When the global pandemic halted the whirling pace of the modern world, the populace turned its focus to the sanctity of life, the importance of health, and connectedness of all beings. These are ideals that Sharon Gannon has been living and teaching for four decades.
Gannon and partner David Life are students of Shri Brahmananda Saraswati, Swami Nirmalananda, and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. They met in 1983, and co-created Jivamukti Yoga School in New York City’s East Village in 1984. The Lafayette Street location was not too far from early 80s Wall Street, the punk scene of St Mark’s Place, the fashionistas of Soho, and the crack-fueled crime that proliferated the era.
In the midst of the chaos, Sharon and David opened most classes by chanting “Om”, reading from the Bhagavad Gita and giving a short dharma talk before leading students through yoga asana series. Their hands-on adjustments, and soothing savanasas sent aspirants into other astral states. Sharon and David made yoga “cool” among the iconoclasts and struggling creatives who have always been drawn to downtown.
Some of the famous names included Donna Karan, Christy Turlington, Russell Simmons, Sting and Trudy Styler, and students who would go on to build their own yoga empires like Ana Forrest, Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman, Dana Flynn, and countless more.
As the popularity of the studio grew, so did its locations. Jivamukti expanded across New York City, and into Luxembourg, Spain, Switzerland, France, Germany, Norway, Russia, Mexico and more, with a wildlife sanctuary and ashram in upstate Woodstock, New York.
The hub of this international movement became its flagship studio in NYC’s Union Square. The famed and fabled space was home to classes, teacher trainings, and kirtan events. (In fact, it was at a Jivamukti that kirtan wallah, Krishna Das began chanting publicly at their Monday night satsang!). Next to the check-in desk was a boutique that led to the Jivamukti-Café; a magic portal where those were meant to meet “randomly” did. Best friends, business partners, writers and publishers, actors and agents, husbands and wives, lovers, and more all laid eyes on each other for the first time (this lifetime) over chakra smoothies and macrobiotic bowls. The resulting miracles are too infinite to quantify.
The vegan cuisine, and meet-cute kismet were combined with literature about animal activism, and ways each of us can do our part. Sharon and David have long worked with (and been honored by) PETA, the Humane Society of New York City, Farm Sanctuary and more. And now, as a new generation is waking up to these truths, I’m honored to talk to the revolutionary Sharon Gannon about the foundational principles she has been living and teaching for most of her life.
Amy: What is a Jivanmukti, and how does one live the life of one?
Sharon Gannon: The Sanskrit term, jivanmukta means one who is living liberated. Jiva means individual soul and mukti means liberation. The most direct means to living liberated is to do all you can to contribute to the liberation of others.
You could say that a jivanmukta is an abolitionist —one who does not condone slavery in any way or form. They are free.
Amy: Why do you believe that a vegan diet is the responsible, kind, courageous choice at this time?
Sharon Gannon: The most responsible, kind and courageous thing any human being can do at this time is to dare to care about the happiness of others—all others. This would naturally lead to a vegan diet. A vegan diet is the simplest recipe for joy, for yourself, the animals and the world. In fact, to dare to care about the happiness of others in the broadest sense would not only apply to other humans and other animals but also trees, soil, mountains, rocks, rivers, lakes, oceans, air. All of the manifested world would help us human beings come closer to realizing who we really are. It would help us achieve the goal of life—enlightenment and liberation from samsara.
This expansive view would help us become enlightened by healing the disconnection we feel with the rest of life. We would come to realize how truly connected we are with all of life and understand that what we do to someone else we do to ourselves. When we poison the water we poison ourselves. When we treat other animals as slaves and exploit them we keep ourselves in bondage. All of life is interdependent. We humans are not the crown of creation. The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth.
Covid—the global pandemic is a zoonotic disease, caused by a viral pathogen that has crossed the species barrier. Such a mutation has occurred due to our violent mistreatment and eating of animals. There is so much violence in the world
today and most of it seems to be out of our control, but what we choose to eat is within our control. A vegan diet hugely reduces the violence in the world and the repercussions of that violence.
Amy: You’ve said, “”When people ask me why I don’t eat meat or dairy products, I often reply, ‘I just can’t afford it’. The expression on their faces is always one of incredulousness. “Oh come on—I don’t believe that” they say, to which I reply, “Well it’s true karmically.”
Can you tell me what you mean by that…?
Sharon Gannon: An explanation of karma and how karma works is presented as one of the important foundational philosophical teachings of classical Yoga. Karma means action. Every action, no matter if it is a physical or subtle action affects the reality in which we live. Everything we do will come back to us, eventually but inevitably. The person who understands this will be careful about the things they do, say and think. Karma works like this, for every action there will be a reaction.
Albert Einstein reminded us of this law of karma when he pointed out that space is curved. Whatever is thrown “out there” will find its way back to its origin. Personally I have a lot of unresolved negative karmas I am trying to deal with in this lifetime, so I can’t afford to load on any more problems if I can help it.
I’m already carrying a heavy load and trying to minimize my future suffering. I am thrilled that Patanjali, in his self-help manual, The Yoga Sutra, gives many ways to do that. For example, if you don’t want to be hurt, don’t hurt others, if you don’t want to be lied to, don’t lie to others, if you want wealth, don’t steal. And he goes on. Put in simple words, it’s the same golden rule that Jesus as well as many other enlightened teachers have suggested: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”
Amy: In your book, Yoga and Veganism; Diet to Enlightenment, you give readers the steps to the aforementioned freedom, and a path towards becoming a jivanmukti via the yamas. Can you give our readers a run down of what the yamas are and how we can ascribe to them?
