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Interview with Rodney Yee
World Renowned Yoga Teacher

with Dennis Hughes, Share Guide Publisher

Rodney Yee has been featured in over 25 top-selling yoga instructional videos, and has appeared on many magazine covers and yoga calendars. Rodney is the cofounder of the Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, California. He teaches public classes and advanced yoga trainings at his Studio and around the country, and is the author of the book Yoga, The Poetry of the Body.

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Share Guide: When was your very first introduction to yoga?

Rodney Yee: My first introduction was when I was about 4 years old. I remember looking at my neighbor doing virasana, which is hero pose. I said to myself, "I can't do that." Even at 4 years old, I was stiff and tight. I could not move how most kids did. I couldn't even sit cross-legged; I sat with one leg in cross leg and one leg behind me. I had no understanding of yoga at that point. But I was looking at bodies already, and looking at the way people were in their bodies. My first formal introduction to yoga was as a ballet dancer with the Oakland Ballet. My friend and I used to stretch all the time because we were extremely tight dancers, and that was the one thing that was keeping us from progressing further in our dance technique. Above the Berkeley Ballet Theatre was a yoga room, so we decided to go take the yoga class and see what kind of light it would shed on the subject. I remember coming out of that class and saying to my friend, "I can't believe how good I feel!" I felt like I got a direct and influential impact from that one single class. It was not just how good my body felt but how clear my mind felt, and how clear my emotional body felt. I started taking yoga class once a week. This was in 1980. Then I started taking yoga more and more seriously. I decided I did not want to dance full-time with the Ballet Company, so I started taking yoga class full-time. I was a waiter at the time also. That all led into my studying yoga more and more deeply. . .until the present day, some 23 years later. I have been through all kinds of things in the yoga world.

Share Guide: Didn't you study at the Iyengar Institute in San Francisco?

Rodney Yee: Yes, I studied both at the Yoga Room in Berkeley and the Iyengar Institute in San Francisco.

Share Guide: Were those steps towards being a teacher?

Rodney Yee: Very much. At first, I went from taking classes about 3 times a week in Berkeley to deciding I would take the teacher training at the Iyengar Institute. At that point, I did not think of being a teacher. Yoga was not really a profession at that point. It was just an interest for most people. I just went there to deepen my practice, and to basically put more time and effort into this thing that I was learning to love more and more.

Share Guide: At what point did you decide that you wanted to teach?

Rodney Yee: Somewhere during the teacher training program I realized that I had a little bit of a knack for teaching. I am the last of five kids, and all my brothers and sisters are teachers of some sort. Teaching is really a natural extension of one's practice--one wants to share something that's so influential and beautiful in one's life. So my wife and I started teaching class out of our apartment in 1984 or 1985. All my high school and college friends were getting a little bit sluggish because they were in corporate jobs and they said, "Hey Rod, why don't you teach us some yoga." So we started out teaching classes for free to our friends. When we started there were about five people, but by the end of the year we had about 20 students in our apartment for weekly class. Then I began teaching at the Yoga Room, and by 1986 I had about four or five public classes and numerous private classes that I was teaching every week. In 1987 we started the Piedmont Yoga Studio. It was a group effort with Richard Rosen, myself, Clare Finn and Donna, my wife. That year is also when I went to India for the first time, to study with B.K.S. Iyengar. I went again for further teacher training with the Iyengers, and then around 1989 I got asked to be in Yoga Journal's calendar. That started giving me a little more visibility. In 1992 they asked me to try out for Yoga Journal's videos and so I did that. By that time, I was teaching around the nation. Around 1996 yoga just took off!

Share Guide: So it's been about ten years since you got into the videos and began teaching nationally?

Rodney Yee: I started teaching nationally in 1990, but things got much more busy around the mid 1990's.

Share Guide: In the mid 1990's it went to another level of public interest. Do you think that happened because more of the baby boomers were getting past their 30's into their 40's?

