Q & A with Cyndi Lee: Om Yoga Icon

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When anyone talks about the roots of their yoga practice in New York City, there's a good chance it traces back to yoga icon, Cyndi Lee. Cyndi founded Om Yoga center in 1998 and has arguably had more influence on yoga in New York than anyone.

What's even more interesting about Cyndi is her journey from dance to yoga. Cyndi is a fixture in NYC's dance scene and has choreographed over 20 music videos for Rick James, Simple Minds, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, and many more, including Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” which won the 1983 MTV Best Female Video of the Year award.

She's also a prolific writer and author, and we could go on and on... but we'll let the interview take it from here.

MBG: How did you first come to yoga?

CL: The first year I went to college -- 1971! -- I took a yoga class. It was nice and mellow. I don't remember having a moment of great inspiration and knowing that I had found my path, but somehow I just kept doing yoga and meditation and I've been practicing steadily almost my whole life now.

You started out in dance - how are dance and yoga related?

Yoga and dance are both in-depth studies of the integration of body, breath and heart. But they are very opposite, too. As a performing dancer, the goal is to offer a visceral experience to the audience through the creative expression of movement in space. It is a way of playing with mirror neurons through an art form. But yoga is a personal practice always. The effect of the practice -- awareness, friendliness, compassion -- leak out into your life and create templates for all your relationships, but it always starts with your own body, breath and mind. It is about creating imprints, readjusting neurological patterning, creating positive habits.

These days, though, I do find that vinyasa fulfills my dancing jones. The vinyasa style that I practice called OM yoga is a dynamic, rhythm-based movement system; there is a sense of carving space, of feeling wind and water on your skin; of an earthy downward connection and an uplifted sense of goodness. Yes, I really do feel all of that in the very first Surya Namaskar! Yummy.

Who has inspired your practice? Teachers? Books?

My guru, Gelek Rimpoche. Isadora Duncan. Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda. HHDL. Mr. Iyengar and all his work -- thank you, thank you, thank you. I've loved learning from Rodney Yee, Sharon Gannon, Judith Lasater, Richard Freeman, Sharon Salzberg, Mark Epstein, my husband, David Nichtern, Chogyam Trunpga and my very ill, elderly mother.

How has yoga evolved since you first began practicing? How do you see it evolving in years to come?

The practice of yoga is the same on the inside. On the outside, it is changing all the time. The poses are bigger! Back in the day, Garudasana was a simple balancing pose with one foot tucked around the back of the other calf. No double wrapping one leg like a vine crawling up the other. he backs of the hands were placed against each other in front of the chest in a way that anybody could do. The practice seems to be generally much more athletic now a days.

As I age, I must admit that I wonder about the image of yoga in America. I don't see too many photos of women -- or men -- my age doing yoga. But when I was first learning yoga we were all inspired by the gurus who were older and could still do amazing asanas. They also exuded a grounded, centered quality of wisdom that I aspired to experience. Where are those inspirations now? I'd like to see those kinds of images out there, on magazine covers and DVDs. Our western society is obsessed with youth but yoga has a chance to offer an inspirational and aspirational antidote to that. Isn't it about having a healthy life at any age? I hope that message starts to become part of the mix of what yoga is in the West today.

Has your personal practice changed? What do you struggle with? What comes easy?

My practice changes all the time. It is more athletic than the gentle, stretching practice I was first introduced to in 1971. My commitment to practice is stronger than when I was a professional dancer and was dancing for hours every day. I don't like to miss it because I feel better when I practice, even if I didn't feel bad before. I travel a lot and so my practice is fluid -- it might be Down Dog, Uttanasana, Utkatasana with a twist to the right and the left, Tree Pose, down into a squat, Crow Pose, Bridge, Wheel, Supine Twist, Headstand, Shoulder Stand, Meditate -- that's not a bad little hotel yoga practice. When I'm at home I take a class most every day at my studio, OM yoga Center.

I don't struggle with anything in yoga. That doesn't mean I can do every pose -- it just means I don't struggle. I don't feel like struggling in yoga. I'm long over that phase by now. I have enough really challenging stuff to deal with in my life and when I'm on my mat, it's my time to feel whole and to connect with my basic goodness. I like to be friendly in my practice.

What comes easy? All forward bends. Inversions are so fun! Least favorite are standing poses -- I got plantar fascitis after my dad died and since then the soles of my feet have been sensitive. But I can sit down, straddle my legs and fold over and chill out, pretty much any time of the night or day. Navasana is easy -- go figure! Urdhva Danurasana is delicious. 

Any advice for beginners?

Start with a class that is meant just for you -- for beginners! Find a teacher that you really like. If you don't like the class or the teacher, that is totally fine. Keep looking until you find the person who you feel a connection with.

What is it about yoga in New York City that's so different from yoga in other cities/places?

On the most basic, intimate, essential level -- yoga and yogis are the same everywhere. That is what I have experienced, from teaching yoga all over the world. But in NYC, people have way more opportunities to take class than in most other cities. So students make their choices based on teachers who inspire them; location; time of classes, price, yoga buddies and community. In many ways that is really good -- what terrific karma to be able to take a yoga class practically anywhere any time! But the down side of that is the real deepening of the practice aspect. At some point it is recommended to get in one boat if you really want to get to the other shore.

What does yoga mean to you?

Relationship. A practice of exploring cause and effect; understanding interdependence; embodying impermanence; being at home with change; connecting and reconnecting to the Basic Goodness that is our birthright and can never be taken from us.

What are you working on? What's next?

I'm writing a book for Dutton but it is top secret! Stay tuned. (Hint: it's not about yoga.)

For more on Cyndi and Om Yoga:


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