Rodney Yee is an internationally recognized yoga teacher, co-founder of Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT), and the author of two books: Yoga: The Poetry of the Body and Moving Toward Balance: 8 Weeks of Yoga with Rodney Yee. Rodney has also been featured in over 30 Yoga DVD titles and became an overnight sensation when he appeared on Oprah in 1999, selling 1 million videos the very next day. His connection with the Feathered Pipe Ranch runs deep, as he credits India Supera, Cree elder Pat Kennedy and other staff and teachers with his continued growth throughout the 15 years of summer retreats in Montana.
In this conversation, Rodney talks about his experience growing up as a Chinese-American in both Oklahoma and California, his journey through gymnastics, dance, and yoga, and the epiphany of visiting Japan, where his body recognized the relief of walking through streets and dancing on stages where the majority of people shared his similar facial features. We discuss the ways that our ancestors and family history live within our tissues and the reckoning process of finding out who we are, where we came from and where we belong—a therapeutic process that can unfold and bubble up with the practices of asana, pranayama and meditation.
Anyone who practices yoga in this country today can most certainly give a deep bow to Rodney, as he was paramount in helping to spread yoga across the West. He continues to teach worldwide today, expanding self-care techniques to healthcare workers, veterans, teachers and other industries.
*Image credits: Zev Starr-Tambor
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Rodney Yee 00:00
So, if you waste your mental and emotional energy on hope, and you think you’re going to fix something, your perspective and your perception becomes pretty narrow. I think for anything at this point, we need to not narrow our perspective or our perception. We need to broaden it and be open-minded.
Andy Vantrease 00:41
Welcome to the Dandelion Effect Podcast, a space for organic conversation about the magic of living a connected life. Just like the natural world around us, we are all linked through an intricate web, a never-ending ripple that spans across the globe. Here, we explore the ideas that our guests carry through the world, remember who and what inspired them along the way, and uncover the seeds that helped them blossom into their unique version of this human experience. This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, whose mission is to help people find their direction through access to programs and experiences that support healing, education, community and empowerment.
Hope, by definition, is a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen. This word cascades through our vocabulary, uttered in various scenarios, like when we vaguely say: I hope to see you soon. Or hopefully it will snow tomorrow. I’d venture to say that some activists and change-makers are fueled by hope, a yearning for a different world where they can experience the reality that they believe to be better than the one we’re in now.
While there’s no denying the mostly positive intention behind hope, today’s guest, Rodney Yee, explores life from more of a Buddhist lens, admitting that he sees hope as futuristic, the notion that we have to fix the present moment or any other moments hereafter. His entire lifetime of yogic exploration is founded on presence, being with what is, having a beginner’s mind and doing his best to swim through life with nonviolence and peace without get attached to outcomes or disappointments that often stem from the expectation of a certain action happening or not happening.
Rodney Yee is an internationally recognized yoga teacher, co-founder of Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT), and the author of two books: Yoga: The Poetry of the Body and Moving Toward Balance: 8 Weeks of Yoga with Rodney Yee. Rodney has also been featured in over 30 Yoga DVD titles and became an overnight sensation when he appeared on Oprah in 1999, selling one million videos the very next day. His connection with the Feathered Pipe Ranch runs deep, as he credits India Supera, Cree elder Pat Kennedy and other staff and teachers with his continued growth throughout the 15 years of summer retreats in Montana.
In this conversation, Rodney talks about his experience growing up as a Chinese-American in both Oklahoma and California; his journey through gymnastics, dance, and yoga; and the epiphany of visiting Japan, where his body recognized the relief of walking through streets and dancing on stages where the majority of people shared his similar facial features. We discuss the ways that our ancestors and family history live within our tissues and the reckoning of finding out who we are, where we came from and where we belong—a therapeutic process that can unfold and bubble up with the practices of Asana, pranayama and meditation.
Anyone who practices yoga in this country today can most certainly give a deep bow to Rodney, as he was paramount in helping to spread yoga across the West. He continues to teach worldwide today, expanding self-care techniques to healthcare workers, veterans, teachers and other industries.
I’m Andy Vantrease, and you’re listening to the Dandelion Effect Podcast with today’s guest, Rodney Yee.
Andy Vantrease 04:12
The first time that I heard your name, I had walked into Howard’s cabin, right down there next to the lake teepee, and he had this coffee table book—a big coffee table book. I can’t remember what year it was from, but you were either on the cover or you were right in one of the first pages. He said, “Oh yeah, that’s Rodney Yee,” and I said, “Well, who’s Rodney Yee?” And he said, “If you know anything about yoga, you need to know who this person is.” And that just really showed my age, as a millennial. Like wow, okay, I need to know who this person is. So, here we are: We get to talk about your life and your yoga career, all in the name of the Feathered Pipe Foundation.
Rodney Yee 04:56
Well, thank you for having me, and anything to do with the Feathered Pipe Ranch not only brings fond memories, but the Feathered Pipe Ranch was such an incredible support to my inquiry in yoga and also into my career. Getting an invitation to the Feathered Pipe Ranch as a yoga teacher was like getting invited to the White House for a lot of politicians—it was really an honor. It’s still an honor to be associated with the Ranch, because in the legacy of India, and, of course, Howard, and Kim, and a number of other people I won’t mention from back in the day, because I’ll leave someone out just like some Academy Award Ceremony here. They were real pioneers of service and love in the road of yoga. So, what an honor to be here honoring Feathered Pipe Ranch.
