Our story begins, some say, 4,000 years ago when a tradition called yoga originates, in a faraway country called India. 2,500 years ago, another wisdom tradition starts when a young yoga practitioner finally gives up, sits beneath a tree, and discovers a rather scientifc technique for sorting out the human mind—training it to wake up much the way we might train our bodies to open up and strengthen. And then, in the 1970s, both traditions—either weakened or old news in Asia—find their way to a land called the West, where technology and material happiness are everywhere, but wisdom and peace are becoming rarer.
Now, 25 years after Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois brought yoga to our shores, and Trungpa and Suzuki brought Buddhism, there are a few Western-born teachers who are carrying on both traditions. Cyndi Lee is among the few who are able to talk the talk in a way that retains the ancient integrity of yoga and Buddhism, while connecting fully and unpretentiously with the modern West, with the vicissitudes of our daily lives.
Cyndi, the founder of New York City’s iconic Om Yoga studio, is author of Yoga Body, Buddha Mind, OM Yoga in a Box and OM Yoga & Meditation DVD/CD (co-authored with her famous musician/hubbie, David Nichtern).
We talked in her cozy, colorful little office at OM—a vast, homey, bright studio high above Union Square and the Strand Bookstore, where my Uncle use to take me to find cool old F. Scott Fitzgerald and Kerouac books. ~ed.
Waylon H. Lewis for elephant journal: The world is facing a lot of problems. We’re all a little bit crazy, unhappy on some fundamental level. But really, we’re fortunate. What can we do to help with this brief, precious human birth?
Cyndi Lee: Most people are trying to figure out how to get something to eat. We’re lucky. For us more affluent people, we have this feeling: “what can I do with my body and mind?” That’s one attitude. The other is, “Who cares?”
We don’t have to care about “isms,” paths, religion. That may be interesting to me [and] you. But everyone has a body and a mind, and they care about that. They’re either unhappy, uncomfortable, confused, anxious, fat, thin, tired, overstimulated. You can pretend you don’t have a body, but then your body won’t let you pretend you don’t have it. It will start to hurt. Same with your mind.
We’re born, and have to figure out what to do with our lives. At an immediate and super-helpful level, yoga and meditation are skill sets. So, “What do I do with this life?” That’s what Trungpa Rinpoche taught: meditation is a good skill set.
The Dalai Lama was at Radio City Music Hall this weekend. Somebody asked, “What should I do in my daily life?” He said, “To begin your [meditation] practice: sit down and breathe in and out for 20 counts. Rest. Just sit.” That can be huge.
One student [at Om Yoga] said, “I felt my heart beat.” A grown-up woman in her 40s, [and] she’d never felt her heart beat. A sense of vulnerability, connection, intimacy and possibility. It’s another way to relate to your life—grounded, and full of possibility at the same time—just from breathing, feeling your body, working with your mind as it is.
That’s a radical idea—because it’s not about “fixing.” Although Gehlek Rinpoche said in his talk last night that “Dharma” [the Buddhist teachings—“truth”] actually means “to correct.” He was talking about shifting from afflictive, negative patterns to beneficial. Instead of letting your fear, anger, hatred and jealousy ruin your life and run your decisions, you can “correct” or shift that decision. If you do that habitually, it becomes easier.
That’s what we call “Dharma.” It’s practice; yoga, meditation. It’s not about religion. It’s about appreciation of yourself.
ele: This is my first time in New York in two years. I used to come here a lot. I’ve been running around researching for an article I’m doing on “Mindful New York.” I’ve been all over—allll the way over in Brooklyn, crazy.
And I came here [Om Yoga, Cyndi’s yoga studio, named best in NYC in 2007] for yoga yesterday. I hadn’t exercised in a week: I’d visited my grandparents in New Jersey, eaten food divorced from what it originally was for four days.
Cyndi: No prana [life-force].
ele: I watched T.V., we walked to the dining hall, that’s their entire world. They don’t go outside. That way of life is so divorced from the earth and sun…and health, ironically.
