Interview: David Life and Sharon Gannon of Jivamukti Yoga

David Life and Sharon Gannon
David Life and Sharon Gannon. © 2006 Guzman

Introduction to David Life and Sharon Gannon

David Life and Sharon Gannon are the founders of Jivamukti Yoga, which they have been teaching out of their New York City yoga center since 1989. There are now Jivamukti centers and teachers worldwide. This style, which blends vigorous vinyasa practice with spiritual teachings, chanting, and an emphasis on how to bring yoga's philosophy into daily life, is at the forefront of yoga's current popularity.

Life and Gannon's methods are now even more accessible, thanks to their video Transform Yourself with Jivamukti Yoga. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask them a few questions about how Jivamukti began.

How did you meet?

David Life: Sharon's band, Audio Letter, toured New York City from Seattle in 1983. I [owned] Life Café in the East Village, and it was a venue for new music, poetry, and art. We met when Audio Letter played at the café.

Sharon Gannon: I was the vocalist/violinist in the band. David was very nice to us and seemed to like our music. Later on, he actually joined the band and played musical instruments he made himself.

How did you first encounter yoga?

David: In college, 1968, I took a couple of free yoga classes that did not impress me at all. At the time, I was studying the great yogi Mahatma Gandhi and his teachings of non-violence. I was involved in protest actions against the Vietnam War and was inspired by the Hindustani concepts of non-violent grassroots social change.

Tara Rose, one of the waitresses at the Life Café in New York, was a yoga teacher and we started studying asana with her. In 1986, we began yearly trips to India to study with many teachers like Swami Nirmalananda, Pattabhi Jois, Shyam Das and others.

Sharon: In 1969, I went to hear a lecture about yoga by Bob Freedie, who did psychedelic light shows in Seattle; he was a devotee of Krishnamurti.

That was where I got my first introduction to the Theosophical Society. Sometime shortly after that, I got a book by Richard Hittleman and did my best to follow the instructions and mimic the poses pictured in the book.

During the seventies, while a student at the University of Washington, I studied Indian music, dance, philosophy, and culture. The first asana class I went to was in 1973 in Santa Cruz, California; I was not impressed with the class and did not go back. The significant experience with asana practice was with Tara Rose. We started to attend her classes in the East Village around 1984.

When did you realize that you were creating your own style of yoga? Was it a conscious decision?

David: Any yoga teacher can only teach the methods and practices that worked for them. We had many great teachers who inspired us with methods and teachings that served them well. We practiced yoga, and our friends asked us to share the methods that resonated with us. It was only after the fact that it came to be called Jivamukti yoga.

Sharon: It was a conscious decision to call the style Jivamukti, because we wanted a name which, when people said it, they would connect to the aim of the practice, which is enlightenment. Jivamukti is actually an American rendition of the Sanskrit word, Jivanmukti, which means liberated while living. A Jivanmukta is one who is liberated and lives to benefit the lives of others.

YG: How did it evolve?

David: Organically. It grew quickly but was always a reflection of our personal growth and the larger cultural developments. At some point, about 1997, we launched a program nationally to promote Jivamukti (liberated living); we now work internationally to promote non-harming lifestyles, political and social activism, and evolutionary techniques through Jivamukti yoga. Our students teach all over the world and have created centers in New York, London, Berlin, Munich, Toronto, Vancouver, and Charleston, South Carolina.

Sharon: How did it evolve? It was definitely an organic process. I mean, we didn’t wake up one morning and decide we are going to be yoga teachers, we are going to create this method called Jivamukti yoga, and we are going to rent a space and etc., etc. We were artists who were also political activists, and we were trying to shift the values of our culture through our art. We recognized pretty much immediately that the ethical precepts of yoga were in line with our activist views and aspirations, especially ahimsa and aparigraha.

Speaking for myself, I was always trying to find ways to speak out for the animals and the environment in my art and, when I discovered yoga, I saw that it could certainly provide space for this type of activism. We began to incorporate a lot of yoga into the performances, and the people who came to see those performances began to ask us to teach them. It seemed to make more sense to teach people how to practice what we were practicing than to let them sit in a theater or some place and watch us perform some artistic rendition of it.

But I think with the meeting of our holy teachers, first in the form of Swami Sankarananda and then later Swami Nirmalananda, Shri K. Pattabhi Jois and Shri Brahamananda Saraswati, we received blessings and encouragement which provided us with a tremendous dose of shakit which instigated the unfoldment of the method.

YG: What was the yoga scene like in the early days in New York? Where people practicing at home or in yoga centers?

David: There was no yoga scene in 1983 in New York. Yoga was neither popular nor practiced much. There was a small Iyengar community, Sivananda and Integral yoga centers. Norman Allen had begun to teach Ashtanga Vinyasa in the 70s in New York, and many of his students continued to teach.

Of course, Dharma Mitra was a teacher to us and many others in the early days. It was a great time to experience the wonderful teachers from India that brought the teachings to the west, like J. Krishnamurti, Yogi Bhajan, Swami Satchidananda, B.K.S Iyengar, Vishnu-devananda, Swami Dhayananda Saraswati, Brahmananda Saraswati, and others, who were all in New York at some point.

Sharon: I am not a historian so I feel very inadequate to speak on this subject, but I know that Swami Prabhupada came to New York from India perhaps in the 1960s or 70s. He first came to Tompkins Square Park, which is across the street from where we live in the East Village. There is a large tree in the middle of the park, which is always adorned with flower garlands, put there by Krishna devotees in remembrance of the fact that Swami Prabhupada chanted the Hari Krishna mantra around that tree on his first visit to America.

