April 12, 2011

Earthquake Friends. ~ Cyndi Lee

Photo: Dominic's Pics

We’re honored to host Cyndi Lee here on elephant journal, and hope you feel the same way. She’s a big deal in the yoga world, and has been a fun, spunky, troublemaking, sweet, cuddly, supportive elephriend for a long time.

Please support her presence on elephant by sharing this up, if so inspired: I’m sure if she gets a great response it’ll help convince her to connect with our community more often.

~ Waylon, ed.

The earthquake hit five minutes after I got off the plane.

I cruised through customs and was delighted to discover my suitcase already circulating the carousel—no waiting for luggage at Narita! The airport felt remarkably uncrowded, with only one person in front of me at the final checkpoint.

I didn’t mind waiting. I liked watching the immigration officer greet each new visitor to Japan with his elegant efficiency; receiving their passport with both hands and bowing when he returned it.

I was gearing up my own mindfulness so I could meet him with equal grace, but when I handed him my passport he turned his head and became very still.

That’s weird.

I got paranoid.

Is he trying to psych me out?

In the eye-blink moment it took to have that thought, I realized the officer was listening to something with his whole body.

Photo: Dsin


I crumpled onto the edge of the luggage counter and felt an inner panic as the floor buckled and the overhead lamps started swinging. The room was suddenly noisy; full of wild grumblings in surround-sound and violent pitching like airplane turbulence.

Long seconds later, as the whole thing just got bigger, I tried to comfort myself,

This must be the peak of it.

That’s when a ceiling panel fell down followed by a cascade of dust and the officer pointed to the swaying lights. Yes, I see, I should stand with the other people over by the baggage claim area.

No one said a word. Passengers and officers and airport workers were all stunned into silence. I can’t say I was shocked to experience an earthquake in Japan. Last year while teaching in Shinjuku, mid-vinyasa, all the students dropped to the floor. They called,

“Shyndi! Shyndi! Earthquake!”

I got down, too. My reaction time to feeling an earthquake was slower than my Japanese students’, just like it was slower than that of the immigration officer.

Finally, the rumbling stopped.

I don’t remember it slowing down, but just that at one point the quiet included the environment, not just the people. I didn’t hear any more creaking metal or what sounded like a truck driving through the wall.  A completely compelling 3-D event had come and gone, just like that. The officers unfroze and looked at each other, seeming to communicate, although I couldn’t hear them say anything. A few stepped out of the room and a few others stepped into the room. Minutes passed, and then the immigration officer looked at me, nodding to indicate that I could return to the counter, retrieve my passport and enter the airport. I felt shaky and unstable but I pulled it together and walked out the door.

I figured I’d do what I always do when I arrive in Japan—exchange money and then cross the hall to buy a bus ticket to my hotel. There were already people lined up at the currency exchange table and it seemed all was proceeding as normal.

OK, I get it—impermanence.

Things are one way and then they are a different way and people in Japan are used to earthquakes. Yen in hand, it was time to buy a bus ticket.


The earthquake was back, almost as agitated as before. Two Japanese women in pink bows and knee socks dropped to the floor next to me. Cries and shrieking all around. No more business as usual. This much moving force so soon after the first can’t be taken in stride.

Photo: Owen Finn

When the bucking slowed down, an announcement was made in Japanese. From the response I guessed it said,

“Nobody move.”

In this culture based on obedience and respect, people simply complied, putting themselves on hold. But for me,  all this shaking and rocking and plummeting to the floor and no one to talk to—it was just too isolating. So I did what any true New Yorker would do. I leaned over to a blonde guy in a red shirt and tortoise shell glasses and asked,

“So…what do you think is going on?”

He turned an open face to me and said,

“I have no idea but it seems like they want us to go out into the parking lot where there isn’t anything overhead that could fall on us.”

Out we went.

Brad and I got to know each other in the parking lot. He’s an Economics professor and I’m a yoga teacher—very likely two people who would never have met under normal circumstances. But, boy, was it good to talk with him. I loved learning about the history of economic ideas and how they influenced all of history. He had questions about yoga and liked learning that the benefits of meditation are strength, stability and clarity. We talked about what we thought was going on and how we wished the announcements would be in English sometimes. We took each other’s pictures for “the memoirs.”

If this had been a movie the sky would have been dark, with sullen, threatening overtones. Instead the day was crisp and sunny, a refreshing almost-spring day, which sent a confusing message of welcome. The weather seemed out of sync with the events of the day; sleep deprivation, jet lag and terra non-firma.

By 6 p.m. the temperature had cooled off enough for us to really want to be back inside. We pulled our jackets tighter. As the unknowing continued, Brad would ask,

“Strength, stability and…?”


“Right, I like that.”

