Q & A with Sharon Gannon: Jivamukti Yoga Icon
Sharon Gannon has studied yoga and meditation since 1969, and in 1984 she created the Jivamukti yoga method with David Life. She's also a best-selling musician, author, animal rights activist, and outspoken advocate of ethical vegetarianism. Simply put, Sharon Gannon is an icon. Some of Sharon's high-profile students have included Sting, Trudie Styler, Christy Turlington, Donna Karan, Russell Simmons, and our friend, Kris Carr.
I'll let Sharon do the talking, as no intro will properly do her justice.
MBG: How/when did you first get started with yoga?
SG: As long as I can remember I have wanted to get close to God and have had an interest in the occult and spirituality and have striven to gain an understanding of both religion and music for that reason. Even though I was raised a Catholic, around 1963 I converted to the religion of Beatlemania. I loved the Beatles and was influenced by them in regards to all things magical and mystical—which included Indian music, yoga and vegetarianism. In 1968, while I was in High School, I attended a lecture by a student of Krishnamurti and was inspired to begin a meditation practice. I took my first Yoga class, meaning where they did “asanas” in 1972 or '73 while I was living for a brief time in Santa Cruz, CA. I must admit it didn’t really inspire me to continue. I was much more stimulated at that time by reading the Yoga Sutras, Lama Govinda, Alexandra David Neal and listening to music.
Has your path to yoga/spirituality been slow & steady or did you have an "a-ha" moment?
I would have to say, slow and steady with many a-ha moments!
How/when did you decide to start Jivamukti?
Both David and I practiced yoga. We also were very involved in art: music, painting, poetry, dance and performance art. As if that wasn’t enough to keep us busy, David also owned and managed the Life Café on 10th St and Ave B, a popular hangout for many artists in the East Village of NYC. (Seane Corn worked as a waitress there for five years.) I also worked as a waitress at the café part-time when I wasn’t playing music with my band, Audio Letter, or doing dance or performance art and/or painting with David. Around 1986, a friend invited us to teach in her basement on Ave B and 8th Street, down the street from the Life Café. David made a sign that read, “The Jivamukti Yoga Society” and he nailed that up on the door and for couple of days a week we held classes—lots of people came.
Quite organically, we just started teaching more and more yoga and doing less and less performance. There was more of a demand for the actual experience of the teachings in a more pure and direct form than in an artistic performance where we were actually presenting the same teachings, but in a more abstracted form and definitely disconnected from the audience, who couldn’t do much more than be spectators. I suppose you could say that what we were doing artistically had the same message as what we were doing when we taught yoga, the difference being, when people came to one of our performances they were audience members—there to be entertained, when those same people came to a yoga class they were active participates in an experience of transcendence.
What makes Jivamukti unique?
Oh my, I don’t know! I don’t like to look for differences so much because similarities are more interesting. But it has been said that our emphasis on the practice as a means to enlightenment and how that relates to political activism, especially veganism—extending compassion to animals—is what makes Jivamukti Yoga unique.
How would someone know if it's the right fit for them?
If it makes them feel happier.
Yoga & veganism -- why is the connection important?
Why is the connection between yoga and veganism so important? Because yoga is all about connection and practices that heal the disconnection between self and other. What is realized in the yogic state of enlightenment (Samadhi) is the Oneness of being—that realization of ultimate connectedness is the goal of yoga. The obstacle to that realization is to perceive others as disconnected from you: for example, to see a dog or a cow as an animal and you as a superior human being and certainly not an animal! The only way that someone could treat other animals, fellow earthlings, with such casual cruelty and disrespect as they are being treated at this time, is if they where in the grip of ignorance (avidya) which deluded them into thinking that animals are “other,” nothing more than soulless automatons devoid of consciousness, language, reasoning and feeling, existing only to be slaves for human beings. The yoga practice helps to dehypnotize us from such Descartian cultural conditioning and prejudice. In the future when my great grandchildren, nieces and nephews ask me what I was doing during the animal holocaust—when 75 million animals were being murdered every day, I don’t want to say, “Oh me?—uh… I guess I was eating hamburgers along with everyone else.” No! I want to be able to say that I was an animal rights activist and dared to care. Veganism is a positive political statement that says change happens from within. If we want to be free, which is what the term Jivamukti means, then we cannot cause or contribute to enslaving others. A lot of people view veganism as a dietary preference, equal to like when people prefer chocolate over vanilla. But eating meat and dairy products is way more serious than that. Besides enslaving, degrading, torturing, raping and slaughtering billions of animals, it is at the basis of most all of the important problems that we face today from global warming to fossil fuel shortage to cancer to heart disease to diabetes to poverty and to starvation. The fact is we don’t need to be cruel to be happy, successful and healthy; in fact kindness will help us to achieve those goals very quickly. Patanjali says maitri adishu balani (PYS III.24 ), which means “through friendliness, kindness and compassion, strength and success will come.”
Do you think more people are realizing this connection?
Yes, more and more. Just in my lifetime, just in the 27 years I have been vegan and involved with yoga, I have seen huge changes in the way people regard animals. Students tell me all the time, I read your book, or I took one yoga class and now I get it—and I’m vegan. My goodness last Tuesday night on the Oxygen Channel, “Running Russell Simmons”—a reality show based on Russell’s life—presented a whole episode centered around his assistant participating in a PETA demonstration and Russell’s vegan and anti-fur support. Wow!…that’s progress for mainstream TV!
