“If the word people asks the question “Who?” and if presence raises the question “What?” then the word practice asks “How?” –Mike Mason, MD Practicing the Presence of People: How We Learn to Love
Moving in the spaces between the individual woman’s practice and her community relationships, one of my central questions has been to inquire whether that practice can operate as a feminist act. Many women teaching yoga experienced dramatic and regenerative healing from an original traumatic injury and now identify with the idea of transformation through their physical practice which expands to a greater spiritual commitment. Through systematic and regular practice, yoga teachers adopt philosophical stances and bodily modes that sustain a spiritual lifepath. Decline in interest in the women’s movement per se has been replaced by women taking care of their own mental, physical and emotional health. Women who practice Yoga in an in-depth way start to look at every part of their lives in a different manner: through the spiritual frame of Yoga. A commitment to practice, through its repetitive and performative nature, iterates yogic values into the individual teacher’s consciousness, imprints an ethical reasoning based on the experience of spiritual energy rather than the social status quo that has the potential to carry beyond this practice into sociopolitical realms.
I endeavor to show how Yoga’s complex belief system gets taught, and becomes integrated into one’s lifestyle, extending into other areas of life, based on the development of a personalized ethical framework. The yogic notions of sadhana (practice) and swadhyaya (spiritual study) are cultivated and become an effective way for women practitioners to deal with daily challenges and life cycles. The concept of performativity in performance studies informs both this spiritual practice connected to and enacted through one’s relationship to the body, and can be a starting place for a feminist practice as well. Training themselves to become teachers under a modern form of guru parampara (uninterrupted succession of teacher to student), women cleanse and focus on themselves in order to produce a Yoga lifestyle. Women Yoga teachers take up the mantle of being a positive role model for their families, students, and communities. They strive to embody both compassionate and warrior-like feminine qualities, maintaining a sense of ethics in their own teaching as well.
Through embracing the yogic yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances), contemporary yoginis enact a kind of performative feminist ethics, which are communally communicated and developed rather than prescribed. These ethics are rehearsed and replicated over time, functioning as a form of (what Schechner calls) “restored behavior.” Many teachers use sutras (scriptures) to construct an ethical framework for personal observances that translate into larger political choices (such as veganism, environmental awareness, and animal rights.) The tenets of Yoga are interpreted as an ethical base from which to make personal decisions and advocate for particular community solutions. The primary goal is to build an ethical lifestyle for oneself and then to make personal choices based on a common good that is then realized and actualized through specific situations.
PROFILE: Sharon Gannon is a 62-year-old Yoga teacher and dancer who co-founded Jivamukti Yoga in New York City. Her feminine approach emphasizes devotion, compassion, and nonviolence to animals. I consider her practice as a good example of someone using sutras as an ethical basis for deeply personal choices that form her principled engagement with her practice, business, and community of students.
Outside the conference room glowing with the soft orange of candlelight, there are commercial booths for Yoga products and thousands of conference goers rushing here and there with backpacks and Yoga mats. Yet the room feels cozy, a quiet refuge filled with the sounds of harmonium and an altar adorned with framed photos of Yoga gurus, flowers and incense.
Sharon Gannon appears as a pixie, flawless at 64, with fair skin, perfectly sculpted dark eyebrows and long, dark wispy hair which she often pulls up into a bun or in a long braid down to her waist; red lipstick at her public appearances gives her an almost Snow White look.
She wears yoga clothes such as leotard or tank top and yoga pants, onto which she layers or alternates with a more feminine style of dress. She wears saris or Indian women’s clothing, usually accompanied by shawls of lighter fabrics with the edges gilded in gold threads. Much of these clothes and fabrics are white, and her partner David Life, with whom she co-founded the Jivamukti Yoga organization in 1989, often wears white as well.
She hands out to everyone a printed list of chants, begins the conference class with a chant and accompanies herself on harmonium:
Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu
Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu
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) (trans. Jivamukti Yoga, 2009).
Sharon Gannon’s personal encounter with Yoga began with studying Vedantic philosophy when, as a dance student at the University of Washington, she began to incorporate dharma concepts and chanting into her performance art with dance group Moon Food (Seattle) and the live art musical collective Audio Letter (Seattle/New York City). She continued to privately study what she calls shastra (spiritual texts and chanting) over the next ten years after college, but had only attended one Yoga exercise class during that time.
In the early 1980’s, she developed a back injury with paralysis in her right leg, and had considered having surgery, when a friend recommended she try Yoga. Sharon dedicated herself to two steady years of practice, building up the muscles in her back. She noticed that the teachings she had been studying seemed more tangible when paired with physical practice (Schneider, 2003).