Cyndi: My mother lives in a place like that: they do 15 minutes of yoga on chairs and play David [Nichtern & Cyndi]’s album, Drala. They love it.
ele: Then I come into Brooklyn and Manhattan. Coming out of Boulder, Colorado, where it’s so clean, open and active and I exercise every day—finally doing an intense yoga class yesterday, feeling my heart beat for the first time in a week, then doing savasana [final pose in yoga, laying down and fully relaxing]…it was a moment of, “Ohhh. I’m okay, I’m at home in New York, I can handle it.” Feeling at home in this chaos, graffiti and noise.
But I felt sad, because even if elephant continues to grow—our goal is to be the size of Dwell magazine, 350,000 circulation—even then, we’re not going to appeal to the millions of people on the subways or in those senior developments. Yoga and Buddhism has so much to offer, it’s so needed in this, the dark ages [as this era is known in Buddhism]. How can we connect to people who aren’t ever going to do yoga or Buddhism?
Cyndi: When people say to me, “Can you give me advice about starting a yoga studio?,” my advice is, “Don’t.” We don’t need more yoga studios.
We do need more yoga. Instead of making places where people have to come to us; we need to go out. Yesterday I had a meeting with Bosch—a big, big company. They take 17 handpicked executives from the highest tier of their 270,000 world-wide employees and train them in leadership skills— they’re bringing them here for a yoga and meditation class with me and David.
Two completely different examples—high-powered executives in training and my mother at assisted living—but they’re both doing these practices. Bosch asked “What does Om mean?” I said, “It’s a word that moves on our breath, so we remember that there’s a rhythm to our breath, to each other, to our heartbeat—that there’s a rhythm to everything. So in one sound we can hear our own energy: are we hyper? Relaxed? We get a little bio-feedback. We remember that we’re connected to other people—here in the room, and everywhere—and that’s grounding.”
I said, “But we don’t have to say all that for your leadership training, we can dumb it down a bit.” They said, “Oh, no, no. We want them to have the real yoga.”
ele: The Om chant: you’re referring to that moment in the beginning of each class—
Cyndi: —where we sing or chant Ommmmmmmmmmm.
What could be more weird and culty, something that people might not want to do? But if we deconstruct any of these practices down to their essence, there’s something meaningful and useful. Otherwise, there’d be no reason to do them!
That’s what happened to you. You came and did savasana: “I feel at home.” The whole idea of [yoga and meditation] practices is that you find a real and intimate place of connection with yourself. That gives you confidence. It’s a paradigm shift. Instead of relying on externals for your safety, you shift your reference points to what’s going on inside. That’s empowering because you can relate to it. I can’t change my president right now—I can’t change a lot of scary stuff. But I can work with my own mind, my own body—and that’s a start.
I forgot the question, but I’m good at blabbing.
ele: How is this yoga and Buddhist stuff relevant to a world that’s going through poverty or speed or craving? Your answer was, “Everyone has a mind and a body.”
Cyndi: When Gehlek Rinpoche came here, he gave a talk on “Om.” He broke [the syllables] down: Ahh…ooh…umm.
Om is the union of body, speech and mind. There’s sayings like, “I feel pulled in a million different directions,” or “I’m running around like a chicken with my head cut off.” Right? We don’t feel that union a lot. Chanting or meditation practices are ways to experience that integration, as Mr. Iyengar [the living-legend Indian founder of Iyengar yoga] calls it. We feel disintegrated a lot.
We affluent people with high-minded goals—being helpful to our environment, helping create peace in the world—have to start with ourselves. The Dalai Lama talked about his main commitments: one of them is to work for world harmony. And he said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe in this power of prayer. Just pray, pray, pray…and hope?” He said, “You have to work for it!,” and he raised his fists in the air.
You start working for peace with your own mind and your own body. It would have been fun to be about six inches taller and have really long legs and big boobs and long, blonde hair, but it didn’t happen. Whatever issue it is, you make peace with the body you have, make peace with the parents you have, with the talents you have and don’t have. Start with your own mind and body—make friends with yourself. The Dalai Lama said that because we all want to be happy the seed for compassion for other people is naturally cultivated. First you have to get to know yourself.
[Leroy returns] You want to come up here buddy? Jump!
ele: How do we make friends with Leroy?
Cyndi: It’s almost impossible not to—he’s adorable and irresistible. Come here, Mr. Brown. Leroy is a bodhisattva [helps others to wake up]. He’s like pure bodhicitta [basic goodness]: when I walk down the street, people start smiling, laughing: “That dog is so happy!” Anyway. It’s a paradigm shift: be brave enough to take a look at who you are.
ele: “You look at who you are.” What does that mean?
