Jivamukti Yoga – Liberation of the Soul

David Life and Sharon Gannon sit down to discuss enlightenment, veganism and fame

Founders of Jivamukti Yoga, David Life and Sharon Gannon, have taught many students, launched several books, released various DVDs and opened numerous centers around the world since their beginnings in 1989. Blending spirituality with veganism and how to apply a yoga philosophy in your daily life is at the core of their yoga teachings.

Founders of Jivamukti Yoga, David Life and Sharon Gannon, have taught many students, launched several books, released various DVDs and opened numerous centers around the world since their beginnings in 1989. Blending spirituality with veganism and how to apply a yoga philosophy in your daily life is at the core of their yoga teachings.

What is the philosophy behind Jivamukti?

Sharon: The word Jivamukti comes from a Sanskrit word jivanmukti. And it means living liberated. Jiva means “an individual soul”, and mukti means “liberation”. So the word means liberation of the individual soul. And when an individual soul is liberated, they are liberated from that individualization and know themselves as bigger, as one with all that exists. So the philosophy behind the method that we teach is that we teach yoga for the single purpose of enlightenment.

David: … which is not an original idea. It is an original idea, but not our original idea [laughs]. This is the original purpose of yoga practice. So all the other ideas of health, contentment, ease of being; all that are side effects. But the primary goal has always been liberation.

What is your understanding of enlightenment?

Sharon: Knowing that you are not individual, that you will not die, that you are eternal, you are immortal, that your true nature is happiness, joy, bliss. And that realization comes when you realize the connectedness, how you are connected to all of life and not apart from it. You may first see the world as coming at you, but through yoga you realize you are creating the world – it is coming from you. The realization comes through a deep understanding of karma and how karma or action impacts upon your reality and your perception of yourself and others.

“You begin to reflect on whether or not you can karmically afford certain actions,” you once said. What kind of actions can you afford?

Sharon: Being kind to others, being considerate. In this instance… in this interview that we’re doing, it’s our great opportunity you are giving us.

David: And we projected you in front of us.
Sharon: And if we were smart, then we would want to do everything we could to make the time we spend with you enjoyable for you.

Today, many people don’t see yoga as a path to enlightenment. They often see it as a “good workout”. What are your thoughts on that? How does that affect your teachings?

David: They don’t know yet. That’s because they haven’t come to our class yet [laughs].

Sharon: They’re pretending not to know. Deep down you have to believe that everyone does know and that everyone is a good person, and that they don’t need you to enlighten them. If you view other people as stupid and ignorant because they eat meat or they don’t stand on their head, then that’s your problem. And that won’t bring you to any place of happiness or help you to contribute to a better world. So when you shift that, and instead you start to view others as giving you an opportunity to be kind, to spread a good message, to help out, then that’s the beginning for you. So what other people do… they’re doing their best, and you have to believe that and not be so critical of them and judgmental. When you begin to be judgmental of others and negatively criticize them, then your happiness… you will not get any kind of happiness, and without that happiness you will have no peace of mind.

I believe veganism also plays a big role in your teachings.

Sharon: You can’t eat meat and be kind [laughs].

David: You can’t kindly kill someone and eat them. When we say be kind, we mean: be kind to everyone, because there are no others. That’s a figment of your imagination. The culture has taught you that, but it’s not right.
Sharon: It’s not conducive to enlightenment.

David: This idea of jivanmukti, the liberation while in the body, means while immersed in a culture, while in a community. It doesn’t mean a yogi goes to a cave in the mountains by himself and pulls himself out of culture, away from family and becomes a monk. That could be a yogi, but doesn’t have to be, a yogi who’s deeply involved and committed to a life in the world, knowing that the life in the world is the opportunity for enlightenment. But there is the tendency, especially for people who are starting yoga, that it is something different, something separate from their life. So they start doing yoga, they need a new boyfriend, they need a new job, they need a new place to live; all these things. And we’re just saying, no. Yoga means that you’re getting deeper into your job, deeply into it, and you find a way to transform it yourself, and to make it into a meaningful place. You look more deeply into your culture, not just superficially, not just skimming the top, but diving deep inside and finding the wisdom traditions in your own culture, finding the shamans in your own culture, seeking them out as teachers and then learning how to take those teachings and apply them to questions. The kind of questions we face today are ethical dilemmas. In general, in the world, ethical dilemmas, conflict resolutions, so many things that could be helped by just two words: be kind. Don’t be looking for a fight, don’t try and cling on to artificial boundaries based on territory or past wars. To go deeper into that… why do people create boundaries? Why did I create boundaries? And why do I protect them? Why do I build walls and put guns on those walls? Why do I have to do that? Is it really true that all people are basically evil? Well, if we believe that, then that’s the world that we project, and that’s the world we live in. And we don’t believe that. And we’re projecting a different world, and we live in a different world because of that reflection.