You cannot do yoga. Yoga is your natural state. What you can do are yoga exercises, which may reveal to you where you are resisting your natural state (Gannon, 2009).
Sharon initially trained under the traditional Sivananda school, and went on to explore Yoga with teachers such as Swami Nirmalanda (1924-1997), Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) and Shri Brahmananda Saraswati (n.d.-1993, founder of Yoga Society of New York, Ananda Ashram and Yoga Society of San Francisco). Sharon works together with David Life on teaching tours, workshops and coordinating their yoga studio in New York City and a 120-acre wildlife sanctuary and retreat center in upstate New York. They do not overtly identify with a particular lineage, though at the same time acknowledge that they have several Hindu and Yoga teachers whose teachings they draw from.
Jivamukti schools are located throughout the country, and while their method aims to be creative and empowering, it is also a physically demanding practice. Jiva means soul and mukti translates to liberation, so this Yoga is a way for people to experience a release from the negative stress and confusion of their lives, to attain greater freedom, and perhaps ultimately, spiritual liberation from the struggles of life. One of their regular chants emphasizes the importance of practice and dedication:
Tapah svadhyaya ishvara-pranidhanani kriya-yogah
(You must be fueled by a burning (hot) desire to continuously study the Self, which is only available in the present moment (hip) and devote your self wholly (holy) to this effort–these are the actions to be taken to attain yoga) (trans. Jivamukti Yoga, 2009).
In the Jivamukti school, Yoga’s ethics and living life aligned with scriptures, and keeping the observances of the 8-fold path are the prescribed methods to achieve spiritual progress.
The magic that can come from seeing another being not as another, but as your own self, it’s very exciting. And that’s what we’re all involved in with the practice of yoga, the magical practices of yoga, where our consciousness expands to such a degree that our joy is in the unity that we feel, a connectedness with all of life.
If you have that desire to aspire to enlightenment, then as long as you see others and not the One, then be careful. Number one, no hurting. Number two, don’t lie to them. Number three, don’t steal from them. Number four, don’t abuse them sexually. And number five, don’t be so greedy that you take so much, that those others are left impoverished (Ganeshala, 2008).
Jivamukti Yoga is based on five tenets, which all schools and teachers adhere to:
- ahimsa (“A nonviolent, compassionate lifestyle extending to other animals, the environment and all living beings, emphasizing ethical vegetarianism (veganism) and animal rights.” )
- bhakti (“Acknowledgment that God/Self-realization is the goal of all yoga practices; can be expressed through chanting, the setting of a high intention for the practice or other devotional practices.”)
- dhyana (“Meditation: connection to that eternal unchanging reality within.”)
- nada (“The development of a sound body and mind through deep listening; can be incorporated in a class using recorded music, spoken word, silence or even the teacher’s voice.”)
- shastra (“Study of the ancient yogic teachings, including Sanskrit chanting, usually drawn from the Jivamukti Focus of the Month.”) (JivamuktiYoga.com, 2013).
Sharon has enthusiastically embraced Yoga’s ideals, but repurposed them in what she refers to as a “holistic” way. She incorporates a steady stream of traditional Hindu beliefs into her classes. One of her specialties is the deliberate inclusion of philosophical teachings into her asana classes, as she believes jnana (wisdom) and hatha (physical) are best practiced and learned together at the same time.
Spoken word, lyrics, and readings are very important in classes… I have always believed that the language we use has an impact on the reality we live. And since I’m only one person having one experience of reality, I like to draw from other people and other artists (Schneider, 2003, 148).
Maintaining a connection to the divine, and cultivating a spiritual tone for life sustains Sharon’s practice. Through the cultivation of yogic ethics, she believes that people can find a place of truth within themselves that is free of negativity and violence.
Chanting and music help her to maintain that connection to her personal truth, and this fuels more creativity, as she believes God is the source of creativity. She believes that physics says we are all sound, so tuning into the vibration through sound, people can connect to one another better. Jivamukti Yoga utilizes music in the classroom to “understand everything as sound.”
She performs yoga poses in the form of “asana dance,” dressed in leotards and tights, to the sounds of live kirtan musicians and chanting. It is a kind of Yoga demonstration, which is usually more practiced at large public gatherings in India than in the United States, but hers is more devotional and sensuous, almost like the devadasi temple dancers. She moves slowly and gracefully, performing the most advanced poses, connected seamlessly in one effortless movement.
In a “Women and Yoga” workshop at the Yoga Journal Conference (2009), Sharon offered spiritual readings, and chanted mantras with the harmonium, handing out the Sanskrit words and encouraging about fifty women to sing along. She encouraged us towards brahmacharya (sexual restraint), to preserve our beauty, live a longer life, and use our lives for a higher purpose. She also emphasized self-loving, a caring for the self that is a cornerstone of Yoga as feminist practice.
