Q&A with Sharon Gannon
by Holly Skodis
Founder Yoga Is Vegan
Sharon is the founder of the Jivamukti Yoga School and Jivamukti Method, created with David Life in New York City in 1984. Sharon is an artist, animal rights advocate, musician and a best-selling author of many acclaimed publications with the release of The Magic Ten and Beyond.
Sharon's roster of students have included many celebrities including vegan superhero's Kris Carr and Cowspiracy and What the Health's filmmaker, Kip Andersen. It is my honor and pleasure to share my interview with this legendary vegan yogi.
HS: For folks who might be meeting you in this interview, please provide a little background about Jivamukti Yoga and how veganism and ahimsa relate to it.
SG: I became a yoga teacher because I felt it would provide me with the best platform for activism—vegan activism, animal rights and environmentalism. Ahimsa forms one of the five foundational tenets of the Jivamukti Yoga method. We define that further by saying: Ahimsa-a nonviolent, compassionate lifestyle that emphasizes veganism, animal rights and environmentalism.
HS: Were you already vegan or vegetarian in ’86 when you met Swami Nirmalananda?
SG: I have been a vegan since 1983
HS: Prior to practicing yoga, did you have an ‘a ha’ moment that helped you embrace veganism?
SG: In 1982, while living in Seattle, Washington, working as an artist—dancer, painter, poet and musician, I went to see The Animals Film, a British documentary that probed into the relationship between human beings and other animals. Those two hours and twenty minutes in the movie theater altered my life like no other single incident. The film exposed the cruel, exploitive and callous ways that we human beings treat our fellow animals. The film showed the use of animals as entertainment, as food, as clothing and for military and “scientific” research. It ended with scenes from the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) rescuing animals from a laboratory. The movie caused me to radically rethink art, the purpose of the artist, and what I was doing with my life. If I wasn’t contributing to stopping the insanity I saw depicted in this film, what was the value in what I was doing? I was an on again off again vegetarian before the film, afterwards I became a committed vegetarian and then a vegan, then a vegan activist then a yoga teacher.
HS: What kind of magic did you hope the reader would find when you started writing your new book, “The Magic Ten & Beyond”?
SG: An understanding about how magic actually works—that it is a shift in perception. Many people are unhappy and devote themselves to blaming and complaining about others as well as circumstances that they seem to find themselves in. Yoga teaches us how to realize that there are no others separate from ourselves; reality is not out-there. What we see as appearing out-there is actually coming from inside of ourselves. If we want to change the world—we must go to the root and change ourselves. Yoga advises us to take responsibility for our actions and stop blaming and complaining.
HS: In the pranayama section of your new book, you mention that improving the diet is the first step towards improving the breath. You recommend that the yogi should choose foods that are sattvic (light) in nature consisting of organic fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains while referring to meat and dairy as being tamasic (heavy) foods. While I agree with you 100%, often raw milk is listed as a sattvic food in Ayurveda. Can you expand on why it shouldn't be there?
SG: If we want women to be respected, if we do not want to condone sexual abuse, rape or slavery then we should avoid all milk products. Because milk, raw, pasteurized, organic, whatever as well as butter, cheese, yogurt etc. are all cruel products of a cruel system based on the sexual abuse of women and children—cow mothers and their children.
Why should a yogi wise up to this—to what the dairy industry is all about? A yogi wants to be free—moksha means liberation. You can never be free by causing others to be enslaved. Cows are slaves.
Yes it is true that in the past milk products were designated as sattvic foods for yogis. We cannot change what happened in the past, all we can do is to start now, question our past habits and beliefs and do our best to live as kindly as possible. Exploiting and abusing cows is not kind. Exploiting anyone should not be condoned. Certainly slavery should never be condoned.
If we want yoga to be relevant today—we have to make yoga atha, which means now. It has to be hip and that means present, current. I believe this is what Patanjali suggests when he opens his yoga sutra with the word atha. I mean he could have said, “Once upon a time…”. But he didn’t.
Now people are beginning to wake up and to realize that how we treat others will be how we will be treated. At this time people are beginning to understand the power of their own actions—to see the connection between action and reaction; between what they think, say and do and the reality they find themselves living in. There is a shift in consciousness happening now in human beings where we are beginning to make the connection between how we treat other animals and our own health and happiness. If we want to be free then we must free others if we want to be happy then we must not make others unhappy, if we do not want to be sexually abused then we should not abuse others and on it goes. A whole new world of possibilities opens up to us, when we begin to realize that our actions towards others will determine what happens to us.