Eventually the crowd started moving back into the airport. I hadn’t felt any more aftershocks and assumed that we would be able to get on the bus soon. But who knew? We sheep were simply herded back inside and held there. Brad and I stuck together, ending up beneath the Arrivals/Departures board where all flights were listed as either delayed or indefinite.

“Got any news?”

I butted my nose into another guy’s business when I saw him checking his Blackberry. He said,

“8.9, off the NE coast and there was a tsunami, too.”

His name was Jim and he’d made friends with Mika and Barry. In one instant, we became a group of five. Mika, a world-renowned violinist, is Japanese and told us what the announcements said, which was nothing much. Barry, an American living in Tokyo with his family, shared his impressions of how Japanese deal with emergency situations. He told us they aren’t facile with on-the-spot or out-of-the-box thinking. Clearly it was going to take a while for authorities to make a plan B and in the meantime, we were told that the trains weren’t running and neither were the buses, since the entire highway was now closed. Japanese caution seemed to require that everything would be closed down until everything could be opened up.

Photo: Midorisyu

This included the airport restaurants and stores. Along with 8,000 other people and no food or drink, we understood we would be spending the night in Narita. We claimed our territory under a backlit poster of Mount Fuji and set up camp. We heard a rumor that sleeping bags were being provided so Jim and I volunteered to wait in the long line; nearly the full length of the airport..!  When we were about 20 people from the front of the line, we were told—with much bowing and apologizing—that there were no more sleeping bags.

There were no more Ritz crackers, either, but we did get some bottles of water.

In the meantime, Mika found a vending machine and managed to get us some hot drinks: Cohee, Milk Cohee and Cocoa. Brad walked around until he found people with extra sleeping bags and brought back enough for all of us. It was midnight by now and cold. Barry went for a stroll and managed to score some snacks for us all.

The phone lines were jammed and I couldn’t get my e-mail up and running. We all wanted to let our friends and family know we were okay but, for the moment, we settled in.

Jim told us about his career in the Coast Guard. I hadn’t realized that along with rescues they do environmental work to save the oceans and sea life. Mika talked about her days at Julliard and of course, they all asked me about yoga. It surprised them to know that I taught yoga all over the world—but then, all of us were world travelers, seeing the world through our chosen fields. I did a little stretching—shoulder openers and twists felt good, but the jet lag, the cold floor and the general stress of the whole situation needed more medicine than that.

That’s where my earthquake friends came in. Maybe we were all in shock but not one of us complained even once. People tell me now that I was brave but it wasn’t like that. After those first big quakes, I never felt as if I was in immediate danger.  It wasn’t until later that I learned of the tremendous destruction of the tsunami and the ongoing problems at the nuclear power plants.

By Saturday afternoon I was in my Tokyo hotel room on the 33rd floor talking to my amazed husband.

“Really? The minute you handed the guy your passport the earthquake hit? Wow, Cyndi, you’re so powerful!”

Dave wasn’t all kidding. From his vantage point—24 hours a day in front of his new 46″ Blu-Ray, the hyper-agitation of CNN’s reporting filled him with anxiety and perhaps a sense of the mythological.

Photo: Per Ola Wiberg

To some, the massive earthquake and the constant aftershocks—which had me so nervous I jumped out of my skin every time my room’s heating unit kicked on, seemed like an urgent message from the earth. I read e-mail conversations on CNN’s website from viewers who argued that the cause of the earthquake was Japan’s insistence on killing sharks for soup. Others wrote back that’s not how karma works; some wrote that there is no meaning to any of this and everybody should get a grip.

David emailed that he was praying to the water and earth gods and dragons to protect me. I appreciated that, I really did. But I liked it better when Jim matter-of-factly said,

“It’s gonna take a while for those shifting plates to settle.”

No need for more drama, thank you. If I take it personally, there is a feeling of malignancy, which leads to confusion, fear, anxiety, guilt—all kinds of stuff that isn’t really needed or useful or accurate.

The earth moved. It does that sometimes. It’s not about me.

Three days later I was back at the airport. The 6.4 that struck while I was having dinner on the 14th floor just did me in. When I got back to my deserted hotel at midnight, there was one taxi and I nabbed it. Seventy-five minutes and $300 later, my driver bowed and left me on the curb. The airport was quiet and dark. The first night I’d spent at Narita, the fluorescents were on all night, but not it was quite different since the imposed power outages.

Because the trains were down, a third of my students hadn’t been able to attend my two days of teaching, and it became clear that it made no sense to continue the training. My translator’s Canadian husband told me over the phone that things were only going to get worse. He had already left Tokyo and taken their children to Osaka where he said the hotel was full of ex-pats concerned about lack of food, gas shortages and radiation poisoning.

I wondered if Narita was even open, but I saw a few people schlepping bags so I followed them, hoping they knew where the door was, because I sure didn’t. The hotel receptionist had cautioned me,

“There will be a lot of people at the airport tonight. Please be careful.”

