Sharon Gannon is an icon in the yoga world. Sharon is the co-founder of Jivamukti yoga, which is a yoga school that emphasizes compassion for all beings. A student of Brahmananda Sarasvati, Swami Nirmalananda, K. Pattabhi Jois, and Shyam das, Sharon is a pioneer in teaching yoga as spiritual activism and is credited for making yoga cool and hip—relating ancient teachings of yoga to the modern world. Sharon’s book Yoga and Vegetarianism has been called the “seminal” work on the subject, exploring the relationship of veganism to the teachings of yoga.
Sharon has recently released a new book called, Simple Recipes for Joy. More than just a vegan cookbook, Simple Recipes for Joy answers a lot of questions about veganism, and compassion.
In this interview Sharon talks about yoga and the power of veganism.
Ysmay: To start, I’d like to hear about Jivamukuti Yoga in your own words. What does Jivamukti have to offer a yogi that other practices don’t? What role does veganism play?
Sharon: Since I am not so knowledgeable about other forms of yoga, I can’t speak about what they do or don’t offer. But as far as Jivamukti Yoga I can speak about that.
The Jivamukti Yoga method is a path to enlightenment through compassion for all beings. Since what is realized in the yogic state of enlightenment is the oneness of being, compassion is recognized is the cause of enlightenment.
Through compassion you can free yourself of the prejudices that inhibit your true perception of yourself and others and come to see your-Self in others. To help to cultivate compassion, our method is founded upon five tenets:
Ahimsa (non-violence/animal rights/environmentalism/humanitarianism/veganism)
Bhakti (devotion to God, the recognition that the goal of yoga is the realize God or Self—whose nature is satchidananda (Truth, consciousness and bliss).
Dhyana (meditation, the practice of letting go of thoughts and directing the mind inward, towards that which is eternal)
Nada (music—the exploration of the role of music and chanting and how it leads to yoga or enlightenment
Shastra (study of the ancient scriptures of yoga, which outline the philosophy and practical application, including the study of Sanskrit.
For me Yoga means—God realization. To know God and to serve God is what life is about. Our greatest wealth is the knowledge of who we really are.
All yoga practices should help us to realize our true nature as connected to the Divine—to realize the goodness of our eternal soul. Our true nature is God’s nature and according to Yoga that can be described as satchidananda (truth, consciousness and bliss.)
To quote George Harrison, “Sadness is not what we are here for.” To love and be loved is the deepest desire in everyone. Love is the purpose of life—and God is Love, unconditional.
To remember God is most important, but not at the expense of ignoring God’s creation—all the other beings who together make up this Earth.
As yogis, to strive to live harmoniously with all of life is a must because it is only through resolving our relationships with others that the Oneness of the Divine will be revealed.
So to be concerned with animal rights, environmentalism and political activism is very much in accord with yoga.
If you look at history (or herstory) all the great spiritual leaders were also concerned with the injustices, which were prevalent during their day—Jesus, Aurobindo, Yogananda, Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King jr., just to name a few. The word “politic” refers to the greater body, meaning the community in which one lives.
So to live your life so as to enhance the lives of others who share this world with you is to be political and that is also what underlies living a spiritual life.
Activism that is not spiritual activism never works. I am not aligned with the type of activism that comes from anger, blame and complaining and incorporates violence.
I am all for spiritual activism in which the activist is fueled by their passionate desire to be an instrument for God’s goodness and grace and is striving to bring more love, joy and compassion into the world. Jivamukti Yoga encourages joyful spiritual activism.
You weren’t always a vegan; when did you make the leap from vegetarian to vegan?
In 1982 I saw a documentary film, titled The Animals Film, which showed the many horrific, cruel and senseless ways that we human beings are exploiting defenseless animals.
Seeing the reality depicted in that film pushed me over the edge and I made the leap first to vegetarianism, then veganism and shortly after that I became a yoga teacher because it provided me with the best platform to be an animal rights activist.
So I quess you could say, education caused me to take the leap. My ignorance was shattered by reality. There is so much violence in the world today-and much of it seems out of our control—choosing what you eat and what you buy is within your control.
Veganism is a way to contribute to more happiness and less violence in the world today.
Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra says, sthira sukham asanam PYS II.46. That means –our relationships with others should be mutually beneficial—come from a steady place of joy—if that is we desire yoga or enlightenment. We live in a global culture that has told us that the Earth belongs to us. Yoga definitely challenges that mind-set.