Rodney Yee: That was a big part of it. Yoga answers a lot of physical problems such as back pain, stress issues, and any kind of joint problems or illnesses. Even more important is the spiritual questioning that comes up around our middle years.We wonder what do I want to hand down to my children, and how do I want to spend my days on this earth? I think yoga begins to help us look at what our passions and our dreams are. And it helps give us the courage once we find passion to actually pursue that! Also, I think yoga speaks to the maladies that we are facing as a country, as well as on the individual level.

Share Guide: What made you choose the Iyengar style? And how do you think that compares to other styles?

Rodney Yee: I basically fell into it, for one thing. The studio I mentioned that was upstairs from the ballet was an Iyengar studio. But more than that, it was a really good fit for me. Before I started doing yoga, back with my dance training and my gymnastics training, I really didn't have very good coaches and instructors. So I was very interested in finding someone who really knew the body intimately. Iyengar is like the Einstein of the body and the breath.

Share Guide: You mean B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder?

Rodney Yee: Yes. He is still alive. I think he's done more for understanding the human body and the human breath, and understanding how the mind ties into that, than anybody in recent history. His discoveries in the human body will probably continue to advance us for the next 200 years. And this is very applicable to the Western understanding of the body. He's created an incredible synthesis, so that if any yoga is going to tie in with Western medicine, it will definitely be the Iyengar System. That does not mean that other yoga systems are not valuable. But as far as literally being a science of the body, the Iyengar System is far beyond anything else. A lot of people describe Iyengar as strictly physical, but he's been so demanding and so exact in the physical body that it makes it a mental practice also. The first part of meditation in any system is normally concentration. The ability to understand the subtlety of the body takes great focus, so there is no division here between mind and body. People sometimes call Iyengar a physical yogi, but in fact, he's one of the most mentally accurate and mentally interested yogis that there is. He demands the mind to be incredibly focused, and from that he demands amazing awareness--which is, I think, the second part of meditation. In the Asthanga System, which is the eight limbed yoga, you are going from concentration to awareness to union. What some people don't realize is that Iyengar is using the asana practice as a tool for meditation. For instance, a meditative practice might be gazing at one thing, like a candle flame. You might decide to gaze at the candle flame and see if you can keep bringing your mind back to that gaze. But Iyengar says, let's make the body the candle. Or if I tell you to spread your toes, that's the beginning of understanding, well if I spread my toes, what effect does that have on my heart? Until you can concentrate and feel, you're bypassing some really important steps. It's just like before you can read words you have to be able to distinguish letters. This is the beauty of the Iyengar Yoga System: going step by step and all of it is part of meditation.

Share Guide: So you're saying that meditation on the body itself--the precision and the balance of yoga postures--is going to make your mind more razor sharp?

Rodney Yee: That is right.

Share Guide: In your videos, the poise and the awareness and listening to nature, it was rather seamless between an inner and an outer experience. I did want to comment on that.

Rodney Yee: Exactly. But what is inner and outer? And actually that goes further into a really important yoga question: who am I? Are you the inner, the outer, or the combination of the both? Are you the relationship between the two? It's this question that begins to take us out of the mental attitude that we're isolated from everything and separate. This is the beginning of understanding union, which is basically what yoga is all about--the inter-relationship of all things. A lot of times this understanding can come from beginning to use the body as a source of awareness…maybe I'm not just my skin, maybe I'm not just my brain, maybe my little toes are not separate from my heart.

Share Guide: So although with meditation we may talk about the clear white light, and that type of thing, there's also the meditation of the body itself.

Rodney Yee: That's right. Think about it: what is the body?

Share Guide: Well, by now we know that it is not solid particles but that it is waves of energy.

Rodney Yee: Right. So, how is that different from consciousness? Consider that when we say something is physical or something is mental or something is spiritual, we use the words as though we actually know what they are!

Share Guide: They're sort of arbitrary compartments to break them up so we can focus on different parts of ourselves, but it's basically one continuum.

Rodney Yee: Exactly! The point is that sometimes when we break things apart so that we can talk about them, we start confusing that they are actually separate things. So the funny thing about making the statement, "Iyengar is more of a physical yogi," is that it goes to a complete misunderstanding of what "physical" is anyway, and what is "mental." Often people get into arguments about this yoga or that yoga being better. We need to realize that they are all about the same subject.

