The most impressive qualities about Sharon Gannon and David Life go well beyond photographs of inspiring yoga poses, countless accomplishments as prominent yoga instructors to the famous, or the founding of their own style of yoga, called Jivamukti Yoga. Their true gift and offering to the yoga community is the integrity with which they artfully inspire and teach others. Sharon and David have done more for yoga in America and around the world than many realize, including serving as leaders in animal rights issues, humanitarian causes and the dissemination of Vedic knowledge. Perhaps the most inspiring quality about their teachings is that intention is not lost in their practice. They constantly remind their students to come to the yoga practice seeking enlightenment and expanded spiritual awareness, rather than increasing ego through physical feats alone. For how we do anything, is how we do everything.
Maranda Pleasant: Why do you want to wake up in the morning?
SHARON: So I don’t miss another opportunity to try to do my best to finish the things I have left undone. I could say: It’s my unresolved karma that wakes me up in the morning.
DAVID: What choice do I have? Sometimes, when times are difficult, I feel like NOT waking up! The notion of facing another day of challenges can be off-putting (to say the least). From a yogic perspective, though, it is my karmas (actions) that launch me into each new day. For Self-realization to dawn, one must endeavor to resolve old karmas while keeping current actions perfect. People perform actions each day, like waking up in the morning, in accordance with their idea of reality, and most people see the world “out there” as coming at them, and it is all they can do to strive to protect themselves and evade the pitfalls. A yogi strives to become aware that each day, each moment, is born out of us. The day is a projection of your thoughts and desires, and when you practice to purify your thoughts and desires each day blooms with that same transparency. My only choice is to wake each day to witness and nurture and try to perfect the miracle of the near-perfect world that I have thus far created.
MP: What excites you the most right now?
SHARON: I am pretty full on engaged in several projects at the moment—writing projects—several books, as well as maintaining a 125-acre wild life sanctuary, a restaurant in NYC, and co-directing a Yoga School. But I wouldn’t describe myself as being excited, more like focused, passionate, committed and engaged in complex and varied projects and working with all the individuals involved. Oh I almost forgot, my Yoga & Vegetarianism book has just been published in Japanese—that is pretty exciting for me.
DAVID: That is a hard question for two reasons. First, I’m just not a very excitable person, and secondly my youthful excitability has been tempered with the wisdom of the ages. I am excited about living in this time though, because it is ripe with change and turmoil. That change and turmoil is the externalization of my own ripening karmas. When you can see yourself in the world that surrounds you then you are empowered to work for peace and joy by creating an atmosphere of peacefulness and joyfulness within and projecting it into a world that you create.
MP: What makes you feel vulnerable?
SHARON: The weather.
DAVID: When I drop a stone on my foot or hit my finger with the hammer, stub my toe on the furniture, bump my head on the door, fall down the stairs, when my garden fails, when I’m tired, and when I get sick. But also when I witness the suffering of others, when know that I made a mistake, and when I feel love more than fear.
MP: How do you deal/transform your pain?
SHARON: Chant mantra.
DAVID: There are many types of pain and they are dealt with in different ways. The pain of separation from the beloved, separation from the divine, can be nurtured in order to grow your love for the beloved. You know, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” When I hit my finger with the hammer and feel physical pain my first instinct is to blame the hammer and throw it against the floor! That is what we tend to do when we feel physical pain or discomfort—we blame someone or something else for our suffering. The key is to separate the idea of suffering, which is a phenomenon of the mind, from pain, which is a necessary component of worldly living. We can control some of these aspects. For example we can improve our skills with the hammer and stop hitting the finger; we can use the moment of the experience of pain to reduce our reactions of aversion, blame, and fear; and we can witness pain and reduce our suffering thoughts. I love my cat but sometimes when he jumps in my lap, my first experience is the pain of his claws digging in! Rather than react with anger and strike out at the cat (the result of which is to make the claws sink deeper increasing pain, and hurting the cat emotionally and perhaps physically), I allow my feelings of love to transcend anger by embracing the cat, and the pain is resolved. A yogi dives deep into potentially pain-filled realms with enthusiasm, courage and impeccability. Bring me my bed of nails and put a smile to my face!
MP: When it’s time to let go of something, how do you release it?
SHARON: Chant mantra and pray for God to help me.
DAVID: First, by witnessing it in a larger, even cosmic, context where change and variety are infinite (translation: meditate). Secondly, after it is reduced in proportion to everything, stop giving your energy to it by redirecting that energy toward other more rewarding tasks (translation: Chant the Name.)
MP: What breaks your heart?
