By Susan V. Cousineau | See her blog
I interviewed Cynthia Naydani at her home in Ban Ko Tao, Chumphon, Thailand, where she operates a dive/yoga studio. Cynthia has not one but two Bachelor of Science Honours degrees, in Ecology and Primatology. Yet several years ago, on the verge of starting graduate school, she found herself in crisis as she came to realize that a life of academia wasn’t for her, and set about discovering her own purpose and direction. She talks about the challenges and joys of following a dream, the highs and lows, what it took to get where she is now – and the joy and gratitude that she’s found in creating her own meaningful work.
So, here it is: the minimally cut interview version (my questions in italics):
One of the things that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time is profiling some of the really, really cool women [Dec. 2015 edit: people in general] that I’ve worked with or that I know or hung out with. There’s kind of a laundry list on my fridge right now of women that I’ve been wanting to interview. I think it’s important for girls to hear these kinds of stories and see examples of others pursuing – and exceeding – their own dreams.
I feel really grateful that you thought of me and that you think my life is worth including in that list.
So you kicked ass in biology. And then how did you end up doing what you’re doing now? How did you transition into that?
I did two degrees at the same time. I was planning on going to grad school, I really loved what I was doing and I knew I didn’t want to go into consulting. I’ve always really thrived in academia and that’s all I really knew. The last year of my undergrad I started taking some grad courses, and that was all really good but I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to follow ecology or primatology. I was also interested in marine biology but I didn’t have a background in it, so I decided to stick with primatology for graduate work. One of my supervisors in my undergrad offered grad positions, and I picked one that would take me back to Belize, so I went to Belize after I graduated to assist in a field school as a teaching assistant and have a preliminary field season on a new field, establishing a new field site where I’d be doing my graduate studies.
So I was there for the summer and I was all set to start, I had my funding and stuff, and then that summer in Belize lots of things went – at the time I thought that everything was going wrong – the shit hit the fan in so many different ways that were totally unpredictable. I just felt like I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. I kept having this sinking feeling when I thought about committing to grad school. I was 23, and I thought that that was it. School had been the only thing I ever knew but I just felt like it wasn’t the right path for me. I ended up calling my supervisor from the jungle a couple of weeks before the semester started and telling her I’m sorry, but I’m not going to do this.
So what went wrong?
Everything from tripping in the forest, falling on my machete and almost cutting my finger off, and not being able to go back into the forest and work to realizing that the project that I wanted to do actually wouldn’t be possible at that field site, to more personal things, feeling like the situation I’d gotten myself into really wasn’t worth it and wasn’t what I was meant to do. Personally and professionally. Now when I look back on the amount of things that went wrong and the wide variety of errors I really honestly feel like it was a sign, like the universe was telling me, “No, don’t do it don’t it do it”, and I was so scared, I was so lost. I was 23, school was the only thing I knew, and I was just like: what am I going to do now? I just felt like it was all over, you know, but I just knew that I couldn’t stay, my heart wasn’t in it.
You know that sounds so familiar. I’ve been out of academia for about 2 ½ years. After I got to the end of my Masters, I was just burned out, completely hit a wall, and it was really unexpected because it had been the only thing that I ever really wanted to do. And I’ve done it, checked the boxes, and now what, is it just totally not my thing or am I just tired, everything implodes, so yeah, for sure, I can relate to that.
It was the beginning of the hardest year of my life, for sure. To be 23 and think that your life is over for something like this.
It’s kind of cute, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is! but at the time it was super traumatic, I had no idea what to do, so I went back to Canada but I was very depressed, very miserable. I ended up just selling a bunch of stuff, my Jeep, all my stuff, just to make money. I knew I didn’t want to be in Canada so I went back to Belize, and I kind of told myself at the time that I’d go back to grad school, I’d just take some time off. I sat for my GREs because I kind of thought I’d go to school in America, but I just really didn’t know. So I went to Belize and basically just sat there for a year, just trying to figure out what to do.
So what happened in Belize? Is that where you got into diving, or yoga, or what happened there?
Well, I first got exposed to yoga when I was 15, because I was so unfit, and so unflexible, and I was riding horses and one of my instructors suggested I try yoga so I got a book on yoga for equestrians and tried some of the stuff, but I wasn’t really into it. Then when I started at the University of Calgary I started taking some of the yoga classes at the school and around the neighbourhood. But I wasn’t really committed to it, I wasn’t practicing a ton, but any time there was something difficult in my life, that’s when I felt like I was called back to yoga – even though I wasn’t really good at it at all, I didn’t even really like it, I didn’t know what I was doing, I had some videos and DVDs and books. When times were hard, that’s when I would practice, and then I would fall away from it for a few months. So when I was in Belize, yeah I was doing yoga, but I wasn’t very committed to it, I didn’t know what would end up happening with it.
