Jivamukti Yoga: Putting Yoga Together in the West
The jivanmukta is not transformed by pleasure or pain. Joy does not exalt the mukta, nor is the mukta depressed by pain. The jivanmukta no longer regards the world as real. . . . The jivanmukta is pure like akasha. . . . The jivanmukta is neither subject to attachment, nor to egoism. The jivanmukta does not fear the world, Nor does the world fear the jivanmukta The jivanmukta is at peace with the ways of the world. The mukta is free from worldly-mindedness . . . Finally, the jivanmukta maintains a cool head.
—Vidyaranya, The Jivan-Mukti-Viveka
Jivamukti Yoga incorporates traditional yoga practices into a modern lifestyle without losing sight of the ancient, universal goal of liberation. We believe that liberation is possible even while living a modern urban lifestyle anywhere in the world. We believe that the ancient teachings and techniques of yoga, as laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, are as valid and exciting today as they were over five thousand years ago.
If you explore yoga yourself by reading the texts, chanting, practicing asanas, and meditating, you will begin to feel that it’s not foreign or separate from you. It is not not of you or of your culture. You do not have to be Hindu to read the scriptures or practice yoga, although familiarity with Hinduism and the history of Indian philosophy is certainly helpful.
Hinduism is a religion, based on a way of life called Sanatana Dharma, or the Universal Way. It includes four pillars: (1) vegetarianism, (2) an acknowledgment of the law of karma (the law of cause and effect), (3) a belief in reincarnation, and (4) a belief in the possibility of moksha, or liberation from all forms of suffering. True Hinduism incorporates all religions, because it recognizes that if you have a way that works for you, it is valid—it comes under the umbrella of the Universal Way. Certainly there are many religious, racial, and class divisions in India, but what we came away with from our travels there was this essence of universality.
Yoga is not a religion; it is a school of practical philosophy. Yoga practices, however, are inextricably linked to the development of both Hinduism and the philosophical schools, including Yoga, Vedanta, Samkhya, Jainism, and Buddhism, which developed in ancient India. Their codevelopment in the modern era has commonality in language, myth, root teachings, practices, and beliefs.
When we began teaching yoga, we set ourselves this challenge: to relate the ancient teachings to modern experience without dumbing down the yoga practices or sacrificing their original aim, which was always and only to experience union with the Divine Self. We also asked ourselves: Is there anything in our own culture that could help us in our quest for enlightenment? Let’s look at the lyrics in the Beatles’ music; let’s listen to what Van Morrison is singing about; let’s be inspired by the fusion of Eastern and Western influences in the music of John Coltrane and Bill Laswell. What about the essential, idealist nature of the United States? Freedom, liberation through unity in diversity—that’s what the Founding Fathers were all about. Teaching yoga based on ancient Indian scriptures to New Yorkers began to seem not only possible, but exciting.
Purusha [pure spirit] without Prakriti [nature] is lame, Prakriti without Purusha is blind.
We had both been drawn to the East Village by our artistic pursuits. Along the way, we had inadvertently crossed paths with each other and with some of our greatest future influences.
In the late 1970s, a Seattle radio station broadcast a serial drama produced by Meatball Fulton, called The Fourth Tower of Inverness, which used recordings of Bhagavan Das singing Sanskrit names for God. This singing captivated Sharon, who was at that time a busy dancer and musician with a strong interest in Indian philosophy. She had a feeling that she would meet Bhagavan Das some day.
David, meanwhile, was traveling around the country with his portfolio of drawings, trying on cities. As his old Chevy Suburban slid into Seattle he caught the last few minutes of The Fourth Tower of Inverness. Seattle didn’t grab him, so he headed toward San Francisco. San Francisco, L.A., Palm Springs, Portland, Houston, Austin, New Orleans . . . eventually David limped back to Michigan with a broken trailer filled with soapstone and serpentine rock. A friend invited him to New York City. It didn’t take long for him to see that it was the city he had been searching for.
David moved into a dilapidated storefront on 10th Street and Avenue B. The neighborhood’s cheap rents were a by-product of rampant drug dealing. To cover holes in his walls, David wheat-pasted covers from old Life magazines over them. He opened the Life Café in 1980.
Back in Seattle, Sharon was dancing, reading poetry, and playing violin and singing for the band Audio Letter. At a sound check she slipped and fell hard on her lower spine. By the time the band left to perform at Life Café in New York, Sharon was in terrible pain.
