Jivamukti means “liberation while living.” This modern style of yoga emerged in 1984 from one of New York City’s best-known yoga studios. Founders David Life and Sharon Gannon incorporated their study of Ashtanga yoga with Shri K. Pattabhi Jois with spiritual teachings, placing special emphasis on how to apply yogic philosophy to daily life. Life and Gannon emphasize ahimsa, or non-violence, perhaps more than any other yogic precept. Veganism is an essential part of the Jivamukti method.
In this interview David and Sharon will tell about happiness, aim of yoga practice, art. They will share their experience of yoga teacher's dharma and will touch upon many interesting philosophic aspects of yoga practice and life. Enjoy the reading!
"The state when you are missing nothing is called Yoga"
Interview with Sharon Gannon and David Life
Generally we're going to talk about yoga of course, but first, let's start with art. Do you like art? Do you have favorite artists?
Sharon: I have a high regard for all forms of art. If you are asking specifically about particular painters, then I would say that I have a special attraction to the English Pre-Raphaelite artists who lived during the mid 1800s and included most notably, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Edward Burne Jones. But I’m also very fond of the French symbolist Odilon Redon and the mystical Russian genius Marc Chagall. Their paintings are beautiful, musical, mystical and harmonious and are filled with symbols and allegory. I like painting that lifts me into other realms of possibilities and speaks through the element of beautiful to my highest potential. David and I are both painters and find great joy in painting.
David: First, we would have to talk about what makes “art” and who qualifies as an “artist.” Good art must transport us into exalted realms, previously unknown, and safely return us to an expanded existence. What’s not to like? As far as artists - well that’s a question of personalities and lifestyle. My appreciation in this area runs the gamut from medieval characters to modern day saints and sinners of all kinds. Good artists foment social movements, critical thinking, and radical change in the way we perceive and experience the world.
You are practicing music for a long time. What kind of music do you prefer?
Sharon: I like music, which causes me to feel deeply and moves my heart and soul closer to the Divine. I have very eclectic tastes and many favorite musicians, too numerous to list, including Beethoven, Mozart, Franz List, Dmitri Shostakovich, Stuart Dempster, John Zorn, Bill Laswell, John and Alice Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Marc Bolan, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Sting, Daniel Lanois, Van Morrison, Robert Wyatt, Arthur Lee, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Winwood, Robin Williamson, Mike Heron, Nico, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Jeff Buckley, Jai Uttal, Krishna Das, Shyamdas, Deva Premal & Miten, Donna de Lory, C.C.White, Nicole Renaud, Paul McMahon, Laraaji, Moby and Michael Franti. Forgive me — this list seems silly because I know I am leaving out many important people.
David: My choice of music is usually according to what would enhance my present condition, or the condition of a room full of people, who want to learn about yoga. Swami Satchidananda said that music has “the power to make or to break.” Music can break through tamasic bonds and move one to equanimity and to action. What we are really talking about is the power of sound. Sound, or vibration, is the continuum of existence and the common ground for renewal, inspiration, and revelation.
What do you think about different approach to art on the East (ancient traditional one, a kind of lineage in art) and on the West (new schools and movements appear all the time). We can find it everywhere: music, painting, etc.
Sharon: Each artist cannot help but to approach art in their own unique way. It does seem though that generally speaking, artists in the west are more motivated by self-expression and wanting to receive credit for their art. In the east you can still find artists, who are trying to channel the Divine and are not interested in personal credit for “their” work. It is my feeling that the purpose of art is to uplift the consciousness of humanity. Much of the art that we see especially in the West today is not done with that purpose but instead it is done by the artist as a means to express rage or dissatisfaction with life. Perhaps we could say the Eastern approach to art tends to be more universal and uses great subtly while in the west the tendency is toward individual expression and there seems to be a lot of grossness, not so much subtlety.
David: Different artists satisfy different needs for different people. A Thangka painter and a graffiti artist are each creating within a context that is unique. But a mesmerizing thangka and a staggering graffito have something in common. That common element is the feeling that what you are looking at is more than the sum of its parts, there is a magical child beheld in between the strokes, notes, mass or geometry.