Andy Vantrease 05:49
Before we get to that part of your life, I want to take a couple steps back and start with just asking you to reflect a bit on your early life and give us a sense of how you were brought up, where you were raised. And, looking back on your life now, what are some of those pivotal moments that you realize now must have shaped you in your early life.
Rodney Yee 06:17
Well, I’m the last of five kids, and my dad was in the Air Force. I spent a lot of my childhood years in Oklahoma, actually. So, as a Chinese family in Oklahoma, you can imagine, it was a little bit of an anomaly. Of course, I didn’t know, I was a kid. And being a kid on an Air Force Base, one of the things is that it was really safe back then, so we got a lot of free rein. Until my mother rang the dinner bell, we were basically roaming around outside, in our bodies, exploring the best possible childhood of a kid, in the sense of really being able to understand the world by being in it. So, I think that is hugely responsible. I remember even as a kid, I couldn’t sit in cross-legged position—I would have one leg turned in and one leg turned out. And to this day—65 years later, really—I still have some of the same residue in my hips that I was born with, if you will. But even then, I was asking, “Wow, why can’t I sit like the other kids?” That’s one of my first memories of thinking about body architecture, body capacity. What is free and easy? What is difficult? I always used to think, “How am I going to learn how to sit like that?”
Really, if you knew anything about me at that time, as a young kid, I was always a fixer. So, I would fix from my mother’s jewelry box to understanding mechanics at a very young age. Then the human body comes into focus. My dad got me into gymnastics actually very young. And, of course, in gymnastics if you don’t have a good coach, you’re sort of throwing yourself around. You are just like, how can I do that? You know, I want to do that. A gaggle of friends gets together, and you’re sort of throwing your body around in space, trying to figure things out. Some kids can do things really naturally, and some kids can’t. I was always in the group of kids that it didn’t really come that natural. I was really curious, like, I want to do that. How am I going to get my body to do that?
So, there was another point, in high school, where I had the most amazing physiology teacher, and the wonders of the body started striking me hard and strong. You take the engineering mind, and you say, “Well, what is the engineering of the human body?” It becomes very much like a great puzzle, right? I wanted to dive into that puzzle. The gymnastics continued to lead to more interest in the body, and also the lack of ability, like, “Why won’t my body do that?” And then asking, “Well, what exercises can I do to get my body ready to do that?” When I went to University of California Davis to study, I chose to study both philosophy and physical therapy. Then came a really wonderful dance company from New York that performed at U.C. Davis. I think it was the Garth Fagan Jazz Company from Harlem. And for whatever reason, I just wanted to go see it. So, I went to go see it, and that was a pivotal point of saying, “I want to do that.”
Andy Vantrease 09:52
You were just sitting in the audience and watching the stage and going, “How can I do that?”
Rodney Yee 09:57
Yeah, like I want to do that. I want to know music better, I want to put my body to music, I want to make those shapes, I want to be able to express myself through my body—it was just really exciting. So, I started taking dance classes, and I even tried out for the Black Repertoire Dance Theater, which I didn’t make it in, not just because I was Chinese, but also because I had no business being there yet.
And this was in college?
This was in college, my freshman year in college. As I was in a physical therapy internship in Oakland during the summer, I also started dancing with the Oakland ballet and another company in San Francisco. I started really taking class, but because at that time, if you’re a man taking class, they basically said, “Come on, be a part of the company!” If you have two feet and two, you know… if you’re willing to wear tights, we’re going to put you on stage. So, I decided to quit the philosophy department at Berkeley, and become an apprenticeship at the Oakland Ballet. Then I realized physical therapy for me at the time was too slow for me.
Andy Vantrease 11:12
Yeah, and maybe too structured and methodical?
Rodney Yee 11:16
Yeah. And from dance to physical therapy I was like, no—I have to do more dance. This is the way I want to explore the body. So, that’s the beginning.
Andy Vantrease 11:28
So, your dad was the one that put you in gymnastics to start with when you were really young. I’m curious of that nurturing that came—did it come from both of your parents? Did it continue on as you got more into ballet? Who was helping you to propel forward and really just follow your curiosities?
Rodney Yee 11:48
Well, being the last five kids helps because by the time you’re the last five kids, your parents don’t have the energy to put another pair of braces on another set of teeth. They’re a little tired. And they had me when they were older—my mom was 41. My mom was always amazing, so far as being a person who said, “I’m going to love you no matter what; do what you need to do.” So, I had no restriction. Of course, you can imagine a Chinese young man with his immigrant parents, saying he was going to become a ballet dancer.
Andy Vantrease 12:29
That was going to be one of my questions because having friends of mine whose parents are immigrants, I am familiar that those expectations are usually pretty heavy.
Rodney Yee 12:39
They are. I mean, kudos to my mom and dad. They had that speaking out of one side of their mouth, fairly strongly. And yet another side of the mouth was like, “Look, you are the one who has to look at yourself in the mirror. And you are the one who, at the end of the day, you have to live with.” There was also a great deal of ancient Chinese philosophy coming down the pipeline: It’s okay to pursue happiness. It’s okay to pursue the arts. Before Communist China, the arts were actually very respected. Being a teacher was very respected in China. I think all of that distills down into what was allowed for me to do in some ways, and the messages that I was given. So, even though making a good living, and all that were equally of my parents’ concern (as all parents are concerned about—you being able to put food on the table and shelter above your own head), I think they also secretly gave us another sort of permission, if you will.