You never know where it’s going when you’re in it.
Yeah, it was just what I was doing – I’d wake up in the morning and if I felt like doing yoga then I would, and then if I didn’t feel like it then I didn’t do it. So I hung out in Belize and then eventually it was time for me to leave. I’d started diving when I was in Belize for the field season, and I’d gone to Honduras and did my PADI course. I first went to Belize on the field course that I ended up being a teaching assistant on, and I really fell in love with the ocean there. It was my first time travelling, my first time in the tropics, my first time swimming in the ocean like that, and that was what really started the shift for me. I started diving, and I loved it, so that year that I spent in Belize I did a lot of diving. I still thought I’d want to do grad school in marine biology, or I told myself that because I didn’t really know what else to do, and I kept telling myself that and I knew I wanted to do something positive but I didn’t know what that would look like, I didn’t know how to do that. So then once it was time for me to leave Belize I thought that it would be a good idea to be a dive professional, so that for graduate positions if I wanted to work in the field – which is what I really loved then – I’d have good qualifications for that. And I’d been in contact with with some grad schools and professors at UBC and Dalhousie. I had a friend that had done his dive master training on Khotel, which is one of the islands here in Thailand, and I’d never been to Thailand and it seemed like a good idea, so I booked a flight.
And there you are –
Here I am.
So how did that happen? How did you go from going to Thailand to do your dive master training to …
So I came to Thailand to do my dive master and dive instructor training, my professional training. That was a little over 6 years ago. And I was getting more and more into yoga, I was here, I was diving, I was doing yoga, I was working and I was really enjoying it. Right after I arrived here I met the man who was my boyfriend for most of those 6 years, and now he’s one of my business partners. Although we’re not together in that relationship, we’re still really close friends. He and I founded Ocean Sound. So we were both working and then we got job offers for Bali, so after a year here we moved to Bali. We lived there for 6 months teaching yoga. By then I was practicing every day and I’d really made a commitment: I just woke up one morning and decided I’m going to do yoga every day from now on and I’ve done yoga every day since. So in Bali we were working there for 6 months in a little fishing village but there wasn’t really enough work to keep us going. I ran out of money, we were running out of money, so we decided to go back to Canada – he’s Canadian as well. We thought we could go there and make some money – so we ended up moving to Vancouver, although neither of us had lived in Vancouver before. But we thought that it would be a nice place to live, it’s still by the ocean, we thought that maybe we’d still be able to dive but no – the water was way too cold, forget it.
And make some money in Vancouver, too, right?
Yeah, yeah exactly –
And that’s what we thought was going to happen until we got to Vancouver. I’ve got two university degrees, I’m applying to all these jobs, no one will hire me. I applied to restaurants, bars, and ended up working at a coffee shop that was killing my soul. Thinking about it now… I’d wanted to do my yoga teacher training for a long time, but because I’d been living in these remote places, I’d never had access to it and I’d also never had money and then we’d ended up freeing up some money. I also had a membership at a yoga studio that was right by our apartment so I started going two or three times a day, taking two or three classes. I practically lived there. Finally my partner told me, “You need to do your teacher training.” And I was working at this coffee shop – the very first day they made me sweep up leaves and throw them in the garbage. This was one of the pivotal moments of my life; I’d lived in nature for years and then all of a sudden I was being told to sweep up leaves that were outside and put them in the garbage. I decided to my teacher training because I couldn’t stand the thought of having a job that I didn’t adore and that I dreaded going to every day. After teaching diving, the thought of just putting up with my life, I couldn’t – it just wasn’t an option. So I did my yoga teacher training, and then started teaching, just volunteering, classes at Lulu Lemon, I taught yoga as secondary therapy at a women’s outreach centre, I was volunteering at the SPCA taking care of all the dogs, I was doing lots of stuff that fulfilled my soul – but nothing paid my bills. We weren’t running out of money but we had this money and asked ourselves, “What are we going to do with it? Are we going to stay here and spend it all really quickly because Vancouver’s really expensive, what should we do?” And then I woke up one morning and I was like, you know, life was good on Khotel – let’s go back there. And I sold everything that we owned on Craigslist, we bought one-way tickets, and came back to Khotel. We were on a layover in the San Francisco airport and we started building our website for Ocean Sound. We had talked about it and we thought, you know, this time let’s do things a little bit different. We don’t want to work for someone, we don’t want to be at anyone’s mercy, we want to take control of our lives a little bit more and do things our way. So we thought that we’d have this website because then people that we interacted with like our dive students and our yoga students could keep in touch with us more easily, and they could also refer people to a website rather than, you know, look up Cyn on Facebook. We’d have a proper business page. That was the original idea for Ocean Sound, how it started. And then it didn’t take long before we had our first booking of someone we didn’t even know, someone that found our website, liked it, and voila –
There you go.
