Sharon Gannon is a 21rst century Renaissance woman who excels in many artistic, spiritual and social mediums. Sharon is best known for creating, along with David Life, the Jivamukti Yoga Method--a path to enlightenment through compassion for all beings.
The Jivamukti Yoga method emphasizes vinyasa, music, meditation and chanting as well as a major focus on animal rights, veganism and political activism.
Sharon is a pioneer in teaching yoga as spiritual activism and is changing the way that people view animals, spirituality, life, themselves and each other.
I attended her lecture The Diet Of Enlightenment at the San Francisco Yoga Journal Conference January 31. With an inspiring positive attitude Sharon explored the five yamas of Patanjali. Patanjali is the author of the ancient yoga sutras which is the collection of essays on the philosophy and practice of yoga. With wisdom and courage she related each yama to animal rights and living vegan. She was graceful yet explicit in a moving and humble way that any animal activist would be impressed by. Let it be known however, she was in no way preaching to the choir in this lecture. Although the audience was filled with wonderful compassionate yoga practitioners they were very much like the majority of humans and were completely un-informed to the realities of how non human animals are exploited and turned into food.
YOGA JOURNAL Magazine has called her an innovator and VANITY FAIR gives her credit for making yoga cool and hip. JANE Magazine nominated her as Gutsiest Woman of the Year and FARM SANCTUARY awarded her the 2008 compassionate living award. She is a long-time vanguard member of PETA and has helped with many of their campaigns.
She resides in a wild forest sanctuary in upstate NY, USA.
The first question I want to ask you Sharon is simply.... what brought you to becoming an ethical vegan and an animal rights advocate?
In 1982 I saw a film, entitled “The Animals Film.” At that time I was an artist living in Seattle Washington where I was a musician in a band. I went to see the film with some of my band mates only because I had seen on the poster at the theater that Robert Wyatt had done the musical soundtrack. I was a H.U.G.E. fan of Robert Wyatt. He was the drummer and singer for The Soft Machine, which was and still is one of my favorite bands.
The Animal’s Film was a British documentary film made by Victor Schonfeld and Myriam Alaux, narrated by the actress Julie Christie (who actually put her acting career on the line by being associated with this film. I have tremendous respect for her.) The film depicted our (human) exploitation of animals. The film covered many aspects in very graphic detail from the all too common and casual euthanisation of unwanted pets, to animals used for entertainment, to animals used for food and clothing, and as victims of military and “scientific” research. The last scene was of the Animal Liberation Front rescuing animals from a laboratory. The ALF appeared to me like modern day Super Heroes…I wanted to join up immediately.
But I faced (or thought at the time, I faced) a big obstacle---I lived in Seattle Washington, USA and I didn’t know of any members of the ALF in my town nor did I know any vegans. I was a poor artist living in a dark dank basement apartment. I didn’t have a car, phone or bank account. Non-the less,I decided after seeing the film that I would devote my life to doing whatever I could to stop the insanity I saw depicted in that film. I didn't know exactly what I was going to do at that point, but I knew that whatever it was it had to help the animals and it had to shatter the ignorance inside of us human beings who would think that it is okay to treat animals as if they had no feelings and existed to be enslaved and exploited by us.
Very soon after that film I became a vegan. Very soon after that I became a yoga teacher as a way to be more outspoken about animal rights. For me teaching yoga provided a better platform than music, dance, painting or any of the other artistic genres I had been working in.
The Animal’s Film was the first feature length animal rights documentary. Many other films since that time have borrowed not only footage, but formatting from that seminal and very important film. It was seeing this film that changed my life and moved me to become a yoga teacher/ animal rights activist.
Because it was a film that transformed me I feel obliged to share films with others. I make it part of my teaching to show films like this to students all over the world. Talking about the issue is one thing….when people actually have a chance to see the reality (albeit on the screen)….it can be very very effective.
