Sitting down with Yoga teacher Cyndi Lee
You could say that Cyndi Lee knows how to keep herself busy. The founder and director of New York City’s famous OM yoga center open until June 2012, Lee has the kind of versatility that would exhaust the most high-minded achiever.
While Lee founded OM in 1998 and has almost 35 years of experience teaching yoga, she originally hails from a modern dance background.
In merging her interest in movement with her long-time practice of both Hatha yoga and Tibetan Buddhism, she found a unique way to explore yoga’s discipline. Nowadays, Lee is inspired to share her journey with others, both figuratively and, through the workshops, she teaches worldwide.
While she stays connected to her NYC community with her regular teaching schedule and community-building work through yoga with inner-city kids, Lee has found a special purpose in spreading yoga practice wherever she goes.
“There is a reason why doing yoga and meditation is called practice,” she says. “It provides an opportunity to explore whatever you want – flexibility, strength, happiness, discipline, relaxation, passion, a sense of well-being, an open heart.”
Between teaching in her NYC studio and leading workshops both nationally and internationally, Lee has penned several books and articles, including ‘Yoga Body, Buddha Mind,’ and recently came out with an instructional yoga DVD, which is “just like taking a class with me at OM.”
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According to Lee, her workshops strive to show students that it’s possible to cultivate an active, exciting way of practicing yoga asanas through the use of props and other tools that facilitate an unobstructed, playful flow of energy.
I recently had a conversation with Lee when she had a rare bit of time to spare between leading a workshop in San Francisco and catching a flight to London to teach another. Throughout our exchange, Lee shared stories of particularly memorable times on the yoga mat and how her travels continue to enrich her yoga practice.
YT: What’s the story behind the OM Yoga Center?
Cyndi Lee: OM yoga center was born in 1998 in New York City and closed in June 2012. I had been studying yoga since 1972 but was primarily a modern dancer, teaching yoga on the side. I met Gehlek Rimpoche in the late ’80s and began seriously studying Buddhism with him, and at that time, began finding myself on the yoga mat much more than ever before.
I was drawn to practicing dharma more than anything else, so I retired from dancing and started teaching yoga full-time. It was an organic step to go from teaching at various gyms and studios in NYC to creating my center to develop my unique offering of Vinyasa yoga with precise alignment, integrated with Buddhist mindfulness meditation.
Over time a true sangha, or community, had developed around this approach, extending worldwide. Our landlord did not want to renew our lease and we had to close.
YT: You have led workshops all over the United States and the world. How often do you travel?
Cyndi Lee: My traveling schedule is uneven. Sometimes I am gone a lot, and then sometimes I am home for a while. I was just in NYC for almost two months straight, which was long and wonderful. Now I am in London after a week in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Monday I go to Geneva, then Wednesday to Moscow.
Then I’m home for three days, and after that, off to Arkansas and Texas. Sometimes I am gone during the week, but mostly I travel on the weekends. I like to travel and meet people, but I also want to be at home with my husband, dog, Leroy.
YT: How does teaching the wisdom you’ve gained from yoga vary, depending on where you are and what populations you’re reaching?
Cyndi Lee: I teach the same thing wherever I go and whoever I am working with. What changes might be how I present the material. Teaching yoga to different groups changes according to what level of experience the students are at or if they have never done Vinyasa style yoga before.
I have a lot of different kinds of workshops that I can teach, and together with the host, we choose the ones that we think the students at any given studio will connect to the most. Each workshop has an asana practice that is developed from a meditation/Buddhist investigation. I.e., “Not Too Tight, Not Too Loose” explores the relationship between tadasana and savasana.
Still, it can be more or less rigorous, more or less advanced, depending on the group. Other titles include “Awakened Hridayam,” “Obstacles as Path,” and “How to Be a Warrior.”
I try to create exercises or offer ways for students to approach their practice so that the teaching is experiential, rather than me talking talking talking, and then let’s do yoga! Yoga is personal, and if it’s not personal, it’s not practice – it’s just exercise using yoga asanas. Depending on the group, I will create different exercises to help them cultivate mindfulness, curiosity, gentleness, precision, and spaciousness.
It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are – everyone can connect to their breath, feel their heartbeat, and open their eyes to the environment and the people they are sharing it with.
YT: What do you feel are some of the benefits and challenges of taking your yoga on the road?
Cyndi Lee: Meeting people and finding commonalities with us all is a benefit. Learning about other cultures is always eye-opening and brings me out of my little world and perspective. It also makes me appreciate my excellent husband, my great friends, and my personal and professional support system back home at OM.
I only travel where I have been invited, so I always feel welcome, my hosts treat me well, and the students are open to what I have to offer. Mostly, the challenges have been personal, i.e., dealing with time zone changes, getting adequate sleep, eating in a way that gives me good energy, finding time and space to do my practice.
Also, yoga is in a shifting phase, and we’re moving out of the old days when visiting yoga teachers slept on somebody’s couch. I consider this a professional activity, and some hosts are surprised that I prefer to stay in a hotel with telephone and Internet access. However, I am still running my business in New York City wherever I am, so I need those amenities and private downtime.
YT: What was one of your most memorable or most exciting experiences leading a yoga workshop?
Cyndi Lee: I love teaching 10-minute yoga breaks during Pema Chodron’s [the well-known resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, which is the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery for Westerners] retreats. The last time, there were 500 people in attendance, and I taught them a simple standing (or sitting for those who couldn’t stand) yoga sequence that they also could do when they went back home.
It was amazing to see 1,000 arms up in the air, and it was so beautiful that every person participated in it wholeheartedly. I am also looking forward to teaching some simple chair yoga to women in my mom’s church group in Texas. They have a Mind-Body theme for the whole year, and my mom is in charge of getting the speakers, so she invited me. Isn’t that cute?
YT: What do you feel your primary mission is? Is it connected in any way to your travels?
Cyndi Lee: I believe that my primary mission as a person is to be awake and act with kindness at all times. Being a yoga teacher gives me opportunities to practice that all the time. As a yoga teacher, my mission is to share yoga with as many people as possible because I believe that everyone can benefit from yoga, no matter who they are or what condition their body may be in.
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So I have a big yoga studio which allows me to offer lots of yoga in various forms – all levels of experience including yoga virgins, prenatal, kids, special classes for various conditions – and to offer jobs to lots of excellent yoga teachers, as well as provide a home base for our OM yoga community.
Traveling and sharing yoga worldwide is not only a great way to share asana practice, but because of the approach to yoga that I teach (based on the principles of mindfulness and compassion that come from my Buddhist practice), this sharing is a way to help others find more connection to themselves, each other and the whole world – and that is what I hope to manifest and transmit in my teaching.
YT: Aside from taking your yoga into various communities, what are some of the most important things you’ve culled from your travels?