An Interview with David Life and Sharon Gannon

In 1984 Sharon Gannon and David Life created the Jivamukti Yoga Method, which is a path to enlightenment through compassion for all beings. They are pioneers in teaching Yoga as spiritual activism/activation. The Jivamukti Yoga Method emphasizes asana, scriptural study, devotion, prayer, music, chanting and meditation, as well as animal rights, veganism, environmentalism and political activism. Jivamukti’s passionate focus on the original meaning of the Sanskrit word “asana” as seat, connection, reflects a relationship to the earth that is as practical as it is radical at this time of global crisis and consciousness shift.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): What is the role of the modern day Yoga teacher?

David Life (DL): The role of a Yoga teacher has always been to guide people in the use of the yogic techniques, philosophy and wisdom tradition that could lead to enlightenment. In each age, the universal teachings of Yoga have been called forth into the language and culture they serve. Yoga teachers, being immersed in a particular contemporary world culture, are the translators and commentators of these universal teachings into a context that provides the deepest level of understanding in their time. Sharon talks often about this interesting example: The Hathayogapradipika (HYP) has a list of asanas to practice, but none of them are standing poses. By contrast, in our present age we find that Yoga classes commonly focus primarily on standing poses. She says that perhaps, because the standing poses address our relationship to the earth, and that relationship to the earth has become more dysfunctional to us than it was in the age that the HYP was compiled. That is how the contemporary application of the wealth of yogic techniques organically flows through contemporary teachers according to the needs of the student.

Sharon Gannon (SG): A Yoga teacher only has one job: to see the student as a holy being. Students can provide the teacher with opportunities to resolve past karmas and move towards enlightenment. Yoga is both the goal and the practice. According to Patanjali, Yoga is samadhi, enlightenment, ananda, bliss, happiness, the realization of the oneness of being, where all separation between self and other dissolves. We cannot “do” Yoga, because it is our natural state. What we can do are practices that may reveal to us where we are resisting this natural state. Once we become aware of our resistances, the obstacles to our happiness, we can start a process of self-reflection where we attempt to re-route our karmic tendencies. By keeping the goal of Yoga in mind we can stop reacting, overcome bad habits and gain control of our actions when they rise in the mind, before they manifest into an action. A Yoga teacher teaches these practices. To be able to teach these practices effectively, a teacher must have some mastery of the practices. Of course, because Yoga means enlightenment, it would be ideal if the teacher was enlightened. How can we recognize whether or not a teacher is an enlightened being? There’s an old saying, “It takes one to know one.” So whether or not the student sees the teacher as an enlightened being, or the teacher sees himself or herself as an enlightened being, is of no consequence to the practice. The practices remain as they have for thousands of years. Anyone with a sincere desire can engage in the practices of Yoga and share those practices with others.

IYM: What makes a good teacher, and how can one grow and evolve as a teacher?

DL: Shri Krishnamacharya said that a Yoga teacher should have:

1. A lineage connection: A good teacher is part of a lineage and has acknowledged their own teacher and has been blessed by their teacher to teach.
2. A regular practice: They practice regularly, most often daily. This consistent practice informs their teaching; they practice what they teach. A Yoga teacher lives an exemplary life, following the precepts of Yoga.
3. A sincere liking for people: A teacher must sincerely like people and make themselves available. A good teacher will even place the welfare of their students above their own. A good teacher always comes from a place of compassion; they are able to put themselves in the place of the student, to know the appropriate teachings to give.

Once we have found a qualified teacher, it is up to us to keep that precious teacher in our lives with the techniques of discipleship. We plant the karmic seeds of our experience with our students in the future by how we treat our teachers today. Our students will treat us in the same way as we have treated our own teachers. We become good teachers by being good students. As each of us grows and evolves as yoga practitioners, our expression of that evolution in the form of teaching evolves. It is a parallel development.

IYM: How has the role of Yoga teacher changed since the time of the ancient Guru-disciple relationship?

DL: This transmission did not stop. It is a classical system called parampara. Part of what makes successful teachers, master teachers, is that they’re able to transmit and empower others with their wisdom teachings…

Read the rest of this article in the Summer 2012 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.