I look back at that, and it’s sort of mysterious. Like, how did they do that? Because, you know, I’m a parent now with Colleen, four kids in a blended family, and I always wonder how to support them, and also how to question them, and also how to get them to really find a life that they’re able to be happy and content—and be able to feed themselves. So, still those same things are on the table, and I give a lot of kudos to my brothers and sisters and my family and my friends for, in some ways, encouraging me along the way to make those choices.
Andy Vantrease 14:28
Did you ever have a point through adolescence and into young adulthood or college years where you challenged those desires? Or was it just a pretty smooth like, “This is what I want, and I’m going to go for it.”
Rodney Yee 14:43
No, there were a number of obstacles, Andy. First of all, you have to imagine at 23 or 24 years old being a ballet dancer, thinking, “Well, I’m not ever going to be Baryshnikov. I’m not going to be Rudolf Nureyev,” so I’m not going to be at the pinnacle of the dance world. You start having concerns because your friends are getting five and six-figure jobs out of college and you’re thinking, “Whoa, I’m washing dishes and I’m dancing.” There’s all kinds of questioning that goes on. And yet, there’s also, in my case, ignorant confidence, I think. In a sense of like, “No, this is what I’m going to do. I got to do these things.” You could bum around a little easier at that time in the world and still make enough to pay your food bills. I could get by and not worry about the basics, and yet, spend most of my time in a desired endeavor. Now, I think things are even more pressurized these days. I think for your generation, there’s a lot of confusion about how one fits in one’s dreams, and how one lets go of one’s dreams, and how there’s just so many difficult choices and also images that one has to have for themselves to try to fit into.
For me, yoga was the next inquiry, because right above the ballet studio where I studied in Berkeley, California, was Donald Moyer’s studio, The Yoga Room. It was an Iyengar studio, and for the first time in my life, I felt like, wow, these Iyengar yogis, they actually really know the human body. At that point, all my engineering, all of my understanding of the body through Western anatomy and then all of my experimentation, made me realize that here were some teachers that I needed to study with to understand the mapping of this thing called the mind-body-spirit.
Andy Vantrease 16:55
How did you even first get invited to a yoga class? Or did you just peek your head in one day after ballet?
Rodney Yee 17:03
Me and my friend, David Lee, we had been stretching a lot, because we’re both very tight, and it was keeping us from propelling forward in the ballet world. And so, we said, “Oh, look, there’s a yoga studio upstairs. Let’s go poke our head in.” And we still both reclaim that moment by remembering walking down the sidewalk after yoga class. It was like, I don’t remember ever feeling this good—period. Feeling this good emotionally, physically. There was such a sense of immediate well-being, that it was sort of foreign to us. It’s like, wow, I know I can have fun in my body. I know I can dance to rhythm. I know I can make all these fun shapes and do choreography. But I don’t remember feeling this good in my body. And that was actually the beginning, I would say. Yoga was the beginning of actually not just trying to improve my body and my mind, but actually also enjoying it and falling in love with what it already was. That’s a big mistake, unfortunately, in the modern yoga world, is that there’s so many ideas of poses that people are trying to eek their way into that it becomes just another way to beat yourself up. For me, it was absolutely not that. It was the beginning of seeing my body as the miracle that it is, and the playground that it is.
Andy Vantrease 18:36
So, tell me about those early days when you really started to integrate yoga into your life. Were you a student for a while before you went the route of becoming a teacher? What did that period of time look like?
Rodney Yee 18:50
Very much. It was like, okay, this feels so good, we’re going to do it once a week, at least. So, we would creep upstairs from the ballet studio during or after rehearsals and take yoga class. Then I ended up dancing in Japan with the Matsuyama Ballet Company of Tokyo, and if you know anything about dance, you’re spending a lot of time waiting to rehearse your part. I mean, you’re just in the studio listening, feeling, waiting for your part of the rehearsal. Well, we had a premiere dancer at the Matsuyama Ballet Company that was also a yoga teacher. So, I picked up a lot of stuff there when I was there for a year and a half. I also picked up a lot of tangent philosophy of Zen Buddhism. That’s one of the main reasons, actually, that I went to Japan. It was not dance, even though I wanted to do that, too, but I was very interested in Zen Buddhism.
Also, I got my first moment of being in an Asian country, being of Asian descent. And that was an epiphany for me to sort of feel like instead of being “the other,” I was actually part of the majority, if you will—at least the way we looked. I was on stage with a bunch of other Asian dancers. That’s really different because if you’re an Asian dancer in the United States, you’re probably the only one in the company or one of two. So, it’s really interesting to be taught, for instance, how to put on your makeup by an Asian male dancer because they’re actually putting makeup on a similar…
Andy Vantrease 20:30
Yeah, a similar face. You just said it was an epiphany, but what did that feel like for your spirit, for your body?
Rodney Yee 20:37
Yeah, I’m not sure if you’ve ever been to your ancestral village—
It is a wondrous thing to do. I remember meeting my dad’s brother for the first time in China. They had never seen each other for about 44 years because they split when my dad left China, and he was still part of the Communist China regime, really a part of the nationalist. Long story short, we met him way late in our life, and, instantaneously, there was an incredible emotional story sort of bursting forth that had nothing to do with actually specific things. It had to do with a whole history that had been shut down, that came up into the cellular body into a combustion of greeting someone that you don’t know, but you actually know intimately on some level. It’s very hard to explain to be in an Asian country for an Asian person that’s grown up in the United States. For a lot of people, it can be intimidating on the sense of like, whoa, it’s almost like you’re racist against your own heritage. It’s like, I don’t want to associate with that, because I’m not that. I’m an American—because I am an American. Too bad about Mitch McConnell, you know, basically saying, “Oh, Black Americans vote like Americans.” By the way…
They are Americans.
