The Buddhist Yogi: An Interview with Cyndi Lee

August 03, 2018

Written by Kathleen Kraft
Published on Yoga International

“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.

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From The Yogis

  • Terri Bender Morrison, Owner, Mindful Motion Yoga, OM 500 TT 2015

    "Cyndi, I feel that my teaching has shifted a bit - sequencing is more interesting and effective. As I was driving home tonight, I thought about the statements of "leaving crumbs" and "connecting the dots". While you meant that for us as direction to be better teachers, I recognize you were doing that for us as well. I believe I am just now processing some of the things you taught this summer. The subtle parts of classes escaped me, but I am getting them now. Thank you for the crumbs, for leaving plenty of space between the dots....I think I see the moon."

  • Zan Margolis, OM 200 TT , 2012

    "The more yoga I experience, the more I realize how special it is that in your teacher trainings you actually teach your yogis how to *teach*"

  • Susan Golden, Studio Owner, Maine

    "Cyndi’s sense of humor and genius teachings have made this OM 500 TT very, very stimulating every minute of the day. I’ve learned so much. I can’t wait to let it all come together and bring this to my teachings and to my life."

  • Natalie Levin, OM Yoga Graduate, OM Warrior Weekend Teacher Training Program 2003

    "I am a graduate of the OM 2003 Warrior Weekend Teacher Training Program.  I had the honor to teach at OM yoga in New York City for several years.  I have since moved to another city and was instantly offered teaching jobs based solely on the fact that I had been a teacher at Cyndi Lee’s OM yoga.  Studio owners in my current city thought so highly of Cyndi Lee’s OM yoga Teacher Training that they hired me immediately and I found and continue to find that my OM yoga Teacher Training opens door after door for me.  OM yoga (practicing there, teaching OM yoga, and learning from Cyndi Lee) helped me professionally in my own yoga-teaching career.  Even more meaningfully for me, I feel that the path of mindfulness and attention to alignment that pours through the pores of OM yoga has influenced me and helped me to soften enough to become more “myself” since I first walked into the OM yoga studio."

  • Jeri Wilson, Studio Owner, Maine

    “I’m Jeri and I’m a studio owner in Maine and I just finished my 500 hr TT with Cyndi Lee. It was an excellent experience, partly because I had been trained primarily in Anusara and I was challenged to think very differently. I found it was very helpful to come back to teach with Cyndi’s influence. She is very, very funny and she will work you and challenge you and you will feel like you have actually gained something really deep from the training.”

  • Jeanie Gasque, Yoga Teacher, South Carolina, OM 500 TT 2015

    "Cyndi's skillful guidance lead me to a greater clarity of alignment based vinyasa.  The yoga combined with the charm of Lynchburg made the Sun Session an unforgettable experience."

  • Gina Callendar, Yoga Teacher, Yonkers, NY, OM 500 TT 2015

    "Cyndi truly follows the middle path and instills that in her teachings.  She combines disciple and humor to create an engaging, thought provoking and enlightening experience.  I had the pleasure of taking her 500 hour OM Yoga Teacher Training.  I have deepened my practice, work to continue challenge myself and never want to stop learning.  I am pretty comfortable teaching, but withCyndi’s guidance I am more confident in my hands-on adjustments and clarity of instruction with my students.  Thank you Cyndi for reinforcing my foundation, challenging me as a student and becoming my teacher.  I hope to continue to learn from you for many years to come.  Namaste."

  • Erica Settino, Founder, , Karuna for Animals

    "I have been teaching yoga for 12 years and over those 12 years I have often felt burned out and at a loss for inspiration. Now that I have taken Cyndi Lee’s OM 500 Teacher Training, I feel completely different, completely inspired, and so, so blessed. If you are even considering it, you must do it."

  • Donna Levenstien, Yoga Teacher, Lake George, NY

    "I am a student of the OM 200 and OM 500 TT. I keep learning from Cyndi Lee who is just a master teacher, every class I take, every hour I’m here she says something wonderful that I can bring into my life, onto my mat, into my classes with my students. As a teacher and a student, I feel enriched every time I’m with her and in her class."

  • Ann Megyas, Actor, Yoga Teacher, , Hospice Worker

    "I’m so glad I decided to take Cyndi Lee’s 500 hr TT. It advanced my personal practice in ways that I could not imagine. There is no pose I am afraid of anymore. It’s advanced my teaching practice, it’s advanced my dharma study. It’s just been a thrilling experience the whole time."