Photo: ©Urban Zen Foundation
Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program
Donna Karan and Rodney Yee are changing the health care delivery paradigm – bringing yoga to the center
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Related Article Rodney Yee, Part Two
Related Article Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program Information and Open House
Website Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program Links to Application and Scholarship forms
Website Urban Zen 2011 Program Information Faculty, Schedule, Tuition, FAQS
Like millions of other practitioners, my first experience of yoga was a Gaiam VHS cassette called A.M Yoga by phenomenal teacher Rodney Yee, a practice I did – with the tape – every day for two years during the most intense health crisis I ever had. Fifteen years later, my ex-hockey-player son asked about yoga, and I gave him a mat and and a Rodney Yee DVD.
Media evolves and so does practice. Our conversation with Rodney centers on the creation of the Urban Zen Foundation with Donna Karan in New York. As you’ll read here, Urban Zen Therapy is currently being disseminated all over the country, bringing Donna Karan’s and Rodney Yee’s vision of significant changes to health care delivery wherever the methodology is practiced. Enrollment for the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program is going on right now, and there is still time to apply.
We thought you might like to know more about Urban Zen, and Rodney graciously agreed to tell the story of the inception of the Urban Zen Foundation and the opportunity of a lifetime to study with an unprecedented roster of teachers in the integrative therapy program.
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.
Care for the person – restoring a lost art
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.
Yoga therapy as a profession and practice
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 point 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 -
Rodney Yeah, focused. And with a mission of their own, if you will. And a lot of times that doesn’t necessarily bring out …
Rodney Collaboration. And consensus.
An idea whose time has come
Rodney So on another, separate occasion, with a lot of the same wellness forum players at dinner, Donna was basically saying, “What are we going to to do, now that we have some information about how the machine’s broken?”
And since it was something that I had been wanting to do for a long time – I just basically brought it up. I said why not use the yoga world to attempt to bring the medicine, the delivery of treatment, in the direction of care-giving, to be in the direction of meditation and spirituality.
Susan So actually use the opportunity of the medical treatment process.That’s brilliant – it’s already in place.
Rodney Right. Why don’t we utilize that force in hospitals. I could say so much about this really, but to make a long story short, we came up with what was called the Urban Zen Integrative Therapist.
The Urban Zen Integrative Therapist is a person who is trained in five different modalities, those modalities being yoga therapy, aromatherapy, Reiki, contemplative end-of-life care, and nutrition.
We put together a training program. And we had, really the best of the best, we had Richard Freeman teaching, we had myself and Colleen, we had Joan Halifax, with contemplative care, we had Pamela Miles and Lena Faith for Reiki, and Young Living Oils for the essential oils, and some instructors, wonderful instructors from their organization.
Susan Not only are you putting together the most innovative minds in yoga and alternative therapies, but I’d like to pause and admire Urban Zen’s work with the medical world. You work with the Western model, not at cross purposes, and certainly not putting it down.
Rodney When you start putting the rubber to the road, you do encounter all kinds of obstacles, but ironically enough everyones trying to do the same thing.
They’re really trying to improve communication, they’re trying to improve the way things work in the world, they’re trying to solve problems. I’ve been through enough of politics of organizations early on in my life that I get that. What you hope is that the confluence of them working individually will come together in a unified effort, eventually.
Susan And that’s the vision, really, what’s visionary about Urban Zen.
Rodney Exactly. What we’re trying to do here, seemingly one of the most complicated things: we’re talking to the medical system.
Western medicine can seem to be actually pretty closed-minding a lot of times about what works and what doesn’t work.
Where the rubber meets the road: certification
Rodney You’re dealing a lot with certification within the yoga system being ready to actually in some ways to merge with the medical world. That in itself, going back to what I was trying to say about yoga therapy is complex because yoga is not certified at all, at the national level, and rightfully so.
Susan In yoga we’re in a formative stage in that discussion.
