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May I be Happy

by Cyndi Lee

An excerpt from May I be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind.

Every day I meet a woman who tells me how much she loves my gray hair and how much she wants to let her own hair go gray. She says that she thinks I am so brave but she is not yet ready to be that brave. But having gray hair doesn’t feel brave to me. What it feels is good and liberating and natural and healthy in so many ways.

I’m no longer strengthening the imprints that tell me I’m wrong or need improvement—at least in my hair department. That might not seem like a big deal but it is. Those old neurological synapses with the grouchy inner voice have dissolved and new ones have formed around positive feelings toward my silver locks. It might not seem like a big deal and in the grand scheme of suffering, it is a Cadillac problem. But for me it was a significant step toward self-acceptance, and in that way, I guess it was brave.

That little bit of motivation started turning my thought wheels in the opposite direction. I remembered what my meditation teacher told me, that being kind to others has to start with being kind to ourselves. And isn’t that the very first teaching of yoga, ahimsa, which means non-harming of self and others? How could I turn this thing around?

One day, a few months after arriving home from India, full of my habitual frustration, discontent, and grumpiness about my body, a space opened up in the thicket of mental brambles and this thought floated in: “You already have everything you need to be happy.”

Bingo! All of us experience moments of insight that pop up out of nowhere. Maybe it was a matter of time and practice … drip, drip, drip, the bucket fills. Or maybe something more ordinary like boredom or exhaustion or jet lag slows us down long enough to notice.

What I wanted had been there all along, but I was too busy creating my own dukha to notice it. I see that tendency in my students, too. They might be sitting nicely in a pose but the space between their eyebrows has a deep crease that tells me they are in pain. When I ask them about it, it’s almost like I woke them out of a nap. A typical reply might be, “Oh yeah, this position always kills me. It’s been like that for years. I just don’t have good shoulders.”

When I suggest that they loosen their grasp and use a yoga belt to allow the position to be held with less stress on their shoulders, it comes as a huge revelation! What a good idea. Here’s a way to do the same thing without struggling and I could have been doing it that way all along. And, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with your shoulders!

That day, in the snap of a finger, I saw that I had gotten it wrong all these years! I was always getting mad at my body but, in fact, my body has been fine. It’s my relationship to my body that is hurting me, and my mind that is the real troublemaker. The truth is, although I’ve always had a perfectly fine, healthy body, I have thought and felt that I was too fat or too soft or too thin or too little here or too big there every day of my life. Simply put, I am addicted to hating my body, and really, to hating myself.

Clearly, it’s my mind that needs to change, not my body. Instead of looking outside myself for a better diet, a more effective exercise plan, a face lift in a bottle, or an ultra-enthusiastic bra, I needed to examine my habitual ways of thinking—this addiction that has so defined my own self-image. I began to wonder who I would be without it. The first step to finding the answer to that question was to take a closer look at the problem.

What’s the real reason I hate my body? I’m starting to understand that I’ve been basing my happiness on a specific condition, a condition that is not only impossible to achieve but is also a moving target. Like all forms of conditional happiness—more chocolate, shopping, money, alcohol—running after a “perfect” body can only result in hamster wheels of confused, desperate, and repetitive activity. Just like any other form of craving, there is no end to it, and no lasting satisfaction is possible.

This insight had been trying to get my attention for a while. Just like yoga students who stay in a position for years without even noticing, I hadn’t even realized I was miserable but now that I did, I saw how long I’d been this way. I saw all the ways that I had tried to feel better by changing my body, looking everywhere for answers except for inside my head.

Cyndi Lee, founder of OM Yoga Center, is the first Western yoga teacher to fully integrate yoga asana and Tibetan Buddhism into her practice and teaching.