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Meet the Founders of the Urban Zen Foundation

This game-changing trio is transforming the way patients and health care providers are treated. Learn more about the Urban Zen Foundation and their impact.

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Colleen, Rodney and Colleen, Urban Zen

This game-changing trio is transforming the way patients and health care providers are treated. Sign up now to join Saidman Yee for a 12-week online course to help you reduce stress and find inner peace. Then practice in person with the Yees at YJ LIVE! Colorado, Sept 22–25.

The Urban Zen Foundation, the New York–based wellness nonprofit founded by fashion designer Donna Karan, could be considered her lotus flower moment: a vibrant, flourishing creation born of mud—of her own, her friends’, and her family’s suffering. Over the past several decades, Karan has had loved ones pass away due to illness, and in 2001, she lost her husband, Stephan Weiss, after his seven-year battle with lung cancer. “During Stephan’s treatment, we saw firsthand that the ‘care’ was missing in health care,” says Karan. “You have to treat the whole patient, not just the disease. And you also have to take care of the doctors and nurses, as they are part of the story. They are heroes and need care every bit as much.”

Around the time of her husband’s death, Karan turned to yoga teacher Colleen Saidman Yee for guidance in practicing what Karan calls “grief yoga.” “We’ve been in touch daily since,” says Saidman Yee. Karan met Rodney Yee separately through a friend, and shared with the Yees her husband’s dying wish to help care for doctors and nurses. The Yees began to plot and plan. In 2007, they set up a wellness forum in NYC with Karan and asked providers for input. “They told us they were overworked and couldn’t serve [as well as they’d like] because the humanness had been taken out of health care,” says Yee. And yet, the desire to make care better, more holistic, and more patient-centered was strong: “The doctors voiced their support in droves,” says Saidman Yee. Months later, the Yees and Karan launched the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT) program, designed to deliver care for patients and providers using healing modalities like yoga, Reiki, essential-oil therapy, mindfulness exercises, and contemplative end-of-life care. Two years later, in 2009, the Yees launched the UZIT teacher training program to expand these offerings nationwide.

See alsoRodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee: The Meaning of Mudras

donna karan

UZIT-trained therapists work in a wide range of settings, from hospitals to rehab centers to senior-care and hospice facilities across the United States (next year, training will launch in South Africa). And anyone can take a drop-in stress-management class with a UZIT instructor at a local yoga studio. As for UZIT’s impact, it’s quantifiable: In 2011, a version of UZIT called the Optimum Healing Environment program was introduced in collaboration with Dr. Woodson Merrell and Beth Israel Medical Center in NYC. Doctors found that the protocol resulted in significant decreases in pain, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, constipation, and exhaustion for patients, as well as a decrease in the need for medication for these symptoms. And at the Wexner Heritage Village in Columbus, Ohio—a senior-living center and hospice where UZIT has been in place since 2013—an analysis by the center and Urban Zen found that residents’ pain levels were reduced and that patient satisfaction (defined by behaviors like smiling, appearing less agitated, and closing their eyes) rose steeply. UZIT has also introduced an East Meets West program to the UCLA medical system. “Overall, more than 700 caregivers have been UZIT trained at varying levels,” says Karan.

The Urban Zen Foundation has two other main goals in addition to the UZIT program: to help communities preserve cultural and spiritual values, with the Haiti Artisan Project; and to work with programs in local communities, both in the United States and abroad, to empower children through education, nutrition, and yoga. The foundation just launched an initiative in Haiti that provides yoga to 250 kids per week in various orphanages, hospitals, and schools.

See alsoElena Brower’s 10-Minute Yoga Nidra to Alleviate Stress

As for Karan, she’s long practiced what she preaches: She’s been an avid yogi since she was a teenager, and says the Yees, in particular, have taught her that “yoga is not about getting your leg over your head, but about being present on your mat so you can be more present in your life.” Adds Karan, “When I’m on the mat, I can’t think of anything but the pose at hand. It’s grounding and clarifying.”

Learn more about the 13 other Good Karma winners.