People who find yoga helpful for dealing with everything from stress to serious medical conditions might think yoga teachers, who are steeped in the practice, are less likely to suffer from common maladies, such as low self-esteem and negative body image.
Renowned yoga teacher Cyndi Lee struggled for years from these exact issues, despite having devoted her life to yoga and meditation. She chronicles her experience, and her search for happiness with her body, in a new book, May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind, available January 24.
We asked Lee to share some of the insights she discovered as she wrote the book. Here’s what she had to say.
Why did you decide to write this book? What do you hope readers will take away from it?
I decided to write this book because I hated my body. That was the original title of the book! And it was true. I realized that I had been hating my body for most of my life. I was always criticizing myself and wishing my body were different. But my yoga and dharma practices helped me wake up to that old broken record. I knew that for me it was time to let it go. I also knew that pretty much all my girlfriends have the same problem—it is a real epidemic and I wanted to do what I could to turn it around. It is not good for half the world to be in a bad mood about themselves. So I wrote the book to share my process and to show women everywhere that they can transform their negative body images and low self-esteem, too. In the end, loving ourselves is the only way we can figure out how to be more loving to others.
What do you think your students will find most surprising about your journey?
Probably just the very fact that I had this struggle with negative self image. I’m a pretty cheerful person and usually quite upbeat and on top of that, I can do amazing things with my body since I am a yogini, after all! But I can tell you that since I’ve turned my negativity into self-care and compassion, I’ve become a much nicer, kinder, more generous person in all ways.
In the book, you describe seeing gray roots as a wake up call. Why was seeing gray hair in the mirror such a turning point for you?
Seeing my gray roots in the mirror only a week after getting a dye job woke me up to the fact that bodies are meant to change and that all the maintenance I was putting into trying to make my body be a certain way was only making me feel bad, because it is a losing proposition. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to be healthy and fit and I am all for wearing makeup and cute hair-dos, if you want to do that. But thinking that any part of me is wrong was hurting me, diminishing me. I needed to become more accepting of who I was, and how I look. So what if there is a gray hair? It was time for a lighter approach that included kindness and humor.
Yoga is often touted as a practice that can help women with their body issues, and you write about your own struggles with body image in the book. But not everyone can go on a pilgrimage to make peace with themselves. What do you recommend for those yoga students who feel self-conscious about their bodies?
The pilgrimage that I went on in the book was really an inner trip. I just happened to have been in India when I had an a-ha moment about the fact that my self-criticism toward my body was something I had been doing for a long time. That perpetual inner grump had been there for most of my life but being out of my comfort zone helped me become aware of it. What really helped me realize that this habit was a form of suffering that I was creating and therefore, could release, was the study and practice of mindfulness and compassion.
I suggest to yoga students who are struggling with negative body image that they begin a mindfulness meditation practice and also, as I did—and I tell about this in the book—begin to cultivate genuine compassion and caring for themselves through the practice of lovingkindness meditation. When they notice a negative about their body arising, just let it go and try to replace that thought with this: May I Be Happy. May I Be Healthy. May I Be Safe. May I Live With Ease.
This book deals with a public perception that yoga teachers should be a certain way—calm, centered, content, stress-free. But that’s not realistic. What advice do you have for yoga teachers who feel the pressure to be perfect all the time?
When you have feelings of inadequacy or negatively compare yourself to others, try to get out of your head and back into your body. Do some yoga. Open some yoga or dharma books and study. Stay connected to both study and practice. Then make sure that you allow whatever honest feelings you have to bubble up and feel them, which is not the same as thinking about them. Stick with feelings and stay grounded in your body.
What’s next on the horizon for you? Are there more pilgrimages in your future? More books?
My horizon is wide open right now. I’m busy teaching 500-hour teacher training in New York City right now and it is so insanely rewarding that I will definitely be doing more of those. I’m working on a new yoga, music, and nature festival which will premiere in Japan in May. I’m writing to find out what is inside me that wants to be said. I am also teaching workshops called May I Be Happy all over the country. And I’m finding out what a quiet life in Ohio feels like, which so far includes lots of home practice, making smoothies in my magic bullet, long walks with Leroy the chocolate poodle, cooking at home, and a glass of wine now and then.
For more information or to purchase the book, visit Lee’s website at OmYoga.com.