A New York gig meant a lot, though, and the Life Café audience seemed to really enjoy the show. Afterward, Sharon sat near the piano with a cup of tea. She grimaced as pain shot through her back. Tara, a waitress, noticed and was concerned, so Sharon explained that she had fallen months before and was still in pain. Tara, who also taught a yoga class, said that maybe yoga could help. Sharon had always been curious about yoga; she had studied classical Indian dance and philosophy while earning her dance degree from the University of Washington.
David, meanwhile, was pleasantly surprised by Audio Letter. Sharon’s lyrics, some in Sanskrit, were like mystical riddles: “Freedom is a psychokinetic skill.” When Sharon and the guitar player, Sue Ann Harkey, moved to New York, David began playing with Audio Letter, too.
Soon neighborhood jazz musicians such as drummer Denis Charles and trumpeter Don Cherry began showing up to jam at Sharon and Sue Ann’s apartment on East 7th Street. Charles and Cherry played on Audio Letter’s 1988 album, It Is This, It Is Not This.
Sharon was still in a lot of pain though. When she went to a doctor, he diagnosed a broken vertebra and recommended surgery to fuse it. Tara gently urged Sharon to try yoga, explaining that yoga had helped her regain mobility after she had broken her pelvis in a car accident. Sharon was afraid at first, because the yoga postures were painful for her, but she trusted Tara, who was a very sensitive teacher.
Yoga’s mysticism intrigued David, too, and, at thirty-four, he wanted to stave off the aches and pains of growing older. As he investigated yoga he realized that it was a physically challenging, deeply mystical practice with an intellectually advanced philosophical base.
Sharon and David tried different yoga teachers in New York but were frustrated with the focus on physical exercise and the exclusion of the spiritual and philosophical aspects of yoga. Meanwhile, they had begun incorporating asana, pranayama, and yogic teachings into dance and musical performances, which they performed everywhere, from vacant lots in the East Village to downtown clubs. They actually began teaching the audience Sanksrit chants and simple asanas.
Knowing that Sharon and David practiced yoga, friends in the audience began asking them to teach. Sharon and David brought the same elements from their performances into the yoga classes they began teaching: music, Sanskrit, yogic scriptures, and an open desire to connect with the sacred.
Feeling that they needed to learn more if they were really going to teach, Sharon and David decided to go to India.
We spent four months in India in 1986, earning teaching certificates the first month from the Sivananda organization. We were both excited about the ancient texts, like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which seemed to us to be vibrating with meaning for modern life.
After leaving the Sivananda program we traveled north on an overnight train to visit Swami Nirmalanda, “the Anarchist Swami.” Sharon had been corresponding with him from New York. He and other amazing teachers we met in India encouraged us to pursue our vision of a modern yoga method based on the ancient traditions. Above all, they confirmed our growing sense that a yoga based on India’s ancient scriptures could bring spiritual substance into the Western lifestyle of shallow materiality.
We opened the first Jivamukti Yoga Center in a creative hot spot, in Manhattan on 2nd Avenue and 9th Street (down the street from Saint Mark’s Church, where great neighborhood poets like Allen Ginsberg read). We were inspired not only by our teachers in India but also by our friends, the tattooed, pierced, blue- and green-haired nonconformist artists, poets, and musicians who lived in our neighborhood. We remembered how the Beatles had come back from India and made the colors, sights, and sounds of India so hip that they had soaked into Western culture. We wanted to create a place that would turn everyone on like that to the richness of yoga.
What didn’t turn us on were the white walls and potted plants of the other yoga centers we visited in New York. So we painted the walls all kinds of beautiful colors, put up pictures of Indian deities, and rolled out huge Oriental rugs on the floor. We hung pictures of our inspirations and gurus over the altars, everyone from Swami Sivananda to our first teacher, Tara, to Saint Teresa of Avila and Glinda the Good Witch. And we played all kinds of spiritually uplifting music, from Bhagavan Das to Van Morrison to the Indian-jazz fusion of Bill Laswell.
Some people might consider it heresy to have Mother Mary share
During the 1970s, the writer Ken Kesey journeyed to Egypt. He reported back to America via installments in Rolling Stone magazine describing his trip and his investigation into the Egyptian mysteries. In the last installment, Kesey reported that the ancient Egyptian teachings were alive and well, due to the disinterest of modern Egyptians.
an altar with Hindu deities. Well, yoga was a heresy from the start because it put power into the hands of the people, not priests. Yoga philosophy says: You are the direct line to God. At Jivamukti we carry this idea further; we seek to diminish the divisions between religions by looking for their essential commonality. For example, you can find the essential nature of the Goddess in Mother Mary, Glinda the Good Witch, Isis, and the Hindu goddess Laxmi. They all represent her bountiful, merciful force.
