Urban Zen

Jun 10, 2020

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Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee, creators of Urban Zen Integrative Therapy, are on a mission to heal our broken healthcare system by treating the patient and not just the disease. Their program trains healthcare workers and the yoga community in the modalities of yoga therapy, Reiki, essential oil therapy, nutrition and contemplative care — both to manage the stress of being a healthcare provider, and to help patients heal holistically.

Jeff VO: Welcome to Commune, a global wellness community and online course platform featuring some of the world’s greatest teachers. We’re on a mission to inspire, heal, pass down wisdom, and bring the world closer together.

This is the Commune podcast, where each week we explore these ideas and practices to help us live healthy, connected, and purpose-filled lives. You can learn more about our courses, our community, and everything else we do at onecommune.com.

Today we talk with Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee, two pioneer yoga teachers, and the creators and directors of Urban Zen’s Integrative Yoga Therapist Program, which is Donna Karan’s worldwide initiative to transform hospital care.

The mission of Urban Zen is to change the present healthcare paradigm by treating the patient and not just the disease. The program trains healthcare workers and the yoga community in the healing modalities of yoga therapy, Reiki, essential oil therapy, nutrition and contemplative care — both to manage the stress of being a healthcare provider, and to help patients heal holistically.

Here, Colleen and Rodney share with us how their experiences led them to an understanding of what it means to heal the whole person, through all five senses and through bearing witness to another’s suffering.

I’m Jeff Krasno, host of the Commune podcast, and here’s Colleen to start us off…

Colleen: I think that Urban Zen started when Donna Karan cared for her late husband, Stephan Weiss, while he was suffering from lung cancer for 7 years. I don't know if you've ever met Donna, but she's in the ozone, and she's jumped on every spiritual bandwagon since she was a teenager, and is very into all of what her late husband, Stephan, would call the "woo woos." They weren't tangible to him. It was like some fairyland thing that keeps Donna happy and occupied.

Colleen: But when Stephan was sick, Donna would bring in her woo woos, whether that was somebody with essential oil, or green juice, or reiki, or breath work, or whatever it would be. She would bring in these woo woos, and they brought Stephan so much solace and comfort under those very difficult times, and of course, Donna as well couldn't have lived without them at that time. That Stephan's dying wish to Donna was, "This has to be available to everyone, especially those suffering, and even more than the patients, the nurses." He says, "They have been so caring to me, and they're so tired, and they're the backbone of this industry, but they're not being cared for-

Colleen: "In the way that they deserve to be cared for."

Colleen: And we'd been Donna's teachers for a little bit at this point. She actually called me to help her with her grief when Stephan had died, so I'd been spending some time doing that. So, we had dinner with her, with Rodney, and she was just reeling about how she's going to make, she has to make, her dying husband's wish come true. And so, it was a brainstorming evening, and Rodney and I were like, "Well, you know, the yoga teachers become yoga teachers really to help people. I think that's a community that we can tap into for this kind of service."

Rodney: Colleen's teacher, Sharon Gannon at Jivamukti said, basically, "Yoga's the state of nothing missing." But, in the healthcare industry, it's obvious that we've gone down one branch of the tree, and we've missed out on a lot of other aspects of the fullness of the tree, and the earth, and us as human beings. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out, we need to become more holistic in the way we look at healthcare. Yoga, I think, starts on the journey, but look. Every culture and tradition in the earth basically has a system of healthcare-

Rodney: And for the western world to think it has some strange monopoly on what's good for the human being is a very myopic ethnic centric point of view.

Rodney: I think we're starting to come off that a little bit, so there's an opportunity, not only a need, but an opportunity now, because the consciousness is more open.

Rodney: So, in this, we begin to ask the fundamental question to the medical community of, "How can we help?"

Rodney: And we asked that, actually, at a health symposium that we created with Donna. It was a wellness initiative that lasted 10 days, and we had the facilitator from the Quentin global initiative there facilitating the discussions. We started those 10 days with yoga classes every morning, and then we had panel speakers, and then we had groups over lunch, talking about the questions that came up from the panel discussions. But all rallied around, "How can we help?"

Rodney: We had over 1,000 nurses and doctors every day at this symposium. You have to understand, what came out of that was, our healthcare system is broken.

Jeff: Yeah.

Rodney: They were the first to admit.

Jeff: Yeah.

Rodney: And, so, Colleen and I went back to saying, "Okay, let's start pulling on the yoga community, but where can we plug in?" What happened after that that really began to consolidate it, Urban Zen integrative therapy, was Eve Ensler wanted to have a 10-year celebration for the Vagina Monologues. Katrina had just happened in 2003. This was about 2006, 2007. She decides to put on a celebration at the Superdome, in New Orleans. Donna asked us, and Eve Ensler asked us, to create an Urban Zen lounge in that circumstance. We invited a lot of the experts we knew. We invited reiki experts, essential oil experts, obviously yoga teachers, and their experts, and nutritional experts. We basically went down there and created the Urban Zen lounge. We treated 6,000 women.

Rodney: In a matter of a weekend.