Share Guide: I know Hatha means "sun-moon," but I have also heard about Raja yoga and Asthanga yoga. I have thought of yoga as actually being an umbrella inside of which are these different paths.

Rodney Yee: Exactly. Asthanga yoga and Raja yoga, basically, are very much analogous to Patanjali's classical yoga. Hatha yoga came much later. It was a whole revolution. You have to understand that in classical yoga there was still a sense that you had to leave the body in order to come into higher states of consciousness. Tantric yoga, which was before Hatha yoga, began to question this. Then Hatha yoga came around and basically said: Maybe we can use the body as a perfect vehicle to bring us to these higher states. Hatha yoga showed there was a possibility of using the body as a means towards enlightenment. So it was a whole philosophical evolution.

Share Guide: Okay, but Patanjali, who wrote The Yoga Sutras, lived over 2,000 years ago. This book is still considered today to be a cornerstone for summarizing what yoga is all about, right?

Rodney Yee: Very much.

Share Guide: And it is in that book that he talks about the eight limbs of yoga.

Rodney Yee: Right. That's what Asthanga translates to, meaning "eight limbed."

Share Guide: So to get clear: the asanas (or yoga postures) may be the first thing we think of in America when we hear yoga, but that's only part of it. However, many people in this country still equate yoga solely with movement, and do not consider the spiritual aspect. How do you deal with this at your yoga center?

Rodney Yee: To me, one of the most important things is the reintegration of philosophy into daily life. I think many people are thirsty for reintegrating spirituality with practicality and pragmatism. And I think yoga class is a perfect place for people to begin this process--to figure out what these things mean to them as human beings.

Share Guide: But do you have some people that come in who are just thinking of asanas and improving their physical health?

Rodney Yee: Sure, no doubt. People come in the door for thousands of different reasons. To me, as a teacher, it is important to teach yoga for the whole human being.

Share Guide: I guess what I'm getting at is that I've been surprised at how many people still don't realize there's a spiritual component to yoga.

Rodney Yee: Well, that is only because of the media. The media labels things, and gives a fairly superficial view or definition of everything. And there are some yoga studios that just teach the physical practices and talk nothing of the philosophy or even the breathing and so forth, and to me it's as if they're not even teaching yoga.

Share Guide: Yoga means union; they're not teaching the whole banana.

Rodney Yee: Right. They are teaching asana, but they're not even teaching asana very well because if you teach asana well you have to teach about the mind and you have to think about meditation. There is no way you can be a good asana teacher unless you teach the whole human being.

Share Guide: Now I know many people think you have to be a pretzel to practice yoga. Once again, that's the media, and many people don't try it because they think they're not flexible enough. How do you deal with this?

Rodney Yee: Yoga has nothing to do with flexibility. It is about opening the body wherever it goes and exploring the resistance. It has nothing to do with putting your leg around your head! We may go into those shapes with the body, but that is just to explore our mind and our body and our breath. Where the foot actually goes is not really of much consequence. Eventually, the different shapes you take have a chemical effect on the body. The shapes have just as much to do with the breath and the neurological input that you are putting into the body as they do with flexibility. If the nervous system is telling the body to stand up, you are getting some of the same benefits from that action as you would with going ahead and standing up. Scientists have recently discovered that if you get people to just think about doing an activity, several times a day, it has an effect on the body. So if people are tight physically, it is all the more reason why they should explore opening the body up. It does not matter if you ever get flexible or not--what matters is that you are in your body exploring it. You are feeling it; you are changing its shapes and personality. You are asking and demanding different things of it.

Share Guide: Right. I am not that advanced, but I know to push myself only as far as is comfortable. I stretch and learn a little bit each time, and I am not trying to become a pretzel.

Rodney Yee: Exactly! If the body opens up to that point, great, but if it doesn't, it doesn't. What is important is that you move in that direction as much as possible. In some sense, if you don't use your legs to walk, you are going to lose the ability to walk. In the same way, if you don't move your shoulders a certain way, they will lose the ability to move in those ways.

