The Emergence of Jivamukti Yoga

1. Q: Can you provide a brief description of what Jivamukti Yoga is?

SHARON: Jivamukti Yoga is a path to enlightenment through compassion for all beings. The method, developed by Sharon Gannon and David Life in 1986, is taught as spiritual activation/activism and offers the contemporary yogi a creative approach to living in the world today. Grounded in the ancient scriptures and ethical practices of yoga, Jivamukti, a Sanskrit word which means “living liberated,” is a practical philosophy that teaches how spiritual values can help us work with the challenges of everyday life with more joy, compassion and positive effectiveness. By means of asana and other traditional yogic practices, Jivamukti Yoga provides a path to enlightenment for the sincere seeker. Its five foundational elements are:

  • Ahimsa (nonviolence and compassion towards all beings, which includes eating a vegan diet—by being kind to others you create an atmosphere of peace within and around yourself which extends into the greater world)
  • Bhakti (devotion—offering everything you do to something greater than your ego/small self— acknowledgment that Self or God realization is the goal of all yoga practices)
  • Dhyana (meditation—connecting to that unchanging reality of eternal joy within)
  • Nada (through sacred music and sonic techniques learn how to enhance the development of a sound body and mind through deep listening)
  • Shastra (the study of Sanskrit scriptures and how they apply to the here and now)

2 .Q: In your opinion, what is the yoga tradition? Is there any connection between the yoga tradition and Jivamukti yoga? What is it?

SHARON: It is my understanding that the “yoga tradition” refers to the techniques and methods for attaining enlightenment, which have been transmitted from guru to student for thousands of years. Traditionally, yoga was a reaction against agri-culture and urbanization. Around 10,000 ago human beings started to enslave animals. Farms (prisons designed to confine and exploit animals) were established and along with that, tracks of land were fenced to grow crops to feed those animals, which all gave rise to urban areas where markets could sell products that came from the exploitation of those animal slaves: wool, eggs, milk, meat, livestock. Religions were established to provide justification for domestication and waging war against nature and all that is wild and untamed. The first human wars were fought over cattle. Around that same time another group of human beings decided that that kind of life wasn’t for them. They retreated into the more isolated places in the mountains, forest and jungles and started to experiment to see if they could find a way to become happy through learning how to operate their own body/mind instrument. They lived in wild harmony with nature and did not seek to exploit Her. They sought the truth: to realize the ecstasy of their own divine nature and the divine nature of nature.

I strongly feel that the popularity of yoga today has come about because the Earth needs us. The planet needs us yogis to teach other human beings what they seem to have forgotten—how to live in harmony with the Earth. Planet Earth is dying due to the artificial lifestyle of human beings. Our greed and selfishness has been left unexplained for too many years, we are now at a tipping point. Many people do realize that we will have to radically change our way of living on this Earth. If we as a species are to survive then the Earth must also survive. We are not disconnected from the Earth. When we poison the water we poison ourselves, when we poison the air we poison ourselves, when we enslave animals we enslave ourselves—in truth we are One with all of life. Jivamukti Yoga is dedicated to teaching others how to live in harmony with the Earth and all of life according to the timeless traditions of Yoga. The word jivanmukti is a Sanskrit word, which means to live-liberated! As Jivamukti teachers we advocate for a lifestyle that is happy, wild and free and also contributes to the happiness, wildness and freedom for others.

3. Q: Who would you say is the perfect candidate to start practicing Jivamukti yoga?

DAVID: The ones with imagination, a sense of adventure, and the courage to change. All change starts within. As Mahatma Gandhi said “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

SHARON: Just to add to David’s already great answer—the perfect candidate for Jivamukti Yoga is the person who wants to be absolutely free, to become happier, to live their life in ways that matter, the person who wants to enhance the lives of others, the person who wants to be free of cultural pretensions and self-consciousness and explore wildness, the person who doesn’t want to be hurt by others, or be lied to, the person who wants to be listened to, the person who doesn’t want to live in poverty or to see others living in poverty, the person who wants to enjoy good health, vitality and vivaciousness and the person who really wants to know the purpose of their lives. Yoga tells us that whatever we want in life we can have—if we are willing to provide it for others first.

