Interview: 5 questions to Cyndi Lee

Cyndi Lee is the founder of OM Yoga and OM Yoga Institute in New York City (USA). Lee, a former dancer and choreographer, connects Yoga with Buddhism. We had the chance to talk to her about her style, similarities between Patanjalis Sutren and Buddhism and attitudes and expectations toward Yoga.

ys:How would you define Yoga?

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.

ys: Your style of "Om-Yoga" connects Vinyasa-flow with Buddhism. What led to that and how is it integrated into your Yoga sessions?

I began practicing yoga in 1971 and continued it during my dance career. In the late 80s I met my Buddhist teacher, Gelek Rimpoche, and was very inspired to practice Buddhism -- mindfulness and compassion. These practices strengthened my commitment to yoga to the extent that I retired from dancing and begin teaching yoga full-time. I found that while I was teaching yoga I would naturally say things to my students that I had learned from Gelek Rimpoche. I asked him if that was okay and he gave me permission and so OM yoga evolved organically from these two practices coming together in my own life. It is so clear to me that yoga is a perfect vehicle for working with the mind and heart.

Cyndi Lee in Flying Fish © OM yoga

ys: What are the similarities between Patanjalis Yoga-Sutren and Buddhism?

Both of these practices originated in India and there is some overlap. One of the obvious similarities is between the Eight Limbs of Patanjali's Yoga and The Eight Fold Path of Buddhism.

8 Limbs of Yoga:

1. Yamas
2. Niyamas
3. Asana
4. Pranayama
5. Pratyahara
6. Dharana
7. Dhyana
8. Samadhi

8 Fold Path of Buddhism:

1. Right Understanding
2. Right Intention
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration

Both systems involve wisdom, ethical conduct and specific practices.

ys: Your website states "teaching yoga is itself a practice". What do you mean by that?

When we "do" yoga or meditation, we call it practice. What are we practicing? Compassion, awareness, clarity, integration, wakefulness, open heart. When I teach yoga I don't practice these by doing asana, but by paying attention to my students. They are the "dots of awareness" that help me stay present, open my heart and deepen my compassion. I am teaching for one reason: to be helpful and so it is important for me to establish an environment that allows the students to feel safe, protected and guided by me -- their teacher. It is not my time to do asana, but to create the causes and conditions for their asana practice to lead them toward more compassion, awareness, clarity, integration, wakefulness and open heart.

Cyndi Lee in Vishnus Couch © OM yoga

ys: You have practiced and taught Yoga for several decades now. When you look back on the beginning, have yoga and Buddhism changed your life over the years and if so, in what way?

It is a hard question for me to answer because I feel that yoga and Buddhism are my life. I guess both of these practices have given me an anchor and a map. Wherever I am in the world, when I sit on my yoga mat or my meditation cushion -- even if the yoga mat is really a hotel floor and the meditation cushion is the pillow off my hotel bed -- I feel like I am home. These practices are a refuge that is always there for me. Buddhism, especially, has given me a framework for understanding myself and others. It has given me a map for how to struggle less with all that life offers and to open more to happiness and joy.

ys: If you look at your students over the last 30 years , do you find any changes in attitude and expectation towards yoga and the people who represent it.

I sometimes feel that there is so much yoga being offered these day but much of it is incomplete and so the understanding of the students is incomplete. That results in people expecting to be given something that they need to find and cultivate from inside themselves. The practices of yoga and Buddhism are personal practices and until we make them personal, we aren't doing our own practice but rather we are doing someone else's practice. The Tibetan word, Gom, is what practice is all about -- the word means "getting familiar." In other words, we must start with ourselves as we are right now, and get comfortable with ourselves, make friends with ourselves. From there we can look at the notion of bhavana, or cultivation. We can ask ourselves what are we cultivating in our practice? Each of us can only start where we are, step onto the beautiful paths of yoga and Buddhism and keep clear about what we want to cultivate -- for me, it is freedom from suffering, compassion, joy and equanimity. A big goal, yes, but I am inspired by my teachers and my students to keep practicing.

ys: Thank you.


Further information

Website OM Yoga

Blog OM yoga

The first OM yoga Teacher Training Europe starts June 3rd, 2011 (Berlin, Germany). Cyndi Lee will also offer several workshops and yoga lessons from June, 10th to 12th in Berlin, Germany.