Sharon Gannon & David Life
An interview with Sharon Gannon and David Life, living legends in the yoga community. From a background in music and art they came to yoga in the early 80s and ever since, the world of yoga hasn't been the same! Most renowned for being the creators of Jivamukti Yoga in 1986, Sharon and David now travel constantly sharing this distinct style that integrates chanting, asanas, music, meditation and practices of devotion. The New York Times once wrote: "Without Jivanmukti, yoga in the U.S. would still be the obscure practice of a few devotees."
Some people might call them old hippies, but Sharon and David are nothing short of spiritual giants who keep serving the yoga community with their relentless efforts for greater peace, unity, environmental awareness and karma consciousness within ourselves and this very globe we live on. While they were visiting Mysore in June this year, Pure Yoga's Alex Medin had the privilege to catch up with them. As always, their personal views, experiences and insights are both eye-opening and inspiring.
When did you first come to Mysore?
SHARON: David and I first visited India in 1986 but we did not go to Mysore then.
DAVID: Guruji says we first came in 1988. Maybe it was 1989, but he is usually right.
How many trips have you made here?
SHARON: David and I have travelled many times to India since that time. I am not sure how many, around 15 I think. We have travelled together as well as separately. We haven't always gone to Mysore, but also to other parts of India.
DAVID: At least 20-25, with stays varying from 1-3 months at a time.
What is it about Mysore that makes you come back here?
SHARON: Guruji, Shri K. Pattabhi Jois is the only reason that I come to Mysore.
DAVID: Only Guruji.
Have things changed since you first came here? Has anything remained constant?
SHARON: Through the eyes of an unenlightened one, like myself, things are always changing. To the enlightened all is constant. The western influence on Mysore and India in general has brought a lot of pollution, physical and psychic. I am sure there must be good in all of it, but with my small limited mind, it is difficult for me to see the bigger picture at this time.
India has plastic now, which has made a huge difference over the past 20 years. Before you would buy something at a shop or restaurant and it would be given to you wrapped in a leaf, a piece of newspaper or in an unfired clay cup, which degrade quite quickly. Now everything comes in plastic, so the streets are littered with bright pastel colours and the cows are suffering from grazing on so many plastic bags, which become twisted in their intestines causing great pain and death.
Motorbikes are everywhere, so the air is a lot more polluted then 20 years ago. I was talking to a man who owns a sari shop on Devarajas Road. A couple of years ago we were sitting drinking chai looking out the windows and discussing the rise in air pollution and the increase of traffic, especially motor bikes. He remarked, "Well at least now it is better for the animals." I quizzically asked, "How so?" I asked while reflecting on the fact that there are not so many skinny ponies still pulling cart-loads of noisy school children, and oxen struggling with loads of bricks and stones all labouring while breathing in toxic fumes from the exhaust pipes in front of them. "Oh but there are not so many animals on the streets now, they have been spared."
Because consumers in the west want lots of leather, the western fashion industry has been buying Indian leather because it is cheap. Most of the leather used to make jackets, coats, pants and shoes in American and European stores comes from Indian cows. This is of course causing a lot of suffering for the cows, as well as the humans who work to create those tanned hides for export. The caustic chemicals kill and injure many Indians.
Some positive western influences...because of the support of many western students, Pattabhi Jois and his family are not only world-famous but wealthy and able to travel to many countries and spread the teaching of yoga, which is, in essence, teaching of love, kindness, compassion and vegetarianism. Also in the Nilgiri stores in India, you can now get soymilk and even tofu, which I am sure they are catering to western students in a big part.
DAVID: It is a different world that it was 20 years ago. India, Guruji and we are all 20 years older! Guruji has become more sage-like and wise. India has developed very quickly into the rapidly developing, highly polluted and overpopulated place that it is, and I have learned a small portion of what I don't know. But if you ask me what remains constant, it is God. That is the only constant in the realm of change.
How did you come to yoga?
SHARON: Oh I don't know really. I suppose the correct answer would be 'my past karmas'. But that is difficult for me to understand, and what makes better sense is to answer that question with: Grace. Many people helped me along the way to embrace and practise yoga.