4. Q: Is Jivamukti right for yoga neophytes?

DAVID: Jivamukti yoga offers a complete and thorough introduction to yoga for the beginner in its “Basics Class” offerings. When we teach workshops to groups of mixed levels we teach to all levels of understanding.

Yoga is like medicine. When the doctor gives you a bottle of medicine and you take one dose and it helps you to feel better, you should not drink the whole bottle! In a mixed level yoga class you can expect to receive your dose, but do not try to take the dose meant for someone else. The key is not to think about it too much…but to feel deeply, and if it feels good -it is probably helpful.

SHARON: I certainly can’t tell someone what is good or bad or right or wrong for them. People must make their own decisions and choices. Time is very precious. I like to encourage people not to do things that they don’t want to do, because you never know when your last day will be—you may die tomorrow, or sooner. I do my best not to waste people’s time when I am with them. If someone is interested in yoga they usually will investigate by taking a class or coming to hear someone talk, and during that experience they will feel if it is something they would want more of. I don’t think that yoga should be proselytized—that you should try to convince people to do it because it is good for them or they need to do it in order to be “saved” or become a better person. That is the missionary approach that was used by the early Christian priests who came from Europe to convert the heathen natives in the “new world.” Yoga is something that you just know in your heart is a practice for you—you should not have to be talked into it. You should come to it on your own (or not).

In the ancient scriptures it is told that no one who is interested in yoga during these times (Kali Yuga, Age of Conflict) is a neophyte. The fact that someone has an interest during these times is an indication that they have done these practices for many lifetimes already. They are reincarnating during these times with the wisdom gained from previous times.

5. Q: I understand this is a more spiritual kind of yoga, so, if someone is looking for a workout, should he or she enroll in one of your classes?

DAVID: All yoga is spiritual. If something is not spiritual, then it is not yoga. If someone is looking for a workout, then they should attend workout sessions. If someone is interested in yoga, then Jivamukti Yoga offers everything that you need.

SHARON: Yoga is a very deep workout. For a practice to truly affect you spiritually it has to affect you physically. The physical body is made from all of the thoughts, words and actions that we have done before—our relationships with others that have been left unresolved. When we “work” on our physical bodies we are working to resolve deep karmic issues, which have been lodged in the cells and tissues of our bodies. When these karmas are resolved the body begins to glow with an inner light. The Scriptures describe a yogi in theses terms: The skin becomes luminous, hair shinning, eyes bright, the limbs, strong and supple, the voice clear, strong and musical.

6. Q: How does alimentation affects the practice of this discipline?

DAVID: If you mean how does yoga nourish us, then it works exactly the same way as deep sleep in replenishing body, mind and spirit. The only difference is that in yoga practice we remain conscious while touching into the source of life, while in deep sleep we are unconscious.

SHARON: Yoga practice nourishes through establishing a stronger pranic connection with the very source of eternal life—the Divine.

7. Q: Can somebody eat red meat or junk food but be very diligent with practice and still benefit from it?

DAVID: This is a large question -and the question is “Can any of us benefit individually if all do not benefit collectively?” The yogic answer to this question is NO.

We live in a time when a few rich people in the world can take advantage of a lot of poor people, when a few corporations can control the resources and food for the whole world, when humans hold all other beings ransom for their happiness. The yogi serves the poor rather than steal from them, the yogi honors Mother Nature and the food that she gives freely to all, and the yogi would never enslave another to achieve happiness.

SHARON: I agree with David!

8. Q: Are there mental aspects that are an impediment to practice this kind of yoga?

DAVID: According to the yoga sutras the mental impediments to yoga are “misapprehensions, confused values, excessive attachments, unreasonable dislikes and insecurity.” Luckily, it gives the practices of yoga as the cure for these mental afflictions.

SHARON: Through the practice you come to understand your mental impediments and are able to distance yourself from them, in other words not to identify with them. You come to understand that the impediments to your happiness come from your past actions. Through the practice you come to let go of feeling guilty about things you may have done or not done in your past and you begin to do the best you can do now.

9. Q: How can it make someone more centered/happy?

DAVID: By granting them detachment -and then freedom from suffering. It does this by allowing us to recognize that we are not the ones who are in pain; instead, we are watching that pain, and thereby free from pain. The world is filled with pain and suffering, and yet, there are joyous people. That is because joy and suffering are not mutually exclusive.

