Get to Know a Yogi: Sharon Gannon
Sharon Gannon is a modern-day Renaissance woman: an artist, poet, musician and yogi who is best known for creating, along with David Life, the Jivamukti Yoga Method. We spoke with Sharon about the intersection between yoga and art, whether or not artists have to suffer for their vision to be profound, and what she thinks of the current state of yoga in the world.
YA: How did you first encounter yoga?
Sharon: I initially came to yoga through books. Books change lives. I love books. As a young person I was drawn to mystical writings. I read biographies about yogis and saints and studied yogic texts.
When I was in my early thirties I fell down some steep stairs and injured my back, fracturing my 5th lumbar vertebra. It was pretty serious – my right leg became temporarily paralyzed and I was in a lot of pain. As an attempt to avoid surgery I limped into a yoga asana class. It was painful, but intuitively it felt like what I needed to heal so I stayed. The teacher was wonderful, but the teachings were all on the physical level only. But that was okay with me because I could fill in the blanks with all the philosophical stuff I had stored away already in my head from all the reading I had done. It was really exciting to make all those connections.
After a time, David Life started to take classes too. Then we both began to study with other teachers in New York. We started to incorporate yoga asanas and Sanskrit mantras into the performance pieces we did together. Many of our devoted audience members knew we practiced yoga and began to ask us to teach them yoga. Eventually it became evident that people were less interested in our performance pieces and more interested in us teaching them yoga.
YA: What is the relationship between poetry and yoga for you?
Sharon: Yoga is about realizing who you really are. Yoga teaches that God is sound and the manifested world is made of sound vibration. Words are powerful triggers that can alter reality. We live in the atmosphere of our thoughts. Thoughts are composed of words – of sound. All of the ancient Yogic teachings, the formulas for enlightenment, have been written in poetic verse – musical magical incantations. Through listening, hearing arises, through hearing knowing, through knowing becoming and through becoming, being. Poetry is the language of yoga.
YA: There is a stereotype that the artistic soul is a tortured one, and that to stay ‘tortured’ is how we can best produce vivid art. What are your thoughts on that?
Sharon: There is self-expression and then there is Self-expression. Tortured souls cry out in anguish from the lonely place of self, whereas illuminated souls radiate from the joy-filled place of Self. I prefer art that is magical and uplifting and moves me towards the remembrance of eternal truth and beauty rather than art that mires me in the mundane.
YA: One of our favorite quotes from you is: “Through repetition the magic arises.” Can you talk about the meaning of these words, both when thinking of yoga practice and artistic practice?
Sharon: Practice is essential, perfection is not. Through repetition, the magic that is forced to rise is an alchemical precept. The yogi wants to free herself of suffering. The artist also has this goal. Samsara is suffering. It is commonly translated as the cycle of birth, life and death, but the Sanskrit word Samsara actually means, “same agitation.”
We live life after life, trying to find happiness, trying to get free. By immersing yourself in doing something over and over again, there will be a gaining. It is like shining a lump of carbon until the diamond shines through, or rubbing two sticks together until the flame sparks. Life provides us with endless opportunities to live – to get back to work, to resolve unfinished stuff, to immerse ourselves in the cycle in the turning.
Life is an opportunity to practice. We are like the continuous tumbling of clouds/or the endless possibilities of a seashell/we are precious in this galaxy of stars/graceful arms curve and sweep the dust of space/infinity of taste/locked in everlastingness/changed we shall change we shall rise again/each time again again and again each time a gaining over and over and over again/forever the same/forever change.
YA: You reside most of the year in Upstate New York now, away from the constant blare and flare of the city. How do you feel your surroundings affect your art making and yoga practice?
Sharon: Well you know what they say? Wherever you go—there you are! So I suppose I take my demons with me wherever I go. But I will admit that I do love and cherish living in the wild forest close to so many wild people: the oak people, deer people, bear people, fox people, rabbit people, and so many bird people and fairy people. They remind me of my heart’s wild potential. Wild forest people are so organized, poetic and fluid – in contrast to city people who appear so chaotic, tamed and clumsy. We tend to pick up characteristics of whom we hang out with – I prefer to associate with wild ones when I can.
YA: You studied with Brahamananda Sarasvati, Swami Nirmalananda and K. Pattabhi Jois. How important is it to have a guru?
Sharon: If you want to experience a magical shift in perception, of yourself and of the world, it is absolutely essential to receive direct transmission from a holder of the teachings; otherwise you can fall into the trap of thinking you can do it all yourself. That kind of thinking does not promote humility. Humility is all-important – it is the magic elixir that opens the doorway to infinite possibilities. A teacher provides you with someone to bow to – a chance to shut up and listen.
YA: What are some of the bigger changes you’ve seen in the yoga community since you first became involved in it?
Sharon: Well in the past 30 years since I started teaching, yoga has certainly become more popular all over the world. I feel this popularity is due to the fact that the Earth needs champions. Traditionally yogis have been the protectors of the Earth – those members of society who were engaged in an experiment to try to live more freely – more wildly – more musically – more anarchisticly – to be Self-ruled (ruled by the Divine Self – not the skin encapsulated ego self).
I think the majority of human beings have allowed themselves to be domesticated and don’t remember how to live in harmony with the Earth. We are in the midst of a serious global crisis – environmentally and spiritually. At the root of this crisis is the mistaken attitude that the Earth belongs to us and that we human beings have the God-given right to exploit the Earth and all other animals to satisfy our temporary short-sighted desires. We are blind and don’t see that what we do to the Earth we do to ourselves. If we poison the water we poison ourselves, if we enslave the animals we make victims of ourselves, if we cause unhappiness to others we ourselves will be unhappy.
In ancient times, when cities were just beginning and animals were being enslaved and the marketplace was starting, a group of us rejected that way of life and decided to go off into the wild places – the mountains, forests and jungles to try to live in harmony with the Earth and the other animals – we were called yogis. I think the popularity of yoga today is because Mother Earth is calling upon us yogis, who have reincarnated at this time, to come forth and remember and then to teach others how to remember – how to live in harmony with all of Life.
Biologist Jonas Salk spoke to a startling truth, “If all insects on Earth disappeared, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the Earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.” I feel that the destiny of our species is dependent on remembering this essential truth – that we are all connected.
We’re honored for the chance to speak with Sharon! To leave you with her words:
“To dare to care about the happiness and well-being of others is the most important thing for yogis or artists or anyone to consider at this time.”