Yoga is popular right now, because Mother Earth needs us. We women of Yoga are her team. We know wildness as women (Gannon, 2009).
For Gannon, a dedicated vegan activist, women represent a connection to the Earth not offered by the patriarchal culture, and by seizing that connection, they can play a nurturing role in overcoming environmental degradation and domination of nature. She identifies with a feminine, if not exoticized, type of feminism, linking this “feminine feminism” to the idea of feminine energy within the body, based on Hindu philosophy and myths, and feeling close to the “Earth as mother.”
A gentle, devotional attitude is rooted in her bhakti, the Yoga of divine worship. While devotion and surrender may appear counterintuitive to feminist notions of empowerment, there is a feminist epistemology that emerges in the form of group bonding and collaboration as it manifests within kirtan chanting and other devotional practices such as prayer and altar building. For Sharon, gods and goddesses, as well as scripture and observances of the eight-fold path become important vehicles for living in a feminist way, one that is holistic and non-discriminatory.
At the Jivamukti Yoga Center, yogic values get translated into a lifestyle vision, emphasizing environmentalism, veganism, and sustainability, aligning with their vision of the yogi as a cultural figure who has historically sought to live close to the earth and protect it. At their center in New York City, there are signs with verses about nonviolence and ethical action throughout their studios, offices, and changing rooms. Students are encouraged to use cloth towels instead of paper, to lessen their impact on the environment. The Yoga studio also houses a vegan restaurant, where smoothies, salads, and vegan protein options are offered within a community atmosphere open to the public.
Jivamukti’s founders have deeply considered and wholeheartedly adopted the Yoga lifestyle and values, with ahimsa taking on a predominant role. This in turn has influenced their activism for animal rights and veganism, which was some of the earliest and more outspoken social commentary in the national Yoga community. They were even warned initially that practitioners would be against it.
To travel along the yogic path is another way of describing someone who is committed to political activism. And we shouldn’t be afraid of being political.
I have to tell my students that sometimes, because we’ve been conditioned not to mix religion and politics. And some people feel that yoga is religious, which I don’t feel it is. I feel it’s very spiritual. It’s a spiritual process.
But still there’s this conditioning about mixing spirituality or religion and politics. But once again if you’re a radical, then you delve deep. And you look at that word “politic”. And politic means body. It comes from a Greek root which means “the body”. And it actually refers to the greater body, meaning the body of the community, the larger body that we all share.
And so the term “political” originally meant; to be political originally meant that you cared. You were somebody who cared about the greater community and wanted to contribute to the happiness or well being of that greater community. So to travel the yogic path to me is to be a political activist (Big Think, 2007).
Rather than traveling around the world promoting exercise and the idea of nonviolence alone, Sharon has brought a focus to real-world problems concerning animal rights and vegetarianism. They have turned this into a public speaking program of dharma talks to empower yogis to put their ethics into practice. Gannon wrote Yoga and Vegetarianism: The Diet of Enlightenment (2008), a book on Yoga and vegetarianism. Her book launch at Ubuntu restaurant and yoga studio in Napa, California featured food sourced from their biodynamic gardens and prepared by the executive chefs who had prepared the first vegetarian dinner at the James Beard House in over twenty years. Jivamukti is a healthy Yoga, but one that delights and revels in all the senses. The protection of animals and nature is a product of inhabiting a deeply ethical lifestyle.
The yogi begins to wake up to this truth, that what you do matters a great deal. You begin then to become more conscious of your choices. What you choose to eat. What you choose to read. What you choose to talk about. What you choose to do.
It’s one of the reasons yogis practice vegetarianism. We all know that the vegetarian diet causes the least harm, to the planet and to all involved (Jivamukti Yoga, 2011).
Through retreats at their upstate New York center, The Wild-Woodstock Forest Sanctuary, their students experience Yoga fully immersed in a natural setting. Jivamukti practice is deeply linked to nature, with Gannon expressing her deep love for nature and animals, as well as sustaining a relationship with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and delivering lectures on animal rights and animal abuse. Sharon also helped to establish the first free spay and neuter clinic in new York City.
I became a yoga teacher only because I felt it might provide a platform for me to speak out for animal rights. I was hopeful that I might be able to somehow contribute to the evolution of human consciousness so that we, as a species, could begin to see ourselves as holy–as part of a whole.
I … can see no way in which the exploitation of animals for our own selfish needs is ever permissible. When it comes to these practices, I am an abolitionist (Gannon, 2008, 12).
