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June/July 2006
Jivamukti: Teaching Peace
By Catherine Clyne


The Jivamukti Yoga School is arguably the most famous and influential in the U.S., with its dynamic founders, Sharon Gannon and David Life, and legions of celebrity evangelical yogis featured in newspapers and glossy magazines. This reputation was reinforced by the gala opening in May of their new 12,000 square-foot studio near Manhattan’s Union Square, where yoga students and guests rubbed elbows with the likes of Sting, Russell Simmons and Uma Thurman.

What is perhaps less well known about Jivamukti is it is one of the only American yoga schools that integrates a truly radical understanding of ahimsa (non-harming) into its teaching, central to which is a deep care for animals and the environment. Where else would activists like PETA’s president Ingrid Newkirk and environmentalist Julia Butterfly Hill have equal billing on the gala opening marquee with famous celebrity guests? This is where Jivamukti’s radical roots show. As co-founder Sharon Gannon puts it, “To be radical means that you’re willing to go to the root of the issue.” And what’s at the root? “Our teaching revolves around veganism, environmentalism and social activism,” Gannon explains, “because what could be more physical than what you eat, where you live and who you live with?”

Gannon dismisses potential critics: “Somehow extending the practice of non-harming (ahimsa) and kindness to animals by not using them for food, clothes, experimentation or entertainment is thought by our critics to be too radical a notion for a yoga school to expound.” Adding, “also of course you may alienate the potential market.” She laughs at the idea. In fact, the reason Gannon became a yoga instructor is because it “offered a platform from which I might be able to be a voice for the billions of animals who are enslaved and suffering at the hands of human beings.” This radical message is consistently central in their teachings and the enormous popularity of the school confirms people are more than receptive to it.

Beyond the Mat
Jivamukti yoga is much more than doing sun salutations and deep relaxation, though that’s a large part of what attracts people to their classes. To be sure, the trademark Jivamukti method is featured in every class: highly trained teachers lead a vigorous asana practice, with close attention to correct form and prana or breath. An emphasis on meditation and a deep relaxation usually assisted with the use of music, creates the truly transformative Jivamukti experience.

The roomy classrooms—with high ceilings and stained glass panels adorning a few of the windows—provide a sublime setting for practicing yoga. But with the new space, Sharon Gannon and David Life have made every effort to integrate ahimsa into all aspects of the school. The studio’s interior incorporates such eco-friendly materials as reused and recycled furniture, non-toxic building materials and water saving fixtures. David points out that the attractive floor padding covering the asana rooms is made of recycled car tire and says they’ve installed a special ventilation system that cools, heats and circulates the rooms with fresh air. Consciousness beyond the mat is what’s happening here.

Overlooking bustling Broadway is JivamukTea, an all-vegan café featuring creations by chef Matthew Kenney, served in a beautiful airy setting. The general public can join yogis, relaxing before or after classes, to snack on soups and sandwiches and choose from a wide selection of teas. Their retail shop specializes in organic and sustainable materials, from organic hemp clothing to non-pvc yoga mats to vegan pet food. The school is also bike and public transportation friendly (being located right on top of the Union Square subway hub).

But Jivamukti is more than an eco-friendly yoga studio and vegan café—it’s about community and awakening. As David Life remarks, “our belief is that yoga means ‘union,’ a joining of people who still care about each other and the world around us.” With that, they are creating a place for Satsang, a gathering of like-minded people who believe that awakening is possible. “Our current project is to inject social awareness, environmentalism, animal rights and vegetarianism into the mainstream yoga world,” David says. It’s all connected, of course; and that’s what the name Jivamukti means, liberation from separation.

In addition to a busy schedule of yoga classes, Jivamukti offers educational events to introduce yoga students to new voices and ideas and broaden the community. Sharon and David regularly host benefits for animal, environmental and human rights causes, and last winter they held a sold out screening of I Know I’m Not Alone, musician Michael Franti’s new anti-war documentary.

As Sharon sees it, the goal is nothing less than transformative: “together we can create a world which is not based on the old paradigm of our culture which tells us that ‘the earth belongs to us’ and exists for us to exploit.”

If you think this sounds political, it is. “We have been called political in a negative way because apparently yogis are not supposed to get caught up in politics,” says Sharon. “But to be political is to care for the others who you live with. That is what the word political really means. We have no problem with being labeled ‘political yogis.’ We encourage our students to dare to care about others. As yoga practitioners, we cannot be content to live in our own little ‘I-me-mine’ yoga bubble while the rest of the world deteriorates.”

David concurs, “This is a movement. The popularity of yoga in the U.S. has turned into a global phenomenon. This phenomenon is inextricably linked to the anti-war movement, civil rights, human rights, animal rights and the pro-environmental movements.”

At a time when the majority of American yoga teachers still make excuses to maintain a limited Western understanding of ahimsa (Yoga Journal recently featured an article titled, “Compassionate Carnivore,” highlighting humanely raised meat), it’s refreshing to see a yoga studio really promote compassion. As Julia Butterfly Hill commented to me at the opening gala, Jivamukti is the “real deal.” Indeed.

The Jivamukti Yoga School is located at 841 Broadway, between 13 and 14 Streets. To learn more, for a schedule of classes or to sign up for a free introductory yoga class, contact www.jivamuktiyoga.com or (212) 353-0214. To find a Jivamukti school in your area, follow the links on their website.

 


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