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Yoga Shanti: Ready for the Next 25 Years

Thu, 06/27/2024 - 10:40
Celebrating the 25th anniversary of Yoga Shanti behind the studio last week along with Colleen Saidman Yee, second from left in back, were Carla Gargano in blue, Gina Anastacio in orange, Stacie Kiratsous in white, and Sarah Halweil cartwheeling across the front.
Durell Godfrey

Colleen Saidman Yee, owner of Yoga Shanti in Sag Harbor, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last week with a sort of block party behind the Bridge Street studio, took her first yoga class in 1984. “I walked out onto Broadway, and everything just felt sort of special. I was filled with reverence. It was a weird thing that happened, and I’ve been trying to get that feeling back in my body since.”

She had only attended the class because she lost a coin flip. “Had I won, my roommate would have gone to boxing class with me.” Wisely, she put aside boxing after a rib was broken by a punch.

While she’s chased that feeling, she has also introduced it to countless others. In 1999, on a whim, she opened Yoga Shanti with Jessica Bellofatto. “I said, ‘Hey, want to open a yoga studio?’ She was like, ‘Sure!’ We went to an A.T.M., took out $500 each and that’s how we started the studio. I was a pretty green teacher. I had no business opening up a yoga studio.”

From a two-bedroom apartment above Murf’s Tavern where she taught from a hallway (maximum capacity 20 mats, $12 drop-in) to a studio behind the Kites of the Harbor (maximum capacity 35 mats; no windows; pitch-black shavasana. “People would be out. Snoring.”) and finally to their first storefront on Washington Street (maximum capacity 45 but tight), the two women grew the business until parting ways around 2007.

In 2009, Saidman Yee was strolling behind Main Street when she saw a building under construction. “It was still raw inside. I was able to make my dream studio.” She had the ceiling painted gold, the walls orange. The moldings, strewn with lights, were carved by the Springs artists Bill Stewart and Ann Fristoe. “Mat to mat” it holds 72 students.

Saidman Yee’s husband, Rodney Yee (they were married in 2006 “after an illicit affair, and very hot sex,” she joked), joined the teaching staff in 2009. “Sag Harbor is strangely contagious, but mainly Colleen is contagious, otherwise I’d be somewhere else,” he said. “Yoga Shanti is close to her soul and I witness that firsthand every day. I’m so happy I can be part of her dream and a part of this community with whatever yoga knowledge I have to share.”

The studio’s altar was built by Evan Yee, Saidman Yee’s stepson. In its nooks and crannies are photos of gurus, religious teachers, and even Bob Dylan. “It’s a conglomeration of those who have influenced my practice. My path to deeper self-study,” she said. Hidden high and out of view is the funeral card for Saidman Yee’s mother. “She’s always with me.”

There have been good times — consistently full classes in the building that has become a de facto community center for many — but also bad times. “Covid was horrible. Our incomes stopped on March 17, 2020. We just started scrambling.” There were classes on Zoom, Facebook, on the lawn of The Church, and finally in Mashashimuet Park. “Every morning, we did the hauling. There was goose poop, and everyone was masked, even though we were outdoors. We were so happy to practice in person again, we didn’t care.”

“Covid changed people’s sensibilities. I don’t even know if I want to pack 72 into the room anymore. But this summer we’re going to get our juice back and operate as full to capacity as we want.”

While the changes have been many in the 25 years, the yoga community and many of the studio’s teachers have been remarkably stable. “I’m 82 years old and still walking quite well, that’s in part what it’s meant to me,” said Esther Newberg, a student of Saidman Yee’s since the beginning. “Colleen can sort of read her audience. It never feels like yoga B.S.”

“When I’m starting class, everyone is talking so loudly that I can’t even start. It makes me so joyful. There were times I wasn’t sure we were going to remain open, but then I’d see someone in town who’d say the studio saved them from some dark time. That’s why we’ve hung on,” Saidman Yee said.

“We just graduated 28 people from our teacher training” — thousands have graduated since the program began in 2003 — “and 20 were under 30 years old. It’s inspiring to see these young people wanting to do more than just physical fitness. That students want to learn from these two old geezers means a lot. When I opened the studio, I was innocent and naive. I had no idea how much it would feed my soul.”

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