Rodney Yee 22:09
And if you realize that even in the United States, a lot of times I’ll get asked, “Oh, where are you from?” I got asked that by two unassuming, older Caucasian women down in San Diego last year, and I said,
“Oh, I’m from California. Where are you from?” And they’re like, “Oh, we’re Americans.” I said, “Oh, yeah, I’m American, too.” So, it’s really strange to feel into what is that dividing factor that’s unsaid? When you’re in a country that everyone looks like you, or the majority looks like you, it’s a radically different thing. Now, it wasn’t an epiphany that I can necessarily write down for you and tell you, but it is a release in the body.
Being into yoga at the time and already a yoga teacher, it was something I could assimilate into. Like, wow, some of this lost feeling inside myself, is—just like every American—basically being torn from your roots. This is what we all share, except, of course, the Native American. This is something we’re actually sharing as the American experience. Those type of things really informed and made me think about a lot of things in yoga: Reincarnation. The Body Keeps the Score. Where is trauma? What is the physical architecture of trauma? What is the architecture of the breath of trauma? What is the breath of liberation? You know, these are questions that I feel like, as a yoga teacher, I’m not only obligated to begin to answer, but it’s the things that come up and the things that I like to investigate.
Andy Vantrease 23:59
Yeah, gosh, so much of what you said is such an amazing perspective that I don’t think gets enough breath and enough voice. I often think about that conversation that you had with the women down in Southern California, where you said, “Well, where are you from?” And then I’m curious of what their response would be, because I feel sometimes like people with European descent are so disconnected from their own ancestry, that being American is the only identity. When really, who are all of the people and what are all of the things that happened back and back and back before this current country? We actually all share that—that being pulled from the roots.
Rodney Yee 24:47
Yeah, very much so. I think even when I was living out in California, there’s even a further west pioneering spirit. There are certain aspects of the people who decided to go that far west, you know, or the people that decided to go that far east, if you’re Asian. It’s not only the impetus, but the type of personality that afforded one to make that leap. That sort of Hanuman leap, like, wow, we need to find something else, we’re forging forward. But there’s also a lot of disconnect and discontent that also fuels that search. It’s not just a search for liberation—a lot of times it’s a search away from something, or a repression of something. But these are things that we all hold dear as human beings. You can feel them. You don’t necessarily have to write them like beautiful poetry, but just to allow it to arise in a savasana or in a meditation, or architecture and different Asanas evoking things that may never surface otherwise.
Andy Vantrease 26:01
How did that start to play out for you as you got more into your body and more into yoga specifically?
Rodney Yee 26:09
Well, like I told you, the first time I did yoga, I immediately felt something like a liberation and such a contentment that I hadn’t felt before. It was like, what is it about this practice that’s allowing me to at least temporarily let go of some of the everyday habitual burdens that probably stay with me because I’m holding them there. In other words, the story is not happening anymore. What’s happening is I’m talking to you right now over Zoom, we’re both in our respective places, and there’s all kinds of things happening now. But there is also, as Thich Nhat Hanh would say—and we should give some bow and honor to him since he just passed away—that when you look at a rose, you’re also looking at the sun. You’re also looking at the cloud and the rain and the earth that produced that rose. That’s all actually in the body of the rose in the present moment.”
So, in some ways, all of my ancestry and all my future children are present within me right now. For me to use the tools of yoga to help that come to the surface then at least it can be recognized. It doesn’t need to be fixed. It’s sort of like, this is who I am, and to see myself more clearly, in any given moment, allows there to be some incredible liberation. Everybody thinks they have to get rid of it or have to surgically remove it. They think of liberation as being something that gets rid of things. But maybe getting rid of actually takes place through a sense of receiving it and accepting it and being with. For instance, I feel like Asana is a little bit like baking a pot. When you throw a pot, it’s not very strong, but then when you fire it, it becomes a strong vessel. Then when you glaze it and fire it again, it becomes stronger. To me, there’s an alchemy that’s taking place in Asana and pranayama and meditation. Let’s just pretend Asana is the first making of the pot, and pranayama is the first firing of the pot. Meditation is then the glazing of the pot, and Samadhi is just the using of the pot.
So, it’s like, I am the pot and it’s being utilized for service. In some ways, in order for me to recognize certain things that have happened to me, I have to be a strong enough vessel, because the reason it didn’t flow through in the first place was because it was too much. So, by becoming a better container or strong enough, or being able to at least realize that maybe I actually am infinite, and that I have infinite possibility, and I’m not this thing that is temporary. If I actually realized that then I don’t become scared that I won’t be able to have a vessel that actually can witness the present moment. I think the yoga system really works. I think that you study philosophy, so you get a sense of direction, then you actually bake it in the body. If, for instance, nonviolence is a philosophy I want to adhere to, then the question is, “How do I embody nonviolence?” Well, as Gandhi said, “Nonviolence takes way more energy than violence.” So, in other words, you have to have a container that holds way more energy, because otherwise the vessel will just break apart. You’ll have a nervous breakdown. You’ll be so exhausted that you won’t be able to do anything, you won’t be able to actually serve. So, there are these tools that actually help fire the pot, and eventually the tool is the mind knowing that it’s more than what you think it is. It’s just like the Gita—all of a sudden, Krishna shows Arjuna, “Here’s the real universe, in all of its splendor.”