Yeah, so for a couple of years we were just a booking website – we would book people to dive with Will and then I was teaching yoga at a different yoga studio and they would come, or find out about the yoga through Will and then come to my classes at the yoga studio and that’s how Ocean Sound was born.
That’s such a neat story – to see, to go through your website because I’ve been following your websites for awhile, like your vegan blog and recipes – oh my god they looked good. It’s been neat to watch the evolution of Ocean Sound but now to hear the whole story of how it came about.
Yeah, we never even knew that it would turn into this, and we didn’t even initially – there were lots of times that we – that people would ask, “Oh, do you guys want to have your own dive centre?” And we would say no, we don’t really need that, this way is really good – we just thought that it was good. And it was good, it was great, but it just kept growing and expanding, and we kept thinking about how we just really wanted to take care of customers, from beginning to end, arranging everything, and being able to make all the decisions that we thought would best serve people, and we were also getting quite busy. Will couldn’t teach everyone that was trying to book, he’s just one person, so we had to turn away a lot of people. It was just expanding and getting more and more, and we wanted to have our own thing. We have a third partner who’s lived on Khotel for about 14 years. He was one of the head instructors at the dive centre where Will and I both did our dive instructor training, and he was our friend, so we went out for dinner with him and said, “You know, we’re thinking of opening Ocean Sound, do you want to partner up?” Right away he said, “Yup, let’s do that!” So we talked a little bit, we finished dinner, we got on our motorcycles and started driving around looking for locations and maybe two weeks later we signed a lease on our building.
And is that where you still are?
Yup, yup, we’re going to stay there – it’s really nice, it’s just up the street from my house actually. I can see it right now from my window actually, my yoga studio is right there.
So how long have you been running in the shop, then?
It’s going to be our two year anniversary on May 1st .
And where do you see it going from here? Do you have an idea or are you just taking it as it comes, day by day, year by year?
We’re happy where we’re at now, but we’re constantly evolving – it’s been really cool starting our own dive shop and yoga studio because the three of us have been able to build everything from the ground up, to decide every step of the way, how we think we can do things best – everything from checking in customers to the yoga schedule to the way that the courses are run and the order in which instructors do things, all of that. We’ve worked hard this last year, sorting all that out.
And you’ve got several instructors with you now, right?
Yeah, basically I run the yoga studio and they run the dive shop, and then the three of us all work together on the other side. I do all the meetings with the lawyers; I meet our lawyer every month, and do the bookkeeping; they have other tasks, like doing all the booking emails. I book the accommodation and pay the hotels. At the moment we’re just refining everything. I teach classes but the two of them don’t teach anymore, they work in the office, so we have a staff, a pool of instructors and yoga teachers that work full-time –
So it’s working –
Yeah, yeah, we’re expanding a little bit but our mission is not to get really big. We like to be small, we don’t want to take on more than what we’ve got at the moment. Things like I’m expanding the retail side of things and I’m in school right now, studying holistic nutrition through distance education. It’s something that I’m super interested in, as you know from my food blogs –
Yeah, like your chocolate avocado pudding recipe –
Yeah, you know what? I just had chocolate avocado pudding recipe for breakfast!
But of course you did – because you can!
I can, from avocados that are grown on the island, yup. So once I’m done school I’d like to open a restaurant down the road. But life is good. We love our company.
Snapshot, dreamy look in eyes!
So what is it that makes this meaningful work for you, and what were your major challenges to getting there?
I really feel like it’s my purpose, to do what I’m doing – I love yoga, more than anything. It really is the centre of my universe, the centre of my world, to share what I love – I can’t think of anything better. And not just to teach yoga, but the way the whole business runs. We’ve always built our business not on trying to maximize profits, not on trying to expand – we’ve always, always based our business on how we can best serve our customers. When I’m teaching a class, I’m thinking how can I best serve my students. When we’re making a business decision, what’s going to serve our customers the best? That’s how we make our decisions; that’s how I want to live my life: how can I best contribute to those that I interact with. And I really do feel that everyone – that we each have a purpose, and that purpose is something that fulfills us on a really personal level, something that makes us full of gratitude and joy. I give thanks every day. And I also think that each of our purposes is something that contributes to the greater good – I don’t think that anyone’s purpose is to destroy the environment, or start wars, or to harm other people, or to convince other people that you have to buy a certain product or look a certain way. That’s no one’s purpose, something destructive.
