It's an epiphany Yee has witnessed thousands of times. An ancient Indian discipline involving a series of poses that fosters the union of mind, body and spirit, yoga is white-hot, now practiced by some 15 million people in the U.S. Yee, 44, is leading the charge. He stars in 18 bestselling yoga videos and, along with Moore, counts Mariel Hemingway and designer Donna Karan among his devotees. When he isn't teaching the more than 1,000 students enrolled at his Oakland studio (90-minute classes cost $15), Yee is giving workshops worldwide. Last year, after he appeared on Oprah, his Living Yoga: A.M./P.M. Yoga video set replaced Gladiator as Amazon.com's top seller.
All of which makes it impossible for the guy to go incognito. "It's difficult to have a private conversation in a restaurant now," says Donna Fong, 42, Yee's wife of 17 years, with whom he has three children—Evan, 11, Adesha, 9, and Johanna, 5—and shares a four-bedroom house in Oakland. The spotlight won't dim anytime soon. Last month Yee released his first book, Yoga: The Poetry of the Body. The how-to tome's photos of a buff Yee prove why TIME magazine last year referred to him as the "stud muffin guru." "I don't mind being called a stud muffin," he says. "But I don't like being called a guru. I'm not a guru. I'm a teacher."
At least one of his celeb yoga students concurs. "He's not just a good yoga teacher, he's a great one," says Karan, who studies twice a year in Yee's workshops. Last year, when Karan's husband, artist Stephan Weiss, died, Yee helped her cope using the yogic principle of focusing on the present. "He works with the mind and the spirit so brilliantly," Karan says. Adds Hemingway: "Rodney helps me tap into my own ability to be humble. He's so renowned and yet he remains so approachable."
Students new to yoga and Yee's classes needn't twist themselves into pretzels to reap their own benefits. He encourages beginners to work within their limits. He also uses English, rather than just the traditional Sanskrit terms, for poses. "He has," says Yoga Journal editor Kathryn Arnold, "demystified yoga for our culture."
That doesn't mean Yee popped out of the womb in full lotus position. The youngest of four children born in Altus, Okla., to Chinese-American parents, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Albert Yee, now 83, and his homemaker wife, Evelyn, 86, Rodney started gymnastics at 12, after his family relocated to Oakland. At the University of California, Berkeley, he took up ballet and loved it so much that in 1978 he dropped out to join the Oakland Ballet. "You can imagine what my father thought," says Yee.
A desire to improve his flexibility led Yee to try yoga in 1980. "After my first class, I couldn't believe how good I felt," he says. He met Fong at a college picnic that same year, and they began taking classes together. After marrying, the pair eventually journeyed to Pune, India, to study for nine weeks with famed yogi B.K.S. Iyengar. Back home, they rented studio space and opened the Piedmont Yoga Studio in 1987. Yee made his first video five years later. "At that time," he says, "nobody thought you could make a career out of yoga."
Yee's career has evolved into an empire. With his video sales profits, Yee and Fong are moving the studio into their own 10,000-sq.-ft. building in Oakland in March. His next goal? Teaching in China, the land of his heritage. "Bringing yoga to China would be great," he says. "But really, I go anywhere and teach anyone who needs me."
Alison Singh Gee in Oakland