The Buddhist Yogi: An Interview with Cyndi Lee

“Falling out of balance doesn’t matter, really and truly. How we deal with that moment and how we find our way back to center, every day, again and again—that is the practice of yoga. . . . It’s about trusting that you will find your way.” —Cyndi Lee

True to her own words, former owner of Om Yoga in New York City, featured teacher on Yoga International, and author of three books, including the critically acclaimed May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind, Cyndi Lee is not afraid to reinvent herself. Recently ordained as a Buddhist chaplain at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this influential and soulful yoga teacher embraces transformation and encourages her students to reflect on their own resilience and their potential to deepen it.

I sat down with her recently at Yoga Journal LIVE in New York to dive into her path to ordination, her thoughts on how yoga is practiced today, and her commitment to the middle path. I also took her workshops on resilience practices and “rediscovering” sun salutations.

What inspired you to become ordained as a lay Buddhist chaplain?

In one way, I could honestly say I don’t know. I met a man at a retreat at Upaya prior to the training I did and we just hit it off. At the end of the weekend he said, “Why don't you sign up for chaplaincy training with me?” I wasn’t interested initially, but then I was. It came up for me again and again, so I decided to do it. That guy did not take the training and I haven’t seen him again, except on Facebook. . . . Somehow he was the catalyst, like an angel.

I realize now, with a little more perspective, that my move away from New York City precipitated the decision. In 2012, my marriage of 18 years ended and my studio’s 10-year lease was ending, and I met someone who became my boyfriend, which was the last thing I was looking for!

Eventually I moved in with him in Ohio and then central Virginia, where we are now. So I was really like, “What the hell am I doing?” It was traumatic in a way. I was a hardcore New Yorker, and it was so quiet and the food was terrible, and there I was saying to myself, “Where am I? What am I doing? What is my purpose?” And I turned 60! My boyfriend, who is now my husband, offered me a retreat as a present, and I remembered that I’d wanted to study with Roshi Joan Halifax, an American female Zen master, so I went to Santa Fe and became very connected to Upaya.

I see now I was really looking for a way to evolve my skill set. I’ve been a Buddhist for a long, long time, studying and practicing Buddhism since the ’80s. I’ve always loved yoga, and I definitely am a yoga teacher, but I’m also a dharma teacher. For decades the interest in yoga was from a dharma place of questioning. Not just what we’re doing, but why and how we’re doing it, and how, like everything else, it’s a “practice of getting familiar,” of cultivating wisdom and compassion. Of transformation. That’s what attracted me to go deeper.

Getting a little badge, so to speak, of “I’m a chaplain” is helpful, especially if you live in a place where you might be the only Buddhist in town. It helps people see you and provides opportunity to be helpful and contribute.

Tell us about the scope of the training. Were you required to live at the center?

You’re not required to live there, but you have to go there a lot. It was a two-year Zen Buddhist chaplaincy training, and you go twice a year for about 10 days, as well as some weekends and shorter programs. You’re also required to go to meditation retreats. I went to Upaya because I wanted to study with Roshi Joan Halifax—I was inspired to work with someone on her trajectory. And she’s brilliant.

At the end of the training you have to request ordination, and not everyone is granted it. I was ordained after three years. Culmination has to do with your relationship to Roshi Halifax and what you want to do as a chaplain. It was hard—very tough, very rigorous. A lot of people drop out.

What does a chaplain do and what will you do as a chaplain?

I particularly wanted to do the training because I’m a Buddhist. Typically, a lot of people who become lay chaplains are interested in working in hospitals or a senior residence, or even in an airport.

What I’m going to do is an interesting question that I’m still sorting out. We learned, as chaplains, that if you listen, you’ll hear a call. You’ll hear lots of calls. I’m thinking about yoga and how my chaplaincy can apply to it. I’m on the advisory board of the Give Back Foundation—perhaps there’s a course I can offer for free for yoga teachers to cultivate self-care. My thesis was on resiliency and physical “micro practices,” [specifically] mindfulness of body, which is a Buddhist approach to physical practices—you could call them micro interventions. That thesis was for chaplains and their clients, but, of course, it could be for anyone. And so that’s what we did yesterday in the class, little practices of toggling.

Yes, I liked the one where we were on our backs in a modified shoulderstand and shook our legs and then rocked up to boat pose several times. That woke me up.

Exactly. I’m looking for opportunities to offer those types of practices. I’m thinking about the surgery center where I had a recent surgery. There are a lot of opportunities.

The word chapel comes from cappella, which means “a cape.” St. Martin of Tours was riding in his cape on his horse and saw a man by the side of the road. It was pouring down rain, so he got off his horse and cut his cape in half. He gave half to that man and kept the other half. That’s a very basic teaching: We look for how we can be helpful. We walk alongside, but we also keep half the cape for ourselves. There is a very big teaching right there.

A good one for people becoming yoga teachers or anyone in a helping profession.

I think so. It’s easy to get so excited about yoga and so excited about teaching, but you can get lost in it and not take care of yourself.