SHARON: The practices actually make you feel more happy, as they alter the chemistry in the brain, which in turn affects your consciousness.

10. Q: How often does somebody have to practice it in order to feel changes?

DAVID: Usually, once or twice.

SHARON: I don’t know, that is up to the individual. For some people the first time they stand on their heads their whole life is turned upside down and they are never the same. Some people are very attached to old ways of perceiving themselves and others and find it hard to let go of their suffering. Being an unhappy person, seeing yourself as a victim can become a habit. Habits can be hard to let go of. But then again they could be easy to let go of. It will take– however long it will take. That is up to the individual. It could happen in one moment of bending forward or turning upside. When the chemistry changes there is a window of opportunity for the individual’s perception of themselves and others to change—consciousness after all is chemical and the practices affect the chemistry of the body.

11. Q: Does the Jivamukti Yoga School have any connection or association with any religious groups in America and abroad? If so, how are they connected/associated?

SHARON: We are not associated with any religious community. We do not view yoga as a religion, but as a spiritual practice that could complement a person’s religion and/or free a personal of constricting dogma.

12. Q: Is this kind of yoga necessarily linked to religion?

DAVID: Not according to any of the religions!

SHARON: The word religion means to reunite; to join, to attach again to something that you were unattached to for a while. Well that is what yoga means. Yoga means to yoke or join. So in that context the words yoga and religion mean the same thing. Yoga is a practice that will provide you with the means to reunite with yourself. Religion, in its true sense, should provide you with a system that can help you unite with God who is your true self. Unfortunately the organized religions, which are popular today, are more focused on dividing rather than uniting—on fighting over differences rather than establishing common ground and recognizing similarities. Yoga emphasizes that God is within you and you do not need to go outside of yourself to find God. Most organized religions on the other hand, ask you to pay money to a priest to do the work for you–be an intermediary between you and God. It is interesting to note that most all of the founders of the great religions practiced yoga–Jesus (Christianity), Mohammad (Islam), Mahavira (Jainism), and Buddha (Buddhism), for instance.

13. Q: Can an agnostic person practice it?

DAVID: Anybody can practice it. But remember the goal of yoga is God-realization, and the attainment of any goal is predicated upon the vision of that goal. If you have no vision yet, perhaps the practice could inspire you!

SHARON: If they do they may change, so it would have to be an agnostic person who is not so rigidly attached to their belief system and prejudices and who would be open to change. As singer Michael Franti says, “God is too big for just one religion.” God is a concept used to describe that which is bigger than any of us, with our limited minds, can grasp; God is that which is your own higher self. If you are steadfast in believing only in the existence of your ego—your smallness–your limited personality, then yes it will probably be difficult for you to have an experience of God.

14. Q: Would you reject somebody from your classes and what would be the reason for doing it?

DAVID: The sick, the injured, drunks, druggies, and stalkers. Do I really have to say why?

SHARON: I wouldn’t want someone in the class who didn’t want to be there.

15. Q: What was your motivation to create this new kind of yoga?

DAVID: This yoga is not new…there is only one Yoga. What is new is our experience of yoga. In each generation of yogis a translation has to take place. The ancient universal teachings are made relevant in their modern translation. What we offer is a modern translation of universal teachings offered from our gurus including Sri K Pattabhi Jois, Swami Nirmalananda, and Shri Brahmananda Saraswati.

SHARON: We ourselves wanted to attend yoga classes where things were done with a purpose, not just because it had always been that way or someone read it in a book or saw a picture of someone doing something and decided to imitate it. So instead of complaining about how yoga classes were being conducted we felt we had to be the change we wanted to see.

We had found through our own experience of practicing yoga that the practices created insight into the nature of reality. When you can act from the cause level of reality then you have a chance of changing things. We were artists and activists–we wanted to do something positive with our lives, which would contribute to the betterment of the world, to the raising of consciousness. So when we started teaching to some people who asked us to share some of our insights, we brought to them some of the aspects that we found stimulating in our own practice. Like practicing asanas to certain types of music, like meditating everyday, like eating a vegan diet, like studying Sanskrit and reading the Yoga Sutras and trying to decipher what those ancient phrases might have to do with today’s problems. Today’s problems being: the devastation of the environment, exploitation of nature, slavery of animals, callous disregard for others, war, hunger, mass extinction of many species of animals and plants, air, water, soil, and mental pollution. We wanted to empower others so that they had the confidence to act in a way that mattered to the whole.

