February 6, 2013

Cultivating Self-Love: A Book Review of Cyndi Lee’s Memoir.


Photography by Heather Evans Smith

The following is a book review I was invited to write on the recently released ‘May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga and Changing My Mind” by Cyndi Lee.

“Yoga isn’t really about the external activity; It’s about what’s going on inside.” ~ Cyndi Lee

Over the twenty-seven years I have been practicing yoga, I have seen yoga teachers become role models to many on the outside, while secretly harboring destructive weaknesses on the inside. It takes a humble and brave person to admit this. While reading her memoir, May I Be Happy, I found internationally renowned founder of OM Yoga, Cyndi Lee, to be one such brave person.

Cyndi Lee’s book is a courageous and vulnerable narrative of how she rises as a highly demanded yoga teacher, while secretly cultivating a hateful relationship with her own body.

I found the sad irony in this to be a testament of the tendencies in American culture to keep up superficial appearances, at the expense of depth. Substance is sacrificed for form. And that is exactly what Cyndi’s obsession revolves around: her physical form, and the way she has unconsciously been stuck in a pattern of habitually despising it, even while serving as a role model within the international yoga community.

How many times have you wished that your body were different?

At one time or another every single one of us has wished for a younger body or a healthier body, a thinner body or a more beautiful body. Some people even wish for a body of a different race or gender.

Many of our actions stem from these feelings we harbor related to our bodies. We will either participate in activities, or deprive ourselves from activities, based on the kind of relationship we have with our bodies. For some people, their identification with their body becomes so great, that it takes priority over everything else, making their lives miserable, as occurred with Cyndi.

The Bhagavad Gita also begins with such a situation. Because Krishna determines that Arjuna’s deep depression and bewilderment were rooted in his strong bodily identification, the very first lesson that appears in the Bhagavad Gita –yoga’s primary text- is that we are not our bodies. This is the very foundation of yoga philosophy.

Until we develop a spiritually beneficial relationship with our bodies, we are barely dipping our toes into the great ocean that is yoga.

Although yoga history traces back thousands of years, very few first-person accounts of practicing yoga exist. So it is very unusual to have an inside view of what actually goes on in the mind of a yoga practitioner. Paramahasa Yogananda’s famous Autobiography Of A Yogi is quite rare.

It is even more rare to find the voice of a woman sharing peeks into her personal practice. Other than Mira Bhai’s songs, there is practically nothing in this genre. Cyndi Lee’s memoir, May I Be Happy, paves the way for other female practitioners of yoga to record their journeys, ending centuries of silence.

Raised in the 60s as the daughter of a minster and a sexually repressed mother, Cyndi receives no validation for her femininity whatsoever.

And as she enters puberty, she learns to despise her female form, echoing biblical tones that the downfall of humanity came because of a woman’s body.

As I read this part of Cyndi’s memoir, I couldn’t help but think of how this misogynist mindset was imported into India first via Muslim and then British invaders, tainting presentations of yoga, as the mistreatment of females made its way into Indian society. Then, when yoga teachers began flooding the United States back in the sixties, parts of this dishonoring attitude toward women unfortunately made its way across the sea as well.

But Cyndi does not practice a traditional, ancient form of yoga. Instead, she designed her own unique approach to yoga, calling it: “an organic blend of all my practices and interests, which include dance and Buddhist meditation”.

As I hear Cyndi repeatedly obsess over her outfit, graying hair, “belly fat and wobbly butt” while on a pilgrimage to India, (and well over a decade into her yoga practice), I can’t help but suppose that she must have excluded some very important components from her unique approach to yoga.

Before Muslim and British invaders imported their hatred of the flesh into India, yoga practitioners had very friendly relationships with their bodies, respectfully engaging them as instruments in the service of their yoga practice, just as they did the rest of the material creation. All matter –including physical bodies- was seen as neutral energy, until engaged by one who determined its use.

In yoga there are two directions matter can be engaged: in service of Divine Love, or against service of Divine Love. In Sanskrit, this is called yoga and vi-yoga, respectively.

Denying the fact that we are in a body, and neglecting it, is as dangerous as obsessing over our bodies. Yoga stays away from such extremes and asks us to be thankful for the body we have been given.

Like any other ingredient in the universe, our bodies are here to serve our yoga practice. According to a traditional view of yoga, our bodies are here to facilitate that which will connect us with our divine self. That which will further our experience of Divine Love.

This seems to be the missing ingredient in Cyndi’s life: love. She seems to have plenty of it for her yoga students, yet none of it for herself. 

Cyndi represents the 80 percent of women in the U.S. that are dissatisfied with their appearance. And although she teaches her students that “the first thing you look at when making an adjustment in a yoga class is the person”, she constantly neglects her own person, sounding downright abusive toward herself and hateful toward the distorted image she has of her own slender, beautiful body.