Share Guide: Have you ever taught yoga classes for seniors or people with limited mobility?

Rodney Yee: Yes, I have. For instance, I once taught a man in his mid-80's a single yoga class. Before the yoga class, he could not tie his shoes because he could not reach there anymore. After a single yoga class, he could tie his shoes again. It's about asking the body and the mind to make the vocabulary of movement much bigger and broader in all the natural ways.

Share Guide: So whether you are teaching seniors, people with limited mobility, or even middle-aged people who are out of shape, it's all about moving a little at a time, without having to strain to get into the classical posture all the way the first time.

Rodney Yee: Right. There's really no classical posture anyway. That is a total misconception of yoga. Besides, asana is only one-eighth of the whole practice of yoga. It starts with meditation, and it's about beginning to create a body that's more healthy and more capable of quietness and union, so that it's not fearful or injured all the time. It is about holistic health--creating a healthy body all the way around. So as I said, asanas are just a small part of yoga and flexibility has very little to do with it--it's a byproduct of what happens when you start doing the poses. You become more supple, more relaxed, more dynamic. It's not like you have to do a certain position to become enlightened.

Share Guide: There was a recent article in Yoga Journal about yoga for weight loss. Now that was interesting to consider, because I thought that people had to do aerobics in order to burn fat and lose weight.

Rodney Yee: That's a very Western concept. The thing is, once you start listening to your body more acutely, overeating is not going to be very appealing. It's about listening to the body and getting in balance. . .because when someone is very overweight, there's usually some kind of imbalance taking place. We need to discover what is the underlying root of the imbalance. What need is not being met? The more you start doing a practice like yoga, the more these things start revealing themselves. I think what yoga does is bring you back to what your natural weight is. That's not to say that we're all going to look like super models, because we're not. Some of us should be heavier, and some of us will be naturally lighter, because there's a lot of different body types. Your natural weight comes from a really deep listening to what's inside you. You need to get rid of all of the things that are put on you socially (that you should look a certain way), and instead refine the balance of your individual metabolism. I think when people start doing yoga postures and so forth, the listening becomes more deep-- and, of course, you're burning calories as well. But you are also satisfying yourself in ways other than eating.

Share Guide: Right, then you're going into the psychology of it.

Rodney Yee: Very much--yoga is the mind, it's the body, it's the breath. As Iyengar would say, it's actually in the asana. You don't even have to know the mind. The mind shows up in the skin, the mind shows up in the body. So if you can read bodies extremely well, in some sense you're reading the mind!

Share Guide: Do you think yoga asanas should be enough of an exercise program for most folks, or is it better to combine it with other forms of exercise like going to the gym?

Rodney Yee: I think it's a complete exercise form, but if you love other things, then I say keep doing them, because you should do what you love. If you want to combine yoga practice with playing tennis because you love to play tennis, more power to it. But, you know, yoga can be an extremely physical activity.

Share Guide: Right, I was going to discuss that next. At the gym, there's posters that say that there are three aspects to physical health: flexibility, strength and endurance (the cardiovascular part). It's obvious to me that Hatha yoga covers flexibility and strength. But I'm wondering if you can really get your heart rate up to the aerobic training zone, as though you've been on the treadmill for half an hour?

Rodney Yee: No problem. Just do 108 sun salutations in a row!

Share Guide: How many days a week should the average person practice asana for the sake of their physical body?

Rodney Yee: Probably once a day--anywhere from half an hour to 12 hours.

Share Guide: When I went to the chiropractor last time, I asked her, "Do you see people very often who have injuries from practicing Hatha asanas?" She said yes and I asked her what she thought this was from. She said, "I think it's from people pushing too hard to match what the teacher is doing or what they see in books." Rodney, what do you think about the concept of "no pain, no gain?"

Rodney Yee: I think it's ridiculous.

Share Guide: Should yoga postures be hard to hold?