Cyndi: You have to sit down; slow down; feel what you feel without censoring or judging it. There aren’t many situations where we are taught to do that.
Even our parents don’t do that. They either say, “You’re wonderful,” or, “Why aren’t you doing better?” They don’t usually say, “Can you just accept yourself as you are?” And then you go to school and you’re judged. So the idea is to slow way, way down and get into some environment like the way we teach yoga here, where I tell people all the time, you can’t make a mistake.
Now, between me and you, you can make a mistake in yoga.
ele: I won’t tell anyone.
Cyndi: Don’t. My job is to make sure you learn in a supportive environment where everybody is invited to feel whatever they feel and stay with that. The first thing that people find out when they connect to their feelings: feelings change. That’s huge, right there, a big relief. Often we don’t realize that, so we freak out. Then, you start to recognize patterns, and you can work with them.
Yoga is great because everything happens in yoga. It’s all in your body. All of your emotions are stuck in your cells, so a lot of stuff comes up. Type A people are going to go, “My knee hurts but I’m going to keep going, damn it!” I had a guy who was so desperate to touch his toes. I say: “Here’s a belt. Bend your knee…but I can touch my toes, and it’s not making me happier than you.” [Laughs] I did whatever I could to cut through his craving to touch his toes. I’m like, “Look, this isn’t that thrilling. Big deal!” And he didn’t believe me. Later, he got injured in a gym, and he couldn’t exercise at all.
So he decided to meditate, and the whole thing changed. Being able to watch your mind while you work with your body is practical, and you might not get injured! “What am I feeling in my body? In my mind?” Whatever it is, it’s interesting. It’s not good. It’s not bad.
Have you ever been close to somebody, but you don’t know if you’re in love with them…you might kiss them or they might kiss you, you smell their breath—
Cyndi: It’s neither here nor there. You have to decide if you want to kiss them or not. Did that ever happen? You probably kiss everybody, just in case.
ele: No, yeah.
Cyndi: Okay, well nevermind that example. Anyway.
ele: You are one of the few people—like Tias Little, who we just interviewed—who combine a genuine understanding and practice of Buddhism and yoga. The two may seem similar to your casual American observer: Buddhism and yoga are both Eastern, both seem new-agey or hippie—but one is focused on how to be happy and make friends with yourself and your mind—and one is, in its Western incarnation, more physical.
Cyndi: It’s all about making friends with ourselves. If we could all be happy with ourselves, or at least genuine in whatever situation—whether we liked a person or not, we could be comfortable being with that person. Maybe that’s enlightenment, I don’t know. In my Buddhist classes my teacher [says], “Desire isn’t a bad thing—because if you have a desire for enlightenment, then that’s your motivation.”
“I want to be enlightened, reach samadhi or be blissful,” as if it’s this unchanging thing? I don’t know what enlightenment is—but it could be where you are spontaneous and meet whatever comes to you with an open and grounded heart and mind. And so that’s what we’re practicing. Not, “Ahh, I’m so open, I’m so comfortable, I’m sooo not obsessed with myself right now.” [Laughter]
Our potential is waiting, all the time. These practices help us recognize and then sustain that presence a little bit longer. I have confidence in these techniques and methods, and I feel grateful that I’ve learned them.
Sometimes people talk about these things, but they don’t have any way to connect—to practice how to get there. We wouldn’t teach a headstand by just saying “Feel a headstand.” There are methods and techniques. And I forgot what the question was again. [Laughs]
ele: Because you answered it. Whenever you answer a question, it’s gone.
Cyndi: Oh, it dissolves!
ele: You’re a pro at teaching meditation to people like the Bosch executives, or at Yoga Journal conferences. How do you teach meditation in a non-religious, non-“ism” way?
Cyndi: The basic technique is: you start with your body. Get the body organized, because that’s the container. Of course we know that the mind is not contained by the body. The mind is not contained by anything—it has no boundary and it has no center. But we start with the body anyway, because if your body is out of whack, then you’ll have one sensation hogging your mind.
