“May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind” by Cyndi Lee (Dutton)
Yoga students are often motivated and even inspired by watching teachers twist their strong bodies into pretzeled poses. In her new memoir, “May I Be Happy,” yoga guru Cyndi Lee may surprise yogis as she pulls back the curtain to share deep-seated insecurities about her body.
Lee has been practicing yoga since 1972 and now leads classes, teacher training sessions and special workshops worldwide. She has written other yoga books, but this time, she gets personal.
Recently, Lee realized it was challenging to preach to students about personal growth when she was stuck herself. Yoga unites body and mind, and while she led meditations and could do a headstand, Lee’s lifelong negative body image plagued her.
Her self-worth was wrapped up in her appearance, and although she was never what most would consider overweight, she never quite met her own expectations. The book follows her journey to discover the roots of her self-judgment, and the tools to get past it. “I didn’t know that taking care of myself wasn’t the same as actually caring about myself,” Lee writes.
She bravely shares intimate details of her life, which draws in readers. Her dancing and choreography experience in the 1980s for stars like Cyndi Lauper put her body under a microscope and in competition with many thin peers.
Lee’s visits with her mother — who suffers from dementia — spark memories of when she first became aware of her body and perceived its imperfections.
Since Lee was a teen, feelings of guilt, fear and shame overcame her regularly: “I was always getting mad at my body, but my body has been fine. It’s my relationship to my body that’s hurting me and my mind is the real troublemaker.”
Uncomfortable talking about puberty and sex, her mother contributed to Lee’s issues. Her mother’s preoccupation with her own appearance set an example that nagged Lee through adulthood.
Lee consults health experts and spiritual leaders, practices meditation, studies Buddhism and tries positive affirmations. She meets with her friend, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, once famous for her sexy body. Now 54, Curtis’ body has changed, but she offers Lee advice on acceptance.
She also recognizes that the hormone shifts of menopause affect her emotions and sex drive. Over time, she’s able to push out negative thoughts about her body and let in supportive ones. Releasing those thoughts is a challenge and, like yoga, a perpetual practice.
When Lee learns that her husband has betrayed her, she hits her lowest point. Dealing with her failing mother and tenuous marriage instead of returning to old habits, she finally finds the strength to believe she’s good enough.
Some of Lee’s stories include excessive detail and need editing. She often skips around in time, and there are no clear chapters, which can be confusing and interrupts the narrative’s flow.
But Lee’s candor in her healing process will likely resonate with self-help fans. Downward doggers will appreciate her pose descriptions and the window into a teacher’s thoughts about students during the quiet intensity of a class. For the millions of people — especially women — who fight the fat talk in their heads, her words will be familiar and comforting.
In talking about her students, Lee says, “The honesty and vulnerability of each person touches me deeply.”
With this book, Lee has returned the gift.