Rodney Yee: Well, it depends on what you're doing. If you are trying to build your quadricep so it gets stronger, you're probably going to have to go through some pain and soreness. If you are training to climb Mount Everest, then you are going to have to train differently than if you're just going to walk around town. If you want to get your leg around your head, and that goal is important to you, you're probably going to have to do some grunting and groaning.

Share Guide: Okay, but let's talk about your basic poor soul who hasn't been moving their body around very much, who's just getting out of the desk. How can we help these folks to get started and not hurt themselves?

Rodney Yee: Well, first of all, there's never any guarantees that you won't hurt yourself. That's one of the big problems in the United States: people actually DO NOT WANT TO FEEL. Ironically, that's often how injuries happen in the first place. If people really felt what they were doing to their bodies, they wouldn't be so aggressive as to hurt themselves. But because they're out of touch with their bodies and they have a goal in mind, they push too hard. If your breath is really labored and forced, or if your breath is being held, you are probably overexerting yourself. Or you're at least to the point where you can't observe what is happening. If you're concerned about hurting yourself, observation and listening is key. Because a lot of times, it's when we're not mindful that we get hurt. That's both inside and outside of yoga class.

Share Guide: I couldn't agree more.

Rodney Yee: If you think about it, most people get hurt in cars anyway, not yoga class. Most injuries happen when you're careless or not paying attention or not listening. So you can take that and go much further than just yoga class: When does someone cut themselves with a knife when they're cooking?

Share Guide: So you're saying that if you pay attention in yoga class, you can stretch yourself, but do it carefully.

Rodney Yee: I hate the word "stretch."

Share Guide: What would you say: reach, expand, go further, go deeper? I feel that I am opening up in my yoga practice more. I am not as afraid, and I am extending myself further and I am feeling it more in my posture and in my joints.

Rodney Yee: But maybe you are not opening. Maybe what's taking place is that you are letting go of resistance.

Share Guide: Yes, I am not really so much pushing myself into shape, as I am relaxing into the postures more deeply, while paying more attention to my breath.

Rodney Yee: That is what I am saying--language is so important! If you tell people you are "stretching," already you have demeaned the whole practice of yoga.

Share Guide: I am trying to find the right way to talk about it. So stretching to hurt yourself isn't what you want but rather relaxing deeper in the pose and using the breath.

Rodney Yee: Sometimes the way to open something up is to create more strain. So it's not just "letting go" but sometimes it's the sense of being more energetic. It is a balance between strength, flexibility, endurance, and relaxation. They should put that up in the gym. It is more than three things--it's also mindfulness, the way the breath is flowing, and so forth.

Share Guide: Why is that when I go to yoga class I am most of the time in a sea of women? Why do you think so few men take yoga classes and is this trend changing at all?

Rodney Yee: It is definitely changing. The problem is that most men identify yoga as being something where you have to be a pretzel. It goes back to the media, as I said before. Most men think they are tight, and so they don't want to look like fools in yoga class. They are not used to being less capable than women. And a lot of men are scared of touching that part of themselves.

Share Guide: But you are saying the trend is changing, and you're seeing more men give it a try?

Rodney Yee: Definitely.

Share Guide: How do you feel about yoga for children and seniors?

Rodney Yee: I think yoga is unbelievable for seniors. And it's great to introduce children to yoga, so that they keep up the natural openness of their body.

Share Guide: What is really exciting you right now in your work and in your vision of the future of yoga?

Rodney Yee: To me, what is exciting is that there are a lot of people doing regular yoga practice that really are working at it as a spiritual practice. There is a lot of knowledge that is being passed around and shared. Yoga is a 5,000 to 6,000 year old art form, and yet at the same time it is opening up into whole new arenas of consciousness and whole new places for exploration and for discovery.

For more information about Rodney Yee visit

Related Info:
Meditation Doesn't Have to be Hard
A 15 Minute Condensed Yoga Routine
The Paths of Yoga
Mindful Yoga
Yoga Gets Better with Age
Yoga for Stress
Yoga for Seniors and the Physically Challenged
Tai Chi: More Than Physical Exercise

Yoga in the Office


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