Sharon: If we want to see a kind world, then (David and I) we know that we have to be kind. The change has to start with us. And that’s why we don’t eat animals, or drink their milk, or cause them to be imprisoned or exploited for any reason. We want to do whatever we can, even if it’s the smallest thing, such as choosing soy milk in the coffee instead of dairy milk, then that’s our way of contributing to this world that we want to see, this world where people do not view other beings as exploitable. But as fellow earthlings, we try to get along with everyone.

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What are some of the challenges you face? How do you uphold this outlook at all times?

Sharon: It’s very easy to uphold that belief because it comes from the heart. The challenges are not getting enough sleep, having enough hours in the day to answer all the phone calls and the emails from people, to be present when people ask you to do something, and to be able to spread yourself so that you can get all of that done in a good way.

David: Flying on airplanes and going through customs and immigration, these are the difficult moments.

Sharon: It’s not that difficult to eat a vegetarian diet.

How do you convince skeptics?
Sharon:
We don’t.

David: We don’t even go there.

Sharon: People have to be respected. That’s number one. And try to do the best to relate to them from a mutual feeling place, understanding that this is a precious holy being here. When that respect comes, then the love comes, the compassion, the kindness. It’s not your job to convince others of your point of view, or convince others that they should do yoga, or convince them that what they are doing is wrong, to judge them. That’s not my job.

What would you say is your mission on this planet?

Sharon: To be kind, to do my best to be kind.

Would you also say that it’s part of your mission to reach people and to get this message out there?

Sharon: When people ask us, then I feel it is our duty to respond. When people come and they say, ”I am interested in yoga. I want to be happy, and you seem to have some information. Could you share it?” Then we’re going to share it. We’re going to share everything that our beloved teachers gave us. And that’s really the best we can do. They say that in order to teach yoga, the only qualification is that you must be enlightened. So if you’re not enlightened, the second best is to just pass on what your holy teachers have given you in the form of the scriptures and the wisdom they have passed on to you. That’s all we try to do.

What sort of plans do you have?

David: We just try to be here now [laughs]. I don’t say we don’t have future plans, but we don’t obsess about it. It’s bad enough that we have to work on next year’s schedule. I don’t even know if I’ll be alive next year. It’s silly to make plans so far ahead, but it’s part of our lives. We’re working on several books.

Let me just touch on two of the earlier questions. One was, “What is your mission?” and “What is your plan?” I do think that it’s a rare thing in this time to be able to easily travel around the world. And there is so much interest in yoga, giving us a platform and providing us this opportunity to travel and teach. It’s unique. It might not be that way in the future, unless they invent a new way of propelling an airplane besides using petrochemicals. In any case, in this time we travel throughout the world… there are so many difficulties traveling, language, cultural differences, but when you walk into a room of yogis, we all speak the same language, no matter where I am. As a worldwide movement I think yoga has the possibility of evolving the whole situation, knowing that it will need a large group of people to create a new momentum: living with the earth instead of against the earth, to change the way we’re driven to grow, grow, grow, like that. Yoga is unique, because it gives you many techniques for clearing your thinking and your perception. It’s not just theoretical. It’s not just, “Let’s have a board meeting about how to change the world.” I’m going to change my own nervous system, my own organism so it’s more in touch, more in confluence with the cosmos. And through that, others can be invited into this. And I do see this as part of our mission in this time to support that growth of yoga, the yoga mentality and the spreading of this message.

