I can’t remember when I first heard of Cyndi Lee, used her DVD or read one of her books on Vinyasa. I have been in the yoga world since 1997 and when the opportunity came to me to interview Cyndi and read her new book, May I Be Happy, I was nothing short of thrilled!
Cyndi gives us a window into her life through her book, to see not only how we are but who we can be. The conversation is open, candid and reveals the depth of her personal practice. She teaches. She practices yoga. She meditates. She is a Buddhist. And like most women, she struggles with what she looks like when she sees her reflection.
In this interview, she shares why she wrote her book, and gives us permission to not only ask the same questions but by sharing her path, helps us find our own. ~ Edie Lazenby
EL: So you just published a new book.
EL: And from what I gather, it began out of your own desire to find inner balance and peace of sorts.
CL: The initial inspiration and motivation for the book arose out of my realization that I was constantly torturing myself with negative criticism toward my body and I wanted to change that.
EL: Did the book help with that process?
CL: The process of writing the book definitely helped. I’m good with assignments and projects and so I set this up as a puzzle that I wanted to solve; I understood that I was creating my own suffering because I am a Dharma student and I realized that other women had the same issue and so it was an effort to help us all become more self-compassionate.
EL: I see. Can I ask—because so many women have eating disorders—was that part of it? Or just the self-loathing we all know?
CL: For me, it was just that way-too-familiar self-loathing that we all know. I had a little awakening moment when I realized one day that this constant self-loathing was my personal form of “suffering,” which is what I know of as the First Noble Truth.
EL: Ah…so tell me about your Buddhist practice—and did you take the vows?
CL: I have been studying and practicing with Gelek Rimpoche since the late 80s. I’ve taken Bodhisattva vows with him and have been initiated into numerous practices, i.e., Vajrayogini, White Tara, Yamantaka…
EL: Oh my, sounds esoteric!
CL: I am also a Shambhala person and have gone through Shambhala training through Warriors Assembly and Kalapa Assembly. Yes, it sounds esoteric, but it really always boils down to love and compassion. That’s the main teaching.
EL: And how does this play into your life as a writer and yogi?
CL: The Buddhist view is the framework for my whole life, at this point in time. So the notion of the Four Noble Truths is very much in the front of my mind. I never thought I was suffering in my life—good parents, nice friends, no worries really—but then I realized that I was creating my own suffering with this mean inner voice; and that it was making me too tough and judgmental toward others. And, I also realized I could change it, which is Noble Truth number three.
EL: How did the writing change it—because I love the title of the book, what we all want really is to be happy.
CL: The book was almost written in real time, if you know what I mean. After I had this understanding I decided to try to rewire myself by 1) talking to other women who might give my guidance, and 2) through my dharma practice. So I interviewed Jamie Lee Curtis, Louise Hay and Christiane Northrup and I talked to my mom.
And I also tried to change my mind, not my body. First attempt was through mindfulness meditation.
EL: How often do you meditate?
CL: Almost every day.
EL: I love the women you chose…what about them made you choose them?
CL: I love Christiane Northrup and really wanted to hear what she had to say about this topic. The original title of the book was I Hate My Body, so I began the interviews by saying that. She said to me, yes! That is the main problem—women hate their own flesh!
Then I wanted to talk to Louise Hay because I wanted to turn this negativity into positivity and who better than the mother of affirmations herself?
Jamie is a friend and I know that she has struggled with weight, been known as a physical goddess who has pressures and she also let her hair go grey, which is totally radical in Hollywood.
EL: I see—and your mom?
CL: Well, of course, I had to talk to my mom, because isn’t this attitude part of our inheritance from our moms? And the other thing is that during the process of writing the book, my mom had some strokes, then was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and then dementia. She went from walking to bedridden and to total dementia, so that is part of the story—about how her body dissolved.
EL: Oh my! What an incredible story and foil for the writing. I love you said changed your mind…
CL: Yes, that was one of my early revelations. This problem of hating one’s body is not going to be solved by getting thinner or fitter or anything like that. Because I have been thinner and fitter and less thin and less fit and it’s always just there, that nagging voice. And all kinds and shapes of women have it. So we need to work with our mind—refocus the view there.
EL: Yes. And yoga in our culture is so physical…asana based. In your book you define vinyasa, “to place in a special way…”
CL: Yep, that is so true. But there are a lot of good, deep yoga teachers as well. And yoga can be great for body image if you have the right mental approach. To place in a special way is the translation of the word, vinyasa. So this is also about placing our mind in a special way which is shamatha.