Basic meditation instruction: sit quietly. Get your [posture] organized. Sit on a chair, it doesn’t matter. You can sit on a cushion. You might need to sit on two or three cushions: you want to have your knees lower than your hips—otherwise you [slump], and you can’t breathe. You need an uplifted vibe.
ele: And if, say, your knee’s hurting, you can—
Cyndi: Put a cushion under there, yup. So then, you begin to notice that you’re breathing. And you place your mind on the breath. This is one of the hardest things for yoga people, especially if they are ujjayi [heavy yogic breathing] breathers used to pumping the breath, or if they do a lot of pranayama [breath meditation]—because they are closely related sister practices. Pranayama is about the breath; meditation is about the mind. So try to keep the breath natural, though it changes because of what’s called the Heisinger Principle: anything you look at changes because you’re looking at it. Still, we just try to keep [the breath] natural.
And that’s the homebase for your mind. Of course [your focus] could be a picture of the Dalai Lama or your poodle or a flickering flame. But here we pay attention to the sensation of the breath that you can feel at your chest, your belly or your nose. When you realize that you’re thinking you come back to the breath. A big thing that people think is, “I’m not supposed to think”—so over and over and over and over and over we remind them: it’s about letting go and coming home, letting go and coming home. That’s what you did in savasana.
You came home. And when you come home, you come home to yourself, a body and a mind. Thoughts and feelings. And this is a practice of letting go of thoughts and, to start, staying with feelings.
That’s step one. There are many more layers. So I didn’t say Buddha, I don’t say, “bliss,” “God,” “love,” “hate,” “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” “upper,” “higher,” “lower,” “sacred,” “divine,” nothing like that. It’s just your mind, right now.
ele: Just practical, ordinary.
Cyndi: Yeah. One time in Memphis, a student from a fundamental Christian family from Alabama was afraid of yoga. She truly thought “Maybe it’s a devil thing,” and the devil would come inside her. We said, “Yoga is just working with your mind, whatever religion you have. If you’re praying, this is a way to keep focused on your prayer.”
ele: Right. Instead of getting distracted.
Cyndi: She’s living in an ashram now. [Laughter]
ele: She took to meditation?
Cyndi: She traded in fundamental Christianity for, I think, a fundamental Hindu thing.
ele: That comes back to the subway or senior development. The world as we’ve created it is producing global warming, the whole thing is out of sync. Meditation is this practical, ordinary tool—you can just breathe 20 times, like the Dalai Lama said, call it a morning and then go to work.
Cyndi: These guys from Bosch, they were saying that the people in their leadership training will be in flight simulators before they come study with me. Fake planes. It’s part of learning to make split-second decisions.
Their people will be stressed out when they come here, and they think that [studying yoga] is going help them make split-second decisions, undistracted by fear, hope, drama and storyline. What happens if you can focus your mind? You can go with your intuition, your gut. Those are powerful tools.
ele: We’re here at Om Yoga: you have four big yoga rooms.You have teacher trainings. Thousands of people have come through here—it feels like a real engine of renewal to me.
Cyndi: That’s a great motto. [Laughs]
ele: So what was my question?
Cyndi: Here we are!
ele: Hello. Oh yeah: a question on this yoga-body half of the buddha-mind equation. Physical exercise is important. In New York people walk everywhere, so that’s great. But in a lot of places people don’t. What is the importance of relating with our body, as a part of the body-speech-mind thing?
Cyndi: Remember the question: “Where does one end and the next one begin?” Can you draw a line between your body and your mind? Can you draw a line between your body and your breath? Can you draw a line between your breath and your mind? Not really. They’re fluid boundaries.
Your body is in decay if you’re over the age of 25—I’m sorry, it’s true. It’s sad, but it is what it is: all of life is a vinyasa [flow of movement]—arising, dissolving. You’re arising until you’re about 25, then you abide, then you dissolve and you’re dead. And then, if you believe in reincarnation, you arise again.
If your body is neglected, it will affect your mind. If your feet hurt, you won’t want to walk anywhere, which shrinks your possibilities. If you have bad posture, it’s going to affect your breathing capacity and the muscle of your heart, and you get depressed. It’s interactive. Everybody, across the board, cheers up when they exercise.
ele: Like with the British military—they do their 10 minutes of calisthenics every morning—is there some basic little routine that everyone can do no matter how busy they are, even if they’re not flexible, every morning?
