6 Yogis Then + Now: Where Were They 40 Years Ago?

As we look back on 40 years of YJ, we asked six renowned yoga teachers to join us and reminisce about how far they've come in the last four decades, too.

As we reminisce about the last 40 years of YJ, we asked six renowned yoga teachers, each of whom has left their own unique and indelible marks on the practice, to join us. Here, a look at how far they have come in the last four decades, too.

David Life

David Life

NOW: Co-Founder of Jivamukti Yoga

THEN: Artist living in his car

Forty years ago, David Life was not David Life. With a different last name (Kirkpatrick), he lived in an old car with three dogs and his (former) wife. He was an artist looking for a home. There were many adventures—artistic and spiritual, all of which eventually led to New York City and Life Café in 1979.

Life got a new name when people named him after his café, and in 1982, he met Sharon Gannon and yoga. The Life Café was a pivotal meeting place for poets, artists, dancers, and musicians on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Rent, the Broadway play, was written on a table in Life Café and told the story of young artists looking for themselves and for meaning and purpose in life. Life and and Gannon co-founded Jivamukti Yoga 30 years ago in NYC, and it has provided many lives in N.Y. and the world with meaning and purpose.

Also seeDavid Life’s Playlist

Sharon Gannon

NOW: Co-Founder of Jivamukti Yoga

THEN: Dance major in Seattle

Forty years ago I was 24 years old, living in Seattle, attending the University of Washington as a dance major and studying Eastern religion and Western esoteric traditions. After graduation (1979), I formed an improvisation art-band with experimental guitarist Sue Ann Harkey. In 1983, we moved to New York City, where we met David Life at his Life Café. A year later, David was making his own musical instruments and had joined our band.

What did our music sound like? Try to imagine Sanskrit being scatted over dissonant melodies played on stringed instruments backed by African or Indian rhythms, followed by our next number, which might be a song with a strong political message about dog food being made from the rendered parts of dogs and cats. We reached our prime when veteran jazz trumpeter Don Cherry joined our band; we recorded a record and had a dedicated cult following, but the band dissolved when we realized that our audience members were more interested in getting us to teach them how to stand on their heads rather than listening to our music. So, Jivamukti Yoga was born.

Also seeCan Going Vegan Be a Path to Enlightenment?

Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa

Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa

NOW: Founder & Head Teacher, Golden Bridge Yoga

THEN: Surfer in Maui

Pre-yoga, I was living on a beach in Maui. I was living a life that was free and easy, surfing, dancing. In 1973, Yogi Bhajan (who brought Kundalini yoga to the U.S.) told me that I was to help deliver nine babies in New Mexico. I started studying with a doctor and midwife who did home births. That summer, I did help deliver the babies; however, I realized that my mission was to help women spiritually to prepare for birth, more so than actually catching the babies.

Forty years ago, I was living with Yogi Bhajan in the Ashram in New Mexico. I was doing a lot of seva (selfless service), cooking, working in the garden, teaching Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan, getting up at 3 a.m. in the morning, living in community. Now I am on the road, traveling around the world about 290 days a year, and teaching.

Also seeL.A. (Yoga) Story: Kundalini Star Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa

Rodney Yee

Rodney Yee

NOW: Co-Director, Urban Zen Integrative Therapy; Co-Owner, Yoga Shanti

THEN: High school gymnast

Forty years ago I was 18, just graduating from high school in Oakland, California and preparing to go to UC Davis. Gymnastics was my sport, and I wanted to continue it in college but not as a competitor. Once at UC Davis, I started taking ballet to deal with my two left feet and my chronic tightness. Fast forward to dropping out of the philosophy department to dance full-time at the Oakland Ballet. I danced professionally for eight years, including a year in Japan.

My bound-up body propelled me into yoga. The Yoga Room in Berkeley and the Iyengar Institute of San Francisco became my home. In 1987, I started the Piedmont Yoga Studio with Richard Rosen, Clare Finn, and Donna Fone, my ex-wife. I was in the 1989 and 1990 Yoga Journal calendar and Yoga Journal’s videos from 1992 on.

In 2003, I fell in love with Colleen Saidman and moved to New York. Together with Donna Karan, we dreamed and created Urban Zen Integrative Therapy, which is the confluence of yoga, essential oil therapy, Reiki, nutrition, and “bearing witness” from the Zen tradition. Along with Colleen’s studio in the Hamptons, we co-own with three other partners Yoga Shanti New York and Yoga Shanti Westhampton Beach. With four gorgeous children, two out of college and two still in, we are teaching everywhere to make ends meet and because we are still so in love with the art of yoga and each other.

Also see Put the Puzzle Back Together

Colleen Saidman Yee

Colleen Saidman Yee

NOW: Founder of Yoga Shanti; Co-Director, Urban Zen Integrative Therapy

THEN: High school track star

Forty years ago, I was 16. I was a track star working at a geriatric home as an activities director. I was also heading down a destructive path with substances and recovering from a skull fracture after being a pedestrian walking down the highway and getting run over by a car. This was a very eventful year for me. Thank God, it is 40 years later and I am writing about it and am alive. I spent the last 18 months writing a book about my life on and off the mat, including my 30-year stint as a globe-trotting fashion model. The book is called Yoga for Life: A Journey to Inner Peace and Freedom.

Today, I am happily married to Rodney Yee. He and yoga are my lifetime companions. We have a bunch of kids between us. I have owned and directed Yoga Shanti Sag Harbor for 17 years, and have since opened two more studios and taken on a few partners, including Rodney. We teach workshops and teacher trainings globally. We also started and direct the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program, which is bringing yoga to patients and caregivers.

Also seeLet It All Go: Colleen Saidman Yee’s 7 Poses to Release Trauma in the Body

Beryl Bender Birch

Beryl Bender Birch

NOW: Founder and Director of The Hard & Soft Yoga Institute, Co-Founder of the Give Back Yoga Foundation

THEN: Ski bunny sports photographer

Forty years ago, 1975, my dog Timber and I had just moved from L.A. to Fraser, Colorado. I was teaching yoga to the Winter Park Ski Patrol and everyone else in town, working as a waitress, traveling as a sports photographer on the Coors Colorado Pro (skiing) Tour and the World Pro Skiing Tour, and skiing (obviously).

Today, [I’m] busy with Give Back Yoga Foundation projects (my non-profit, which funds certified yoga teachers to bring yoga and mindfulness techniques to underserved and under-resourced populations), raising money to distribute free copies of my new book, Yoga for Warriors, to veterans, and traveling for our 200- and 500-hour teacher training programs in five different states.

Also seeThe Importance of Yoga for Veterans