Usually when I am on the road (on a teaching tour) I teach 2-4 workshop classes and during the last class I show Chew on This (a 3 minute film produced by my friends at PETA with the appropriate subtitles in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Russian or whatever is the language spoken in the country where I am). I also often show 10 minutes from the Chapter on Food from the Earthlings Film. After these films the discussion about the link between Yoga and Veganism takes on a depth, sincerity and zeal that would not be possible without seeing the films first. After viewing the film(s) there is little or none of the defensiveness that often comes up when there is just a talk followed by a Q&A about the vegan/animal rights issue.
Each and every one of the beautiful non human residents living here at Animal Acres were destined for the slaughterhouse. It may sound a bit crazy but when I meet the animals here at the sanctuary or when I meet any rescued animal who's been given a new life they in some way represent to me the ultimate Jivamukti persons. Do you know what I mean?
Can you talk about Jivamukti Yoga, its meaning and practice?
The word Jivamukti is taken from a Sanskrit word:Jivanmukti, which is a combination of two words—jiva which means individual soul, like one’s personality or ego and mukti which means liberation, freedom, enlightenment. So a Jivanmukta is someone who is living liberated …who is in the state of enlightenment, which is what Jivamukti means.
The term Jivanmukta is equivalent to the Buddhist concept of the Boddhisttava—which describes one who has attained some level of enlightenment but has devoted themselves to helping others attain that enlightenment…before retiring themselves into Nirvana (total enjoyment).
What is realized in the yogic state of enlightenment is the Oneness of Being—all disconnection disappears. You do not feel or think of yourself as just a separate individual—a skin encapsulated ego. One realizes their inner and inter-connectedness with all beings and things—with all of life. A Jivanmukta knows themselves as whole as a whole/holy being…. a part of the whole web of existence—they have healed themselves from the disease of disconnection which is a pandemic in our Culture.
I appreciate your perception of the rescued animals at Animal Acres as Jivamuktas –maybe they are--but I do not know if that is a true perception or not. I don’t know if they are enlightened beings or not. To be able to see an enlightened being you yourself must be an enlightened being, because it takes one to know one. I don’t think of myself as there yet! Although I’m trying my best to work on it!
I do know that everyone of us finds ourselves in whatever situation we are in because of our past karmas. No one is an innocent victim. Now don’t get freaked out by that word karma. It is a Sanskrit term that simply means action. It does not mean ‘good’ action or ‘bad’ action--- it is neutral—it simply means action. Everyone’s actions are important--they determine how reality unfolds. How we treat others determines how others treat us. How others treat us determines how we see ourselves. How we see ourselves determines who we are.
Whew! So it all starts with how we treat others. If we treat others with kindness and consideration for their happiness this will come back to us eventually, but inevitably.
Dr. Albert Einstein reminded us of this fact or law of nature when he “discovered” that space is curved—what ever you throw out there will come back to its place of origin.
So the message is: be careful with what you throw out there. In other words be careful with what you think, say or do because you will be revisited by it. Only sow the seeds you want to see blossom. As singer/activist Michael Franti says in his song, Yes I Will:
“I believe that what you sing to the clouds will rain upon you when the sun has gone away and I believe that what you bring to the moon will manifest before you rest another day….” So treat others as you would want to be treated, I think Jesus said that! It is an old saying but one that is so easily put aside in our world today in the quest for “success.” Patanjali has a sutra in his yoga sutra: Maitri Adishu Balani PYS.24, which means: Through friendliness (maitri) and other such related feelings, like kindness, (adishu) your strength and success will surely come. Wow !--that is radical stuff for those of us who have been conditioned by a Culture, which has beaten it into us that the “Earth Belongs to Us”, and that it is our right to exploit the Earth and all other beings if we have the means and the might to do so. Yoga tells us that Might Is Not Right! Yoga tells us that through kindness and friendliness we will be successful.
