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How a model turned yogi found self-love in an industry that teaches you not to

Colleen Saidman Yee is an internationally respected yoga teacher who has been teaching since 1999. For twenty years before that, she was a top fashion model working around the globe, represented by Elite and Ford Models. Colleen opened h...

Empowering excerpt from Yoga for Life reminds us not to sell self-worth short

Over the years, yoga has helped me find perspective on many of the things I went through in the modeling world. Occasionally, I'm asked to speak to groups of young models. Here's what I tell them.

I tell them that if they want peace of mind, they need to develop what I would now call a yogic mind-set so that when things happen they’ll be able to take them less personally. Of course, it’s pretty challenging when a person’s professional value is based entirely on her physical body; eventually, models start to believe that we are these "shells" — the specifications on our model cards. Along with the photo, mine was printed with these words: Height 5' 9."; Bust 34, Waist 24, Hips 34; Shoes 9; Dress Size 4; Hair, honey-blond; Eyes, blue-green. One card added, "Excellent legs."

For a long time, I lived on an emotional seesaw, exhilarated if I got a booking and despondent if I didn't. I was obsessed with getting a Guess? jeans campaign — I don't know why I wanted it so badly, but I'd go to the annual casting and come home and recite Hail Marys as I listened to the messages on my answering machine. I never did get a Guess? campaign.

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Another time I was on a modeling job in New Orleans and was angry that I was getting the shitty light and the shitty clothes compared to the other models on the shoot. I was sitting in the trailer eating peanut M&M's and feeling sorry for myself. At one point, I went into a bathroom in a nearby bar (I hated the tiny bathrooms in the motor home) and noticed a bumper sticker on the wall that said, "Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it." It was like getting hit with the stick by the Zen master: If I was wallowing in self-pity, then that was my choice.

Life is full of acceptance and rejection. Unfortunately, many of us focus on the rejection. Yoga tells us it's more useful to practice swaha, the idea of which is do the best you can, and let go of the rest. Tibetan Buddhists often translate swaha as "so be it." Swaha is the rudder that can help us maintain equilibrium.

By 1987, I had reached the advanced age of twenty-eight. I was aging out of the "middle" level at my agency, but I wasn't quite ready for the "elite" division. One day, the agency asked me to come into the office for a meeting. After I sat down, I was very matter-of-factly told that it would be a good idea for me to get breast implants and to get my teeth capped so they would be whiter and bigger.

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Models almost always do what we're told. The agency made an appointment for me with a dentist. As he explained the teeth-capping procedure — he was going to file my teeth down to small stubs and place permanent caps over them — I flashed back to Mom and Dad sitting at the dining-room table figuring out which bills to pay. My braces had been one of the expenses that took priority, and my mom had been incredibly proud of my teeth.

That was it. I didn't get my teeth or my tits done. Instead, I switched agencies and eventually found my way to the Ford Modeling Agency, which wasn't as sexy or trendy and didn't focus as much on the hip editorial jobs. At Ford, with my new bookers Jill Perlman and Patty Sinclair, I was proud to be reborn as a "catalogue queen."

And that's what I became best known for. Over the past thirty years, I've worked for Chadwicks of Boston, Talbots, Sundance, Avon Fashion, Brownstone Studio, Spiegel, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Bloomingdale's, J. Jill, Roaman’s and Lane Bryant, among others. I always approached the jobs with the same respect and professionalism as I had for the top fashion magazines.

Truthfully, I'm most proud of the work I did between the ages of forty-eight and fifty-two, which included nearly every Eileen Fisher campaign. In a culture that worships youth, I admire Eileen for embracing beauty in women my age. It sends a powerful message to the world. Eileen is a yogi herself. She told me she booked me because I was "in my body" and I "knew who I was."

Buy the full copy of Yoga for Life here.

Next page: 4 Yoga poses that teach confidence and strength

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