Andy Vantrease 30:47
The images coming to my mind… I practice Qigong regularly with a teacher on the East Coast. We’re all on Zoom now, but just the body as the conduit between the Heaven and Earth. Even just the feeling of certain power poses where you’re connecting and really being that connection between these two very intense energies. The alchemizing that it is capable of is so beyond-words incredible. So, that’s what came to mind as you were just speaking. You’re talking about a pot, and that really resonated with some of the things that I have practiced and felt in my own body.
Rodney Yee 31:30
That’s exactly right. We used to do river rafting yoga trips in California, and on the Russian River, they have a dam. If they want the river to be higher and faster and stronger, of course, they open the dam more. But if they open the dam too much and too fast, well, not only can all the river rafters not ride it because it’s too wild of a bronco, but you’d flood the banks of the river. So, as you’re a channel from Heaven to Earth or Earth back to Heaven or any conduit for these great forces, you have to ask, “Well, what should I dam out?” Because it’s too strong for me right now. In other words, going back to Thich Nhat Hanh, he basically says that if you’re overspent and overwhelmed and exhausted, go on retreat. Take time, because it helps no one to be a masochist, really. So, then the question is, once you’ve gone and retreated, restored yourself and rebuilt, then come back again and serve. We all have to be good stewards of our own land. One has to have wisdom, but you also have to have teachers around you that encourage that wisdom.
Andy Vantrease 32:51
Who have been some of those influential people to you as you were coming into your own as a yoga teacher and continuing to always be a student?
Rodney Yee 33:03
Well, my first teacher Melinda Pearly was teaching at The Yoga Room, and then Donald Moyer was hugely pivotal. Then I went to the Iyengar Institute in San Francisco and Manouso Manos became a very important teacher for me. Then from Manouso Manos to Ramanand Patel. Iyengar obviously was the common thread here, so I went to India numerous times to study with Iyengar, but I would say Ramanand Patel really helped organize the way I like to see the practice and the lens in which I look through. Then, of course, I was keeping my eyes open, if you will. My partner, Richard Rosen, at the Piedmont Yoga Studio, hugely and continually hugely influential. A violin teacher at the conservatory was my best friend, Ian Swenson—huge on my practice. We practiced together every morning; that made a huge difference. We talked about teaching, we talked about philosophy. Colleen, who is my wife now, incredible influence on the way that I look at the world of yoga.
Then incredible mentors like India, you know, she invites me to the Ranch, and she was taking a chance on me. I had some recognition nationally, but it was a little bit like, “Who is this character?” and she had the wherewithal to bring me around. That’s where I met Howard and Kim, and we did numerous trips together. I remember on the Peru trip, climbing the Inca Trail—substantial, you know, 14,000 feet—it’s a substantial trail. India was with us, and I was at the top. I was young and fit, and I was at the top at 14,000 feet, thinking, “How was India going to make it up?” Like, that was really hard. Sure enough, it didn’t really matter—three or four hours later, there she is at 14,000 feet. I look back on that, and I was thinking, “Wow, who is this person?” Who is this person who seems like her body should be telling her what not to do, but in some ways, she traverses culture and world and spiritual practice to the point where she’s really serving all of our inner beings—in ways like, be curious, be thankful, learn from other cultures, help serve the world. I mean, these are indelible, important life lessons just beaming down through her stories that she would tell. Anyone who knows India knows that she was a great storyteller.
Andy Vantrease 36:04
Gosh, she really was. She’d go off on these tangents—well, at least later in her life when I knew her—she’d go off on these tangents, and then she’d tie it all back together and bring it all back together to the point. And it was just incredible.
Rodney Yee 36:20
It was incredible. A lot of people went there not just to study with the teachers who were teaching, but really to hear India talk. I mean, she was from that generation of Ram Dass and all those people that were giving us crazy wisdom from this experience of interfacing with India and a lot of other places in the world, where they gained incredible teachings and knowledge that she shared with us. And Howard, as you know, because you know him, his warmth of a human being to welcome another human being on the path. An incredible vortex, the Feathered Pipe Ranch, for Native American meditations, from the Himalayas to meditations from India, all that sort of converging together in this amazing testimony to the human spirit of love.
Andy Vantrease 37:17
One of the draws for you to both India Supera, but then also to the Ranch itself, was the way that you felt like there were many cultures being honored there. And the way that India was really working closely—I mean, at that point, perhaps working closely with Pat Kennedy up on the reservation in Browning and other places. So, I want to ask a little bit about what your sense was with that, and what you really felt like that original essence and mission of India’s and the Ranch was set out to do. How did that resonate with you, and how did you see it?
Rodney Yee 37:55
With certain people you get a gravitas that you just know you need to sit by them and let some of it rub off. Going back to Pat Kennedy, I mean, come on—a singer for five different Native American nations, a person that I have to say, I experienced, I think, the true spirituality of the Native American world, through doing sweat lodges with Pat Kennedy. To sit in a sweat lodge with Pat Kennedy, I consider myself one of the lucky few that have gotten transmission, if you will, from these great spirits. At the end of the day, they really do support you making it through the different trials and tribulations. You know, it’s not just the idea of them, it is truly the essence that sort of makes its way into your bones. I’ll never forget: Pat Kennedy on the third round of the sweat lodge, he just, in front of us, broke down in tears. This 70-year-old man just bawling his eyes out in the sweat lodge, with us asking, “Can we help? What’s going on?” And him saying, “No, I’m in here in the sweat lodge with you all. But I’m also thinking of all the teenagers in the Native American nation that are alcoholics and that are not doing this tradition.” Really just feeling the emotional intelligence from these people—the courage, the bravery.
