Book Review: “May I Be Happy” by Cyndi Lee
“May I Be Happy”
A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind
Written by Cyndi Lee
A book review by Kenzie Pattillo
I found a new yoga memoir at the library last month unexpectedly. I’d been in left brain yoga study for months it seemed – reading books about hands-on adjustments, sequencing and anatomy – and was yearning for a little personal narrative to apply to my yoga studies. Enter “May I Be Happy” by Cyndi Lee: a compelling and well-written memoir that also has within its pages the potential to help us heal our relationship with our own body.
The story is divided into three sections – arising, abiding and dissolving – providing a metaphorical structure that beautifully reinforces the subtleties of Lee’s unfolding journey towards self-acceptance. Teaching discourses interspersed throughout reinforce the process she is going through on her own path and her willingness to bring her students along with her. Her complete honesty and humility are refreshingly daring and exemplify her commitment to the vows of the bodhisattva. “I vow in every moment…to be helpful to every being I encounter in my life- all those beings I know and love, those I know and don’t like so much, and all those many, many beings I’ll never meet.” This book is a manifest expression of that vow.
My first take-away from the book came in the opening line of the opening paragraph: “Vinyasa has three parts – arising, abiding and dissolving”. Now that I’ve thoroughly digested this book I’m starting to recognize this truth in each yoga posture I perform, in the unfolding of both my home practice and the classes I teach, and even in the trajectory of my own life. “It’s a big vinyasa; everything that happens plants a seed and everything that is happening is the fruit of a previous seed. I’m becoming more aware of the seeds that I’m planting; and I’m becoming more aware of the seeds that have created my current experiences. That also means I can choose which seeds I want to water.”
What arises for her is the realization of her own suffering through long held body dissatisfaction that had been normalized early on in her life and cemented as a “full blown adult body grudge” that was only getting stronger as she passed through middle age. It was affecting her relationships, her health and her ability to teach yoga authentically. “Most all of my friends know this syndrome well and consider it a normal thing for our self-esteem to be based on how we feel about how our body looks.” She shares her inner dialogue about these feelings in real time while attending a Yoga Journal Conference in Hong Kong and on pilgrimage to India to visit Deer Park where the Buddha shared his first teachings. She mines her past and sees the origins of her negative body relationship in her upbringing as a minister’s daughter and her young adult life as a professional modern dancer. Once she begins to truly see how unhealthy her relationship is with her own body she sees how it’s been with her all along. It just keeps arising!
She moves into abiding, exploring the presence of this reality in her life, while seeking counsel from friends and mentors, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christine Northrup, and other long time girlfriends. She integrates this newfound awareness into her meditation practice as a 30 day challenge in the form of a Zen koan of sorts, asking herself, “What is my ‘ideal’ body?” She offers her students a lively discussion of sukha (ease) and dukha (suffering) – practice sukhasanasa-stop practicing dukhasana! – and an experiential teaching of Basic Goodness, found through sitting in Vajrasana and exploring the reality of neural plasticity in regards to the power of practice. “I was not going to share this with my class, but I realized that repetition is how I’ve become such a masterful critic of every nook and cranny of my one precious body.”
Two thirds of the way through the book Lee is firmly aware of the truth of her reality, but still hasn’t found a way to change it. The dissolving still must find a way to be initiated. Enter her mother’s own dissolution and the discovery of her husband’s philandering and the potential dissolution of that relationship as well. Then, Louise Haye (mother of positive affirmations and catalyst for by far the most entertaining discourse in the book) tells Lee to acknowledge her own mother’s narcissism, her own unwillingness to do anything about her situation thus far, and the absolute imperative that she not call the book “I Hate My Body”, because every time she says it, “It just gets worse!” Louise tells Lee in no uncertain terms that she has spent a lifetime practicing “rotten affirmations” and instead offers her the affirmation “I am my own yoga student”. Haye helps Lee see the contrast between how she thinks about herself compared to how she thinks about her students: “I love them and I don’t care what they look like and I never think their bodies are wrong.”
Lee meets with Buddhist nun Jetsumna Tenzin Palmo, who reminds her to take her troubles into her practice and turn it into the path. This includes thanking Lee’s husband for his indiscretions and forgiving the women who were involved. But most importantly Palmo recommends that Lee practice Maitri-loving kindness- for herself. ‘May I be safe/May I be healthy/May I be happy/May I live with ease’ becomes another powerful affirmation to dissolve her lifetime body grudge.
“That old grumpy voice was the one thing not being fed…The most important safe and healthy environment was inside my head. I was no longer willing to live in a place where the law said I had to be perfect. And I was not going to live with someone who didn’t like me, respect me, or take proper care of me, so I broke up with that person – the woman who hated her body – and decided to become the person I did want to live with.”
During the final chapter of this book Lee literally becomes her own yoga student as she practices along with a yoga video she made a decade ago. She feels such compassion for her past self and acknowledges how far she has come. “I realized I had decided to accept the assignment of working with this body. Not to get rid of it; not to resent it; not to wish I looked more like somebody else; but to take this body as it was at this moment on the path towards more goodness.” “If I loved it (my body) unconditionally, I might learn to love myself unconditionally, and then to spread this unconditional love to others. That was a good day’s yoga practice.”
I couldn’t help but relate to the inquiry set in motion in this book. I believe that most women live with at least a small amount of ‘body grudge’, but that it is viewed as something non-negotiable – the cost of doing business as a woman in this contemporary world. I completely identify with a quote she shares by Gelek Rinpoche who said, “You can’t divide yourself into parts and hate one part and love another – both parts are you.” Yoga asana practice has helped me to access those parts of my body my mind has judged unacceptable and integrate them back into a loving, safe whole. The mindfulness inherent in yoga practice has helped me access the truth in the statements “You are not your thoughts” and “Don’t believe everything you think”. What needs to be added is the knowledge that we can change our thoughts, not just abide them. Though I’ve been able to create some space between myself and my negative body thoughts, they still arise quite regularly and if not brought to the light of awareness, I can easily find myself watering full grown plants long ago planted as seeds. Through Lee’s words I feel empowered to not just abide these thoughts but to apply some conscious affirmations in order to plant new seeds instead.
This book tackles a very big subject with grace and courage. Our relationship with our body is nuanced, multi-layered and deeply personal. I can’t even begin to do this subject justice by reviewing this book, but Lee does the subject profound justice by writing it. As Louise Haye said as she hugged Lee goodbye, “…when you get it, you’re going to get it for everybody.” Thank you Cyndi Lee! This book will help so many people. Please read! Please share!
Kenzie Pattillo completed her 200 hour YTT at Salt Spring Centre of Yoga in 2002. She is a householder yogi/mama living in North Vancouver, B.C. and presently teaches yin, hatha and flow yoga in her community. En route to completing her 500 hour YTT designation she has recently begun practicing one on one restorative therapeutics.