Sharon: I think so many of the problems we find; problems at home, with work, with the government, they all come down to the people feeling disempowered, or a victim of something, a victim of childhood, a victim of their abusive spouse, a victim of their job, the economic situation, a victim of ill health… Yoga helps you to rise above that and brings a true self-confidence. There’s no coincidence that people feel victimized, because the basis of our culture is to victimize animals, to exploit them, to exploit the earth, the rivers, the soil, the air. So how you treat others is how you are treated. If you don’t want to find yourself as a victim, you have to dig deep at the cause of what might be contributing to that experience that you are having. And you will find that your own actions are very very powerful. So when you stop causing others to be victimized, then gradually, eventually but inevitably you will be free of that victimization. And that is one of the big reasons why we are vegetarian. How you treat others will determine how others treat you. And how others treat you will determine how you see yourself. And ultimately how you see yourself will determine who you are. And yoga is about discovering who you are.

What has been your most interesting experience in relation to yoga or your teachings?

David: You know what, the truth… the peak moments were very simple moments with our teacher, where our teacher made me a cup of coffee or some food and served it to me. No fanfare, no floating bodies, just simply… ”I made bread for you, for you, because I love you, because you’re my child.” Just little moments like that are the most juicy, the ones I reflect on. Not to say that there weren’t moments of wonderful bliss.

Sharon: For me the most amazing thing is that other people are interested in this stuff. There are many others who have a sincere interest in yoga. That’s awesome!

David: It’s a mystery [laughs].
Sharon: It’s encouraging. It gives me optimism and the energy to keep going.

I hear that people treat you like rock stars when you’re in your centre in New York.

David: Even rock stars don’t get treated like rock stars in New York. “Oh it’s just them!” It’s New York [laughs].

Sharon: We feel very privileged. And we don’t want to mess up the opportunities that we get. We get many press opportunities. It is a chance to speak for the animals, to speak up for a vegetarian diet, for the benefits of Sanskrit, yoga scripture, yoga meditation. That’s a great privilege.

Do you also get carried away by fame sometimes?

Sharon: The work is very demanding. It’s relentless. And there’s not much time for sleeping. So there’s very little time for getting carried away with such superficial things like drinking champagne at a cocktail party. We don’t have that much time to do those things.

David: There is an idea that people have about the rock star lifestyle or the lifestyles that famous people lead. These are some of the hardest working people on the earth today. These are people who spend a good amount of their time working for various good causes, and they give their lives tirelessly to various projects that would make the world a better place. And they don’t have a boss standing over them saying, “You better finish that report.”

Sharon: They’re self-motivated. Have you ever spent a week with Madonna? She doesn’t sleep. She’s constantly working, trying to get better herself. She’s very humble. Sting, he’s constantly practicing, thinking of ways to make this world a better place, “How much money can I give to create a school or a hospital? What would be the best use of this money?” These are the rock stars that we know, and they’re very very hard working people.

David: And when you ask any of these people, “Do you like what you do?” And they say, “I love it. It’s an amazing opportunity, and all I want to do is share.” And if I sing, that’s how I share. If I teach yoga, that’s how I share this wonderful opportunity. We can all join in together. We love that.

Are the healing qualities of yoga something that you focus on?

David: What is dis-ease? It’s lack of ease. On a causal level we see many people suffering and it being the effect of them being ill at ease in their lives. They feel like a stranger in a strange land, all by themselves.

Sharon: The Bhagavad Gita tells us, that you just give your life to God, and everything will be taken care of. And that is really true. But you have to recommit yourself everyday. That is what meditation practice is, that’s what mantra is. And then you are infused with the ability to do your work, because it’s not coming from you anymore. You’re not working for yourself anymore. You’re working for God. If God needs you to be healthy, if God needs you to look a certain way… a certain attractiveness, God will do that. You don’t have to worry about that. And we have found that to be true. It is the truth. Every morning I don’t leave the room without meditating, without mantra, without consciously saying, “Lord make me an instrument for thy will.” It’s a mystery to me. But I do know that I will continue for as long as God is willing. As long as I have good health and people keep coming, I’ll do my best.

Are there any tips you can share?

Sharon: [Laughs] eating a vegan diet, that’s probably the simplest way to change your life and change the world.

David: We feel funny about the word “vegan”. People took vegetarianism and changed it.

Sharon: They say, “I’m a vegetarian. I eat fish, chicken, eggs.” Those are not vegetables. But we live in a time when people don’t say what they need all the time. And that’s the practice of satya. When you become established, you practice it, you tell the truth to the best of your ability, then what will happen is that people will start to listen to you. Your words will have power, they will come true. And we see that it’s an epidemic that people say one thing but mean something else. Yoga helps you to purify your speech, and then you truly begin to say what you mean and mean what you say. And then life is better [smiles].

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