Yoga was not a household name. People were trying it because other things weren’t working for them, and these people were giants in the pioneering of creating some synthesis between the West and the East, between these practices and our knowledge of science and what branch we’ve gone down. That patchwork that they created, creates a communication to different places, at least for me in my body and my life, that, literally, are the pivotal standing points in which I can wake up in the morning and be alive.
Andy Vantrease 40:24
Pat Kennedy brought fully himself into the sweat lodge while he was leading it, as I’m sure he was the one that was putting it on and singing and leading the prayers. Did seeing things like that change anything about the way that you showed up yourself as a teacher? Like you are the one in front of the classroom kind of organizing this thing, but you’re also just here with people, learning how to be vulnerable and show up as fully human just like everybody else. Did that change anything for you?
Rodney Yee 41:01
Very much so. I mean, it gave me permission. We all go through trials and tribulations and different devastating things in our life, and to actually be able to show that vulnerability as a teacher makes it much less hierarchical, and much more like, here we are together. I’m the facilitator today, but I’m actually a part of the group. And I also have no idea where we’re going. So, welcome to the blind leading the blind, if you will. But in fact, I’m leading only because you’ve given me that responsibility and that role, but it’s not necessarily some pinnacle thing to look up to. We’re in this together. Let’s see where this goes, and I’ll share with you everything that’s been valuable in my poking around.
Andy Vantrease 41:59
How many years did you teach at the Ranch? It seems like you came back summer after summer for a long time.
Rodney Yee 42:08
That’s a really good question. I actually don’t know when my first trip was with them and my first Ranch experience. So, I would have to say probably over a period of like, 15 years, I imagine. And then unfortunately, things just got so busy back east here that I just had to reserve my energy for doing these other projects. But every once in a while, I’d see India at the Yoga Journal Conference or some other event in New York, and of course, it’s one of those things that’s complete acknowledgement of like, “Great to see you. Great to see all the work that you’re doing.”
The yoga world, it’s a lot of things at this point. It’s not just a group of 10 people in San Francisco asking some questions. It’s 10 million people in a big pot, asking some questions, and some of them going very, very deep. You know, you’re only going to get, in any subject, a handful of people that really are going the distance, because they’re capable of it—and that’s fine. They’re bringing back stories, and they’re bringing back techniques that we can all utilize.
Andy Vantrease 43:21
I read somewhere in one of your bios online that you are raising and being raised by your kids. I don’t have kids of my own yet, or you know, we’ll see. But I know that being a parent can be the ultimate yoga off the mat. How are you practicing, and how are you being challenged? How are you growing in that realm?
Rodney Yee 43:46
Well, first of all, one should teach a kids’ yoga class and one should watch kids do Asana and watch kids breathe, because a lot of times they haven’t been adulterated to the point of the natural body and the natural mind being obscured. One thing I’m doing right now in my practice is that I’m imitating animals and children a lot more. If you look maybe at Picasso’s work, even some of his earlier work is very realistic, right? Then it goes into this sort of multifaceted perspective, but later on, it starts to get more childlike again. I feel like I’m in that stage right now in my practice, where it’s like, I assumed this was true, and I assumed this architecture was better, but I’m not so sure anymore. And I have to listen to how my ankle joint is responding to my knee joint responding to my hip joint responding to my sacroiliac responding to the 104 facets of my spine responding to my shoulder girdle. It’s like this articulation… it’s very much like what I remember my violin friend telling me, he said, “If you’re really good and you’re playing in a symphony, you’re playing your part, but you really actually know everybody’s part.” And then the conductor in some ways has to really feel that, right? Is the piccolo playing with the cellist? How’s that interface taking place? And so, he or she has that bird’s eye view that can begin to articulate the different instruments.
I forget how many joints in the body and how many bones in the body, but if each one of those is an instrument, and in some ways, the nervous system is directing that symphony, then you have a lot of questions and a lot of listening to do in every Asana and in every transition of every Asana. There’s this amazing sort of symphonic integration, and you can’t do it from the brain of reason. It’s like musicians are developing a different aspect to the brain. It’s similar to mathematics—to higher mathematics, I would say. There’s a sense of imagination and relaxation. What the younger yogis, I think, are not doing enough is they’re not actually just playing and relaxing and making up stories. They think that yoga has already been codified, but what they don’t realize is the recipe is actually just a recipe. It’s not going to bring you to the ultimate dining cuisine. There’s a lot of showing up you have to do in between to actually make any of that recipe work. Here’s an example: We went to a great restaurant the other day in New York City. The food was so good that we went back a second time. There’s no way the second time could be as good as the first time. We, as the audience, had already been tainted from our expectation and blah, blah, blah. So, in yoga, when you’re practicing, you’re not only the teacher when you’re practicing by yourself, you’re the listener in the audience, too. And you have to, in some ways, have a beginner’s mind.
Andy Vantrease 47:22
So, I want to dive into that a bit from the lens of being curious of what keeps you in your beginner’s mind.