We wanted to contribute in some way to the dismantling of our present culture—a culture, which is founded upon the enslavement and exploitation of animals and the Earth’s environment. We wanted to provide practical methods to people that would allow them to feel happy with themselves, with others and with the world without having to harm or exploit others. Yoga provides those methods. Yoga practices give people the methods to live in musical harmony with all of life. Our culture tells us that the “Earth belongs to us.” Whereas yoga teaches that success and strength will come from being friendly and kind to others (maitri adisu balani PYS III.24) and that if we really want to be happy, then our relationship to the Earth and all beings should come from a place of steadiness and joy; it should be a mutually beneficial relationship, rather than a selfish, one-sided relationship (sthira sukham asanam PYS II.46) The best way to uplift our own lives is to do all we can to uplift the lives of others. To leave this Earth more beautiful than how we found it.

16. Q: What was missing in other kinds of yoga?

DAVID: A yoga teacher teaches techniques and practices that were helpful for them. The practices that were helpful for Master Iyengar became called Iyengar Yoga, the practices that were helpful for Pattabhi Jois became Ashtanga, and so many others. The practices that were helpful to us became called Jivamukti Yoga.

SHARON: I don’t find it helpful or enjoyable to be critical of what other people are doing. David and I are just trying to do our best with what we have. I assume that everyone else is also trying to do the same.

17. Q: When I told people I was about to interview you, most of them referred to you as “Yoga Super-Stars.” What do you think of this term?

DAVID: I hope to live up to it!

SHARON: Everyone is a star.

18. Q: Which physical benefits one can experience from this practice?

DAVID: Too many to list. Of course, the main benefit is the construction of a body of light.

SHARON: You will feel more comfortable in your own body.

19. Q: How would you describe a successful Jivamukti practitioner?

DAVID: The ones who are kind to others.

SHARON: The practitioner who dares to care about the happiness of others and doesn’t hesitate when given the choice –they always choose to do their best to be kind.

20. Q: Why do you think so many celebrities are practicing it?

DAVID: Because it’s the best.

SHARON: I don’t really know why someone does what they do. But it seems that the celebrities that I know find that the practice helps them to do what they do with more joy, ease and clarity.

21. Q: Do you have any particular anecdote with one your famous clients you want to share with us?

DAVID: Once, we were having lunch with the late Luciano Pavarotti at his villa in Italy. We had been introduced as yoga teachers. After we had become acquainted he said, “You can be my yoga teacher.”

I replied, “Oh?”

“Yes,” he said, “But there are three things that you cannot do.”

“What are those three things?” I asked.

He looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “You cannot tell me what to eat, you cannot talk about God, and you cannot tell me to breath through my nose.”

I understood about the food (he was obviously in a love affair with food). He had just undergone a nasty public Italian divorce scandal with his wife and he was mad with the Catholic Church and God. But I couldn’t understand the nose breathing restriction and I asked, “Why can’t I tell you to breathe through your nose?”

“Hahaha,” he laughed incredulously that I wouldn’t know already.

Suddenly serious, he told me, “You would teach me to breath through my nose and it might become a habit. Then, when I am onstage and it is time to sing my notes, I breathe through my nose instead of my mouth because of the habit -and no sound comes out…I’m ruined, ruined!”

I patted him on the back and said, “Signor Pavarotti, I am not the yoga teacher for you.”

SHARON: Actor Willem Dafoe, who appears with David and me in the film entitled “What Is Yoga?, told me that one time when he was getting on an airplane someone came up to him and asked, “Aren’t you that guy in the yoga movie?”

22. Q: If you start practicing this kind of yoga, do you necessarily have to embrace the lifestyle?

DAVID: I’m not sure what you mean “the lifestyle.” You will find Jivamukti practitioners all over the world living different lifestyles in different cultures. If you mean living a life of kindness and compassion for others -what is your choice? …to lead a life of cruelty and hardness toward others?