When I was a young child I was obsessed by the question, 'What makes form form?' I wanted to know the underlying metaphysics of matter. In my early 20s I studied alchemy with a brilliant teacher and began practising meditation. I loved books and read a lot, which led me to become a librarian at an esoteric library. I loved listening to the music of the Beatles, especially George Harrison, and through him developed a taste for Indian Music and all things 'Indian'. While a dance student at the University of Washington in Seattle, I studied Indian Philosophy as we had a very strong Eastern studies programme. I took a summer intensive with a group of musicians and a dancer from Nepal, and through them I learned some basics about Indian art, music and dance. After graduating from school I continued to pursue the arts and incorporated the Indian influences I had been exposed to.
In 1983 I broke a vertebrae when I fell down some steep stairs, and shortly after I moved to NYC. I began working at David's Life Café in NYC. A waitress there was a yoga teacher and she suggested that I take yoga classes to help my back. I did and one thing led to the next, and here we are.
DAVID: I took a couple of classes in college in 1968 but was not impressed. In 1983 in New York City, Sharon started to take asana classes to help a broken spinal vertebra. I also took up asana classes with her at the time and it was primarily Sharon who instigated my practice from beginning to now.
What has yoga really taught you?
SHARON: Something about the interconnectedness of all beings and things.
What each of us does, matters to the whole.
Everything that I experience in my life is a direct result of how I have treated others in my past.
Kindness is the only action worth pursuing.
Ahimsa is the foundation practice.
DAVID: That our reality is mind-formed and mind-controlled. Liberation can be had by those that are willing to provide it to someone else.
How did Jivamukti Yoga come about?
SHARON: Quite organically. What I mean is that David and I never sat down with a business plan and decided, we are going to create a method of yoga and open a yoga school and teach that method and write books about it and on and on.
We were both radicals and devoted to challenging the norms of our present culture and we were trying to do that through art. We were artists who practised yoga but over time, our audience became more and more interested in our yoga practices and less interested in our music, poetry, dance or painting. We began to realise the inherent potential of yoga, more than art, to elevate consciousness and dismantle our present culture. I believe this to be true at this time of global consciousness and shift on the planet. For the most part, art has become commodified and because of that, lost its spiritual potency to shift consciousness. Our present culture has successfully buried the spiritual potency of art, which was once able to move people into a higher realm of awareness. Culture has pushed the arts as well as the spiritual into a state of dormancy.
We started teaching yoga by default, but when we did we just thought to share with the students who showed up. Everything had personal meaning to us on our spiritual journey, hence, the emphasis on compassion for all beings: animal rights, veganism, environmentalism, political activism, the music, the scripture references, personal meditation techniques and reflections, and of course the love of God we integrated into our classes.
Yoga was exciting to us because of its spiritual activism. Swami Nirmalananda encouraged our activism. He taught us the mantra Lokah Samasta Sukhinoh Bhavantu. If the practice of yoga wasn't going to make us better people who were better able to contribute to the happiness of others and the upliftment of the planet, then why do it? But we did discover through our practices the incredible power that yoga had to transform people, allowing their own innate compassion and kindness to manifest. Yoga teaches us that it isn't all about us. In fact, we as separate individuals don't exist apart from the whole.
Reflecting back on those times during the early 1980s, I saw that many teachers who were teaching yoga asanas had little understanding or experience with the actual potency of the practice and its implication to a broader community. Asanas were being taught as 'get in shape exercises'. I discovered that many yoga teachers were not vegetarian or vegan and didn't seem to think that it was important. While taking classes with many yoga teachers, I had to fill in the blank spaces. I did this for a while until I was asked to teach yoga by some people who knew that I practised yoga.
David started teaching with me shortly after that. We wanted to facilitate for people a meaningful experience, as we ourselves were very passionate about the experiences we were having through yoga, so we attempted to share what we could of our own experience and insights to those who were interested. I remember Shri K. Pattabhi Jois saying that the best prerequisite to the practice of yoga is a sense of adventure. I think we had that and our passion was infectious.
Just for your records, the name of the method is Jivamukti. We dropped the 'n' on purpose because when we opened our first school and had to incorporate as a matter or procedure to acquire the lease, we had to trademark the name. We did not feel that it was appropriate to trademark a Sanskrit term, so we altered it. Nonetheless, we wanted to give it a name that would remind people when they said it of the goal of yoga, which is to become enlightened -- to become enlightened while still living so that you could really help others relieve their suffering. The term "Jivanmukta" describes someone who wants to become enlightened in order to live to benefit others. We aspired to that and that was how we wanted to live our lives, that is why we practised yoga and so that is what we naturally shared with those who were interested.