We can see the same tendency in yoga - strict transferring of techniques from Guru to disciples vs. author's schools popping up on the West. What do you think about this tendency? Do you think newborn schools can be more effective or better in some terms than classic ones?
Sharon: I agree with what master Patanjali says in his first sutra: Athayoganusasanam PYS I.1. NOW this is yoga. Yoga is meant to be a living tradition. It must be relevant to our lives now in this present moment. It isn’t some archaic dusty exotic thing of the past, it is alive and meaningful now. I am fully invested in Classical Yoga and find enough inspiration from it to keep me busy for lifetimes. I have no desire to reinvent yoga. But I do have a great desire to investigate it deeply and to probe its many mysteries and find its relevance to what is going on in the world today.
David: Everybody has teachers (Guru), in their lives. I have not met any person who is completely self-originating, and uninfluenced. Some people choose to revere their teachers while others choose to ignore them, that is nothing unique to our time. It is said that the job of each seeker is threefold: 1) Find a teacher, 2) Learn to love the teacher, and 3) Leave the teacher. When we look into the world around us we will see people in all three phases. We will see people who are still trying to find the teacher, we will see people who have discovered a teacher, and we will see others who are building on their teacher’s foundation. Oddly enough, a “student” of yoga could become a “teacher” of yoga at any phase; also, so you will find “teachers” who are still looking for a teacher, “teachers” who have found one, and “teachers” who have found the voice of the teacher’s teacher.
One of the most known yoga teacher in Russia and Ukraine says that yoga should be practiced only by those who are unable to stay away from it. And those who feel they can live without it - must stay away. Do you think yoga is good for everyone or for some particular kinds of people?
Sharon: I agree with this person who you mention. I do not feel that yoga is for everyone, nor do I feel that a yoga teacher should try to convince others that yoga is good for them. Yoga should not be proselytized. Only those who have a sincere interest in yoga should invest themselves in its practices. If one has a sincere interest then that is evidence that they are eligible.
David: No one should spend any part of their life doing something to which they are not fully committed. None of us should desire to make anyone do anything that they do not enjoy. According to the Hathayogapradipika, yoga does not work for those who have an unsteady mind, overeat, or tend to a wavering mind, exertion, talkativeness, or adhering to rules. Yoga works for those “un-common” ones with enthusiasm, perseverance, discrimination, unshakable faith, and courage.
How did you come to the understanding that yoga is going to be your life path?
Sharon: The practice made me feel happier and more at ease with my short-comings and I acknowledged the passion I had for it.
David: I have not really come to that understanding yet. You only really know what path you are on in the present moment. Presently, I’m talking to you. This path is one of inner reflection and articulation of challenging thought processes for me. Is it a yogic path? I happen to think that it is yogic, but when I have that thought, it suddenly becomes history.
What is the aim of yoga for you after many years of practice? Did this aim chang through the years, and if so, how? Do you have any stop points, challenges on the yoga path?
Sharon: The aim of yoga for me has always been yoga-enlightenment. Through the practices of yoga I discovered the many ways that I was inhibiting my enlightenment — my happiness. Through practice I have been able to be a little more at ease with myself — with my karmic tendencies and my many self-imposed limitations upon my ultimate happiness.
David: For me the path of yoga is the path of most resistance. My main job each day is to directly confront the most difficult aspect of being alive in that moment, because it is in the moment of that encounter that life is lived to the fullest. I don’t yearn for “days-off.” Every day has a stop point/challenge, in fact, that is the whole idea. The idea is not “overcoming them” as you put it, as much as resolving them back to their point of origin.
You named your way of Yoga "Jivamukti Yoga", meaning live liberated. Liberated FROM what and FOR what exactly? Can you say, that you've already achieved this liberation? What are the "symptoms" of this liberation?
Sharon: I would not say that I have achieved liberation, but I would say that I have from time to time experienced a few glimpses of some of the symptoms of liberation — those being: ease of being – an acceptance of my personality’s imperfections and still feeling joy and gratitude for opportunities to be kind to others and to contribute to uplifting the lives of others.