EL: I see…
CL: Yes, yoga teachers have a lot of pressure in this area.
CL: You just figured out what it took me awhile to understand. Somebody told me recently love is the best plastic surgery.
EL: And you say vinyasa is arising, abiding dissolving…is breath, spanda, dealing with life really…I love that.
CL: Thank you. Yes, I have started to see everything as a vinyasa or a part of a vinyasa and that is about impermanence, too. For me, this helps me cultivate gratitude for what is and to let go and relax with things as they are. But the love aspect is the ground for all that—it is what helps reduce fear. The negative attitude comes from fear—I won’t be loved, accepted, etc.
EL: They say fear cannot live where there’s love.
CL: I think that is true, yes.
EL: The anonymous they.
CL: Those guys. But once I started doing the maitri for myself I felt more love and then became more loving.
EL: I see…like Metta?
CL: Same thing; I did it for others for years but never of thought of doing it for myself. And that is the issue right there—we are better at helping others and leave ourselves and our own needs out of the story.
EL: Especially as teachers I think. Who is Tenzin Palmo? I should know, probably.
CL: She is a British woman who became a Buddhist nun—you can read her story in Cave in the Snow. I told her story a little bit on my book, too. She is the other person I consulted with along with CN, LH and JLC and my mom.
EL: I see. And you still work with your Buddhist teacher today?
CL: Yes, I am very close to Gelek Rimpoche. I will be going on Vajrayana retreat with him in two weeks for two weeks.
EL: Wow! What is a Vajrayana retreat?
CL: Vajrayana is sort of the more advanced practice of Tibetan Buddhism. But I am also loving reading Sakyong’s Running with the Mind of Meditation and somehow, miraculously, I have taken up running.
EL: Oh my! I cannot run…
CL: I run super slow.
EL: Anything else you want to add or talk about? I started your book—it’s very accessible and I think a topic we all understand.
CL: The maitri for one self is so powerful—you can just say any of those four slogans whenever you want. If you feel like you are going into a negative spiral, just stop right then and say to yourself May I be happy.
If you are in a relationship that is not so good for you anymore, you can say May I be safe.
I did this and it got me out of a lot of old bad habit and really cheered me up, helped me learn to care for myself in a healthy way and helped me find true love.
EL: I see—I will try it, for sure.
CL: This process for me was, as you say, ultimately about the heart. Mindfulness meditation really helps us become aware of our storylines and gives us a method for letting go.
But that is really step one.
Gelek Rimpoche teaches that our spiritual development goes like this: purifying, neutralizing and then accumulating. So, it is purifying negative tendencies, then resting in a gap and that is just what we practice in shamatha. Then, we need to accumulate positivity and that is what the maitri can do .
So, I hope everyone will read my book and get inspired to try it! And one important point: this is not a selfish thing, to care for one self. It doesn’t mean you can’t care for others, too. You can do both better because you are coming from a ground of self-love which is the template for love and compassion for all. Does that make sense?
EL: Yes! Can you explain the Shamatha for me?
CL: Shamatha is basic mindfulness meditation.
You sit up on a cushion. Place your attention on the sensation of your breath as it moves out and in your nostrils. Regular breathing, nothing manipulated.
When your mind strays and you realize you have gotten caught in a thought, that’s no problem! You simply acknowledge that by saying to yourself, “thinking,” in a gentle way and then return your attention to your breath as the home base for your mind.
This is how we can practice letting go of negativity and resting in a gap. It is a way to create a gap or pause between stimuli and response.
EL: I see…know process, not name. Sounds great—and I’m excited to read the book.
CL: Shamatha is Sanskrit for Calm Abiding.
Cyndi Lee is a Buddhist, Yogi and writer. She started with dance and that led her to yoga, which she sees as a personal practice. The effect of the practice—awareness, friendliness, compassion—leak out into life and create templates for relationship, but it always starts with the body, breath and mind. It is about creating imprints, readjusting neurological patterning, creating positive habits. Cyndi created OM Yoga, a studio that embodies a style of yoga she developed to share what it brought to her life, where she teaches students and trains teachers to share a practice of flowing yoga asanas informed by precise attention to alignment while supported by the relaxed wakefulness of Buddhist mindfulness meditation. Through all the growth and change of the studio (and the yoga world) that happened since she started OM yoga, one phrase—”How Can I Be Helpful?”—drives the behavior of all her teachers and staff.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
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