But for me, Japan for me is a place where you can trust people. No one is going to steal my things or mug me. During this entire disaster there have been no reported incidents of any kind of looting or even selfish behavior. By now, I’ve heard from almost all of my earthquake friends that everybody made it home safe and sound. Barry and his family had to leave their collapsed apartment building and drive south. He wrote to express his admiration for the extreme dignity and nobility of the Japanese people. Barry had finally managed to get online while we were in the airport, and after I fell asleep he e-mailed all my friends to let them know I was safe.

The only friend I hadn’t heard from was Satoshi. We had met at the airport taxi stand on Saturday morning. By 6 a.m. it was obvious there would be no trains or buses to Tokyo, so I went outside where I assumed there would be huge lines of waiting taxis and waiting taxi passengers, just as there would be if it was Newark Liberty Airport. There were only about 15-20 people and no taxis at all. It was cold, but I was determined. Every 20 minutes a taxi showed up. The taxi dispatcher said the highway to Tokyo was still closed, but we could get a ride to Chiba, an hour and a half away.

Chiba? Where is Chiba? Oh, boy.

Fortunately, Satoshi was in front of me and he was willing to help.  So we all shared a taxi to Chiba—Satoshi, Brad and I. Once there, Satoshi simply picked up my suitcase and we followed him through the crowds to the one local train that was running toward Tokyo.

Only five days earlier Dave and I had been in the Cleveland airport and we stopped to watch a charming Rube Goldberg on display. It was a brightly painted contraption made up of wire spirals, scales, ramps, ladders and springs through which ping pong balls traveled in various directions, depending on how or when the next ball arrived. The first ball didn’t get pushed out of the tunnel until one, two, three, four and then finally the fifth ball’s force pushed it over the edge. From there it landed on a spring which bounced it to the top of a chute down which it slid, landing on the bottom rung of a mechanical ladder that carried the ball back to the top to begin it all again. A visual example of interdependence, this motorized perpetual motion machine came to mind as the situation in Japan devolved further each day I was there. The earth shook, the water rose up, the power plants shut down, the electricity went off, and the people dealt with it as best they could.

We’d been in Cleveland to teach our workshop on the Six Paramitas or Actions of a Bodhisattva. But here in Japan I found that nobody needed a teaching on generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation or wisdom. It was natural for us to take care of each other, control our minds, remain calm, maintain our stamina, stay focused, and make the choices that would be good for everyone.

Photo: Steve Nagata

Throughout another train, several subway rides, and a short walk through Shibuya, Satoshi carryied my suitcase for the entire 6.5 hours. He delivered me to the front desk of the Cerulean Tower Hotel with a deep bow.  He still had another hour of travel to get to his home but his generosity dictated he take care of me first.

Tuesday night, as I stepped back inside the dim entryway of Narita, I saw a security guard on patrol. I figured I’d make a pit stop and then settle in for the night, so I asked him directions to the ladies’. Like Satoshi, he didn’t just point but politely escorted me all the way to the door of the bathroom. When I came out, I didn’t feel afraid, just a little bit lonely.

So I did what had worked before, I looked around to see if I could find someone who might speak my language. And guess what? There was Brad, sleeping on a bench right in front of me! I rolled my suitcase over and plopped down on the floor, happy to wait through the night with my earthquake friend.

I am thinking everyday of how we can help our friends in Japan.

I know I was lucky and really not much happened to me except a little inconvenience and some jittery nerves. But it still feels like I went through something powerful, and what sticks with me is the goodness of the group. We earthquake friends stayed steady for each other, and in times of uncertainty that means everything. I am very moved by these friendships, even though I may never see Brad, Jim, Mika or Barry again.

When my continental flight landed in Newark, the senior flight attendant said,

“From the beaches of Waikiki to the oranges of California; the Rocky Mountains to the Statue of Liberty, may I be the first to welcome you home to the golden arms of the U.S. I am glad to have delivered all 278 of you to safety. Our prayers are with the brave, beautiful Japanese people.”

Maybe it was corny, but the words meant a lot to me, and when I looked around the cabin I saw that I wasn’t the only one crying.


Cyndi Lee, Founder and Director of OM yoga, has been teaching the OM yoga method — vinyasa/flowing form integrated with precise alignment and the meditative elements of mindfulness and compassion, since 1996.  She is a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, studying with Gelek Rimpoche since 1990 as well as the Shambhala meditation tradition.

In 1998, Cyndi founded OM yoga Center, an oasis of goodness and fun in Union Square, New York City. She travels the world teaching OM yoga teacher trainings, retreats, and workshops, and when she comes home she hangs out with her husband, David Nichtern, and her poodle, Leroy.   She is the author of Yoga Body Buddha Mind, OM yoga in a Box, OM yoga A Guide to Daily Practice and is a regular contributor to the Shambhala Sun, Yoga Journal and YogaYomu in Japan.

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