Where are some of your favorite places to eat in NYC?
The Jivamuktea Café of course is my favorite—the food is vegan, organic, prepared with love and offered with mantras. And since I created the recipes I know I can always get something I love to eat! And there’s always coconut green tea!
Favorite getaways when you leave the city?
When I am not on the road touring I spend my time at home in Woodstock New York—a 120 acre Wild Forest Sanctuary, where we live with cats, bears, deer, turkeys, foxes, raccoons, opossums, birds, snakes, lots of old tree people and many delightful fairies.
What does the "mind/body/green" connection mean to you?
Can you tell us about your new CD, Sharanam?
Well, the big news I just heard from my record label is that Sharanam is now #2 on the Billboard Music Chart/ New Age Category. Wow! Sanskrit mantras have moved into mainstream consciousness, right up there with Enya and Olivia Newton-John. It is amazing. It is all God’s work—I know because I’m not that good of a musician!
Sharanam is a Sanskrit word which means to take refuge. This album is about taking refuge, finding shelter from the storms of ignorance, doubt, fear, pain and suffering.
In order to find refuge we must first kindle the desire for it. We must have a yearning to connect, and in order to have a yearning to connect we must first acknowledge that we have become separated, but in order to be separated we must first have been connected. So to remember that our true, most essential, primal experience is oneness can bring great hope. This oneness is what is realized in the state of yoga. Each living soul yearns to reconnect, to take refuge, in the ever-renewing source of joy—Oneness: you can call it God or inner Self or whatever. The yogic scriptures state that music is the ground of being for the whole universe—reality is sound—Nada Brahma. That Divine reality is a sound state and we get to it through music. We are attracted to music because essentially we are music...it is our being. This is why music is often said to be the universal language. The practices of yoga help to clear our perception so that we intuitively hear this deepest music, which connects us with all of life. A yogi is someone who strives to live harmoniously with all of life, wants to know themselves as one with all that is. In order to do that a yogi first must learn to tune their instrument. The basic instrument is one’s own body/mind. Once tuned, the yogi can then joyfully play as a confident member of the celestial orchestra of life.
What inspired you during the process?
I would have to say, Sanskrit mantras inspired me. Mantras act like medicine to make one whole again by dissolving inner conflicts and divisions. The Sanskrit word mantra means “to cross over the mind.” Man=”mind” + tra=”to cross over.” Mind refers to the ability to divide or separate unity into parts, to objectify absolute reality. When we speak in our everyday “normal” languages like English, German, Japanese, etc., the words are used to describe reality—to separate one thing or concept from another. Mantras on the other hand don’t act like normal language. Mantras are magical formulas designed to free up consciousness from the tyranny of thought—from breaking things apart—separating one thing from another. Through reciting or even hearing mantra one can stop the thinking mind and rest in the stillness of feeling which is a place without boundaries, where one’s sense of self expands to include others and possibly the whole of reality—a holy place. Vocalizing a mantra externally or internally can trigger the realization of the omniscient presence of the mantra. Sacred ancient mantras permeate the external and internal atmosphere. They go on with or without the chanter. Mantras are the subtle forms of the divine presence—the building blocks or blue-prints of the universe. Mantras are the essential tools of the magician as well as the yogi. Yoga is a magical practice, which causes a shift of one’s perception of reality (or of self and other) towards a more whole or holy perception where differences and divisions dissolve into unity and Oneness is realized as the truth. Mantras are essential to yoga. Besides being inspired by the mantras themselves, I have to say that my producer, the extraordinary Ferenz Kallos, was my big inspiration. He inspired me to explore my voice in ways that I had not before during a recording session. He is a classically-trained musician and was a hard task master—but because of his encouragement and support I was able to hit those high notes!
What are you working on these days?
I’ve always been somewhat of a “busy bee.” Everyday is a happy work-day for me. Mostly writing—it has always been like that. Writing essays, poems, songs, letters, choreography notation, books, asana sequences, forewords and endorsements for people’s books and CDs, interviews, and of course technical stuff like manuals filled with endless procedures and policies. I’m always working on an essay or usually more like 2 or 3 at a time. Many of these essays end up as a Focus Of the Month (FOM) on the Jivamukti website where they are used by Jivamukti teachers as guidance to help structure their improvisational yoga classes. Often I write “teaching tips” to go along with these FOM, which hopefully provide more help, in the form of more “spell it out directives” as to how a teacher would be able to incorporate the idea(s) of the FOM essay into a classroom situation as well as background to the insights I had which led to the writing of the essay, as well as some additional reading suggestions and/or music selections that might work well. It’s too bad that after all these years; I’m not a better typist! Along with writing, of course, goes reading—I read lots of books, I love books—I probably should have ended up as a librarian. I actually did have a job as a librarian once—at the Theosophical Society, it was a small, esoteric library in Seattle Washington. I was in my twenties. It only lasted for a few months but I loved it.
I really have no idea, but I hope that it will be more of the same—more opportunities to reflect, contemplate, insight and if I’m lucky—articulate and communicate.
For more on Sharon:
images of Sharon via Guzman