David: The jiva - individual soul, is mukti – liberated from separation from anything. The state when you are missing nothing is called Yoga. The state when you feel at home wherever you are is called Yoga. When you are at one with the wild natural world you are a yogi. There is nothing to be achieved or gained, there is also nothing to be lost. What we must actually do is remember who we really are (and I could say that I have a faint recollection of such).
Are you religious people? How yoga and religion correlates for you?
Sharon: I consider myself a spiritual person — someone who is trying to come closer to God. I want to become an instrument for God’s will. As far as having an opinion about the religious understanding of a “common westerner” — I don’t feel qualified to judge or to criticize someone else’s religious beliefs or spiritual practices, nor do I think it is helpful. I instead choose to assume that everyone is doing the best they can and I try to do my best to respect the passion and beliefs of others.
David: The only term for God in the Yogasutra (the text of Yoga Philosophy) is ishvara. This word can be translated as any god, master, beloved, or guru. It is completely non-sectarian. Yoga is a force of unification in a world of sectarian conflicts and strategies. Unfortunately for yoga it is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand it is criticized as being religious, on the other hand, it is criticized by religions as a heresy. Most of those criticisms arise from ignorance of yoga. Governments rightly see yoga as a threat because it empowers the individual, and thereafter, the community.
You often say that it is essential for practice to perceive people around as Divine beings. It's not that easy sometimes. How did you overcome common human habit to judge people around you as good and bad ones?
Sharon: The concept of shunyata or referred to in English as “emptiness” is a foundation principal in Yoga. In very simplistic terms what emptiness means is that everyone you see is coming from you. People aren’t out there coming at you, in fact nothing is out there, there is no out there out there. The reality that each of us finds ourselves in has been created by our own past actions. How we have treated others determines, how others treat us, how others treat us determines, how we see ourselves and how we see ourselves determines, who we are. When you grasp this, even just intellectually, life becomes really exciting because you begin to feel that you are driving your own kar-ma, and your fate is in your own hands. You can’t play innocent victim any longer, and actually that feels quite liberating. So if others are reflecting you then why not choose to see the best in them?
David: Overcoming common human habits is our practice. Starting with how you breathe – most people do it like a habit, unconsciously. Yogis bring consciousness into every action starting with the breath. We are much deeper into this idea than your question implies. We are not just talking about how human beings treat each other. It’s easy to see the best in someone, who looks and talks like you. But what if that “other” does not look like you or talk like you. Being yogis we try to get at the root cause of suffering. Our alienation from the natural world and tendency to isolate ourselves (human beings) as an independent special case, is at the root of our cruel actions toward each other which cause much suffering and turmoil. We try to experience our own divinity in each being around us, whether they are a mountain being, a tree being, a winged one, or a finned one, each and every one is breathing the same air - an aspect of the same golden thread.
Does practice change ones personality, or personality changes only under influence of one's life experience?
Sharon: Theory is a starting point and it can act as a guiding principal throughout one’s journey through life, but only if one can immerse themselves in practice will they be able to reap the rewards of theory. Through practice you get to experience the truth, which is embedded in the theory.
David: I don’t feel that I’m qualified to speak to personality development or changes. My own personality has undergone shifts over the years and it is difficult to discern between the reasons for those shifts among factors like aging, relationships, and the many other influences and experiences in ones life. Living a life of yoga does tend to amplify or accelerate all the events in a life. Perhaps, with yogic training, the impact of those events becomes even more of a teachable moment.
According to your personal opinion, what is Ego? Do you believe that an ego must be destroyed or restrained? We can often notice people, yoga practitioners, who are driven by their ego in asana practice (e.g. to be the most flexible in the class, etc.) Are you usually trying to change their attitude and how do you do this?