“I’ve habitually sewn narrow, unyielding stitches around my definition of a good female body. This tangled up attitude toward myself is isolating and lonely.”

Cyndi invests so much of her worth in how she looks that this creates a barrier between herself and others, including her own husband. Constantly beating herself up for not looking the way she’d like to, Cyndi deprives herself of intimacy. Not only with others but also with herself.

 If our relationship to our bodies is not serving us in our yoga practice, we are stuck at chapter two of yoga’s primary text, the Bhagavad Gita.

But even those who have been reading the Gita, or practicing yoga for decades may have yet to fully make friends with their bodies.

Instead of seeing their body as a gift or a blessing, many see it as a curse, denying it of rest, care, and affection, all in the name of strictly practicing yoga. Yet this is just the opposite of what yoga asks of us.

Krishna tells us in the Gita that yoga is about love, and this includes cultivating a compassionate relationship with our own bodies.

 In Yoga we use our bodies as instruments in the posturing of our consciousness. The two work synergistically. We cannot hate, or neglect our bodies and not expect it to impact our consciousness in a negative way. And the mind is the peacekeeper between the two, as Cyndi realizes way into her yoga career:

 “I was always getting mad at my body but, in fact, my body has been fine. It’s my relationship to my body that is hurting me, and my mind is the real troublemaker.”

The Gita is full of verses about what a troublemaker the mind can be, pulling us in all directions and harder to control than the raging wind. Cyndi’s own approach to controlling her own misbehaving mind does not necessarily revolve around trying to fix it on any particular object, -as yoga traditionally recommends- but rather, on trying to take it off her body.

I found the portrait Cyndi paints of herself in her memoir to be that of an endearing lost duckling with no mother to follow.

Although she belongs to a generation before mine, I couldn’t help but feel maternal affection for her, as if I wanted to teach her to give herself the nourishment she had been depriving herself of for so many decades.

And yet the book is peppered with soothing glimpses into her yoga classes, in which we see Cyndi being very nourishing and loving toward her own students. The huge disconnect here is striking.

It’s only later in her struggles, after a couple of shocking events, that Cyndi finally decides to let herself be vulnerable, stop trying to appear as the perfect yoga teacher, and reach out for the guidance of two wiser women: Louise Hays and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, who, as Krishna does with Arjuna in the Gita, finally point Cyndi’s meditations toward self-love.

Here is where I breathe a sigh of relief as the insecure and unloved little girl within Cyndi, finally begins to integrate with the mature, loving yoga teacher Cyndi is to her students.

Cyndi’s book is an honest and revealing account of a popular yoga teacher lost in labyrinths of self-depreciation, caught in patterns of self-hatred, shattered by unexpected events from an unfaithful husband to surviving an earthquake in Japan, and struck by an epiphany that “being kind to others has to start with being kind to ourselves.”

And so Cyndi’s book, May I Be Happy, ends where the Gita asks that all yoga students to begin: with introspection, with self-reflection, with becoming self-aware and self-loving.

For Om is within our own hearts.

Or, as Cyndi says: “It’s what going on inside.”

 You can have a beautiful body, and enter into perfect yoga postures with it, and amass a huge following of yoga students, but until you add love to the mixture, you will never be happy. And admitting that—once having achieved the status and success in the yoga community that Cyndi has—takes a lot of courage and humility.  This is exactly what Krishna asks Arjuna to develop in the Gita: the courage and vulnerability to let go of fear and feel loved.

According to yoga philosophy, at its core, Cyndi’s fear is the same for all of us: the fear that we are unlovable.

And despite being able to grasp this on an intellectual level—as Cyndi did in her role as yoga teacher—until we communicate it to our emotional core, we continue to just go though the motions, looking good in our asanas on the outside but feeling awful on the inside, disconnected from what’s really going on within.

It is a relief to hear Cyndi realize this after a lifetime of torturing herself. In the end, Cyndi embraces self-compassion, aiming to harmoniously integrate what goes on in her body, with what goes on in her mind, and what goes on in her heart, taking her yoga practice to a whole new level. And taking the reader with her as well, as she gracefully learns to let go of her “I-Hate-My-Body-Drama”, abandons what she calls her “feeling fat comfort zone”, and bravely begins a new phase of her life, in which her body actually becomes a tool for experiencing spiritual happiness:

“This body as the vehicle, the only vehicle that could take me along my spiritual path. I could not get enlightened–or kinder, more compassionate, more stable, truly happy- until I stopped trying to get rid of the body I had.”

So, perhaps this is the most valuable lesson Cyndi communicates: start where you are.

 Without being so intent on changing anything, or fixing anything, or creating any particular kind of external appearance. Start with whatever you have, in whatever kind of body you may be in -be it flexible or stiff, thin or fat, etc- and just relax into it. You are beautiful. You are lovable. And you can’t fully let go of something, until you’ve fully embraced it. Including your own body.

(c) 2013 Catherine Ghosh

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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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