We were not at all interested in becoming yet two more consuming members of a culture that was based on exploiting others, primarily other animal people, robbing them of wildness, enslaving them and using them without any regard for their happiness or well-being. In the Yogic scriptures and teachings of our teachers, we found support for our passion to live harmoniously with the earth. Everyone wants to be happy, but few people seem to realise that you cannot be happy by causing unhappiness to others. Your 'own' happiness is dependent on your contribution to the happiness of others. In this way yoga is quite radical as it challenges the very foundation of our present culture, where "might is right" rules.
DAVID: Sharon thought dance, and we both did performance art, poetry and played music in New York. Our friends and students all knew that we did yoga and asked us to teach them. That was how it started.
Has your relationship to yoga changed over the years?
SHARON: NO, not really. But like all good relationships, it has deepened and sweetened over time. Let us be clear as to what we are talking about when we say we are having a relationship to yoga. First of all that phrase doesn't actually make sense, because just as one cannot 'do' yoga, one cannot have a relationship to yoga either. Yoga means union -- the joining of the self with Self, or the finite to the infinite, or the partial to the whole. So you or I can't do that because it is who we are. On the other hand we may be able to do some exercises, which might reveal to us where we are resisting yoga or that reality. I suppose one could have a relationship with the concept or the notion of yoga, which means enlightened awareness of the whole. So through that relationship one might reflect upon who they are and ask such questions as "Who am I? What is the world? How has all of this come about? Where is it going? Where am I going? Is there a God?" etc.
DAVID: Sure. Any relationship must undergo change in order to remain vital and connected. The change comes from my side in slowly witnessing the Universe of Yoga.
Why do you think Yoga is suddenly so popular all over the world?
SHARON: We are in the midst of a world crisis; human beings have caused this crisis. Yoga holds the potential to save the planet. Yoga teaches us as human beings how to live harmoniously with the world, which means all other beings and things. We as a species have forgotten how to do that -- yoga is waking us up and reminding us how to live. When we rediscover our wildness, the shackles of cultures will fall away and we will find ourselves in the land of freedom.
DAVID: Because it is needed at this time. When the Devas and the Asuras churned the ocean and released the toxic poison, it was Shiva (The Lord of Yogis) that was able to hold the poison. In this time of global crises, we see toxic poisons of all kinds due to the churning of the earth by human beings and, once again, it will be the Yogins that offer hope. Dharma means to hold something of value to all beings.
Can an experience of yoga be gained from the mere practice of physical postures?
SHARON: I would never refer to asanas as "mere physical practices". Our bodies are made up of our past karmas. Asanas are potent tools that can enable one to resolve their own karmas and reroute the future course of our own lives. The power of the human mind is such that whatever you are thinking at the time you are doing, something will determine the result of that action. So the practice of asanas could be mundane if you thought of them that way or the practice of asanas could lead you to yoga if you practised with that intention. In our age, the prevalent disease is low self-esteem. Culture has done an excellent job of making us all feel quite inadequate. This lack of self-confidence causes us to think that what we do as an individual doesn't matter much to the whole, that our actions are insignificant and so because of that we feel that we aren't responsible for anything. We don't feel that we are responsible for our own lives or the lives of others or the world around us. The practice of yoga has the power to shatter that misconception.
DAVID: Yes. All yogic paths are methods for realising Yoga.
You often speak about the importance of Ahimsa and how yoga may help to purify one's karmas. Why is Ahimsa so important for an understanding of yoga?
SHARON: Getting rid of 'otherness' seems to be the main goal of yoga practice. If yoga means enlightenment and what is realised in the enlightened state is the Oneness of Being, then the biggest obstacle to that realisation is seeing others and not the one. Patanjali gives us the practice of Ahimsa as a means to yoga. As long as you see others, don't harm them. He also tells us that if you continue to practise non-harming, you change as well as the people around you. He says that when you become established - pratisthayam - in this practice of not harming others - ahimsa - then others will not harm you. Wow, imagine that. Imagine living your life in that kind of security and ease, never worrying about someone thinking something bad about you, or gossiping about you or banging you over the head or shooting you or hurting you in any way. That sounds like a peaceful world.