Sharon: The English word ego refers to one’s individual personality. To identify with your ego is to see yourself as separate from others. The goal of yoga is to dissolve otherness and to perceive the oneness of being. You can’t do that through destroying your or anyone else’s ego. Only love can melt the limitations of separateness. In answer to your question about am I trying to change someone’s attitude—I have no intention of changing others. I am trying to change myself by changing my perception of others. I want to see others as holy beings.
David: The ego is who you think you are. This is not my personal opinion, it’s just how the term is used. Ego development is an essential ingredient to childhood development and a curse for adults who spend their whole lives defending that childish construct. Ego is both blessing and curse. It works great for certain things and is irrelevant to others. I tell people that if they offer an ill-formed ego to Cosmic Consciousness, Cosmic Consciousness will refuse it saying, “Doesn’t look very interesting yet…go back and work on it some more.” Then, after a lot of effort, when the ego works very well and people are paying attention to you, when they listen to your words and they do as you say, then you don’t want to give it up anymore, just when you must!
What is the role of man-woman relations in yoga practice?
David: The yogic ideal is the perfect equilibrium between the masculine/feminine, sun/moon, yin/yang, ha/tha, up/down, front/back, left/right and all other dualities. Being a very practical method, yoga advises that our outer relationships reflect our inner condition. If the inner condition is harmonious, then the outer condition will also be balanced. If, actually, you are asking if yogis can date…then of course they can. But they usually do not limit it to men with women, there’s men with men, and women with women too! And the best date is always with someone, who is searching for enlightenment.
Shall there be any difference in yoga practice for men and for women?
Sharon: Yoga means union – the coming together of all pairs of opposites. Obviously, Yoga is available to both men and women.
David: There is a difference in yoga practices for every single person that approaches it. The best teacher teaches to each person individually, even when addressing a large group. The different needs of each individual person are much more important than general rules based on gender.
Are there differences in your practices?
Sharon: One’s own spiritual practice is always unique to them. Even if on the outside two different people are standing on their heads in sirsasana the experience will be unique for each person. Why? Because each person is working through their own bodies which are the storehouses for their own unresolved karmas.
David: My practice is different every time.
Do you usually practice together?
Sharon: I have a practice that I do by myself in the morning. I also often join others at various times in the day and practice together.
David: The part that is usual is usually solitary. When we can practice together it is a rare and fun time.
What is the meaning of brakhmacharya for you? What is the role of this principle in yoga practice?
Sharon: The Sanskrit word Brahmacharya is composed of two words, Brahma meaning the creative power of God and charya, which means a vehicle. So Brahamcharya means going to God. The practice of Brahmacharya means not to abuse others sexually, to respect the creative power of sex and not abuse it by using sex to manipulate others. What role does Brahamcharya have in a yoga practice? If you want to get to God, which is the aim of Yoga, then it would help your project along if you practiced brahmacharya. Patanjali gives it as one of the 5 yamas. Yamas are ways to restrict ones behavior in relation to others. The practice of yamas is very important if you are trying to become enlightened, but are not there yet and are still seeing others and not the Self in them.
The best way to practice Brahmacharya is to be a vegan. Why? Because all of the animals which are raised for food are sexually abused. So if you want to practice brahmacharya then you wouldn’t condone and/or financially support the sexual exploitation and abuse of 56 billion animals — that’s how many are slaughtered for food in the world every year and every one of them you can bet was sexually abused. There are only 7 billion human beings on the entire planet. The suffering of all of those billions of animals cannot help but to create an oppressive atmosphere of fear, grief and perversion for us all to live in, making it difficult to go to God.
David: You seem really focused on the boy/girl thing for the last few questions. Like we said way back…yoga is not for everyone.
Do you think sattvic diet should be kept according to ones beliefs (eg. idea of ahimsa) or according to one's body needs?
Sharon: If one is on a journey to become an enlightened yogi then everything they do including the food they choose to eat should help them on their way. The best diet for a yogi is a compassionate one. A yogi should eat food, which was obtained causing the least amount of harm to others. A vegan diet is the best diet for a yogi.