Rodney Yee 47:28
Yes, beginner’s mind is, basically, the openness to something new and also the foundation of the unknown. It’s, I believe, the genesis of natural curiosity, not knowing and wanting to find out. The other thing is that there’s infinite amount of input always coming to us. And, of course, our brain structures it so that the information that’s more vital to our survival, or what we think our survival is, gets let in. A lot of times, if you’re trying to pursue getting things right, like education, unfortunately, for the most part, pushes us to take a test and to basically find out if we know. The irony with that is it sets up something that in some ways diminishes curiosity. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel, so you don’t have to go in there and be a blank state all the time. You’re making a theoretical hypothesis then you’re trying to ask if it’s true or not. It’s a very simple process. So, when someone tells you to take a certain stride, for instance, in Trikonasana, as Richard Freeman would say, we’re basically getting you to an arena, but then inside that arena, you have to play.
I may say, “Andy, I’ll meet you in Helena, Montana,” but once we’re both in Helena, we better figure out where in Helena we’re going. And more specifically, I might say, “Wow, if you get to this one spot on Feathered Pipe Ranch, you’re going to feel a vibe.” I might tell you to be in any position you want to be in. Like, you know how when you watch your cat roam around and all of a sudden, it plops down in some weird place—maybe sometimes in the sun, but sometimes not in the sun. It’s like, what’s getting them to pick that place that that time?
The word Asana means to actually “find a seat.” So, there’s a lot of intuition and a lot of listening. Once you get into some shape that we’re all doing, like Triangle Pose, what are you supposed to feel in that pose? Well, you might say, “I’m trying to look for the central channel, the sushumna nadi. You might say, “I’m looking for a free breath.” You might want to say, “Oh, I’m trying to cease the fluctuations of the mind.” Depending on what arises for you that day, let that be a guide to the experiment, but at the same time, keep feeling and taking in all the information. It’s like sailing a boat, right? You have to constantly take in, you know, I’m going to Port B, but I have to know where the wind is going so that I can steer my boat and power my boat to point B. So, consider that—and that takes a lot of beginner’s mind—with experience. So, you gain skill and experience, but you constantly have a beginner’s mind. I took a long time learning stuff about yoga. The first two decades, I felt like I was learning as much about what other people thought yoga was, and the last two decades I’ve been asking, well, how does that apply to me? The last decade, it’s like, well, how does it apply to my dharma today? So, it starts to get more detailed. Like, what am I supposed to do with all this knowledge? Now, right now, as we sit here and talk, what am I supposed to do with it?
Andy Vantrease 51:14
Yeah, it seems to me like that’s such a natural progression of a lot of practices. I interviewed a poet several months ago, and he said that the first part of his life and career and exploration into the craft was learning the structures and learning what other poets did in order to find their way and find their style and their voice. So, he would mimic them for a while, and then it got to a point where he was like, okay, I know enough of the structure, and now, I’m able to break free of it. That seems like what you’re saying today with yoga—you’re learning what has come before you in order to then know how you can make it your own and carry it on in your unique way.
Rodney Yee 52:03
That’s correct. And there’s another aspect to it that’s important that gets lost. I was a classical ballet dancer, but I also did a lot of improv, and at first, by being a classical ballet dancer, it was so structured—and then doing improv, it was totally unstructured. What was interesting is that I found when I did improv, my habit took over. So, it wasn’t actually as free as I thought. I felt like I was being free, but, in fact, I was being very habitual. So, the structure of the classical ballet was breaking my habit, strangely enough. It was creating another one, but it was also going against what I would naturally do. What you want to do is make sure that your beginner’s mind is not just your habitual mind—that’s a really tough thing to struggle with. Because in some ways, your habits are your blind spots. So, until you really get a clue on how the structure gives you a view of your habits, you can’t really break free from your habits. That’s the insidious aspect. So, a lot of people will say, “Oh, let’s just freeform. Why have structure?” And that’s a good question, because people get so involved in the structure that the structure itself is a prison. But some people don’t realize that there’s another prison—there’s their unconscious habit that never gets challenged if you don’t have structure. So, it’s like a mind-blowing dance.
Andy Vantrease 53:42
Yeah, putting that into the mix now, I even think about the ways that I interview and the types of things that I want to talk to people about in the conversations. It’s like I’ve kind of learned how to do it, and then I even find myself in habitual patterns in conversations with people. I mean, that can just be applied to anything.
Rodney Yee 54:03
It can. And that’s why it’s sometimes good to be random. Like, let’s just be random today. Let’s start from the last part of the interview and go forward. Let’s start from just something random coming to your mind, like, literally, let’s talk about that mirror on your wall over there. Let’s do movement instead of holding poses today, you know, just make up stuff. Kids make up games all the time; we forget that that’s a really valuable thing to do. Let’s make a different game. So, for instance, when I practice today, I’m only going to think about the rhythm of the practice, nothing else. Or I’m going to stomp around and make loud noises. That’s where the aspect of playfulness and intuition and spontaneity can also sort of break the tendency of practice. So, the problem with practice is, a lot of times, you actually practice the same way, the same rhythm, the same breath pattern, the same ideas. That’s why, in some ways, it’s good to go to a different form of yoga or a different school or even do something outside. Like, I’m going to go golfing today. I’ve never wanted to golf, but I’m going to do my yoga on the golf course.
Just be a kid, and let the world open back up again because we all get pretty narrow in our path. Then we also get protective of our path, and that’s where real conflict between schools, conflict between there—instead of open-minded, we become guardians of our significance.
Andy Vantrease 55:42
Yeah, yeah. You mentioned part of your practice now, in this last decade is like, how does all of this fit into my dharma? How does this conversation fit in? How does this day fit in? How does what you’re teaching now fit in? Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re up to?
