“No one can “do yoga.” Yoga means union with God. Yoga means eternal happiness, bliss, joy, and unconditional love. Yoga is who you are. It is your natural state. What we can do are practices that, by revealing to us our resistance to existing in our natural state, may lead us to it” – Sharon Gannon
During my second year at university, I was extremely stressed – all of which was self-inflicted. I was putting enormous pressure on myself to get the scholarship, the grades, the recognition, the perfect undergraduate performance to allow me entry into a postgraduate course, the idealised career of money, security and a feeling that I matter. Over a coffee with a friend with a big Type A personality also, I explained how stressed I was and she insisted “you need yoga”.
Yoga? That super spiritual workout people do? I was dubious but also curious to see what all the hype was about. That was four years ago now. I have often heard it said that the way you approach asana (Sanskrit for “posture” or “seat”) practice on your mat is the way you approach your life – nothing was truer of my first experience at Yoga Dojo. I took no basics or beginner classes, jumping straight into a Jivamukti Open class with intermittent and advanced practitioners. I pushed and pulled my body in every which way, supplementing the strength required for a safe, well aligned asana for my hyper-flexibly. In vying for the teacher’s recognition, with only faintest regard for alignment, I would often opt for all the hardest of variations for each asana. And rather than connecting with my breath to assist in surrendering to the asana, most of the time I was holding my breath and hoping for the best. But even though I was approaching my asana practice with the competitive, achievement-orientated aggression that a university culture cultivates, I felt an intense feeling of contentment and fulfillment. These practices are very powerful. Many times when I first started practicing I would lie on my back in shavasana (the final asana for deep relaxation) with tears rolling down my face.
I distinctly remember one of my first classes at Yoga Dojo, were Adrienne was teaching about the importance of cleansing our body though the food we eat. If we are eating meat – literally the flesh of another sentient being – how could we expect our physical body - the home of our soul - to function optimally? I was newly vegan at this time with only one vegan friend - my best friend, in another state. For perhaps the first time in my entire life, I felt as though I was in the presence of people who I could deeply connect with, without having to prove my value. I was getting up before 6AM (an ungodly hour for a university resident) to catch a bus into town to practice this thing that was making me feel like… I mattered and was loved by God already, without the achievements and credentials I was so desperately grasping for at the time. And they kept talking about veganism. Even the jivamukti chant symbolises veganism:
lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu
May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way, to that happiness and to that freedom for all
This chant is sung in almost all classes and captures the essence of Jivamukti perfectly.
Jivamukti Yoga is one of the nine internationally recognised yoga methods. The other eight being: Ashtanga, Iyengar, Viniyoga, Sivananda, Integral, Bikram, Kripalu, and Kundalini. Jivamukti Yoga is a relatively modern school of yoga co-founded by New Yorkers David Life and Sharon Gannon in 1984. The name Jivamukti translates as: ‘jiva’ meaning the individual living soul and ‘mukti’ meaning liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. Thus, the term Jivamukti means ‘liberation while living’.
The five tenets of Jivamukti Yoga are;
Scripture (Shastra) which is the study from ancient yoga books such as the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
Devotion (Bhakti) as God-realisation is the end goal of all yoga practices. Therefore, interreligious understanding and tolerance is encouraged, as is kirtan (devotional chanting) and the use of altars
Non-violence (Ahisma) is the primary ethic of yoga so the Jivamukti method promotes ethical veganism, animal rights, environmental and social activism
Music (Nada) is used in a Jivamukti yoga class refine hearing though listening to uplifting music during the asana practice and to refine speech through kirtan
Meditation (Dhyana) is an essential part of every yoga practice and without it Sharon and David believe that no attainment in yoga is possible.
That’s a very brief overview of a very comprehensive method. It is the ancient principle of ahimsa that is often lost in other methods of yoga but is so integral to Jivamukti Yoga. The opposite of ahimsa is himsa, which means harm or violence. Himsa can be self-inflicted through thinking badly of yourself, or you can cause himsa to others by thinking badly of them. There are many examples of himsa to animals that occurs around the world today, primarily on farmed animals who are routinely exploited for the flesh or reproductive capacity. So whilst an asana practice can be personally beneficial for the practitioner both physically and mentally, there is a more noble reason to practice yoga, on and off a rubber mat.
“Not harming yourself is a result of the practice, not a directive. If you limit your practice of ahimsa to being kind to yourself, you may experience temporary happiness but you will deny yourself the ultimate benefit of the practice, which is Yoga, everlasting happiness. Everlasting happiness is achieved by kindness, by being considerate of others first. Live to benefit others and all will benefit” – Sharon Gannon
Over the last decade of practice, the meaning of yoga has radically changed for me. Rather than being about attaining stress reduction or management, or attaining some profound spiritual experience; Jivamukti Yoga is my way of life, even when I sleep in and skip my asana practice. Every moment is an opportunity to practice Yoga, whether our hamstrings are stretching or not.
Thanks for reading,
References and Resources
Jivamukti Yoga – Sharon Gannon and David Life
Yoga and Veganism: The Diet of Enlightenment – Sharon Gannon
Ahimsa (Focus Of The Month – November, 2003): https://jivamuktiyoga.com/focus/ahimsa-2
David Life on Veganism underpinning Jivamukti Yoga: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rweOXROS5Fg
What is Jivamukti Yoga? (Sharon Gannon) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STPTt_I9OCY
Why are you a vegan? (Sharon Gannon) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUGNF0794ns
Diet and Spirituality: Does it Matter? (David Life) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7BL7kprReI
Will we Ever Stop Exploiting Animals? (David Life) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlEUBwbfjec