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
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
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
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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