By Ed Staskus
“It was twenty year ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, they’ve been going in and out of style, but they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.” The Beatles
It was twenty years ago that Cyndi Lee opened the OM Yoga Studio. It prospered and grew to 25 teachers offering 65 hatha vinyasa classes weekly. The sunlit wood floor space took up an entire floor of Manhattan real estate near Union Square. It was the union of a faraway and long ago tradition with modernity. The trendsetting crowd had long since been won over to bending.
It was no mean feat. “In New York City people have way more opportunities to take classes than in most other cities,” she said. If you don’t enjoy a challenge, the Big Apple isn’t what you want to try sinking your teeth into. There are more than 8 million people speaking more than 200 languages in the 5 boroughs. It’s hard getting them on the same page.
The page turned fifteen years later when she lost her lease. “The landlord didn’t give us the option to renew,” said Cyndi. “She just didn’t want a yoga studio there anymore.” The only thing harder than winning shrewd New Yorkers over to your yoga studio is staying on the winning side of shrewd New York property owners.
She took it well.
“Yoga has a sly, clever way of short-circuiting the mental patterns that cause anxiety,” says Baxter Bell. Yoga practice is filled with exercises in respect to balance, not just physically, but inwardly, too. It’s all about holding on and letting go.
“Honestly I feel fine,” she said at the time. “I’m just super grateful that the conditions arose for me to build that yoga studio and that the community grew and developed. I feel proud because there has been no badness, only goodness.”
Only there was more around the bend. Her marriage of almost twenty years was coming to an end, too.
When you come to a fork in the road, take it. Or, as Cyndi Lee has said, “Everything we’re doing is planting a seed that will come to fruition at some point.” Never mind about making plans that hit the nail on the head, better to make options.
“The opposite if being active in yoga is not being passive,” she said. “It’s being receptive.”
She met someone who became her boyfriend. She and Brad moved to Ohio. It didn’t get off on the right foot. “I was a hardcore New Yorker,” said Cyndi. “What the hell am I doing?” she thought. New York is a fast-paced around-the-clock lifestyle. It’s the city that never sleeps.
“Ohio was so quiet and the food was terrible.”
They moved to Virginia. Her boyfriend became her husband. The energy and the food got better. She didn’t open another yoga studio. “We do need more yoga, but when people say to me, can you give me advice about starting a yoga studio, my advice is, don’t. Instead of making places where people have to come to us, we need to go out.”
She got her footing back on solid ground. Cyndi is a longtime Buddhist. Buddha was an aimless wanderer when he started out, but once he got his clear thinking together he devoted forty-five years to traveling and teaching the Dharma to anyone who would listen. Cyndi has been traveling and teaching all over the world the past six years, since OM closed, except last year when she wasn’t.
“When the orthopedist says, ‘You have no cartilage left, you’re bone on bone, that’s why it hurts so bad,’ that’s called end-stage arthritis, and you need a hip replacement,” said Cyndi.
Or two hip replacement surgeries, as the case might be, slowing her down that year. At least, until she was back on her own two feet. And back on the mat, back in action.
“I was a professional dancer for almost twenty years,” she said.
Twenty years of two-stepping is a long time. Dancers often sound like a box of Rice Krispies, snap, crackle, and pop. Ankles click and knees go crunch. In the morning, on the way to get a bowl of cereal, their joints click, clack, and squeak on the way to the kitchen.
“I wasn’t an aggressive yogi, I didn’t push it, but the vinyasa style that I practiced is a dynamic, rhythm-based movement system. There is a sense of carving space, of feeling wind and water on your face, of an earthy downward connection and an uplifted sense of goodness.”
Nevertheless, in the flow of time the on-the-go has morphed into slow flow. Cyndi Lee now offers a “practice you can carry with you for decades to come.” It has been reborn as Sustainable Vinyasa Yoga.
By the time OM Yoga closed its doors she had been practicing yoga for more than 40 years. She took her first class in 1971, her first year in college. “I don’t remember having a moment of great inspiration and knowing that I had found my path, but somehow I just kept doing yoga and meditation and I’ve been practicing steadily almost my whole life now.”
Cyndi has an MFA in Dance from the University of California at Irvine. Her graduate thesis was “Women, Spirituality, and Indian Dance.” She won an Art History Fellowship at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
She moved to Greenwich Village in 1978, footless tights in hand, to an animated dynamic dance scene. It wasn’t just the Funhouse, Club 57, and Paradise Garage, either, although you can’t beat clubs full of late 70s pointy-toed hipsters and girls in thrift-store stiletto heels at three in the morning. It was Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham and the modern dance scene.
“Yoga started out in dance, both in-depth studies of the integration of body, breath and heart,” she said. “They are opposite, too. As a performing dancer, the goal is to offer a visceral experience. But yoga is a personal practice, always.”
She became a professional dancer. She had been dancing since she was a tot. “I learned the waltz by standing on my dad’s feet,” she said. Hoofing it became her life. She danced up a storm. She became a professional choreographer. She performed with XXY Dance/ Music and Cyndi Lee Dance Company/Big Moves. In 1994 her own dance company staged its last performance. The show was called “Dharma Dances.”
It was influenced by meditation philosophy and the choreography referenced yoga poses. The performance featured Allan Ginsburg singing songs and accompanying himself on harmonium. The word of mouth about the show was good, although Allen Ginsburg’s singing was left unsaid. The less said the better, God rest his soul.