Gannon and Life gave a workshop at the 2009 Yoga Journal Conference in San Francisco, exploring “The Yogi as a Radical Cultural Hero.” They explain that theirs is a “soft revolution” and “an inside out change.”
This yoga is not a dropping out, but a dropping in. Yoga worldwide is a platform to reposition ourselves as the ones that create stability, harmony, sustainability. Trying to live harmoniously with life, with nature, with other human being, with animals, with the mountains and trees, elemental beings and the air itself (Gannon, 2009).
The workshops featured a series of handstands and headstands which are very tough poses, with lots of coaching about fear. Fear, they say, is rooted in the unknown and that one should “go in bit by bit.”
Find the seamless and curvy quality of your vinyasa. Embodying vinyasa gives people a viewpoint that is very different from the robotic, military culture. Vinyasa is a sensuous and earth-based art form.
The breath is the thing that stays the same, when the rational mind and distinctions cause stress. The movement and breath are anchoring devices that empower the yogi to move beyond practice into one’s activist life.
It’s important to merge and be in the present moment as an alternative to being in the head. They explain how the discomfort of certain poses will bring up “triggers,” which provides a chance to get out of the head and judgments (Gannon, 2009).
The idea of triggers is a very important concept, as they seek transcendence of their own negative states, and they are mentioned in many Yoga workshops on activism. Triggers occur when something happens and the situation brings up emotions or memories for the practitioner that are uncomfortable or negative. Triggers are reactive tendencies in the head, and characteristic of the “manic activist” as opposed to Yoga which is an embodied knowledge and seeks not to react. Yoga helps to relieve these triggers, maintain an awareness surrounding them, and try to prevent them in the future.
David exhorted the Yoga community during his keynote address at the 2009 Yoga Journal conference in San Francisco to empower themselves as nonviolent warriors, so as not to be seen as weak–both in their personal life choices, and as activists taking a stand on issues such as animal rights and veganism. He emphasized a warrior attitude, because yogis are usually seen as passive because of their nonviolence, and who historically had become disinterested in life and gone off to live in the woods. Jivamukti Yoga asks its students to be “fiercely interested” and not to “get soft” in their practice or in the world.
The aim is to urge individuals to increase their abilities of self-perception because, in Jivamukti Yoga, how a person views herself influences how she views and treat others. By observing their own thoughts, yogis become more effective in their spiritual growth and activism.
When we use mantras, there is a magical potential to transform reality, the ordinary can be transformed into the whole. The outcome of this process is compassion.
Once a person is whole, they then become empowered to approach activism in a unique, yogic way: without despair, as a whole person, and seeking the happiness of others, which becomes the motivation for social action.
For over thirty years, Sharon has engaged in a sustained reinterpretation of traditional Yoga values and demonstrated how to take ownership of them, in a way that advocates for self-thinking, profound questioning, and repurposing the sutras for current useful means. Sharon’s spirituality operates within an ecosystem of devotional practices, including bhakti of chanting and scriptural study, advanced asana practice and veganism, animal rights and living close to and protecting nature.
The journey to acquire a personal knowledge of Yoga’s ethics, and adapt them into one’s personal life is at the core of what it means to be a Jivamukti Yoga teacher. Nonviolence and compassion are the cornerstone beliefs for Sharon Gannon’s activism. Her goal is to lead her students to “wake up,” but instead of trying to control this process, the central lesson is to let go and surrender, becoming a conduit for personal and social energy.
Nurturing a devotional attitude towards all of her practices, she commits herself to achieving the ideal yogic life, established in self-discipline, respect for nature and a feminine approach to feminism. Sincerity and earnestness mark her practice, as she pursues an ethical and politically aware approach to a holy lifestyle.
Conclusion: Practice and Ethics Intertwined
In the previous article, I explored how women doing Yoga build connections between embodiment, release and surrender in the body, the ways that this is related to the principles of spiritual moksha and liberation, and to larger political aims of a feminist consciousness that works from a personal, embodied basis. I asserted that “women doing Yoga” builds upon previous generations’ of politically-minded feminist aims, by building a core of strength for women from the inside out. I have also previously explained how the embodied factor of Yoga serves as an anchor for women overcoming issues related to patriarchy and domination of the female body. It is one of the major premises of this project, however, that, for Yoga teachers, Yoga is much more than exercise, and that the effects of its operationalization as a practice have serious social and political ramifications. It is not a stretch to assert that Yoga functions psychologically and sociologically outside of mat practice, that Yoga alters people’s lives, through their mental, emotional and social conditions, especially when it becomes active over time as a practice-based routine.
For more information on Sharon Gannon, please see http://www.jivamuktiyoga.com