David: Bodies “need” very little, minds “need” a lot of things. What keeps bodies alive is prana. Prana can be obtained directly from sunlight, less directly through plants, and least efficiently through other animal bodies. Eating other animals is not only a crudely inefficient way to harvest sunlight, but also needlessly cruel and inhumane (un-human). There are many reasons to be a vegan and some are political, social, health, environment, animal care or concern, non-harmfulness, species extinction, but they are usually other-centered issues. There are many reasons to not be a vegan and they are usually self-centered issues. For example a vegan would say that it is the health of the entire biosphere that determines our individual health and someone else may say “to hell with the biosphere, I want my steak!”
How do you define success for yourself?
Sharon: Happiness is success. Happiness is an independent state of being. Happiness is not dependent on any external object or situation, it must come from an internal state where there is ease of heart and calmness of mind.
David: The problem with achieving success is that just when you think you got it, they up the bar. That’s the problem, because success is not a thing that you can get, it is just an idea. My idea of success is more like Sharon’s - a portable-happy-kind-of feeling most of the time.
What is the role of a teacher in yoga?
Sharon: A Yoga teacher has only one job and that is to see the student as a holy being. A student comes to a teacher because a teacher provides a student with an opportunity to be humble — a teacher plays the role as an object for a student to bow to.
David: I would use the word duty or dharma instead of a role. What is the dharma of a teacher? The dharma of a teacher is to teach. They have to devise the suitable disguise and ambiance for the maximum teaching conditions and then teach. Whether there is a student available or not they teach. If the student is there and they do not listen or learn, it is the teacher’s dharma to teach.
Do you think samadhi and kundalini are achievable nowadays for yoga practitioners, or is it just a myth?
Sharon: Let’s get these Sanskrit terms straight: samadhi means the enlightened state of yogic realization, where one realizes the Oneness of all being. Yes I believe that Samadhi is possible. Kundalini means a coiled serpent. Coiled serpent is a code name, a poetic way of referring to one’s individual consciousness. All yogic practices aim to raise kundalini or you could say, to elevate or expand your consciousness so that you include more then your self-centered view of the world.
And yes I believe that it is possible to expand one’s awareness from self-centeredness to other-centeredness and beyond.
David: Not without incredible danger, hardship and risk. It would be better to avoid it entirely. You could call enlightenment a calamity and dreaded death. So beware.
Do you think about, what will happen after death? Do you believe in reincarnation or any other experience?
Sharon: Yes I think about what happens after death and I try to live every moment in preparation for that. I believe in the possibility of reincarnation, yes.
David: Here is the thing about life after death. If you believed your whole life that there is no such thing as life after death, and because of that belief your life was without purpose or heart, and after death you were right…what have you gained? You lived a pallid life of superficiality and then, when you died, that was it…nada…nothing. You don’t even get to celebrate that you were right. No chance to say “See, I told you so.” If you lived that same shallow existence and after death you find out that you were wrong…you would be in for trouble… there would be Karma to pay. If you lived your whole life connected to timelessness and at death time ends, then what have you lost…nothing. If you lived your whole life connected to timelessness and after death it all keeps going, then you were right…you can proclaim it from the rooftops, you can tell everybody about it.
Are you a happy person? What is happiness for you? What is your secret of obtaining happiness?
Sharon: Yes I tend to be a happy person. I don’t know if I have discovered any great secret to happiness. All I know is that life seems to be filled with infinite possibilities — opportunities to be kind and to contribute to the happiness of others. Doing my best to uplift the lives of others makes me feel happy.
David: Who is the happiest person?…the one who serves others. The only way to achieve happiness is when it is a gift from the others around you. When the others around you are happy you live in a world of happiness.
What do you value the most in your life?
Sharon: The name of God.
David: The opportunity to ask a question.
Let's imagine you've become almighty for a moment and you can change the world... What would you change?
Sharon: Nothing in the world needs changing by me. I am striving to change my own attitude and perception of the world and to see a heavenly realm.
David: Cheers! If I am All-mighty, then I guess I made the world perfectly already.
Jivamukti yoga center in NYC www.jivamuktiyoga.com