After “Dharma Dances” Cyndi Lee kicked up her heels and became a professional yoga teacher.
OM Yoga was a successful studio in arguably the most opinionated and competitive city in the country because it was authentic, clean and bright, with a diversified schedule, offered special events and teacher trainings, and featured a snazzy retail space. The teachers were hard-core enough to specialize in their craft and soft-core enough to connect one-on-one. The studio became a community and the community became the studio’s dedicated core. Over the years many people unrolling their mats at OM Yoga became the studio’s heralds and evangelists.
“Whenever I am feeling like crap I don’t mind making the long commute to OM because I know I will feel peaceful and happy afterwards,” said a woman from the Upper West Side.
“One of the better, more genuine experiences I’ve had in the city,” said a Manhattan native. “The instructors are knowledgeable and not pushy. If you’re a newcomer to yoga, take the beginner classes, as the intermediate classes are very, ahem, thorough. And they have showers!”
“Keeping this place open and going,” said Cyndi when the studio was open and going. “I get wrapped up in the business of it. But just having a yoga studio, it’s a real Dharma community, it helps a lot of people.”
“The only negative comment I have is that this place is a little too business-like, which, in my opinion is not very Buddha-like,” said a young woman across the river in Brooklyn, where capitalism is occasionally frowned upon.
“Work out your own salvation,” said Buddha. “Do not depend on others.”
But even he had to eat so he could get his message out. If most successful businesses are owned and operated by people who are the first to get to work and the last to leave, then OM Yoga was a successful business because someone did that, and Cyndi Lee was the person who opened the doors in the morning and turned off the lights at night.
As home away from home wrapped up its tenure, the e-mails started rolling in. “I’ve gotten hundreds,” said Cyndi after word about OM Yoga’s sign-off hit the streets. “I’m sitting there crying. The things that people are saying and sharing. I’m just feeling the love.”
When one door closes and your brick and mortar has been mortar and bricked up, it’s time to open a new door.
“We’re excited about our online presence expanding. We’re excited about putting classes and trainings online and developing an app. We’re going to go full speed ahead on that and develop our teacher network.”
At the same time the Cyndi Lee bus was moving ahead full speed, gathering momentum going from here to eternity, it was slowing down to Buddha-time. Between gangbusters and reflection she traveled and taught and put pen to paper.
Her think pieces, write-ups, and how-to articles have appeared in Yoga International, Yoga Journal, and Tricycle. The magazine isn’t about the three-wheel bike kids ride. It’s known as The Buddhist Review, or the independent voice of Buddhism. It’s won the Folio Award for “Best Spiritual Magazine” three times, which since Buddhism is a win or lose struggle, is faith in Buddhism manifested.
She has written several books, including “Yoga Body, Buddha Mind” and ”OM Yoga: A Guide to Daily Practice,” as well as the recent critically acclaimed “May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga and Changing My Mind.”
It was Buddha who said, “What we think, we become.”
She has been seen frequently on TV as herself, including The Dr. Oz Show, Live with Regis and Kathy Lee, and Good Morning, America. During her days on the dance scene she worked on music videos, choreographing for Rick James, Simple Minds, and Cyndi Lauper. She choreographed the ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ music video.
The video won the 1983 MTV Best Female Video of the Year award. Cyndi’s just want to have fun and celebrate. When the working day is done Cyndi Lee just wants to ride her red bike. She rides with mindful awareness, however, mindful that a bike’s passenger is its engine and that to keep your balance you must keep moving.
Cyndi got started in the practice of Buddhism in 1990. Over time she became the first female yoga teacher in the western world to integrate yoga asana and Tibetan Buddhism in her practice and into her message. When asked what her aspirations were, she said, “To get better at balancing on time and off time and to get better at understanding that they can be the same thing, if I can live like a yogi/Buddha.”
The four points of order she brings to meditation practice might as well apply to smooth sailing on two wheels like it does to mindfulness. “Sit up nice and tall. Feel your seat on the cushion. Feel the space all around you. Slowly begin to deepen your breathing, little by little, breath by breath.” Meditating when out of sorts is recommended, but meditation when out of balance and out of breath is like a fish pedaling a bicycle.
She has recently been ordained as a lay Buddhist chaplain.
“I met a man at a retreat at Upaya and we 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, but then I was. I decided to do it. That guy did not take the training and I haven’t seen him again. Somehow he was the catalyst, like an angel.”
One of the ideas embedded in the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that everyone should take responsibility for their own lives and actions. One of the right ways on the Eightfold Path is living honestly and helping others. One of the basic tenets of the practice is that everything in life is impermanent and always changing.
“One thing I’m good at is being brave and riding the winds of change,” said Cyndi. “To keep on keeping on with a real aliveness to how life changes and how I change.”
Life isn’t lived by mottoes, no matter how trenchant they are. Travel like a pro, not a hobo, is as good a motto as any. Cyndi Lee goes like a pro.
She doesn’t live by mottoes, but one of her favorites is, “Just show up.” When you show up day in and day out, whether at your big city studio or helping a hobo on your chaplain rounds, you’re staying true to yourself, not anybody else’s version of you. “In the end you’re still stuck with yourself,” she said.
“Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment,” said Lao Tzu.
In Cyndi’s case, when she shows up, it’s her good better best real self.