On that note, can you talk a little bit about your own practice and the connection to your recent hip-replacement surgery, if any, and what you’d like to say to the yoga community about safety in practice?

When the orthopedist says, “You have no cartilage left; you’re bone on bone—that’s why it hurts so bad,” that’s called end-stage arthritis, and you need a hip replacement.

I was a professional dancer for almost 30 years. It was back in the ’80s, the heyday, and we were doing everything fun—like, “Oh, let’s jump on our backs and let’s pick up the men,” etc. I had pain then, but when you’re a dancer you always have pain. You always have bruises. Something always hurts and you just keep going, but you’re young and it gets better. So my gut is that yoga allowed me to keep moving longer. I wasn’t an aggressive yogi. I didn't push; it just wasn’t my style. It’s not my vibe, and that’s because of my Buddhist practice.

When I started teaching and had my own studio, Om Yoga, I really taught [a] middle path; not too tight, not too loose. There’s a lot of effort and you’re shvitzing, but if you feel on edge you don’t go too far. It’s possible that yoga allowed me to stave off injury earlier.

There has been a lot of discussion about twisting and the position of the hips in recent years. Some well-known teachers have changed their thinking on the topic, dispelling the notion that keeping your pelvis fixed while twisting is inherently safer.

There’s a lot coming out. Donna Farhi has a new class online about the sacroiliac joints and the pelvis. It was like she was reading my story: I started dancing when I was a young girl, was a gymnast in college, then a ballerina, and then yoga. She said a lot of women like me, who are very flexible, have more Type 2 collagen [which is associated with joint flexibility], so there is hypermobility, possibly without strength. In other words, if you’re super loose, you will need more strength to contain that.

We have to work hard to teach safety because yoga is everywhere and everybody does yoga. It’s a fun way to exercise and feel good, and people don’t really want to learn every detail about chaturanga. It’s like, I like riding my bike, but I’m not a bike-geek. I have a cute red bike and I ride it on the trail in my town. I’m good. That’s the way people are doing yoga now. And we have intensified the asanas and decided that if you really want to be a yogi you’re supposed to practice every single day, full-on. It’s too much.

If you keep people’s attention, they won’t care if they’re going fast and kicking it. And you keep their attention by the nature of your instructions. It’s not, “Do this, do that,” but in a million ways saying, “Can you bring your mind back to your experience?” That’s the skill of the teacher.

So that was actually my next question. In terms of the middle way and building resilience and teaching resilience, what can you offer to someone teaching in, say, a major city, who is expected to teach a strong vinyasa class. How can she teach a more moderate form? How does she negotiate that?

There are a couple of things that come to mind. I can teach a pretty strong class and it doesn’t have to be slow, but it’s not super fast either. It’s andante, not adagio and not allegro—it’s the middle. It takes a lot of skill to be able to give instruction without stopping, but I think that’s what the teacher’s job is. And teaching is a practice. If you keep people’s attention, they won’t care if they’re going fast and kicking it. And you keep their attention by the nature of your instructions. It’s not, “Do this, do that,” but in a million ways saying, “Can you bring your mind back to your experience?” That’s the skill of the teacher. I don’t like the use of the words cues and instructor. I think yoga teachers should teach. So again, it’s how we do what we do.

The good teacher points to the moon and the students see the moon; the not-so-good teacher points to the moon and the students see the teacher’s finger. I think that’s what you should learn in teacher training.

Do you always begin your classes with a dharma talk?

No, I almost never start my class with a dharma talk. I don’t mind doing it and I can do it, but at this point, I prefer to integrate the narrative into the class. Another factor is that nine times out of ten, people are sliding into home base on their mat just in time for class, so I like to start with a seated practice and then get them into their bodies.

The workshop you taught today was on the practice of the sun salutations. How can a student keep their sun salutes fresh and relevant in their lives?

The most important practice I would offer is to do a five-minute mindfulness meditation practice before you do sun salutations, so you’re really practicing placing your mind, replacing your mind, and placing your mind again. It gives you a tool for not dropping into rote mindless activity, which is our comfort zone. That’s where you can get injured. We wouldn’t want to use our practice to drop out of awareness anyway! Just get a bottle of wine if you want to do that; there are easier ways to do it without sweating or putting on tights.

This is really important because people do zone out.

Yes, it’s going to happen, but the practice of mindfulness is recognizing that and having the commitment to come back. Whatever you practice is what you imprint. Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson have a new book out called Altered Traits. They’re brain scientists discussing meditation, how it actually creates altered traits, which is what we're practicing—cultivating altered traits so that we can enrich our lives. That’s the point. It’s not just to get sweaty; that’s called exercise with yoga shapes, which is not evil, but it’s not yoga.

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Kathleen Kraft

Kathleen Kraft

Kathleen Kraft is a yoga teacher, poet, and freelance writer. Her chapbook, Fairview Road, was published by Finishing Line Press, and her work has appeared in many journals, including Five Points,... Read more>>  

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