Whatever we want we can have, if we are willing to provide it for others first. So if we want happiness we must make others happy. If we want to be free then it seems to me we wouldn't make a slave of anyone. If we want enlightenment the same procedure would follow. This is the secret of the guru/chela relationship. The teacher provides the student with someone to see as enlightened and through that purification of vision, the student himself becomes enlightened, because it takes one to know one. Ahimsa helps us to understand how yoga works.
We live in a culture, which tells us that the earth belongs to us and it is our right to exploit others for our own needs and desires. A yogi on the other hand, realises that violence only brings more violence; it can never bring peace. By understanding how things come about, a yogi then consciously attempts to choose their actions wisely, planting the seeds they wish to reap. To live in a way that our own life would enhance the lives of others is a radical concept as it gets to the very root of how happiness comes about. If we want to be happy, we do what we can to bring others happiness, not suffering. Yogis by nature are radical, not content to live superficial lives, but instead enjoy diving into cause. Patanjali opens his whole sutra with: "atha yoganusasanum." PYS 1.1
DAVID: The word yoga means union-oneness. The experience of Samadhi is the experience of the oneness of being. In order to harm another, there first must be a belief in otherness. If there is a belief in otherness, then there cannot be an experience simultaneously of oneness of being. Being kind to others and serving "us-in-the-form-of-them". When we experience our happiness arising from serving others, we experience the oneness of being. Those among us who are most downtrodden are the most deserving of service -- they are the land with its animals and trees, the waters and fish, the birds and the air.
How can the practice of yoga purify one's karmas?
SHARON: By revealing them. Our reality comes from our past actions. How we have treated others and how we have treated ourselves determines the present moment and propels us into the future. When you engage in the various practices of yoga, whatever they may be -- practising meditation or trying to concentrate, bending forward, standing on your head, ujjayi breathing, not hurting someone, not eating someone, or telling the truth -- you are going to come up against obstacles and distractions, some of which will be painful and fearful and you will be tempted to run away in order to avoid the pain. You see, we feel that it is possible to run away because we are caught in the illusion that things, people or circumstances are coming at us. This comes from ignorance or avidya, which is a case of mistaken identity. The truth is that there is no one else really 'out there' to come at you. In fact there is no 'out there' out there. All that we experience, whether actual or virtual, is coming from our own past actions, our karmas. So when unpleasant things seem to come at us, if instead of avoiding them we investigate the pain through the process of witnessing it without placing any judgment upon it, we will begin to develop chitta prasadanam or serenity of mind. With this serenity of mind we will be able to delve deeper into our own being fearlessly and allow all negative emotions and habits to rise to the light of awareness and be dissolved.
You know the practice of yoga has been called the practice of dying. You die to who you think you are. Through investigation, through keen and consistent observation of the self, you come to the realisation that you don't exist. Meaning our self, who we think we are, the ego, the body/mind doesn't exist. It is only an abstract concept. As Alan Watts says, "Like the equator, you can't really find it, you can't trip over it, cause it doesn't really exist." By truly observing something, really the thing will disappear.
At the so-called time of death, it is said we will see our whole life pass before us. Actually, if we have some training we can allow it to pass right through us. During the death process all the ghosts of our past will come knocking on our door. We must be able to let them in and allow them to pass right through. In this way we will see them for what they are - phantoms of our past. We will see ourselves, our personality, our separateness for what it is: empty. Love is the only way that we will be able to open the door of our heart wide enough to allow everything and everyone that needs to pass through to pass through. Swami Nirmalananda told us to "practise dying every day of your life and when the time comes you will be ready for the great Samadhi."
You guys have been around the block for a while and probably seen many interesting things when it comes to yoga, but any particular views about the future of yoga?
SHARON: Yoga is eternal, there is no future for yoga, nor can it be imprisoned in the past.
DAVID: It is the worldwide soft revolution leading the way to the evolution of consciousness. The future looks good from here!
What does it mean to be a yogi?
SHARON: To be a yogi is to be free…absolutely wild…and completely at ease
Interview by R. Alexander Medin
>> Visit the Jivamukti Yoga website