Rodney: It was extraordinary. The psychotherapists that were next door eventually, after half a day, came over to our lounge, and really, it became the center of the beehive for that whole conference, I believe. Colleen even interviewed a lot of the women, and I'll let her talk about that. It's amazing.

Colleen: Yeah, it was interesting. I think that was my first look into-

Colleen: To contemplative care, because they would bring in one woman after another, and these women would tell me their stories. And, you know, a lot of it was their living in tent cities, where there was no safety, there was no walls. Their husbands were beaten down and angry, they'd lost everything including their dignity. So, these women were getting beaten, raped quite often, and some of them stole away in the middle of the night to come to this event. And Eve Ensler and her group were helping to place them someplace where they could be safe, and these were kind of stories

Colleen: that I was hearing, and I like to talk to my friends and offer advice and whatnot. But I realized I had no advice for these women. All I could do was bear witness to their pain. To their suffering. To their stories, and to their beauty, and to their honesty and to their realness. And they were some of the most beautiful hours that I got to spend with them was bearing witness, which is what contemplative care is. You can't fix it, but you can see them and you can hear them without your own agenda. Without your own story, without your own interjections. And it takes a fair amount of strength and vulnerability to be able to stay in a room-

Rodney: And practice.

Colleen: And practice and embrace. But what every woman said, even those that were beaten and battered and had to run away and grab their kids literally in the middle of the night said they wouldn't have changed a thing. They said that from that experience, the bonds that they've created and the amount ... I know we use this word 'growth' a lot, but it is a word that I heard from them. The amount of spiritual growth-

Colleen: That they attained from such that difficult, difficult situation, and a lot of them were Christians and said that they have become so much closer to God, and to trust and to faith as a result of this. Having to lose everything and still ... in some ways that's how they found themselves.

Rodney: Serendipitously in some ways, we hit upon this confluence of modalities that wove so well together, especially in a hospital situation that we really felt, "Okay, something is being born here."

Jeff VO: After Urban Zen had been born, they were tasked with addressing some of, what they felt, were the chronic conditions and symptoms attributed to the most salient issues of our time. But even before it all became a reality, the work itself came calling long before...

Colleen: I came into the world to do this work. I believe. When I was a very young girl, my grandfather who lived with us at the time was a raging alcoholic, but he was brilliant and he told my mother and myself that I was going to be a nurse and he had no doubt about it, that I was put on this planet to become a nurse.

Colleen: And then my first job was at ... we used to call them Old Folks Homes. And my job was to do arts and crafts with these human beings that were near the end of their life and a lot of them stuck away in this home without visitors. And some of them were bed ridden, so I'd have to go into the bed and have the styrofoam balls and almost like a kindergarten class. But that wasn't my real job. My real job was to walk in the room and be with them.

Colleen: And I ascertained a lot of wisdom from them. What's important and what's not important.

Colleen: And then flash forward ten years later, I ended up working for ... initially it was working on 13th street for the homeless men dying of AIDS. And I would go in, and my job was really to clean the bathrooms. But it just felt like that's who I was and that's what I needed to do. Glamorous it was not, and some days I did not want to go in and do it.

Colleen: And then I started writing to Mother Teresa when I was a young girl, and then when I was 28 I got a letter back from her. Well it was from one of her assistants, Sister Priscilla, and it said, "You're ready to serve the poorest of the poor."

Colleen: So, then I went to India and worked with those patients. And then the yoga training brought me to Rodney and then to our joint venture in the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy. So, it just feels like every step of the way, this coming back to what you were asking, it feels like the symptoms are the same. People want to be seen. They want to be heard. They want to be touched. They don't want to be fixed necessarily and that's not our realm anyway.

Rodney: One of the things that Colleen and I had to make sure our Urban Zen Integrative Therapists did was not just have a conversation. In fact, we had four other modalities to actually bring them into the present moment. And so, even though listening and being in some ways a container for another person's story to come out and just be present with it was really to facilitate in that movement. To facilitate and beautiful position of the body so that healing could more take place.

Rodney: So, Colleen, myself and our other colleagues really put together full on charts of, "Okay, what are the main symptoms that someone's dealing with in the hospital?" We came up with the term PANIC. And it represented Pain, Anxiety, Nausea, Insomnia, Constipation.

Rodney: Further down the road, because we did a little work with Doctors Without Borders down in Haiti after the disasters down there, we also added Sadness and Exhaustion. But, we wanted people to walk into the room, bear witness and then get busy.

Jeff: Yeah.

Rodney: "Okay, this person seems anxious, and they seem exhausted. What modalities do you point out? What oils do you point out? What breath awareness are you doing?" So in that sense, we were really giving someone a tool belt to deal with the situation.

Jeff VO: But despite feeling prepared to help heal the world, one of today’s most prevalent problems is addiction. How might they seek to combat something like the opioid crisis in 21st Century America?

Jeff VO: But despite man of the doctors we see today hoping to keep their patients tethered to a drug, not all doctors they’ve met and worked with share a similar mindset. In fact, there's a reason to celebrate knowing a lot of them are hoping to right the ship before it crashes into the rocks.

