A Conversation With Rodney Yee

We couldn’t be more excited about the upcoming Urban Zen Integrative Therapist Program (there is still time to apply!), and we continue to feel extraordinarily blessed to have Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee as the Executive Director and Co-Director of the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program.

Just recently, Susan Maier-Moul from The Magazine of Yoga, did a series of interviews focusing on the program. Her conversation with Rodney Yee was so inspiring, we thought we would share it with you here:

Susan Maier-Moul: We’re very grateful to get some time with you, Rodney. Thanks so much! I remember when Donna Karan founded the Urban Zen Foundation it sent ripples of hope and excitement through the yoga community. I understand you and Colleen were instrumental founders of Urban Zen Integrative Therapy.

Rodney Yee: Let me give you a little history of the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy, which as you noted correctly, is part of a foundation called the Urban Zen Foundation, brainstormed by many people, but foremost, by Donna Karan. About 8 years ago, Stephan Weiss, Donna’s husband, died of lung cancer after seven years of struggling with it. Stephan was very much a man’s man. He was a sculptor, a motorcycle racer, a skier, a real renaissance man in some ways. Yet when it came down to health and wellness, he was pretty much down the straight and narrow of Western medicine. Until he got sick with lung cancer. Donna has been doing yoga since she was 18 years old. Stephan knew the people she’d been around as a serious practitioner, and he realized he needed to reach further into what she was doing all these years.

So at his bedside, and really side by side I should say, with him, he had a yoga teacher from the Iyengar Institute, he had aromatherapists, he had acupuncturists, he had Chinese herbologists, helping him through and navigating him through this illness.

In the end, he was so appreciative of all that work. He basically asked Donna to take care of the nurses, because it was also the nurses who were by his bedside and really helped him through the hard times. This is actually very aligned with the kind of thing Donna simply would have thought of and done on her own. She became pretty focused on the necessity for bringing this to not only the privileged, but to really begin to change the paradigm of the health care system.


Susan: So Donna, as a result of being intimately aware of the pain and stress of treatment and hospitalization in addition to an illness, began to focus on the need for everyone to receive this kind of therapy.

Rodney: Exactly. What she realized was that our Western medical care is amazing when it comes to acute care, and it’s pretty amazing when it comes to treating the disease itself, but taking care of the patient, unfortunately seemed like a lost art. What happened was maybe ten or twenty people in her inner circle said let’s throw a health and wellness forum at the Stephan Weiss Studio. And in a very short period of time really, Colleen (my wife), myself, Donna, and Sonja Nuttell put together a ten-day wellness forum. This was 2006. And the forum was amazing. Yoga was done every morning. There were panel discussions and there were speakers – because of Donna, these speakers were some of the most amazing pioneers in every field.

We were wondering if people would come to the event. We had literally – it was sold out every day for ten days – there were nurses and doctors and other health care professionals coming to drink from this well of exploration, pioneering and experience. We had people like Prince Charles’s doctor, we had amazing pioneer holistic nurses, we had yoga teachers from around the country. People who were interested, and also, people who were ill.

Together from the success of that forum, and the obvious hunger for that kind of learning, we began brainstorming together about what needs to be done.


Susan: So you began looking for a “next step” because the forum actually made these ideas accessible and applicable, and people were very responsive. What did you do? How did you find a way forward?

Rodney: What we realized, almost serendipitously, was something that I had been questioning for probably about fifteen years. About fifteen years ago I tried to get together Yoga Journal, Gaiam and American Health (which is the first people to insure chiropractics in this country) and I tried to get the owners of each of those companies to get together. One of my main concerns in this early attempt as well as in the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy training is this sort of burgeoning trend for people to call themselves “yoga therapists.”

Susan: This is a key you are making about your program, that Urban Zen is not outsider therapy. You are responsible for your work and the claims you make about it within a very rigorous and technically demanding medical culture. It can’t be overstated how significant this is for yoga therapy as a profession.

Rodney: I just thought yeah, ok, it’s just another word being bastardized. Yeah, it’s not going to mean anything. Everyone’s going to hang up the word yoga, everyone’s going to hang up the word “peace”, everyone’s going to have a bumper sticker that says “love and peace” and it doesn’t mean jack shit. So fifteen years ago, I did get these leaders at Yoga Journal, Gaiam and American Health together, but nothing actually came of it.

Susan: That must have been frustrating for you.

Rodney: It was frustrating. It was the first of a long learning curve, I should say. In trying to respect the actually incredible pioneering minds but also understanding sometimes the complexity of getting them to work together. Which is kind of ironic, but a lot of times pioneers are very self-determined and very driven, I wouldn’t say narrow-minded –

Susan: Focused?

Rodney: Yeah, focused. And with a mission of their own, if you will. And a lot of times that doesn’t necessarily bring out …

Susan: Collaboration.

Rodney: Collaboration. And consensus.

Click HERE to read the rest of the interview and to hear what Rodney thinks of topics like: certification, critical mass, palliative care, and the human being to human being connection.