SHARON: The term jivamukti means living liberated. I think that most people, if given the choice would choose to live as a free person rather than in bondage.

23. Q: How do you incorporate Jivamukti in everyday life?

DAVID: The jivanmukta is the one who serves the liberation of others in the world. I do this by living to benefit others. The food choices that we make on a daily basis have the most impact on the earth and other earthlings. When those choices are made with compassion and kindness, others are liberated. Eating vegan, reducing needs, growing food, taking care of the wild animals and forests, recycling, animal advocacy and political activism is a short list.

SHARON: I do my best to contribute to the happiness and liberation of others. Yes I am a vegan (I don’t eat animals or any products which are derived from the exploitation, torture or slaughter of animals), and that is definitely the single most important thing that I do on a daily basis to contribute to the happiness and liberation of others. Billions and billions of animals are kept as slaves, degraded and treated like so much garbage all over the world today. It is seen by most as normal. The other animals who aren’t kept in farms as slaves—the few remaining wild animals–are terrified of human beings, who are robbing them of the simple things they need to get by, like clean water and a little food. I wouldn’t want to be treated that way, so instead of complaining about how others are treating animals, I try do my best not to fall in line with most and instead step out of line and say “yes” to kindness and “no thank you” to violence, cruelty, slavery, deception, pollution, global warming, war, famine, disease, ignorance, poverty, greed, hoarding, puppy mills, rodeos, zoos, circuses, factory farms, pharmaceuticals, vivisection, pesticides, herbicides, guns, bombs, etc., etc., etc.

One lifetime is a short time on this earth. I don’t want to waste the gift of life that I have been given. I want to do all that I can, while I have the time, to do my best to live in a way that my life would enhance the lives of others and the planet Earth—herself. To me, life is a mystery—a great adventure, and I want to find out if I can make a difference, I want to see if I can realize my greatest potential. The best way that I know of to do that is to do all I can to contribute to the happiness of others so that they may realize their highest potential and so to that aim– I do my best not to contribute to their suffering.

How we treat others will determine how others treat us, how others treat us will determine how we see ourselves, how we see ourselves will determine who we are. If we want to see ourselves as happy, free, beautiful, wise, respected, intelligent and more (perhaps even enlightened!) then we have to start treating others as we would like to be treated. What we do matters. In fact our actions create the world we live in. We are that powerful.

24. Q: What is the difference between a Jivamukti Yoga School and other urban yoga (asana based) centers in America?

SHARON: The Jivamukti Yoga School is a “school” that is focused on education and that follows the philosophy of one lineage. It is not a yoga “center” where many different forms of yoga are offered, structured much like classes in a health club.

25. Q: How was the idea of Jivamukti Yoga first introduced abroad, and to which country?

SHARON: We had (and still have) many students who would travel from other countries to study with us in New York City. Then many of those students invited us to come to their countries to teach. The first Jivamukti Yoga school to open outside of the USA was in Munich Germany. The center was opened in 2004 by two students, Dr. Patrick Broome and Gabriela Bozic who both traveled to America often to study with us and graduated from our Teacher Training Program. They then went back to Munich Germany and opened their own Jivamukti Yoga Center, which they based on our New York City School.

26. Q: Do you have a plan for more Jivamukti Yoga Centers in other parts of the world?

SHARON: That depends on whether or not a Jivamukti Yoga teacher wants to open a center. David and I have no plans for opening other centers. The Jivamukti Centers outside of New York City are owned and directed by Jivamukti Certified Teachers. To open a Jivamukti center, a person must have advanced level certification in the Jivamukti Yoga method. There is a criteria that must be met in regards to the number of classes that are offered and what type of classes are offered. At least 70% of the classes on the schedule must be Jivamukti classes. For most people interested in opening their own Jivamukti Center, the most important question is: Are there enough certified Jivamukti Yoga teachers in the area where you live, who would teach at your center? At the moment the Jivamukti Yoga Method is taught worldwide at Jivamukti Yoga Schools and affiliated centers, which are now in New York City-US, Charleston SC-US, Chicago, Ill-US, Washington DC-US, Toronto-Canada, London-UK, Munich-Germany, Berlin-Germany, Moscow-Russia, Bern-Switzerland, Stavanger-Norway and Sydney-Australia.