SHARON: When I see people planting the seeds for their own future suffering: wearing a fur coat, pouring milk in their coffee, buying a new pair of leather shoes or ordering a chicken salad sandwich for lunch, seemingly oblivious to the cruel suffering that their actions are causing, not just to animals and to the environment of the planet, but to themselves. Each of us, through the actions we take, plant the seeds which will eventually but inevitably grow and create the reality we will find ourselves living in. So when I see a person wearing a fur coat, I see not only the coat but the animals who were cruelly abused, killed and skinned to make that coat, and also I see the person wearing that coat being reborn as a poor fox crazily circulating in a tiny cage waiting to be skinned. And I see the poor dairy cow who has been raped and exploited, and in the same picture, I see the new future dairy cow taking her place, in the form of that person putting milk in her coffee, today. My heart breaks to know that all this suffering could be avoided if people knew how incredibly powerful they really are, how their seemingly smallest action creates the world.
DAVID: Human greed and the resulting suffering of the Earth, the animals, war, starvation, suffering, and hatred. Just a few things that should break anyone’s heart.
MP: You’re a passionate vegetarian? How did this happen, why?
SHARON: In 1982 I saw a film entitled The Animals Film.” The two hours and twenty minutes that I spent in the movie theater altered my life like no other single incident.
The Animals Film was a British documentary film made by Victor Schonfeld and Myriam Alaux, narrated by the Academy Award-winning actress Julie Christie. The film exposed in very graphic detail the cruel, exploitative and inhumane way that we human beings perceive and treat animals; from the all too common and casual euthanizing of unwanted pets, to animals used for entertainment, animals degraded and enslaved in farms raised to be milked and/or slaughtered for food, their bodies, wool, skin, hair, feathers and fur used to produce clothing, and as victims of outright perverse military and “scientific” research. The last scene was of the Animal Liberation Front rescuing animals from a laboratory. The movie caused me to radically rethink what I was doing with my life. I asked myself, if I wasn’t doing something to stop the cruelty to animals, what was the value in anything I was doing?
At the time, I was a poor artist living in a dark, dank basement apartment. I didn’t have a car, phone or bank account. Nonetheless, 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 did not 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. I knew that what I had seen was a glimpse into reality that not many people had or cared to experience. I knew that I could no longer live in a cushioned state of denial. I realized that if I wanted the world to change I had to change myself first.
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. I passionately feel that as long as we view ourselves as superior and other animals as exploitable our consciousness will remain stuck in a level of ignorance that will disallow a full realization of the truth underlying reality.
DAVID: I am a passionate vegan. That means that my “feelings” are my guide. We call it heart-mind. My heart-mind knows what is right for me, for the animals, and for the Earth. Veganism is a result of my desire to decrease the pain and suffering that I cause to appear in the world as a direct result of my actions in regard to others.
MP: You and David are legends in the yoga community, not just in NY, but globally. High profile actors and musicians follow you as well as thousands of dedicated yogis. What is the draw? Why do you think so many are drawn to you?
SHARON: I don’t think they are drawn to us. They are drawn, just like we are, to the teachings of yoga, which provide practical techniques for reintegration leading to happiness and joy.
DAVID: There is a teaching that you have only to take one step toward God and She will come all the way across the universe to you. We stepped-up and God keeps blessing us.
MP: Tell me what your what’s on your heart that you’d like to share with yogis nationally. Anything and everything that you’d like to have a wide audience understand.
SHARON: Don’t try to do this by yourself: to become a good yogi you need a teacher. Find a teacher you can bow to, who can teach you how to be kind—how to serve others—because the key to enlightenment lies in that. Be humble, work hard, study and practice. Chant the Name of God, do japa and meditate, every day.
Try your best not to get distracted from your goal. Let everything you do be your way of getting closer to your enlightenment; never take a vacation from spiritual practice. Be a joyful vegan. Create the kind of world you want to live in by how you treat others now. Don’t expect others to change. Instead, take on the project and see if you can become the change you want to see in the world. Try your best to let go of anger, blame and seeing yourself as a victim. To this end it is helpful to have an understanding of the yogic concept of shunyata (emptiness). Remember that everyone you see and every situation you find yourself in has come from inside of you; you have created your reality by how you have treated others in your past. So whatever you want to have happen to you make it happen for others now and eventually but inevitably you will reap the seeds you have sown. You cannot change the past but you can start now and lay the foundation for the future.
DAVID: My advice to yogis “nationally” is to get out of their “nation” and fly into the universe.
Sharon Gannon and David Life are the co-creators of the Jivamukti Yoga Method, a path to enlightenment through compassion for all beings. They are students of Brahmananda Sarasvati, Swami Nirmalananda, and K. Pattabhi Jois. Sharon and David are considered pioneers in teaching yoga as spiritual activism—incorporating veganism, animal rights and environmentalism in a way that makes yoga cool, hip, radical and crucial to life on planet Earth today.
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