Rodney Yee 56:00
About 20 years ago, Colleen, Donna Karen and myself, embarked on a path because her husband had lung cancer for seven years and died. And he made Donna promise him that she’d take care of the nurses and doctors. So about 20 years ago, we embarked on what initially was called Urban Zen Integrative Therapy. And now it’s called UZIT because we took it out of the foundation, and it’s its own independent company. We’re combining Reiki, essential oils, mindful presence and yoga. In the hospitals, where we’ve done most of our work, everybody’s coming in to fix the patient and not just listen to the patient, a lot of times. The UZIT person is to get them to move in bed, to get them to smell something beautiful, like essential oils, to get Reiki on them, and also, to really have them have an in-body experience and a conversation about “What is now?” Not about fixing it or what I’m hoping for—just be in your body as it is.
Now, UZIT is going much broader. We’re taking it to corporations, to veterans, to schools. We have about 800 people trained in the country, so we have a big workforce to begin to give people tools in times of crises. We’ve worked with a lot of hospitals recently with hospital workers and healthcare workers that are totally burnt out. You know, the whole health care system is changing—a lot more psychotherapy across the internet on an iPad, a lot more autonomy in some sense. There’s a lot of great things about doing sessions over the internet. There’s a lot of things that are not as good, but in combining the two, we’re able to create a better, more facile healthcare system than we’ve ever been able to.
Now we’re working on RELIEF, and relief stands for: Rest, Ease, Levity, Integrate, Energize and Focus. We used to work on the PANIC model, which was: Pain, Anxiety, Nausea, Insomnia and Constipation. But we’re working more in a solution-based model now, and we’re branching out of the healthcare system into basically all walks of life—self-care leading to caring for others. Know when to go in, know when to go out, know when to stay balanced. The Dalai Lama, on one side, says, “If you want eternal happiness, learn how to serve.” Sometimes self-service and taking care of oneself is the foundation for caring for others.
If the whole healthcare model is based on serve, serve, serve at any cost and “do no harm,” you hear these surgeons going in for 40-hour shifts and stuff—how can she or he actually perform at their best? So “do no harm” is not a possibility within that human context. So, then one has to consider, well, how does this system change in order for us to actually have better healthcare and have healthy healthcare workers? It’s not an easy solution. It’s barreling down one road, and you’re asking it to change direction. It’s got a lot of momentum, and a lot of tradition in a certain way. There’s a lot of things that are very tricky to figure out how to have your influence and where to put your pressure to actually relieve pressure.
Andy Vantrease 59:39
You finding your role in what life presents and brings to you and how you’re going to engage with it—what is it that is bringing you hope these days?
Rodney Yee 59:49
I was never a person of hope, actually, in my years of practice. Hope took a backseat to being as wildly present as possible. Hope, in some ways, is time-based and futuristic, and you’re hoping for something to be better and fixed from what is. I’m not really sure if us as individuals and as human beings, if we have enough bandwidth to actually try to think that we’re going to make the future better. I think it’s a little bit egotistical and egocentric. I think the best you can do is swim skillfully in the present moment, and swim nonviolently in the present moment.
So, if you waste your mental and emotional energy on hope, and you think you’re going to fix something, your perspective and your perception becomes pretty narrow. I think for anything at this point, we need to not narrow our perspective or our perception. We need to broaden it and be open-minded. I think that’s the road to peace. I don’t think anyone has the answer, so therefore, when you think, “I have the answer!” and you set all your energy into that razor blade of action, I think you actually end up cutting things instead of combining and growing things together, knitting things together.
I think we have to soften our tendency. And as you know, the social media tendency is to band with all the people who already have your point of view, and it’s so easy to magnify your own point of view. That, I think, is ridiculously dangerous at this point in time. So not hope—but “be here now” and do what you can energetically with this moment. Step as skillfully and peacefully in this moment as possible. And even that—know that you will make mistakes and know that you can observe and do better in some ways. Not better as in the future, but in the present moment.
Andy Vantrease 1:02:16
Rodney Yee. A beautiful walk through the highlighted sections of his life story. I appreciate where Rodney went deep into the ways that yoga philosophy applies to our lives: living with curiosity, moving and playing like children, being the teacher and the listener in our personal practices, and not getting stuck in the habitual patterns of the mind or body.
I found his experiences with yoga to be widely applicable across various parts of life. The ways that we can fall into a certain flow in our work, relationships, our mind chatter and creative endeavors. Even inside of this podcast, I realize the ways that I can, especially if I’m rushing, tend to approach guests with goals and notions of where I want to begin and end, and how focusing on guiding the conversation can sometimes pull me away from allowing the topics to flow outside of the structure. It’s always such a dance, and I’m walking away curious of where and how I can shake things up in different parts of life and work and conversations whether on and off the air.
To learn more about Rodney, visit YogaShanti.com. And if you enjoyed this episode, you might also like the conversation I had with Karma Tensum: Episode #6, Appreciating Life’s Miracles. We talk about preserving Tibetan culture and honoring indigenous wisdom traditions.
A special thank you to Matthew Marsolek and the Drum Brothers, whose music you hear at the beginning and end of this podcast, as well as Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who first turned us on to the phenomenon of the Dandelion Effect and how ideas move through the world.
This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, a 501c3 dedicated to healing, education, community and empowerment. If you’d like to help support this project, please visit FeatheredPipe.com/gratitude or leave a review on Apple podcasts and share with your friends. Be sure to tune in to our next episode in two weeks. We cannot wait to share another amazing conversation with you. Until then, have a beautiful day!