Rodney It’s true there’s an entire conversation there – that’s a whole other discussion it itself. And I hope you and I can discuss that in The Magazine soon.
In terms of Urban Zen I’m pointing to the potential and the complexity.
Susan Because of the nature of, the way the two domains work regarding certification.
Rodney Really, how then can you join with something that is, that needs to be completely credentialed and needs to be completely controlled, if you will, so far as quality control, in order not make some serious mistakes.
Susan This is something for which the yoga community and the alternative therapies community owes a debt of gratitude to Donna Karan and to you and Colleen. We all know the medical system is not user friendly to begin with. Add to that the need to reassure them as partners of the quality and safety of service, let alone the hurdles of demonstrating efficacy.
I’m grateful, and so deeply impressed with this about Urban Zen: your willingness and earnestness to have alternative therapies show up as a welcomed and appropriately credentialed partner.
Rodney This commitment and understanding is critical, especially if these worlds are merging.
I mean, you know, ironically, you look at a new drug being advertised on TV and it has basically a one-minute tag-line on how the drug is dangerous and if you develop certain symptoms that you should cease taking the medicine right away. That is the world we’re dealing in.
And the funny thing is that a lot of the health modalities that we’re using – long traditional practices, were sometimes being met with, oh, well, we need double-blind studies on this stuff to show the efficacy and to show that they’re not dangerous and so forth.
Susan It’s an intense standard to uphold, to fight for a voice in and participation in.
Rodney One of the things that we were concerned with was can we train enough people, enough workforce, to have this expertise in order to have a mass effect on the health care system.
Susan Because ultimately it’s about having that impact. That’s really the vision you and Donna Karan, and everyone at Urban Zen have.
Rodney So we focused on that. We focused on how to train for the consistent delivery of our five integrated modalities.
Developing critical mass
Rodney Serendipitously, in the third month of the program where we get into putting people into restorative poses, talking them through breath awarenesses and body-scan meditations, giving them Reiki and using aromatherapy simultaneously – I can’t tell you how incredible-! About a hundred people felt like they were being lifted into an altered state of consciousness. It was phenomenal.
We realized we could use very simple techniques together with these five modalities in sync and they could have a really quite a profound effect without training someone for twenty years.
It was really at that point that Colleen and I turned to ourselves, and we turned to Donna Karan, and we basically said, we have something.
We have something that not only can we teach to the masses, we can teach to families, we can teach to nurses, we can teach to doctors, we can teach to yoga teachers. And we’ll have a great workforce, a force for changing the paradigm, both in the home, in the hospital and also taking care of the care-givers.
We basically since then have developed this amazing program. And we’re just a month from completing the manual. We’ve had great success at Beth Israel Hospital. Great success at Southampton Hospital. Amazing success at a number of other centers. And of course a lot of success in the private care sector where people are practicing these modalities together.
A distinctive methodology for palliative care
Susan In addition to this unique integrative delivery, you have a very distinctive methodology, that again, I think sets you apart from everyone else.
Rodney What you should know is we’re not working on the illnesses themselves. We’re working on the symptoms of the illnesses. We’re working on what we’re calling the PANIC model.
The acronym PANIC stands for Pain, Anxiety, Nausea, Insomnia, Constipation, and sometimes we have tagged on exhaustion.
We work with a private client and through an intake interview, figure out which parts of PANIC they want to work on that day. Then they either do in-bed movements with restoratives, with breath awareness and body-scans and they’re basically given Reiki and aromatherapy and they’re using these three tools together, in a trio of symphonic work.
They’re basically being responsive to the person, using whatever tools are available at the time, depending on the environment they’re in and what the client needs.
I have just trained someone who used to be my colleague for about thirty years. She’s done every other traditional care that you can imagine and she has been having more success with the Urban Zen model than anything she’s ever done. She’s just blown away.