When we started the Center we went to some meetings with other yoga teachers and, to be honest, they thought we were a little silly. They said things like, “Oh you’re going to go bankrupt within a year. You can’t put up those pictures from India. You can’t paint the walls all those weird colors.” And they warned us, above all, “You can’t talk about God.”
We saw, both in New York and in India, yoga teachers who were very concerned with keeping their students for financial and egocentric reasons, sometimes even prohibiting their students from studying elsewhere. In India we saw classes filled with small talk and gossip and tea breaks. We saw teachers of yoga classes for children beat their students with sticks. Few teachers based their classes on the yogic scriptures. In the States, the teachers either weren’t aware of the scriptures or didn’t find them relevant, and in India, many teachers considered them archaic.
We based our classes on the great ancient Indian scriptures—the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika—because we found them genuinely exciting. We hosted many teachers and speakers from other schools of yoga and encouraged our students to educate themselves. We decided that we would teach for as long as people wanted to come.
To our surprise, within the year Jivamukti became a very popular yoga cen- ter. Teachers at other yoga centers were surprised, too, and became curious about us.
One teacher from another yoga center called to ask if we were going to close over the summer. We didn’t have air conditioning because we didn’t have money to invest in a system, and India is very hot, after all. We told her that we weren’t going to close. And she said, “Well, doesn’t attendance drop during the hot months?” No, we said, actually July was our biggest month so far this year.
“Well,” she said, “You must have some really expensive and up-to-date air conditioning system over there. Could I ask what system?”
“We don’t have air conditioning,” we told her.
There was a long pause and then she said, “Well, what do you do?”
And Sharon said, “Well, we start by chanting Om.”
* * *
At the time, chanting Om to begin a yoga class was considered pretty far out. To divorce yoga practice from its original cultural, spiritual, and philosophical context, however, is like removing the motor from a jet and expecting flight. The jet may still look sharp, and it can certainly roll down the runway, but flying will not be possible. Yogi Sri Krishnaprem described all spiritual paths as the shadows on the earth of the ones who have learned to fly. And we do want to fly! So, at Jivamukti, we start by chanting Om.
We believe that yoga teachings should be based on the yogic scriptures. Yoga teachers should be able to draw meaning from the original texts and apply them to modern life. We’re up against a lot of resistance, unfortunately, because many yoga teachers have never even opened these important texts. Many don’t believe that it’s necessary to have knowledge of the scriptures or for yoga practices to have a devotional aspect in the West—because we aren’t Hindus here. They feel a yoga practice can be body-oriented and still be completely beneficial. We disagree, which is why we chant Om at the beginning of class.
Another reason we chant Om is that it means absolutely no-thing. It doesn’t belong to any religion or sect. It is too primal for that. Om comprises the three most basic sounds that a human being can make: Ah, Oooh, Mmm. This takes it out of the realm of the intellect. It is beyond thought so it means no-thing. It is liberating to start a practice with the experiential acknowledgment that one can go beyond thought.
A Jivamukti Yoga class is physically challenging; it’s about walking the razor’s edge. Challenging your preconceptions about your abilities helps you push beyond the limitations imposed by your mind. In a Jivamukti Yoga class you will be encouraged to devote the fruits of this vigorous practice to God, in whatever form you feel comfortable acknowledging God.
The practices should be difficult enough to bring up resistances to your essential nature. Your essential nature is blissful, but when the teacher asks you to put your foot behind your head, you may resist your blissful nature in that moment and identify instead with the physical discomfort of tight hamstrings and your irritation with the request.
When such resistances are brought to light and observed with a detached mind, they are more easily shed. Most of us tend to identify with our problems. We identify with the struggles of the ego-personality, which has been convinced that happiness can be obtained from external sources. Yoga practices shift our identity away from the ego-personality and its struggles so that we can begin to reconnect with the essential nature of our being, which is bliss. We begin to understand that lasting happiness is inside us. We become independent: dependent inward.
If we practice the science of yoga, which is useful to the entire human community and which yields happiness both here and hereafter—if we practice it without fail, we will then attain physical, mental and spiritual happiness and our minds will flood toward the Self.
—Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, Yoga Mala2
In a Jivamukti Yoga class you will chant Om and sing Sanskrit prayers. You will be made aware of your breathing and learn pranayama techniques to control it. You may listen to the teacher read and discuss a passage from a yoga scripture. You will practice sequential asanas linked by breath and intention, and you will meditate. You will be encouraged to practice ahimsa (nonviolence), including vege- tarianism. You will also be introduced to other inner and outer practices that may help you achieve the state of yoga, such as satsang, Kriya Yoga (purification practices), and Nada Yoga (the refinement of listening). And you’ll hear some great music!
Although the emphasis in a Jivamukti class is on Hatha Yoga in its most elevated and esoteric form, five elements form the foundation of Jivamukti Yoga. These are:
The sources for the teachings are ancient Sanskrit scriptures, notably:
• Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (the scripture that discusses how to overcome the mental obstacles to enlightenment).
• Hatha Yoga Pradipika (a technical manual on Hatha Yoga).
• Bhagavad Gita (Krishna’s outline for the three paths to Yoga: Bhakti, devotion; Karma, service; Jnana, knowledge).
• Upanishads (the source scriptures that expound upon the nondualistic nature of God).
We also promote the study of the Sanskrit alphabet and grammar.
2. Bhakti (Devotion)
We recognize that God-realization is the goal of all yoga practices. To that end we:
• Encourage interreligious understanding and tolerance.
• Use altars, religious pictures, and iconography to create a devotional mood.
• Encourage the practice of kirtan (devotional chanting) and japa (repetition of the name of God).
3. Ahimsa (Nonviolence)
We recognize nonviolence as the primary ethic of yoga, so we promote:
• Ethical vegetarianism.
• Animal rights.
• Environmental and social activism.
Nada Yoga is an essential component of Hatha Yoga. Music is used in a Jivamukti Yoga class to:
• Refine hearing through listening to uplifting, spiritually directed music during asana practice.
• Refine speech through kirtan (call-and-response singing).
5. Meditation We encourage the practice and study of meditation. We feel strongly that without meditation, no attainment in yoga is possible. There is no point in practicing asana, for example, without also practicing meditation. It must be a part of every class or private practice session.
Our method differs from other approaches, in that we expect our students to include all these elements in every practice session and not, for instance, to practice asana separately from scriptural study, chanting, and meditation. We do this because the practice of asana creates biochemical changes that improve one’s ability to reach a meditative state and gain insight into the scriptures. Just as it is important to move from alphabet recitation to sentence construction, so we hope our students move from attempting to stand on their heads to a liberating spiritual practice.
During one class we played “Across the Universe,” a Beatles song in which the Sanskrit mantra Jaya Gurudev appears. After class an excited student ran into our office exclaiming, “Do you know that they are singing the same Sanskrit mantra that you taught us the other day?!”
She had been listening to that song for nearly thirty years and had never heard the mantra before. The class provided her with an experience conducive to a meditative state of receptivity in which she could hear things that were previously unavailable to her cognitive mind. In this way, art can fill the gap between the yogi in the Himalayan cave and the modern urban practitioner. There is no audience for this performance; there are only participants.
Originally, the shamanic role of the artist was to uplift people with authentic experiences of transcendence, to inspire them to move out of the mundane and toward the Divine. Today, however, we have become a mute audience: voyeurs rather than participants, consumers rather than creators. We collect, acquire, and hoard. With the growing popularity of yoga, it, too, could be reduced to a vacuous commodity. This is why we emphasize to our students that their practice must be grounded in humility and selflessness and a striving toward divinity.
I am often telling my artist friends that through my lectures I may reach a few hundred, a few thousand or a maximum of a hundred thousand people. But artists through music, painting or sculpture, whether it is a constructive message or destructive message, can reach millions. Therefore, artists can produce peace, love, compassion and harmony, which everybody wants, you see. Everybody is praying eagerly about that.
—His Holiness the Dalai Lama3
For us, creating Jivamukti Yoga was a natural continuation of our own artistic investigation into the mysteries of life. It was a way for us to share our findings with others who were also interested. At Jivamukti we use art, music, dance, and poetry, much as they were used during the “happenings” of the 1960s (minus the drugs!), to create an environment that inspires people to break out of their small selves and feel the Divine Self flowing through them. In this way, the world of appearances becomes a playground for deeper learning and a laboratory for the evolution of the immortal soul.
