I have had the absolute pleasure to interview someone I hold close to my heart and admire wholeheartedly, a passionate vegan and activist like myself, Jivamukti Yoga co-founder Sharon Gannon. So here I am, in conversation with the wonderful Sharon-ji, sharing it with you, the world. Enjoy and if you don’t have a copy of her latest book, you must get one. Link is at the bottom!
Q1- Something that I also wonder when I am writing you an email or when I am talking to you is people call you Sharon Gannon, Sharon-ji or Padma, Padma-ji your given Sanskrit/spiritual name do you have a preference? What name do you prefer people to use for you and could you explain why?
SHARON: Over the years, people have called me by many different names, I am sure I am not unique—most everyone has had that experience, you probably are known by many names too?
My mother and family have always called me Sherry. One of my early yoga teachers, Swami Shankarananda, a disciple of Swami Vishnu-Devananda gave me the name, Tripura Sundari. I did use that for a while, but when people would ask me what it meant (the most beautiful in all the three worlds), for obvious reasons, I was reluctant to say and so I stopped using it. Guruji Shri Brahmananda called me Uma. When I met Shyamdas he called me Padma. After his passing in 2013, I found that I particularly liked being called by that name because it reminded me of Shyamdas and my connection to the pushtimarg lineage of Vallabhacharya. But really I am fine with being called whatever people feel comfortable with calling me. These names are not really who we are. They act as IDs for the personality, which is temporary, names like people will come and go. Lifetimes are short. To remember the names of God is what we should be more concerned about.
Q2- I think you have written about this in the Jivamukti Yoga book, you and David speak about this often but it is something I would just like to ask again what really got David and you inspired and motivated to develop the Jivamukti Yoga method, was it a response to what the yoga industry was like at the time? Was it a specific event? Could you tell us a little more about that?
SHARON: I became a yoga teacher by default. In the early 1980s I taught aerobics at the Body Electric a studio in NYC. The yoga teacher that had been scheduled to teach a class didn’t show up. There was a room full of people waiting, the owners of the studio did not want to disappoint them, so they said to me, “You better go in there and teach the class.” “But I am not a yoga teacher, I don’t have the skills,” I protested. “Please just do it—we believe you can do it,” They insisted and so I did and that was the first yoga class I taught. Before that David and I practiced yoga and I had been studying yoga since my early twenties through reading books and practicing meditation. Jivamukti Yoga was not a career choice or a response to the yoga industry. There actually was no yoga industry in the early 1980s that I was aware of. The Jivamukti Yoga School grew organically, from people asking us to teach them what we were practicing.
Q3- There are so many yoga methods out there now and so many teacher trainings, I personally can get a little overwhelmed and confused with how much is out there and how these days the access to becoming a yoga teacher is low and highly accessible for many. So my question is you as a co-founder of your very own yoga method how do you see that and have you seen a lot of change in the yoga industry since 1984?
SHARON: Yoga teaches us that each person finds themselves where they are due to their past karmas. That being said, I suppose the seeds were planted a long time ago. I don’t know very much about the yoga “industry”. That has never been my interest. Yoga is my interest. I am interested in how to reconnect; how to remember God, how to serve God, how to be a kinder person, how to live as to enhance the lives of others—not degrade or exploit them.
Q4- You have this terrific video on you-tube why a yogi should be vegan. What are your feelings about yoga teachers who aren’t vegan? Do you have some wisdom, advice for them?
SHARON: I do not feel it is my job to tell others what they should or should not do. People will do what they will do. It is not my job to change them. I am an educator, a teacher, and feel that a teacher can only teach if a student is willing to learn from them. If a person comes to me with questions about yoga and/or veganism then that means I have been invited to teach and will do my best to share what I have discovered. Also I feel that for good communication there must be mutual respect between teacher and student. A teacher must respect the student and the student must respect the teacher then perhaps meaningful communication between them can develop.
Q5- You are a very strong personality. You have been doing all this amazing creative work, now you have your own art book, you used to be in bands, you are a dancer, classically trained, you are a vegan cook and cookbook author, and the list goes on, do you feel like there is something you would still really love to add on to the list, something you dream of doing, something you haven’t done yet at this time in your life?
