As a renowned yoga teacher and media darling, Cyndi Lee seemed like the poster child for confidence and self-acceptance. Yogis are supposed to be radiant avatars, after all. But beneath the Namastes and Lululemon she was hating her body, just like (most of) the rest of us.
This realization led her on a lengthy journey -- to India, to Japan in the midst of the 2011 earthquake, to interviewing notable women, to finally embracing a loving kindness practice that shifted her perspective. She penned the book, May I Be Happy, about her experience, and she's speaking about it at Books & Books on September 18. We spoke to Lee on self-loathing, new perspectives and how she's accepted the wrinkles on her knees.
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"The original working title for the book was I Hate My Body, which I thought kind of said it all," says Lee. An editor eventually told her she couldn't start with such a negative premise however, and needed to let the reader know where the journey led. Hence the final title, May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga and Changing My Mind.
"I'm a yogi, I'm a Buddhist, and one of the teachings is that you have to actually start with where you're unhappy -- where you're suffering, and look at that as a way to transform it."
A trip to India led her to identify some skewed priorities.
"I went to India and I was seeing all these people suffering and starving and I'm touching my stomach thinking, 'Maybe I can lose weight on this trip,'" she recounts.
"That was when I first recognized that i was basically torturing myself all the time by criticizing my body. Some people criticize themselves in other ways but that was my way, probably because I'm a woman and because I was a dancer and a lot of other influences that are familiar to many many women. Basically it's normal, this is normal. This is not OK, but it's normal."
So how did she turn things around? A practice called maitri. Loosely translated, a lovingkindness (one word) meditation. While she'd known about the practice previously, she thought it was about sending lovingkindness to others. Then, a Tibetan Buddhist nun explained that she had to start with herself first.
"You can't skip steps," Lee says. "You can't develop yourself as a compassionate loving person towards other people if you're not that way towards yourself."
This isn't about caring for yourself, like, keeping your hair coiffed and nails done, Lee explains. It's deeper than that.
"I started doing this practice and it really shifted things. It made me relax and open up and be kinder to other people. It's really about using this particular meditation practice to cultivate compassion for yourself. It also taps into confidence -- the habit some of us have of negative self talk comes from lack of confidence. It's a self-perpetuating cycle."
So how does the practice work? Super easy, says Lee. Basically, you recite:
"May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be safe, may I live with ease."
In between each recitation, you contemplate what that means.
The practice can be done anytime, anywhere. It can be integrated into your daily life during challenging or stressful moments, Lee says.
Inevitably, the practice also becomes integrated into other aspects of your existence. Like yoga, for example.
"Here would be an example. I could say, what really makes me feel good? Yoga -- I like doing yoga. I sleep better, I look better, I feel better. I'm going to make sure to do yoga every single day for an hour and a half -- no matter what."
But that can easily become a burden, Lee explains. "I become type A about it. So maybe I can shift that commitment to, I'm going to do yoga every day in the way that is right for that day. I feel good today, I'm going to do a powerful practice. Or, I don't feel so good today, I'm going to do shorter yoga."
In other words, honoring your needs and listening to your body. The practice is about kindness and consideration towards self. (It's worth noting that there's research behind the effectiveness of loving kindness meditations on boosting positive emotions.)
So has Lee stopped hating her body? Yes, she says.
"I'm over it. But I still want to have a good, healthy, functional, sexy body. But I'm 61. I noticed recently that I have wrinkles on my knees now ..." Lee recounts. "There are wrinkles on my knees but I'm not going to get a knee lift or spend any time at all thinking I have to cover up my knees or I wish I had my old knees and I'm going to crank up my exercise program or ride my bike ten times more so I won't have any wrinkles on my knees. I'm 61, I'm going to have wrinkles and it's OK."
In the end, she's realized that it's not about her body, but about her mind.
"It doesn't matter what my body is like. The problem is accepting myself and loving myself."
And in a city where boob jobs and butt implants are the norm, that's something we could all use a healthy dose of.
Cyndi Lee is speaking at Books & Books on September 18 at 8 p.m. The event is free. She's also teaching workshops at Prana Yoga from September 19 through 21.
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