When it comes to yoga teachers, Cyndi Lee is the top of the top—the world-renowned founder of Om Yoga, she is also the author of five books (with a sixth in the works) and, through her teacher-trainings, is a force behind many of the greatest instructors on the planet. She is also about as real as they come. Real Simple deputy editor Danielle Claro asked Cyndi about that ever-elusive entity: the steady home practice.
DC: What’s the best way to get into yoga-mind when you’re at home?
CL: The best way to get into yoga-mind is to do yoga. The path is the practice. But if you are anything like me, you might have resistance to doing your practice even though you know you want yourself to do it. I look to the traditions I was taught by my gurus and the first thing to do to prepare for practice is to clean your space. Sweep the floor, dust your altar, gather together props you want to use that day. Don’t make this such a big project that it keeps you from practicing; just let the process of cleaning be a way to honor your practice and cultivate appreciation and excitement for it. Now you have created a home shala, a home practice zone, and it will call you to participate in it. Another way to prime the pump is to stimulate your yoga-mind by reading. Begin to develop a yoga library: biographies of great yogis; practice books; philosophy books. Start each practice with a little bit of reading right on your mat. And, of course, you can always use a yoga video. Sometimes I practice to my own videos and after a while I stop following my own instructions (!) but it gets me started and then I can flow as I like that day.
Do you practice pet-free or is it anyone’s mat?
Definitely let your pet be part of the practice! Do you have a choice? When I got first my puppy, Leroy Brown, he was all over my mat, licking my face in baby cobra, and crawling up into my cross-legged seat. It was cute/annoying and then I finally realized I had to open my mind and simply include him as part of the practice. When I lower from plank down into chadarunga, I worry that I might squish him, but he just naturally moves over on his own. He is a very smart poodle! This eventually pointed toward a deeper teaching because this is exactly what yoga is about. Yoga, union, means inclusivity. Instead of rejecting and trying to get rid of what we don’t like or want right then, we can practice curiosity and inclusivity and in this way, our capacity for compassion and joy and delight expands.
Tell us more.
We all have ideas in the “if only” category—“if only my dog would stay off my mat, my practice would be perfect.” “If only I could lose 10 pounds, I could find the right partner.” “If only I made more money, I could live in the best house and then I would be happy.” This negative thinking prevents us from having appreciation and gratitude for our beautiful and messy life. But yoga is never about shutting out the world, shutting down our mind, or rejecting anything at all. It is about developing strength, stability and clarity so that we can meet our life and whatever arises with an open heart and stable mind. So our time on the mat can include whatever is happening right then: outside sounds, inner thoughts, noisy neighbors, kids playing music, cats and very cute chocolate poodles.
What do you do when you see dust bunnies under the couch? Do you stop and sweep them up? Can you stop thinking about them if you don’t?
Well, yeah, it is tempting to get rid of them. But it’s ok. They’ve been there for a while and they can and will wait for you to sweep them up after your practice. You can use this as an opportunity to focus your mind on what you are doing, which is yoga. Think of this as grist for the mindfulness mill. Because there is always something that will pull you away from your home practice. Even if you’ve been looking forward to it all day, it is not unusual to sit down on your mat and then instantly remember that you were going to defrost a chicken for dinner or you really need to finish that important email first or somehow doing the laundry seems urgent. It’s called resistance. Stay on your mat and drop into your practice. When something pops up, such as “I need to sweep the dust bunnies under the couch,” bookmark that in your mind and keep going with your practice. Then, after practice, sweep the dust bunnies! PS. See answer #1 about cleaning your practice space.
I love the community aspect of coming to class, the smell of the studio, the fact that we’re all kind of dancing together. At home it feels like I’m moving through peanut butter and I often end up just doing my favorite poses and standing on my head. What would help?
It’s ok to do your favorite poses. It might help to just accept that home practice is a different thing than community practice. I also love, love, love practicing with other people but I have learned that home practice is a more contemplative private experience which offers insights about the actual practice, myself, and life in general.
If you want to challenge yourself to do more than just your favorite poses, you can pick one to three poses to do every day. There's a big list of poses that most of us find challenging but if we did them daily, they would start to open up. Please pick poses that might be out of your comfort zone but make sure you have a clear idea of how to begin working on them. That’s where a yoga book can help—I use Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar for continuous inspiration and ideas. Yoga Body Buddha Mind by Cyndi Lee has some good ideas, too...just saying.
Any thoughts/insights on practicing with a video/online class? It feels like screens and yoga can be at odds.
Sure, it is ideal to have an excellent yoga teacher who can give you personalized hands-on adjustments and verbal instructions but that is just not always available. So, let’s do yoga anyway. And I really feel that so many of us yoga teachers who have been teaching for decades have gotten very good at giving articulate verbal instructions which means you don’t have to look at the screen all the time anyway. You know, if you were in a live yoga class with me, you would not be looking at me but you would be listening to me all the time. So in this way, a video class and a live class are very similar. A video also offers the opportunity to rewind and listen again, to take a second look and really integrate study with practice.
What's your advice to those completely new to yoga?
My advice is to just get started and see what happens. Let the whole thing unfold. If you have access to teachers and group yoga classes, make sure to start with a class just for yoga beginners. That is going to set you up for a positive experience. If you don’t like the teacher, check out another teacher until you find someone who “sees” you and helps you feel safe and inspired.
If you don’t have yoga classes in your town, videos are really useful for beginners. It makes it easy to actually see how the poses works so that you can do it properly and get the benefits. Then you can look up the poses in a book to learn more about them for the next time you practice.