I love the system and practices of Yoga because it provides us with the tools to dismantle our present culture—a culture based on slavery and exploitation of the animals and the Earth. Our present Culture has been at war with Mother Nature for at least the last 10,000 years. It was roughly 10,00 years ago that human beings started to enslave animals (the polite term is domestication). The enslavement of animals is the foundation of our culture and still is. The terms, “stock market” and “capital” all derive from our original culture, which was a herding culture where the central economy stemmed from exploiting animals.
I joyfully and unapologetically reject this Culture and embrace Yoga as a means to not only dismantle this Culture but to provide the tools to build a new way of life a way to live harmoniously with the earth and all other beings. This is why I practice Yoga—this is why I teach Yoga. Yoga means to come together to unite with….I want to heal the disease so rampant in our culture of slavery—the disease of disconnection. I am trying to start with myself—to heal myself—to try to see more clearly—to try to rid myself of the misperception that I am separate from everyone else. Yoga means connection. I like that! I want to commit my life to that.
I must admit that I still like living inside a house that has electricity and hot and cold running water, with a refrigerator and stove and I still find comfort in wearing clothes and bundling up against the cold, rain and wind. But I will say that I do question all these habits and addictions and often try to imagine myself living naked in the forest like the deer and foxes who we share our home with in Woodstock NY.
You and David have brought so much awareness and activism into the yoga world about animal rights. You've been such an outspoken yogi for the animals over the years and have never wavered away from the issue of animal liberation at all either. What motivates you about the issue of animal advocacy and in making it such an important part of your yoga teaching?
Yoga means to yoke--to unite-- to come together. My teacher Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati often said, “Yoga is that state where you are missing nothing—you know yourself as whole and complete.”
Yoga and enlightenment are synonymous. Enlightenment is the ultimate coming together…where there is no disconnection. The yogi in the enlightened state feels/realizes the Oneness of being…all disconnection disappears.
So what is the biggest obstacle to this realization? Others! Perceiving yourself as separate from others. Deluded—thinking that others are separate and that what you think, say and do does not make a difference to them or to you. Most people spend a lot of time blaming others for their own unhappiness: If only my parents would wake up and understand why I don’t want to eat Turkey with them on Thanksgiving. If only my girlfriend was vegan then we could have better sex and then I would be happy. If the president of the United States passed a law, which disallowed factory farming then all our problems, would be solved.
The first step towards the realization of yoga is to realize that there is no out there out there—others do not exist as separate entities from you. Everyone and every situation that you find yourself in has come from you. You created the world you live in. How? From your own thoughts, words and actions—in other words from your past karmas. We live in the world of our own making. The Sanskrit term shunyata describes this. Shunyata means emptiness. Emptiness does not mean a void of nothingness; rather it describes a reality of infinite possibilities. With this concept of shunyata,the yogic teachings put the responsibility on what reality becomes on the observer. Whatever you see is a projection of your own mind. Your own mind is made up of your past experiences. Your past experiences are made from your interactions with others. Your perception of others comes from how you have treated them.
We all say we want a peaceful and happy world—we value ideals like freedom and respect. But if we cannot provide for others the very things we want for ourselves, and value most in life—then we will never have those things.
To put it bluntly: If we deprive other animals—and I say other animals because we are animals too--that is a biological fact. If we deprive others of what we ourselves value most…then we will never achieve our goals—we will never be at peace if we cause havoc in the the lives of others we will never be happy if we cause so many animals to be unhappy—(and enslaving them and taking away their rights and mobility does cause them unhappiness) then how can we expect to be happy? If we ourselves want to be free then it will not suit our purpose to enslave others.
We (human beings) keep animals as slaves. We have been conditioned by our culture to do this. We, for the most part think of it as normal to pen or cage an animal, to saddle a horse, to use, abuse and exploit animals for our own gain…not giving a thought to the animal’s happiness aspirations or freedom. This type of perception does not lead one to happiness and freedom, which are the goals of yoga.
