YJ Interview: A Darn Good Yarn

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The only child of a Protestant minister and an artistic mother, Cyndi Lee grew up in Seattle but has spent her adult life in New York City. Lee’s father, a pastor at a Disciples of Christ church in Seattle, had an enormous influence on her path. “I had a very cool dad,” says Lee, recalling how he marched in demonstrations with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. Today, she feels as though she’s carrying on his work. “I’m doing the same job as my dad; it just has a different shape,” she says. “I’m helping people connect to themselves and create community.”

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When did you first practice yoga?

In the ’70s, at Chapman College in Southern California. By then I was reading Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, chanting, and loving it.

What did you study in college?

I was a dance major. My senior thesis was a film on women, Eastern spirituality, and dance. I performed an Indian dance with mudras and a yoga sequence, to a Tagore poem.

Did you dance professionally?

Yes, I moved to New York after college with my juggler boyfriend. I was no Merce Cunningham, but I was getting grants and nice bookings.

You incorporate Buddhist teachings into your classes. How did you get into Buddhism?

My friend Philip Glass, the composer, turned me on to his teacher. One way to choose a teacher is by his students. Philip Glass is one of the nicest, most generous people I know. I met his teacher, Gehlek Rinpoche, and was immediately into it.

Why did it speak to you?

Gehlek Rinpoche is one of the high lamas. He was a schoolmate of the Dalai Lama, so he had the same teachers and schooling. He’s warm and loving, and he teaches dharma with a lot of stories, and those stories stick with you.
What made you stop dancing? I got burned out on the business aspect. I really wanted to go deeper into my practice.

So what happened next?

I started doing a lot more yoga and going on retreat. And I started teaching aerobics.

Aerobics?

They were more like dance classes. Then I was asked to teach a spinning class and combine it with meditation. I said, “Whatever, I’ll try it.” We rode the bikes slowly while I read them Zen stories.

Was it weird to combine spinning and meditation?

Rinpoche said that as long as I thought it was helping people, it was OK. And that’s been my mandate. If it’s not helpful, how can I shift it to make it helpful?

Do you see any similarities between yoga and your hobby, knitting?

Knitting is definitely a practice in being mindful. If you space out, you’ll have a hole in your fabric. But unlike in yoga, you create a tangible object. It’s both a process and a project. For me, the process is extremely delicious.

What else do you do in your spare time?

Lie on the couch with a murder mystery. Hang out with my poodle, Leroy. Or have “What is the nature of the mind and the universe?” conversations with friends. That’s almost as much fun as lying on the couch with a murder mystery.