sharon gannon's full-time job

Getting to the heart of Jivamukti's leading lady
In the seventies and early eighties, Sharon Gannon was a musician, poet and dancer in the Seattle art scene. In the midst of her incarnation as an avant garde artist, Sharon’s lifelong interest in all things spiritual led her to explore the canons of philosophy, religion, alchemy and the sacred art of India. This inquiry took her into the heart of yoga, where she remains.

For the past decade and a half, Sharon Gannon has been a devoted yogini and the co-founder of the Jivamukti Yoga Center in New York City, where she developed and continues to teach the Jivamukti method of Hatha Yoga, which combines the intense physical postures of the Ashtanga tradition with the teachings of ancient yogic texts.

In 1982, Sharon met David Life, a veteran of the New York art scene. The two collaborated artistically for severalyears and then, in 1986, turned their creative energy to yoga and the establishment of the Jivamukti Yoga Center. Theirs is a vigorous form of yoga, taking literally the definition of Hatha Yoga as “God-realization through forceful means.”

“You have to push yourself over the edge a bit,” says Sharon. “It must be physically challenging enough so you question who is the doer. Let God come in and do the work.”

The state of jivanmukti, from which the Jivamukti method and yoga centre take their name, is the condition of God-realization or liberation while still in one’s physical body. As physically intense as the classes are, the more contemplative and devotional aspects of the yogic tradition are integral to the Jivamukti method. To honour their teachers, Sharon and David acknowledge their gurus and actively disseminate their teachings. They also study and promote the teachings of Liberated Souls from all traditions and times, including Jesus, the Buddha, Swami  Sivananda and St. Teresa of Avila.

Sharon communicates to the students of Jivamukti that “God has always meant that which is love, that which is happiness. I think it’s essential that the practices which ultimately bring you to the realization of God are challenging. They need to break down your stuffiness, your rigidity, your smugness, your dogmaticness—the stuff that binds  your own heart. It should allow a softening up.”

In fifteen years, the Jivamukti Yoga Center has become the biggest yoga centre in North America. Located in lower Manhattan, it accommodates hundreds of students every day. To her students Sharon says, “Don’t do it for yourself. Hold in your heart and mind someone who you really care for and offer it to them. Offer all the effort that it takes to do this posture, every breath.”

Bhakti Yoga is the practice of attaining liberation through devotion, through the heart. The longing for union with one’s higher self, or with God, is the raw material that fuels the search. Sharon has always possessed an innate longing, with her from childhood, to know God. She was raised Catholic, and as a child loved going to church with her grandparents, in spite of the rest of her family’s indifference. She was pursuing a personal relationship with Jesus, and nothing that went on in the Catholic Church or in school could shake her connection.

“I know a lot of people rebel,” she said, “and I can see some sense to that, but for me there was no reason to complain or be critical about the organized religion aspect of [the Church] because it had nothing to do with my own experience with Jesus.”

The guiding force in Sharon’s life has been this desire to get close to God, and her outer activities, from music to dance to jogging, have been a way to remember that purpose. As an artist she has always explored and expressed her spiritual nature creatively—religion informing art and politics. As she sees it, the separation of these three realms in American society runs counter to spiritual development. “Integration,” she says, “is what spiritual practice is all about. And without bhakti—love—there isn’t any great benefit to these spiritual practices.”

She tells the story of St. Catherine of Sienna, a great Catholic mystic, who said, “All the way to heaven has got to be heaven.” So if heaven is happy and blissful, then the road to that place must also contain some joy, or you’re never going to make it to your destination.

It is not easy for everyone to know God. Sharon recognizes the blessing she has had her entire life in feeling so connected to Jesus. As a teacher now herself, she talks about the importance of learning how to love. If you are starting from zero, you simply find someone to love. “By giving to someone else, you touch that innate love that is the core of our being. Sometimes we become so self-centred and self-contained we stop feeling. People like to be reminded that the ultimate aim is love. If there’s no heart in it, it’s a very dull life.”

In the yogic tradition, the guru as teacher—as a guide through the darkness and one who can help you see your true Divine self—becomes the one to whom you offer your efforts. Making themselves available as an object to love is the role of the guru, says Sharon. Alhough she didn’t meet her guru, Sri Bhramananda Saraswati, until 1993, she had known through small incidents she terms “minor miracles” that he had been her guide for many years. Much of what many of us would pass off as coincidence, Sharon took as affirmations of her connection to her guru.

“Receptivity is nothing more than listening, and hearing is very essential to spiritual practice,” she says. In this way her heart has always been her first guide. It led her to Jesus, to music and dance, to yoga. She returns to India regularly to further her studies, and to honour her various blessings in the lineage of Sri Krishnamacharya, the practice of Krishna Bhakti and the association of Sri Nirmalananda. Each of these connections is a vehicle to help her attain her goal of realizing God, as are her early morning prayers and her dedication to reminding her students that their true self is happiness, Love itself.

“My life has always been rich and full,” she says, “because it’s a full-time job trying to get close to God.”

Lesley Marian Neilson is a writer and organic gardener living in Sooke, B.C.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life