HS: The rate of recidivism is high among vegans. What is your advice to the aspiring yogi who has fallen off the vegan wagon?
SG: They stopped being vegan because they were not committed to it as a means to shift their consciousness away from self-centered concerns and become more other-centered, which is what yoga is aimed at.
Veganism can be seen as a yoga practice. As in any practice for it to yield positive results you have to do it over a long period of time. To do something for a long time you have to have a good reason to do it. To practice yoga takes discipline and commitment. If someone has fallen off the path—let’s think of it as just an intermission.
Because it was a film that caused me to become a committed vegan I would recommend watching one of the great films out now: Earthlings, Dominion, Cowspiracy or What the Health. What the Health and Cowspiracy, by the way are both on Netflix and were made by certified Jivamukti Yoga teacher, Kip Andersen! He is working on a new film, Cowspiritual—that explores the link between veganism and spirituality—so be sure watch out for that one.
Perhaps read my little book, Yoga and Vegetarianism.
HS: The simplicity, digestibility and clarity of your new book, "The Magic Ten and Beyond" is phenomenal. You have a true gift to modernizing ancient teachings while keeping the magic alive. How did your guru, Shri K. Pattabhi Jois’s sense of adventure and mysterious ways help you in this way?
SG: He was light hearted, filled with joy and very very humble. He never seemed to take himself too seriously, perhaps because he didn’t identify so much with himself—his body/mind self. He was focused on God. To us who were still focused on our small selves his devotion seemed to defy logic and appear very mysterious. Often students tried to pin him down to blacks and whites and he seemed to nimbly avoid all the traps. His method was one of love, kindness, patience, and humor. His approach was infectious.
HS: Your book touches on how the clarity of an intention during asana has the power to heal yourself and others. What is your advice to yoga teachers on how they can effectively communicate to their students about the deeper power of intention to set at the beginning of a class?
SG: Teachers should give the students a chance, some time to define an intention before starting the practice and then perhaps remind those students at some point during the class to remember their initial intention and to ask themselves if they are still focused on that. I don’t feel that the teacher should decide for the student what the student’s intention should be—that is a private matter for the student to figure out, non the less I feel that teaching the student that intention is important is an important job of the teacher.
These days people practice yoga for all kinds of reasons. Yoga practice was originally intended to bring about yoga—the realization of your connection to God. It was done to free yourself from false identification with your body and mind; to free yourself from avidya and the selfishness that results from ignorance of your true nature. The point is that yoga will give you anything you want. What’s in your mind will color your practice. Patanjali says that what we are thinking of while we are doing anything will determine the result.
HS: In the Blessings section you teach that when dealing with toxic or hurtful people, "If you want someone to be a holy being, you must see him or her as a holy being. They actually only exist in your mind anyway.” When doing this, would you recommend keeping them near, or creating space between you and simply doing the work internally?
SG: This work is to be done in the privacy of your own mind. I do not recommend that you seek hurtful people out and meet them for coffee to try to talk things out.
HS: I love how you are drawing a possible connection between ancient Egyptians and yoga. Could you expand on this for the reader?
SG: I feel that yoga as a philosophy as well as a practice may be more universal than is usually thought and could have been shared by both ancient cultures of India and Egypt. I feel this because herding animals like sheep and goats and then domesticating those animals as well as other animals, primarily cows, forms the foundation of both cultures. Where there was animal agriculture there was farming and urban areas, cities and market places to buy and sell the commodities derived from the exploitation of animals and the Earth. In the ancient world, enslaving and exploiting animals so as to profit commercially became a phenomenon that spread globally around ten thousand years ago and was not limited to India and Egypt.
It is my feeling that around the time than this agriculture shift was beginning there were some human beings who rejected it and felt that it would not lead to happiness. Those beings moved away from the cities and lived in remote places in the mountains, forests and jungles. There they embarked on a project to live in harmony with animals and nature and began to experiment with ways to experience happiness that did not depend on depriving others of happiness. These beings came to be known as yogis—those who realized their connection to the Divine source and could live independently of material needs. Those beings could have taught these secret keys to happiness to others who were interested and so schools developed where these “mysteries” were taught and refined.
HS: I have a feeling it wasn’t easy for you to stop at TEN ways to add magic to our lives — do you have any favorites that didn’t make it into the book?
SG: True—but I will retain the right to keep some things private.
You can find Sharon at:
Jivamukti Yoga studios have opened all over the world, including in London, Moscow, Munich, Berlin and Sydney.