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.