And this what we’re experiencing around the country, as well. We’re teaching the nurses self-care within the Urban Zen model at Kent State University, which is one of the largest nursing schools in our country. We’re about to go into the Infusion Center at UCLA. I’ve already mentioned the hospitals in NYC. We’re just about to start a training program in Ohio with some of my colleagues who have been yoga teachers and Reiki practitioners for many years.
These are seasoned practitioners. They’re well-schooled. Having just been trained in Urban Zen, they are already also just blown away by it’s efficacy.
Human being to human being
Rodney Donna Karan’s philosophical underpinning is care for the patients. Our underpinning for Urban Zen, is really Ram Dass’s statement “Be Here Now.”
Susan Say more about the effect of Donna’s commitment to this philosophy and the practical application of Ram Dass in providing care.
Rodney What we’re finding is unfortunately in a lot of the hospital situations, a lot of the time and with the best intentions, people have so many things to do just for the acute care, that they’re never there with the person. It’s never really human being to human being.
I have to take your blood pressure, I have to do this procedure, you have to take your meds, I have to feed you, I have to clean you. And obviously that’s all good, but a lot of times we forget the most basic thing we’re doing there and the most basic thing we’re doing on the planet, and that is presence of being.
You know, I’m not necessarily here to heal you, I’m here to be with you. And the techniques that we’re using, the body-scan meditation, the aromatherapy, all the yoga techniques, all of the Reiki technique is basically to bring the whole being into the present moment.
That being the fundamental optimum ground in which healing takes place.
So to bring the mind into the body, to bring the mind on the breath, to bring your being, no matter how painful it is, in the present moment into what is actually being experienced in the now.
This is basically the underlying philosophy that we are utilizing the techniques to pronounce.
We really feel that anybody, whether they’re sick or not sick, is brought into the state of nowness, then really the optimum thing takes place. Whether it’s action, whether it’s healing, whether it’s speaking, whether it’s listening, it’s really a gathering the full being into this moment that it’s occurring.
Susan This is terrific thought leadership on your part, and in line as well, with current neurological research into the relationship of what we call mind and body, as really not two different things.
You’re really bringing the effectiveness of yoga to this aspect of care that’s actually dissociation.
There’s the dissociation that happens for the care-giver just to manage the stress of the work, the stress of being with so much pain. There’s the dissociation of the patient who is sometimes even encouraged to just not be there, to escape from what is happening as a kind of coping, because the demands on coping are extraordinary.
And this dissociation is a far from optimal state in which to invoke the healing response.
Rodney That’s completely correct. It’s not that it’s necessarily totally new work. People like Jon Kabat-Zinn have been doing experimentation in this for many years now, and also, for example, Dean Ornish.
What we’re really doing is bringing, if you will, the most updated integrative practice material to the hospitals.
Thought leadership and 21st century technique
Rodney A lot of people when they do meditations or they do visualizations, they do all kinds of things in some ways bring the person, the client, out of the body. And what a lot of research is pointing towards is that that’s effective, but that’s not even close to being as effective as we can be.
You know, when we talk about restorative poses we’re talking about Iyengar, that is, yoga that has so much background in exactly how to put the body in its most optimum position to promote the different kinds of healing and balance that need to take place.
When we’re talking about breath awareness, we talking about the most basic but profound pranayama that can be done by anyone on the street if training is delivered properly.
We’re really talking about the latest yoga therapy techniques. I mean, everybody talks about the latest techniques in science because they’re developing all this new technique of surgery and so forth, but people forget these ancient healing art forms, these ancient techniques, are also continuing to evolve.
The pioneers in these fields are not only taking the best of what’s already happened but were going forward with it. That’s the exciting thing.
Tomorrow in part two of our Conversation with Rodney Yee, Rodney talks about the relationship of deeper practice to refined action in the world. “The practices eventually don’t become more contortionistic, they become more subtle. You have to be clear about where to guide that energy. And I think where the industry starts to go wrong, it sort of follows this tendency in our world to glorify being young.”
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.