So if you want enlightenment then it is quite logical ---treat others as you would want to be treated. Treat them as holy beings—not as slaves. Treat them as enlightened whole beings—as you would want to see yourself.
I realize that yoga may not be for everyone. Perhaps not all human beings really want to be free---to break free from the cycle of samsara-the eternal wheel of suffering. Suffering does have its upside---it can help to clear perception. Perhaps most beings love suffering more than any other pleasure. It certainly keeps things going around and around!
The Sanskrit word, samsara is made up of two words: sam which means same plus sara which means agitation. So samsara means the same agitation. Samsara is a way to describe life on Planet Earth for most of us.
Life gives us many opportunities many possibilities for enlightenment: to break free of the samsaric existence.
But remember many, perhaps most people don’t want to or aren’t ready to be free yet. But for those of us who are then a vegan diet is an absolute necessity! It is the first Big step.
Something I've noticed over the years is that it seems so many people in the yoga world want to emphasize Ahimsa as a restraint regarding how we treat ourselves and being kind to ourselves rather than looking at the altruistic meaning it holds. I've always felt that ahimsa was about the importance of being kind to and about not harming others which includes not eating others. Can you explain ahimsa, it's non violent roots and your experience with this issue in the yoga world?
Patanjali lists ahimsa in the category of the yamas. Yama means restriction. Yamas refer to actions that you take in regard to others. Patanjali, let us remember, is speaking to aspiring yogis, those who are still seeing others--those who are not yet enlightened. To an enlightened being there are no others. An enlightened being sees only the divine (or their own-self) in all. So he says in the sutras, as long as you are seeing others, don’t hurt them (ahimsa) don’t lie to them (satya), don’t steal from them (asteya), don’t abuse them sexually (brahmacharya) and don’t be so greedy as to cause them to become impoverished (aparigraha).
If Patanjali had meant ahimsa as a directive to be applied to oneself I think he would have put it in the next category, which is called niyama. The niyamas are actions that you take in regard to yourself, and he certainly has a lot to say about that!
When we choose to live vegan for ethical reasons we also want other humans who care about the world and what happens to animals to be educated with information about living vegan.
What is the best way to forward or share this message with others?
An affective activist has to have more of a greater purpose than just venting anger or to prove how much more they know about the issue than the person or people they are speaking to do. Allow your interactions with others to be guided by humility and respect not arrogance and anger. When you speak to others, who you would like to influence, speak to their highest potential. See them as good people. Speak to them as holy beings—as beings who are kind and compassionate. See them as people who are giving you an opportunity to be kind-- an opportunity to communicate non-violently. If you have contempt for them they will feel this and all chance of positive communication will be disallowed.
Remember everyone you meet is coming from you. If you don’t like the way someone else is acting. Say to yourself, “I have to stop treating people this way.” Search inside yourself and change what you don’t like about that person by ridding it from yourself from the inside first.
THE END OF PART ONE OF THIS INTERVIEW.
Sharon travels extensively teaching and presenting at American, European, Canadian, Asian, South and Central American and Conferences. She has produced numerous yoga-related DVDs and music CDs including the 2010 release of Sharanam, her solo duet album on the White Swan Label. She is a prolific writer and has authored several books: Jivamukti Yoga, (also translated into German, Russian & Italian) The Art of Yoga, The Jivamukti Chant Book, Yoga and Vegetarianism and Cats and Dogs are People too! Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Toward 2012, Music &Spirituality, Semiotext(e) and Yoga Journal. She writes a monthly essay called the Focus of the Month, which can be read at www.jivamuktyoga.com
Here is a selection from Sharon's new album Sharanam which translates from sanskrit to english as "refuge" or "sanctuary". Sharon's music is created from ancient mantras and meditation chants and are designed to lead us to the sanctuary we each have inside ourselves.
Listen here to OM SHANTI
Part 2 of our talk with Sharon Gannon coming soon.