Cyndi: I have a book on yoga with a five-minute practice. You can even do a five-second practice: before you get out of bed, take five deep breaths. What I’ve found is I have so much resistance, even though I’m a yoga teacher, I hardly ever feel like doing yoga or anything, except drinking a chai on the couch with my dog and reading a murder mystery, or knitting.
Yet I have found that if I can say “Okay, I’m just going to take five deep breaths,” after those deep breaths I feel like doing a downward dog. That’s working with my mind. And if I force my mind to work with my body even for five breaths, then it shifts my mind and I feel like working with my body. It’s interrelated.
Think of these categories: forward bend, backward bend, side bend, twist and inversion. If you do those five things, that’s a practice. Now, to make it even easier for people, downward dog [hands and feet on floor, butt in air like a big upside-down “L”] is a forward bend, backward bend and an inversion, because the head is lower than the hips. And in downward dog, if you put your left hand on the outside of your right leg and do the other way, you’ve got a twist. Then you can either stand up or sit down and do a side bend. And you’re done. We can think of down dog as a back bend. “Backbend” is a misnomer. It should be called “backward-bending” or “opening the front body.” Bringing your arms up—what happens in your shoulders, chest and upper back—is a back-bending action. So downdog can be a backbend and a forward bend because it’s opening up your hamstrings and your low back. Then put that twist in there, relax your neck, sit down and take 10 deep breaths. Do a side bend and take 10 deep breaths. There’s your yoga practice.
ele: If everyone would do those five breaths, or 20 breaths, or five minutes of meditation and then one down dog and a twist—that would be huge.
Cyndi: Your grandparents can do a variation of down dog, too, just sitting in their chairs. Lift one leg up—maybe only a couple of inches—and reach your arms up in the air. That’s the same shape as a down dog. Then switch sides. Put that leg and [two arms] down. And then put the other leg and two arms up, making the same sort of L.
ele: Do you have to get your arms behind your head?
Cyndi: No. Whatever you can do. It’s movement, circulation. We taught my mom meditation: when your mind strays and you feel disturbed, come back to your breath. She loves it. She’d been having a hard time sleeping. And so David sat next to her-—he’s 100 times bigger than her—so she feels really safe with him. And he said, “Close your eyes, Millie. Breathe in, two, three; breathe out, two, three.” She fell asleep.
That’s called the bouncing breath, the calming breath. It brings you into balance, equalizing your inhale and exhale. Anybody can do that.
ele: You’re touching on what I’m trying to get at: we don’t really care about this yoga and Buddhist stuff; [fundamentally] it’s about how do you fall asleep? Are you friends with yourself? Are you healthy?
Cyndi: There’s no reason to do it if it’s not practical. In my humble opinion, what’s the point? Life is too short. If I’m going to do something unpractical, I’m going to go have lunch with my girlfriends and eat chocolate. I mean, right? Something more fun.
But practice makes you feel better, gives you skills, opens your heart. You can get a tight butt, an open heart and a clear mind in 90 minutes in a yoga class.
ele: There’s the title of our conversation.
Cyndi: There’s something for everyone there! These are practices that are useful. Think about the traditional [three stages of the path] ground-path-fruition. What is the ground? Start where you are, with your mind as it is.
Okay. The path? Gom, or familiarization. Shamata or Shiné [meditations], and yoga, pranayama—these are practices of getting familiar with yourself.
The fruition of meditation: strength, stability and clarity of the mind. The fruition of yoga? Strength, stability, clarity of body.
Sometimes people come to me and say, “My husband won’t come to yoga…I think I have to dump him.” Or, “I could never have a boyfriend that’s not a yogi.” I tell them that my husband does not ever, ever, do yoga—and they’re confused.
It’s not about doing yoga. It’s about the mind-set. My husband is a meditator. Trungpa Rinpoche, Gehlek Rinpoche, His Holiness [the Dalai Lama]—my teachers—that’s what they talk about. They’re practical. Buddhism is super-practical. When you get into being a Vajrayana [final stage of Tibetan Buddhism] practictioner, there’s ornate visualizations and all…but still, what’s it about? Mind training.
Meditation is asana practice for the mind. People think it should be easy? Nobody thinks that yoga is easy, at first. If they start to sweat and quiver, they go, “Well, yeah? Maybe it’s hard and I’m feeling resistance to it, I’m sweating and quivering, but that’s what I’m here for: I’m getting strong.”