Colleen: These doctors are exhausted and many of them are old school and maybe not on board, but the ones that showed up as Rodney said, said, "This system is broken and we need help." And what we're offering does help. It helps greatly with pain management.

Jeff VO: Even though the world might be filled with connectivity, there’s a sense that the more we become digitally connected...the further we drift away from one another; that touch in the physical realm is no longer valued or desired. And that can have tremendous consequences.

Rodney: Unfortunately,

Rodney: You know touch is being sort of massacred these days. For good reason, but nonetheless, the skin is more accurate than the eyes, without a question. The eyes can see a hundredth of an inch difference. The skin can feel a thousandth of an inch difference. We are not just a visual society. We're not just an auditory society. Let's bring in smell and taste and touch. And that's what urban zen is basically saying. Come on, let's get all five senses as a calling card back to living your life. One of the body awareness meditations we do is to actually run through the whole body as it is. Not as a dream, not as something you want to get out of. This is it. And you're going to run through it and you're going to feel the body as it is. So even though I may have just had my arm amputated, I actually still have another arm and two legs. I should be aware that my whole universe is not the absence of an arm.

Rodney: A woman or a man sitting in a room alone. First of all, we don't know at all who was the Seer of the man or the woman. Second of all, there's no ability to be alone. And there may not even be a room or time and space. That's what modern physics is figuring out, right? So see, we create this situation, but in fact that situation doesn't exist at all. How can you decentralize yourself on an idea that actually has ... there's no substance to that idea. That's the weird irony. We're suffering from something that doesn't ... is not happening. How could that possibly be?

Jeff VO: After all the work they’ve done and the care they’ve given, it would be expected that any normal person would start to think about their legacy; about who they’ll be remembered as. But Colleen and Rodney have a different take. A person’s legacy, unless truly infamous, isn’t really quantifiable in the grand scheme of history. And so, if it doesn’t truly matter, to them, what does?

Colleen: I don't think we think legacy or impact, to be honest. I'm not a visionary even though I've been called one. I don't think past the next step necessarily. And if the next step can be one, as Thich Nhat Hanh had said, of peace, or of service, or if there's somebody right in front of me ... we spoke to our daughter this morning who was having a really difficult time ... so to be able to bring some solace or some listening to her, I keep coming back to this listening. We're putting one foot in front of the other. Things come up. Talking to you comes up. We got a call this morning from another hospital that's interested, so we'll have that meeting and it just feels like we built it and they're coming.

Rodney: If you look at time at all and say, 500 years from now, I mean, really? Legacy? I mean, come on. Who do we know? Alexander the Great, Socrates, Plato. We're none of those. We're not a Bach or a Beethoven. Legacy is sort of this word of the sort of nouveau riche, I think. It's somewhat a fantasy of grandeur for someone who has a little bit of money. It's like, why? Why even spend a moment of time considering I'm going to have a legacy. Just look at history and you'll dispel that already. So I love this idea that Colleen's just saying the next step or this step. It's a little bit like, what does happen for us is that we feel like we've had an amazing life and it's culminating into a special time together. It's culminating into having some drops of wisdom, that sort of burned like embers inside the heart, that keep you warm a little bit of like, wow, that's nourishing to have done that and felt that.

Rodney: It also makes you realize at least this thing that we're living in is not eternal. Maybe something about this being is, and that we can relax a little bit actually. Maybe that's what we've really missed throughout our careers, actually. Well, we did a good job of building an anthill, but maybe we forgot to actually relax along the way. And maybe that's coming or maybe not. Maybe it's a very difficult habit to break at this point. A lot of people retire and then they're more busy than ever, right? So it's a little weird.

Jeff VO: As I said last week with my Dad, the lineage of most people’s lives involves the transformation of going from being the nucleus to being an electron and observing the space you once occupied; to being self reflective in the wake of your own existence. So what does sharing one’s own learning experiences look like for them?

Rodney: For me, if you're not sharing something that's actually not quite as real.

Colleen: He can't eat ice cream without sharing. "No, no really. You have to taste this."

Rodney: It's sort of like, "Whoa, if you guys taste this too, you're gonna have this feeling and then I'm going to be elated even more."

Jeff VO: Each of us share common bonds with one another. Not just our friends and family but every person in the world around us. As we say here, out of many one. Rodney and Colleen give us a glimpse into what it means to find unity and promote wellness, all stemming from their relationship with one another. Two heads typically are better than one. And two hearts, even better.

So imagine what we could put into the world if we looked for these common bonds amongst ourselves; if what we prioritized was sharing out of a desire for others to experience a bliss we are experiencing. That bliss can be as simple as ice cream or as complex as love and compassion, but it all comes from the same place. And it is the ties that bind us all.

If you’d like more information on Urban Zen, you can visit their website at URBANZEN.ORG. Their work is putting love into the world to heal not just the wounds we can see in the world, but the ones we can’t see too.

Thanks so much for spending this time with us here on the Commune podcast. I’m Jeff Krasno...see you next time.

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