The Upanishads tell us that a liberated person views all with equanimity, seeing no difference between the mud puddle and the crystal lake, or the diamond and the dust. So, rather than reject our environment, we choose to view practicing yoga in New York City, with sirens blaring and people screaming, as the ultimate shortcut to liberation. This choice—to elevate the mundane toward the divine—is available to all of us wherever we live.
There are advantages to solitude, ashram life, and relating to nature, certainly, but we have never felt that New York City is not natural. After all, everything comes from Mother Nature. If you’re attached to preferences—this is good, this is bad; this is natural, this is unnatural; this is clean, this is dirty—then you cannot know the truth. You’re caught in the chitta-vritti, the fluctuations of the mind. That is what the mind is equipped to do: to separate this thing from that thing. Yoga practices teach us to go beyond the mind and perceive the cosmic consciousness that animates all beings.
Take from me all that is not free.
—Bhagavan Das, a chant to Kali Ma4
Most people fail to grasp that their own lives hold the keys to their happiness; instead, they tend to seek happiness elsewhere. There are many teachers in your life already, however, as this traditional chant to the guru, the remover of darkness, assures us: Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu, Guru Devo Maheshvara,
Guru Sakshat, Param Brahma, Tasmai Shri Guruvey Namaha
This chant is profound because it acknowledges that one’s birth, present life situation, accidents, and illnesses are the keys to the doors of happiness. Let’s look at it more closely.
Guru Brahma: Brahma is the creator. Here, we appreciate and acknowledge our creation as a powerful Guru. Our birth and all its elements are potential aids for our enlightenment. The elements of our birth include our parents, the body they gave us and its genetic makeup, the conditions surrounding our delivery, and the procedures employed to assist our birth. The place we were born is also included: the country, the culture, the socioeconomic conditions, and so forth.
By chanting Guru Brahma, we cover a lot of territory. For instance, how many of us are completely appreciative of our parents? Parental issues cause a lot of unhappiness. To appreciate and acknowledge truly the gift of life that came from our parents and our birth is a great step forward toward enlightenment.
Guru Vishnu: Vishnu is the preserver. Vishnu represents the duration of our lives and all the experiences we accumulate as we live. Vishnu represents the present time, what we are going through right now. This includes our jobs, our living situations and environments, and the people we live, work, and interact with each day. We appreciate and acknowledge our present lives as possessing the key to our enlightenment.
When you chant Guru Vishnu with sincerity, the way you view your everyday life will start to change. You will begin to perceive the magical qualities hidden in ordinary existence. You realize that everything and everyone can become your teacher, giving you clues to your blissful nature. It all begins by appreciating and acknowledging that this could happen. Even if your everyday experiences don’t prove enlightening to you, is your ordinary life worse for the appreciation?
Guru Devo Maheshvara: Devo Maheshvara is another name for Shiva, the Destroyer. This is the transformational or revealing aspect of life, including all illnesses, tragedies, accidents, difficulties, and, ultimately, the death of the body. If you can appreciate and acknowledge Devo Maheshvara as Guru, then you are a very evolved soul. It takes spiritual maturity to embrace difficulties and to see within them potential for enlightenment. The greatest spiritual growth can come from appreciating difficult times in your life and facing them fully with an open heart.
Guru Sakshat: Sakshat means the guru that is nearby. Your teacher is your guru. How deep is your ability to appreciate and acknowledge your teacher? Ultimately, the Guru, the enlightening principle, is within ourselves. But until we can recognize that quality in another, we will never contact it within ourselves. The aim of yoga practices is to find a means to let the inner light of Self come through all the layers of personality and projection that confuse us. Having someone act as a mirror can help you see the divine Self within you. The outer teacher will help you to see where you are resisting your Self.
Param Brahma: This is the Guru that is indescribable and beyond all form.
Tasmai Shri Guruvey Namaha: This means “I offer all my efforts to the teacher.” Without the effort of the student, no teaching can be obtained. I bow; I surrender all of my self to that Self. Not my will, but Thy will be done. We surrender all of our efforts and practice, and the fruits of that practice, at the feet of our Guru.
All the gurus named in this chant are teachers always available to awaken you to who you really are—if you’re willing to perceive them as such. This chant asks us to notice the people and situations in our own lives and appreciate them for giving us opportunities for Self-realization. You don’t have to go anywhere or find anyone: it’s all right there in your own life. Appreciating the modern relevance of this ancient Sanskrit chant is what Jivamukti Yoga is all about.
Excerpted from Jivamukti Yoga by Sharon Gannon and David Life. Copyright © 2002 by Sharon Gannon and David Life. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.