You opened a restaurant in Seattle in 1971 called You Are What You Eat, and then Jivamuktea Cafe in 2006. How has working in the restaurant business influenced your view of American food culture?
When you cook with love and passion and it tastes good customers will come and happily eat it—no matter what’s on the menu. Restaurants, celebrities and food critics have a lot of influence over what people eat. If you want to have a successful Restaurant it is helpful to cultivate good association.
I love your new cookbook Simple Recipes for Joy. It’s very uplifting! Where did the title come from?
The title, Simple Recipes for Joy, has a double meaning. “Simple” as in easy to prepare—the recipes are not time consuming, fancy or complicated with long lists of ingredients and procedures.
But also “Simple” as in a “no-brainer”—because veganism is the most direct, simple way to increase more joy in your own life, the lives of others, the animals and the planet.
In your book you mention the damage done by the Standard American Diet. What kind of damage are we talking about? Is it just agricultural damage, or does it also damage our physical health?
Eating meat and dairy products is the S.A.D—or Standard American Diet. It is sad because it does not contribute to joy, happiness or health for ourselves, the other animals or the environment; instead it only creates more sadness in the world.
The SAD is the underlying cause of all the major diseases inflicting human beings today: heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity and many more. It definitely does not contribute to joy and happiness for the animals who are enslaved tortured and killed by the meat and dairy industries.
It is a proven scientific fact that the leading cause of the devastation of our planet from an environmental perspective is raising animals for food. When we live in a toxic environment that doesn’t support life—that will eventually affect our own human physical health—happiness and joy.
You also talk about the yogic lifestyle and moksha. What is moksha, exactly, and how does one achieve it through yoga and veganism?
Yoga teaches that what ever you want in life you can have, if you provide it for others first. In fact whatever you do to others will eventually but inevitably be done to you. We create the reality we live in through our own thoughts, words and actions.
Moksha is a Sanskrit word meaning freedom—it is the goal of yoga. So if you want freedom for yourself—the way to achieve your goal would not be to deprive others of their freedom. All animals raised for food are slaves—with all their rights and freedoms denied them. The yogic logic and reasoning is simple—if you want to be happy and free, do all you can to contribute to the happiness and liberation of others. I am a committed abolitionist and abhor slavery in any form.
Most people limit themselves and what they are able to achieve in their life. Yoga helps one to unleash their potential of infinite possibilities. How?—by providing you with a connection to the eternal source of all creation—your own eternal soul—the atman.
In your book you recommend 21-Day Cleansing Diets. How often should a cleanse be done, and what are the benefits?
A cleanse can be done whenever one feels the need to simplify one’s life and get back on track to a more healthier way of living.
Going vegan has this stigma of being really hard to do. What are some of the biggest challenges with cooking vegan? Where are people most likely to trip up?
I think they think it is too complicated—not simple enough and that you have to be some alchemical wizard in the kitchen—not true. Just leave out everything that comes from animal sources and you will be cooking vegan.
Some people are afraid of not getting enough protein. We have all been conditioned to think that you can only get protein from animal sources—this is just not true. You can get all the nutrients you need to be healthy from a plant-based vegan diet.
You don’t even have to be concerned with eating a certain proportion of grains and beans at the same meal etc. Just eat a variety of plant foods and you will be covering all of your nutritional needs.
What advice do you have for someone who is considering making the leap to veganism?
Go for it! Why wait? Educate yourself and free your mind from all the prejudices that have kept you in the dark.
Knowledge is liberating, once you know the facts—your cage door is open—just simply walk through and never look back.
Look when you have a choice—it’s always better to choose kindness over cruelty. Veganism is simply the kinder choice.
When it is all said and done, the only thing any of us really “has” in our life is our affect upon others, why not make that affect a positive one?
Why not live your life in a way that enhances the lives of others and the planet? Why think small—why think that your life is insignificant? You have the power to uplift the world by your own actions.
The move from self-centeredness to more other-centeredness is a move towards true and lasting happiness and ultimately towards enlightenment. Life is short—make the most of it—be a great person—it’s your destiny!
If people only take away one thing from Simple Recipes for Joy, what do you want it to be?
That veganism is not a diet of restriction –but it is a simple way to increase joy in your own life, in the lives of others and the planet.
Buy Simple Recipes for Joy now and start your journey towards other-centeredness.