Our teacher, Shri Brahmananda Saraswati, started the Yoga Society of New York in the 1960s. But when I moved to New York City in 1983, I was not aware of it. The main yoga schools which I was aware of at that time were the Sivananda Center, the Integral Center, Dharma Mittra’s, and Swami Bua taught out of his apartment.

I think there must have been an Iyengar Center, but I never visited there. I don’t know if people practiced at home or in yoga centers at that time.

YG: Was anyone teaching vinyasa-style yoga?

Sharon: Norman Allan, who was an early student of Pattabhi Jois’s, taught Ashtanga yoga, I think in the 1970s in New York City. I do know that he taught Swami Sankarananda because we learned about Norman Allan through S. Sankarananda. Our first teacher in New York City, Tara Rose, besides being a Sivananda trained teacher, was a student of a man who had studied with Norman Allan. She incorporated Vinyasa aspects into her classes. She taught us Vinyasa, for instance, in the form of the Surya Namaskars from the Ashtanga system.

YG: Based on your experience training yoga teachers, what do you think makes a good teacher?

David: Three qualities:

 

  • 1. Their good practice

 

  • 2. Their good connection to a teacher who acknowledges them

 

  • 3. Their good desire to serve others

Sharon: 1. Lineage, 2. Practice, 3. Other-centeredness

 

  • 1. I think it is very important to acknowledge a teacher and to have a teacher acknowledge you as their student because the deeper teachings of yoga are transmitted from guru to student energetically.

 

  • 2. In order to teach others, you must continuously immerse yourself in practice or you really can’t teach from a place of fresh experience.

 

  • 3. To be a good teacher, you must have a sincere liking for other people. You have to like to be around other people -- not all yogic practitioners like to be around other people. It [the teaching experience] has to be not all about you. You have to want to put your students before you. A good teacher lives for their students and is only interested in facilitating the student’s enlightenment.

YG: Do you consider vegetarianism to be an important part of a yoga practice?

David: I consider vegetarianism as the traditional keystone to a yogic way of life. It is an action that can lead to liberation- the goal of yoga. However, I consider veganism as the modern imperative, the translation, if you will, of the principles of non-violence into action in the modern time where the implications of violent living and animal industries are threatening the continued existence of the earth.

Sharon: Vegetarianism, real vegetarianism, which means, not eating animals and only eating vegetables [veganism] is the most important aspect of a yoga practice. A vegan recognizes that animals do not belong to us -- they are not ours to eat, to wear, to experiment on or to use for entertainment or any other exploitive purpose. Our present culture is based on the arrogant notion that the earth and all other life forms exist for our human benefit. The enslavement of other animals is considered normal in our culture.

The yogi who is seeking enlightenment knows that if they themselves want to be free, then they cannot cause the imprisonment, the enslavement of others. What does what you eat have to do with yoga? Not everyone can stand on his or her head every day, but everyone eats. The goal of yoga is enlightenment. What is realized in the enlightened state is the oneness of being; the interconnectedness of all of life.

Traditionally, a yogi was an environmentalist and animal rights activist. The lineage comes from Lord Shiva who was considered the protector of the earth and all life forms. One of his names is Pasupati, which means protector of the animals. A yogi is moving toward enlightenment through living harmoniously with all of life. In order to harm another you must objectify and separate yourself from that other. As you do that, you become disconnected to the whole.

Yoga is a holy connection, a realization of the interconnectedness of all of life. Through eating a vegan diet, you contribute to the happiness and well being of others, yourself and the planet. (continued)

Sharon (continued): Through making compassionate food choices, you will begin to experience a diminishing of selfishness and low self-esteem. You will feel more self-confident, as all the disease associated with harming others is lifted from your daily life. What we do to others will come back to us. If we want to be happy, then we should not cause others unhappiness. If we ourselves want to be free, then it seems to be we would not make a slave of anyone else.

Fundamental to the teachings of yoga are the teachings of karma. Karma means action. The yogi begins to realize through the practice how significant each thought, word and action really is, and how it affects the whole community of life. How we treat others will determine our reality. A yogi practices yoga to purify their karmas.

When we practice asanas, we come face-to-face with all of our past relationships in the form of unresolved karmic residue, which is actually what our bodies are made of. When you feel this through yoga practice, you tend not to want to increase the karmic burden you are trying to unload. You don’t want to continue to cause harm to others, so you stop eating them and causing their enslavement and exploitation. You literally want to become lighter -- more enlightened.

You begin to understand Patanjali’s sutra, Sthira Sukham Asana, which means that our connection (relationship) to the earth and all other beings (what the word asana means) should be mutually beneficial, should be coming from a consistent (Sthira) place of joy (Sukham).

Being a joyous vegan makes your life happier because you get to participate in increasing the happiness and well beings of others, rather than their suffering and death.

A vegan diet is not one of deprivation, it is really the only option available to those who want to be happy themselves and who want to contribute to the happiness of others and the future life of this planet.

I consider myself a joyous vegan because I get to contribute to the enrichment of this planet instead of its demise. Not only am I not causing the degradation and death of farm animals, but I’m not causing so much water pollution, deforestation, wildlife habitant destruction, the sickness and death of wild animals, air pollution, or global warming.

The United Nations has issued a report stating that the waste emissions from animals raised for food contributes more to global warming than all the car and truck emissions in the world. That’s the real inconvenient truth.

Sharon Gannon and David Life’s first widely available DVD, Transform Yourself with Jivamukti Yoga is now for sale. More information available at www.AcaciaLifestyle.com.

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