From the time I was little I felt this – I mean, I loved animals, so I wanted to be a vet; when you’re a kid and you love animals, that’s the job you think of, right? And I wanted that until I started my first year of university. I always just wanted to make the world a better place. And I feel like I can do that now: that’s why this work is meaningful to me, I love it, it’s personally fulfilling, and I hope that I can enrich the lives of the people around me. And I think yoga is very beneficial itself, it helps people believe in themselves and feel good about themselves and realize that things that they think are impossible, are possible. That doesn’t just apply to the physical poses; it starts with the poses, like, you see a funky arm balance and something weird and you think, oh man, I could never do that. And then you start to work at it, you dedicate yourself, you show up, you fall down, you lose your balance, and you keep trying and then the impossible becomes possible. And then you think, Well, if I can do this on my yoga mat, why can’t I do it in my whole life? So yoga itself is very beneficial, and plus I hope that it does inspire. People say quite often to me, “Oh, you have a dream life”, and yes I do – life is awesome, and I’m grateful for it, but if I can live my dream then someone else can to. It doesn’t have to be yoga on a tropical island, it can be anything, whatever what makes your heart sing.
And I find that too, that what people struggle with is finding their specific personal thing that they want to do.
You know, there’s all those inspirational things, the memes floating around: but some of them are true. Like one I remember is that wherever your mind goes when you daydream, that’s what you should be doing. But it’s not easy: I had to give up everything that I knew, I spent a year in Belize, super depressed, and it sounds so nice: sitting in a tropical place on the water, and yet I was in some serious personal turmoil. I didn’t know what to do, I thought it was all over for me, and yet it wasn’t – it was just the beginning, and I’m so grateful for every mishap that’s occurred in my life because it’s all been bringing me to here, to who I am now and the work I get to do.
And your other questions about the challenges: the main challenge, I guess, was stepping away from a life that I knew didn’t serve me, but also having no idea what did, and no idea what to do next. You know, really making the decision, and I remember talking to my parents, talking to my friends, saying “I don’t think I can do this [graduate work],” and they thought that I would just get over it. When I didn’t and I made the phone call to my supervisor and said I wasn’t going to go through with [my project] everyone was just like, “What do you mean?”
Did you feel like you had a lot of support from your family, from your network?
Oh no, not at all – I mean, I was so entrenched in the world of academia, I pretty much lost all my friends, because I wasn’t part of the department anymore. There were whispers about me, rumours, and my parents, you know – they were scared! They didn’t know what I was going to do; they only knew me as a student as well. And my dad is from Egypt; he gave up everything to move to Canada in his 20s, and he worked so hard to give me everything that he didn’t have, education was so important to him, and it was really difficult and confusing for my parents. They were really scared for me, they didn’t know what I was going to do, plus the fact that I was so miserable: they didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know what to do, and then, you know, I decided to move… so far away from them.
But now we have a better relationship than we’ve ever had my whole life, and they’re super proud and very supportive, so I’m so very grateful for that of course.
[So a big part of all this is just getting over the fear of starting, of not having it all figured out -]
One thing I think about this whole thing, people tell me this sort of thing quite often: a lot of people go travelling because, and you know I mostly interact with travellers, they’ve just been through this big life change or they’re contemplating a big life change, so they go out on a big pilgrimage looking for answers. I think that people are looking for change but they don’t really know where to begin, or what to go to next. And my advice – my unsolicited advice – is not to wait to have it figured out. Just get started. If you know something isn’t working for you, just leave it: even if you don’t know what to do next, what does serve you, just go – do what you need to do, give up the things that aren’t working for you, and you’ll create space and then you gotta have faith. Things will work out. Don’t worry about waiting until you have the next thing lined up. People are always saying “When this, when I have this amount of money, when I finish that, when this thing happens, when this is in place, when I know where to go next…” And that day’s never going to come. Because ultimately that’s not what stops us from changing out realities. What stops us from changing our realities is our fear of failure and so we try to avoid the failure by lining up everything so that failure is no longer an option. But I think that’s the wrong way to go about it: that’s not the way it works. The only way to overcome failure is to face it.