But then in meditation, it’s “Oh, I thought this was supposed to be peaceful, chill!”
ele: You feel crazier!
Cyndi: A lot of yogis say, “I didn’t realize what my mind was like! I’m disturbed, I want to move, I’m not doing it right. I can’t do it. I can’t sit still. This is for other people.”
I say, “This is awesome for your mind.” It’s like push-ups: [when you notice a thought, you say] thinking, and come back [to the breath], thinking, and come back. It takes exertion. It takes commitment. And then it takes letting go.
Any worthwhile relationship takes exertion, commitment and letting go. I could make a million bucks if I could write that book. Oprah would be all over that, man. Exertion, commitment and letting go. Letting go but not leaving. How to let him go, without letting him leave.
ele: Not my area of specialty.
Cyndi: Really, we need to work on that. I got a couple of friends here—
ele: I’m fine.
Cyndi: If you move here. We’ll get you hooked up.
ele: Find me an apartment, that’s what I want.
Cyndi: Oh, it’s much harder to find an apartment than a girlfriend.
ele: Well, maybe I get a girlfriend, then I can get a couch.
In this speedy, materialistic world, we work all day to make money and accomplish things that are supposed to make us happy. [But] happiness is caused by slowing down and waking up, like with Om’s tokonoma [a hall alcove in which uplifting objects are placed, in order to stop one’s attention].
Cyndi: You can set up your whole environment that way. Since I made these beautiful cushions and I got this incredibly red couch, I’m not just sitting over [at my desk] being on my computer and phone.
It’s good if you can take a break and rest your mind. And it’s hard. The middle path is hard. It’s a lot easier to be an extremist: pick one thing and that’s it: “I’m only red.“ How can you stop eating too much sugar? If you’re me, you have to just stop. “No more sugar whatsoever, it’s too addictive.” But the middle path is not just working all day and then collapsing in a heap at the end of the day—it’s finding rest within each activity, finding wakefulness within the exhaustion. That’s what yoga is about: that’s tadasana [mountain] and savasana [corpse pose], the bookends of yoga practice. Tadasana: coming to attention. Savasana: letting go. Every pose includes an awake energy, coming to attention—but you still let go, drop into the earth.
That practice is how we can find a sense of letting go, slowing down and waking up in the actions of real life. These are practices for your life. It’s challenging. I mean, I can go blah, blah, blah about it, but really I get all twisted up on my email and the phone, too. I’m running a business. But the more that I practice, the more I remember.
ele: You have this business, an office and staff. I have full-time staff, now, and a bunch of part-time—and I’m going crazy, all I think about is work. I enjoy it, mostly. I want to thank you for just sitting down on the couch with us.
Cyndi: Om was 10 years old this January. Last year, when I saw you at the Yoga Journal Conference, you asked me, “What do you do to be helpful?” I think you were looking for, “I work for this organization or charity,” or something.
ele: It’s the bodhisattva question: what are we doing, as Allen Ginsberg put it, “To ease the pain of living?”
Cyndi: I’ve thought about that question a lot, since then—I found that to be provocative. Now that we’re at this 10-year point, I have this incredible feeling…I can think of a lot of people that have come through here and done amazing things. I feel like this has been a worthy endeavor.
We actually [support] the Libby Ross Foundation for Breast Cancer. We have Yoga for Breast Cancer Patients every week; a retreat for them every year. We raise money for a home that women and children can move to in Nepal. We’ve raised money for the Tibetan elder’s village. We’re raising money for [a] nunnery.
But just having a yoga studio—keeping this place open and going, it’s a real Dharma community, it helps a lot of people—I feel good about that. I forget that, and get wrapped up in the business of it. You should feel that way, too, with your magazine. It’s planting seeds, making a meaningful difference. Anything like that is worthy.
ele: Well, it’s a profound notion, in Buddhism and many traditions: right livelihood. You don’t just do your work and then dedicate five percent to some good cause, which is great—but your livelihood [itself] is to produce merit for all sentient beings. Whatever it may be. If you’re a travel agent, you want to help people travel—
Cyndi: You’ve taken the Bodhisattva vow [to help others before oneself]. That’s the whole reason David and I got married—we dedicated our marriage to that. That’s what it’s all about.