SHARON: I’m just trying my best to keep up with what each day presents to me. Every moment is an opportunity. We are compelled by our samskaras to finish unfinished business from past lives. All of the creative stuff I do is just my way to do that. My real job is to get closer to God. That is the underlying motive that drives all of it.
Q6- Let go and let God. That to me is Sharon Gannon. Every time I say it in a class I feel your presence. Can you explain in a little more detail what that sentence means to you, specifically what does God mean to you?
SHARON: Avidya means ignorance of who we truly are—ignorance of our eternal connection with God. When we identify with our ego—with our body, mind and personality we are caught in avidya. The ego is incapable of compassion. Yoga practice is designed to free us from egoic ignorance. Through yoga, we develop bhakti, loving devotion and come to identify with the atman (the eternal soul within ourselves and every being). A liberated being let’s go of doer-ship and instead wants to be done. Wants God to use them as an instrument for HIS will. His will is LOVE. This Divine Love, or prema does not have an ulterior motive. Compassion is the means to develop this awareness of prema and ourselves as instruments.
Q7- To go a little deeper into my last question is do you think God needs to be present in a yoga class? In my experience some teachers find using the name God in a class a little heavy. Do you have some advice for them?
SHARON: God is present everywhere and in all beings and things. There is nothing but God. To remember God to dwell in God’s presence is what yoga is about. Yoga means reconnecting to God—to that eternal reality.
If some teachers are uncomfortable with saying God’s name—that is an issue for them to work out or not. It is not up to me to give advice unless I am asked.
Q8- When we look at the fives yamas this is something I always wonder about they are all so important, equally and they are all inner connected but in your opinion would you say that there is also an importance of the order in them? When we start learning about the yamas, when we start implementing them in our practice, do we also need to start working with them in the order they are presented in do you think?
SHARON: Yes I agree with you, the order seems important. Yoga is a philosophy that goes from the outside in. It starts with the material and works its way into the subtle—from Prakriti to Purusa. The realization that occurs in yogic enlightenment is blissful. But if you contemplate and ask yourself, why am I not blissful? What is causing my unhappiness? Most of us will answer that with a person’s name or cite a situation in the world. We will point our fingers outward, because we think that happiness will be found out there, in the external material world. We blame and complain about others. We convince ourselves that others are in our way of happiness. “If only he would be nicer and more supportive of me.” or “The US president should tell the truth.” or “Humans should stop enslaving, torturing and killing animals.” or “If only everyone would wake up and be vegan.” Patanjali, in his wisdom, compassion and patience knows this tendency in us and so he suggests that we improve our relationships with others first before we tackle the more subtle, invisible forces.
Q9- To come back to the Jivamukti Yoga Method, the method is in my opinion one of the few methods which includes ongoing education for teachers, encouraging teachers to go to immersions, to do an apprentice ship, take a board exam, to study, to learn ever ongoing, that sort of set up what that something you and David always had in mind or was that something that happened over time?
SHARON: The long-term plan was always in place from the beginning.
Q10- Last question. When you look at yourself and all you have done in your life when were you or are you the most happy? When do you feel completely at ease and at peace?
SHARON: I am happy being useful.
If you could speak to the animals, which we do and I think you do a lot by just existing by all the work you do. If we imagine that all the animals are now listening to us what would you want to say to them? What is the most important thing you need them to know?
SHARON: First of all I don’t see “animals” as separate from human beings. We are all animals. Mammals, Reptiles, Birds, Fish, Insects—these are all human-made classifications that have been created to separate –to find differences. Why stop at animals? What about including all people—Trees and bushes too? What about Rivers? All of life is alive—with consciousness. So when I speak to others I do my best to first listen to them. Through listening, I try to hear. Through hearing I learn I come to know what connects us—and that is being-ness—that is God’s mercy and grace—that is Love. Compassion is the key: to see yourself in the other –to see so deeply that “otherness” disappears and only Love remains. That is to see Reality Face to Face. That is Satchidananda. Truth, consciousness and bliss—that is Yoga.
Check Sharon’s brand new book YOGA AND VEGANISM, THE DIET OF ENLIGHTMENT.
Photo’s: Martine Berendsen