Sharon Gannon: Patanjali gives five directives called yamas for how to behave toward others, if we ourselves want to become an enlightened being (a yogi). Yama means restriction. The yamas refer to ways that a wanna-be yogi should restrict their behavior towards others in order to reach the goal of yoga. He defines each yama as well as provides us with incentives to encourage us to adopt the yamas as a practice. He does this by describing what happens to a person who takes these practices seriously. In my book I take it a step further, specifically describing how each yama relates to following a vegan diet. I will give some brief examples.
The Yamas and Niyamas and Yoga and Veganism
Means not to harm. Patanjali says that if you refrain from harming others, others will not harm you. What does this have to do with a vegan diet? When you eat animals you harm them, the environment, as well as your own health.
Means not to lie. Patanjali says that if you tell the truth, then others will listen to you and the words you say will come true. You will be able to say what you mean and mean what you say. What does this have to do with a vegan diet? Deceit is used by the animal user industries to advertise and promote the sale of meat and dairy products.
We lie to ourselves. Even though some may acknowledge that to kill an animal causes the animal pain and it isn’t a nice thing to do, many justify it as a “necessary evil.” But when is evil ever really necessary? The truth is that we do not need to eat animals or products like milk or eggs. Biologically we as a species do better on a plant-based diet. Eating animals is not hard-wired in us. It is a learned behavior and that’s good news because what is learned can be unlearned.
Means not to steal. Patanjali says that if you do not steal from others you will be wealthy. When we eat a meat and dairy based diet it involves stealing. We steal the animal’s lives from them. We steal their babies. We take everything away from them. They have no rights, are given no freedom of choice. The very things that we value so highly for ourselves: freedom, liberation, respect, and the right to choose we deny others, other animals. The law of karma says, what we do will be done to us.
Means not to abuse others sexually. Patanjali says that if you do not abuse others sexually you will enjoy good health. All animals that are enslaved and bred (raised) for food are sexually abused. Farming and herding animals used to be referred to as animal husbandry; these days it is called animal agri-business. Any way you look at it, rape is business as usual in this industry. Sexual perversion, child molestation and countless acts of cruelty can be found behind the closed doors of farms, breeding facilities, slaughterhouses and meat packing plants.
The mass majority of the public has no idea that this sexual abuse is going on and that the meat, milk, and eggs they are eating have come from sexually abused animals. Perhaps if they saw these hideous places of sex abuse, degradation, violence, blood, and gore inflicted upon defenseless animals, many of which are babies, they might become vegan. No wonder that in the US it is now a federal offence to take a camera and film inside one of these facilities.
Means greedlessness. Patanjali says that if you do not take more than you need, if you do not hoard so as to cause others to be impoverished then your destiny will be revealed to you. You will know your purpose in life, what you were born to do. Wow! Who doesn’t want to know that?
Our insecurity and greed has caused the devastation of the planet, extinction of many species of life due to starvation and disease as well as the displacement and impoverishment of other human beings.
For a human being on planet Earth today, eating meat and dairy products is greedy. Greed stems from insecurity and fear. When a person is afraid of the future they tend to hoard. This takes one out of the experience of the present moment and puts them into a chronic state of worry about the future. Only if you can drop into the reality of the present will you be able to glimpse the purpose of your life.
A vegan diet is a kinder choice for all involved and leads to a stress-free life rooted fearlessly in the present.
Amy: You have led such an extraordinary life, of lasting impact. This is a question, I ask everyone; where do you think dharma meets free will?
Sharon Gannon: The Sanskrit word, dharma, as I understand it, means to “fix in place.” Seen in that context, our past actions fix in place our future .
The law of karma tells us that our past determines our future. We cannot change what we have done in our past, but we can change what we do now…to a certain extent.
This is where free will comes into play.
Every action that we do, every thought, word or deed, plants a karmic seed, which under the right conditions will sprout, grow and bear fruit. The law of karma says that you reap what you sow. If you have hurt others in your past you are destined to be hurt in your future. But there are loopholes that are spoken about in the yogic scriptures that allow a person to free themselves from such predetermined results.
The trick is to find a way not to water (or fertilize) negative karmic seeds, so that they will dry up and never be allowed to sprout, grow and bear fruit in your future.
Two of those that I know of:
1. From Patanjali: Love, Bhakti, love for God, Complete surrender to God, As Patanjali says, Ishwara Pranidhanad va- PYS 1.23.
2. He also says later on in chapter four: that the karmas of a normal person are black, white or mixed, but the karmas of a yogi, one who has realized their connection to the Divine are clear. Karma-ashukla-akrsnam yoginas tri-vidham itaresam PYS 4.7
God frees His devotees from having to suffer their past karmic miss-deeds.
2. From the Bhagavad Gita: When you find yourself in a situation that triggers a negative response like despondency, anger, jealousy, revenge, or sadness, instead you decide with your free will not to indulge those negative emotions and instead, embrace the situation with calm discernment. In other words, you don’t react with negativity.
It was Arjuna’s predisposition to fight. He was born a Kshatriya, a warrior. But when faced with the idea of killing his own relatives and friends he became depressed and despondent and wanted to change his career and become a yogi.
But because he was in a “bad place” emotionally, Krishna tells him that he is not in the right frame of mind to be able to make such a decision that would alter the direction of his karma. So he must go through with it and fight. The outcome of the battle of Kurukshetra might have been different if Arjuna had approached his situation with vairagya, calm yogic discernment and really was evolved enough at that time to walk away and into the forest to live a life of a yogi. But he wasn’t.
The message for us all is to do our best to be free from negative emotions, not allowing them to determine our actions. We can start by not resorting to blaming and complaining and seeing ourselves as a victim of others or of circumstances and instead embrace each moment with love. Being able to love what is, allows us to truly exercise free will and move towards our enlightenment.
Amy: Thank You Sharon-Ji, Jai Sri Krsna
Sharon Gannon: Jai Shree Krishna.