May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind, (part the first) Cyndi Lee

Well, in one fell swoop, I went from the crazy lady cackling in Starbucks to the one hiding in the corner hoping no one noticed the tears and excessive nose blowing.

It’s my own fault too; I have so many great recommendations for light-hearted novels lined up, but I wanted something different. I almost always need a break from a genre after an especially good book, so I put aside biographies, memoirs, and literary fiction for just such an occasion. My policy for a while has been if a book falls outside of the novel comfort zone, save it. The opportunity to slide it into the rotation will arise eventually.

In this case, I had heard about this book from my sister-in-law, an incredible yoga instructor currently specializing in mentoring other teachers. She recently helped to start a yoga-centered book club in her area, and May I Be Happy was the first book they chose to read. I was quite jealous that living three thousand miles away meant I couldn’t join them for the discussion at the beginning of the month, and now, having gotten half way through it, I can only imagine how wonderful that conversation must have been.

Cyndi Lee reminds me quite a bit of my brother’s wife, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons I’ve fallen so hard for this book. My “sister” is the person who first convinced me to give yoga a try, and it’s her teachings that I come back to again and again in my own practice. Her teaching style and philosophy are so similar to Lee’s – they share a sense of humor, a compassionate classroom etiquette, and an awareness of the perpetual need to allow room for growth. When I’m on the mat, it’s not the teacher in front of me I harken to, but the woman who joined our family over a decade ago and introduced all of us to a gentler vision of what our bodies are capable of; I am reminded of her instructions to allow the body to speak its piece on any given day and in every pose. She is the one who taught me, patiently and over many years now, to listen to my body, to be delighted by its strength, and maybe most importantly, gentle to it when it is struggling.

I don’t think I’ve ever looked at her with anything less than adoration, much as I did with my brother when I was young and everything he did seemed effortless and brave. In the last few years, as I ‘ve discovered the potential in myself to be more athletic, my respect for her, and for people like her, has grown even deeper. Her strength is visible in every movement – in her posture, her walk, her ability to get my inflexible brother to stretch – and I envy what seems to come so effortlessly for her.

I’ve valued this book in large part, however, because it’s made me realize that all the things I admire in her are not, in fact, effortless. Lee is a world-renowned yogi, and if it doesn’t come easy for her, then I have to accept and appreciate that the effort my sister-in-law puts in must also be enormous. It must require not only physical strength, but a disciplined mind and a passion for constant self-improvement. That combination is not easy to come by. And having those traits, as inspiring as they may be, does not mean that a person wouldn’t have doubts and insecurities.

Lee tackles this subject with a heartbreaking honesty that pairs well with her quick wit. It seems especially poignant to me as we hear debates about rape culture and the conflicting values women are expected to uphold. As a woman, it can be both discouraging and inspiring to hear about the struggles of other women who seem to have it all together, and Lee certainly fits the bill – a successful business owner and internationally renowned speaker with a fit, healthy body – I doubt I’m the only person who might glance her way with jealousy and a little resentment. Lee talks about this idea candidly though, and from a place of great vulnerability; she’s made a career teaching both emotional and physical balance, and to reveal her own shortcomings is a brave thing.

Although I have already dog-eared about thirty pages of this book, this section has been one of my favorite thus far. It captures a mentality that sadly hasn’t changed much in the time between Lee’s youth and today.

Gloria Steinem was beautiful and smart and clear speaking. She talked about how the traditional role of women was expanding and inspired us to take advantage of any opportunity. She told us that no choice was wrong except the one that was imposed on us. She said whatever choices we made in the future— stay at home, go to college, get married and have babies, or become career women— were all valid paths for us as young women….

Of course, there’s a reason why she is Gloria Steinem; it has to do with vision, bravery, and a willingness to tirelessly spread the message that no one’s body— women, men, children, or animals— is an appropriate political war zone. Forty years later, I understand this. I love this. I love Gloria. But back then, I was caught in a riptide that flowed in two opposing directions. One wave was moving forward, taking me and my friends and even my mom toward becoming more confident beings in the world. I set my sights on living a life that mattered to me and felt respect for all women, including those who had a different vision for their future….

And then there it was, that other tide, the backward-moving undertow that sliced through my self-esteem and told me that what other people think about me matters. My personal perception problem was so typical that it became a completely normal part of life. (p 20, 22)

Her perspective on how self-loathing and criticism have been completely normalized (or perhaps has always been a part of our psyche) has opened me up to examine a habit I am certainly guilty of perpetuating. It’s easy to get caught up in a hyper-critical analysis of ourselves, in the rutted denigration of the same old flaws. We often don’t even notice we’re doing it. We have become so used to being disappointed by who we are that we don’t even see that this is reinforcing those terrible opinions rather than working to form new, more positive visions of ourselves.

This book is all about that struggle, about how difficult it is to let go of the comfortable, old ways, even if they make us feel terrible. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it this holiday weekend, hopefully coming away from the experience with a little more energy for gentleness and self-care.

You can follow Cyndi Lee on Twitter for more information about her classes and travel.

7 thoughts on “May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind, (part the first) Cyndi Lee

    1. It’s really quite wonderful, and there’s so much more to it than I even managed to talk about in this review. If you’re interested in yoga or the connection between mental and physical health (particularly in women), I think you’ll find this to be a fascinating read.

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