say, "How's everything else working for you?" I'm joking, but not really.
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How has your yoga practice changed over the years?
When I was younger, I just loved to sweat and didn't worry so much about injury. Now, with more information about my body, I tailor my practice to balance myself physically and emotionally. Since menopause, I need more muscular strength, so I may hold standing poses and use my body weight to build mass, or even put small weights in my hands or on my ankles. On sluggish days, I'll do 10 sun salutations to get my blood flowing.
My 50s have been about relaxing and accepting myself. Yoga isn't just about being able to put your feet on your head in scorpion pose (though that can be fun). Yoga is the practice that brings me home—to me. It's a dear and seasoned friend that I count on in every circumstance—from the burying of my mother, to my daughter's leaving for college, to the trauma and disappointment I feel when I have epileptic seizures.
Tell us about the following yoga sequence.
This has been designed to address the areas in the body that can get tense or bound up due to trauma or anxiety. We will release the hamstrings in a forward bend; the hamstrings and calves can get tense when we get stuck in fight-or-flight mode. We'll do some standing poses to elicit feelings of strength and control, with the eyes open and back to the wall so that we can see the whole room for a feeling of safety. This sequence is intended to unbind your muscles, calm your breath, and clear your mind. You should leave feeling relaxed, safe, and present.
Standing poses elicit feelings of strength and control.
Stand with your back to the wall in Mountain Pose, with feet together and arms by your sides, for 2 regular breaths (A). Exhale and hug your right knee into your belly (B). Set the foot down as you inhale, and with an exhale, hug your left knee into your belly. Inhale and set your left foot down. Repeat 4 times on each side.
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Balance poses, such as tree pose, demand a focus of the mind, which is crucial during anxious states. Pressing your palms together in prayer position helps you avoid feeling exposed and vulnerable.
Continue standing with the back of your torso against the wall, heels out about 4 to 6 inches. Hug your right knee into your belly and then place your right foot as high as possible on your left inner thigh. Press your palms together in front of your chest in prayer position. Stay for 5 breaths on each side.
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Chair Pose with Eagle Arms
With your back against a wall, bend your knees as if lowering onto a chair. Bend your arms, sitting the right elbow into the crook of the left, backs of your hands facing each other. Pass your right hand in front of your left and bring the palms together, thumbs pointing toward the tip of your nose. (Grab your wrist if you can't press your palms together.) Hold for 5 breaths, then reverse your arms and hold for 5 breaths. As you inhale, lift your elbows slightly. As you exhale, bend your knees a little more deeply.
Standing Forward Bend
We will release the hamstrings in a forward bend. The hamstrings and calves can get tense when we get stuck in fight-or-flight mode. A forward bend also makes the exhalation easily accessible.
From Mountain Pose (A), fold forward to Standing Forward Bend by placing your hands on the floor or on a block, knees slightly bent. Hold for 5 breaths. Put your hands on your hips and use the strength of your legs to slowly raise your torso one vertebra at a time to stand.
This pose releases the muscles of the back and is very relaxing. It encourages full exhalation, which helps alleviate anxiety.
Sit on your heels facing away from the wall and spread your knees wider than shoulder-distance apart. Pull the end of a pillow or cushion into your inner thighs and lie over it. Turn your head to one side and keep your eyes open. Do a simple body scan meditation by naming the parts of your body, either aloud or silently. Count the length of your exhalation. Stay for 2 minutes, then turn your head to the opposite side and stay for 2 more minutes.