Direct Action for Joy: Sharon Gannon, Ahimsa, Animals, and Caesar Salad

By on October 20, 2014


Full disclosure: I became a fan of Sharon Gannon’s some years ago through her writings on animal rights, and then renewed my interest when she appeared in the documentary Yogawoman, about the impact of women on the practice of yoga – and vice versa. Sharon is indeed one of the most influential women in yoga worldwide, as she and her partner David Life have established their Jivamukti practice in a dozen countries, from Mexico to South Africa to Western Europe, promoting its “path to enlightenment through compassion for all beings.”

Because my partner and I helped publicize Yogawoman in advance of its release, the producers treated me to ‘bonus footage’ from their interview with Sharon. She spoke about the intersection of feminism and veganism, particularly the oppression, exploitation, and rape of female animals for dairy and eggs. I found myself developing an awkward crush on her. (My wife says that’s okay.)

Aside from literally writing the book on yoga and animal rights (Yoga and Vegetarianism), building the Jivamukti school worldwide, and running a popular vegan café in New York City, Sharon has just released Simple Recipes for Joy: More Than 200 Delicious Vegan Recipes, a beautiful book of foods from the almost-eponymous Jivamuktea, and her own home kitchen.

Sharon writes, “Being a vegan in the world today is to be involved in a nonviolent, direct-action protest against cruelty and an affirmation of kindness.” Hoping some of her recipes for joy would rub off on me, I spoke with Sharon about her new book and asked some questions that have bothered me about soi-disant spiritual people and their resistance to veganism.

You are best known for being a yoga teacher and guru, really. What made you decide to add a vegan cookbook to your repertoire?

The job of a yoga teacher is to assist people in their search for ultimate happiness. Not everybody can stand on their head everyday, but everybody eats. What we choose to eat can bring us closer to happiness or further from it. As a yoga teacher my job is to advise people in their lifestyle choices. To help them in making decisions which will lead to more joy and happiness in their lives. I am always looking for ways to communicate better with people. Food is a great medium to start a conversation. Yes yoga is a very physical practice but who can deny that what you eat is also very physical and needs to be examined by yogis who are on the path to enlightenment.

In the book, you mention having an eating disorder when you were younger. Did veganism and yoga play a role in helping to overcome it?

I wish I could say that veganism and yoga helped me directly to overcome my eating disorders of starvation and anorexia but that is not the way it happened. When I was a young child we were quite poor most of the time and often without food. I learned to use my imagination to eat virtual meals. It actually worked to some extent.

While in my early twenties I was suffering from the aftermath of a traumatic experience which left me unable to eat. I was not anorexic to try to get thin. My anorexia came from the fact that I was emotionally damaged and physically repulsed by even the idea of allowing anything into my body. I lost my appetite for eating, was consumed with guilt and self-loathing and did not want to live. I attempted to kill myself by falling in front of cars during rush hour on a busy street nearby where I lived. My younger sister saw me from the window of the house and ran down and pulled me out of the traffic. She slapped my face and yelled at me, “What do you think you are doing? If someone hit you and killed you, how do you think they would feel for the rest of their life?” That brought me to my senses. I was so self-involved in my suffering that how my suffering might affect someone else hadn’t occurred to me. I decided that I had to start living a more examined life. I had the realization that to be so self-indulgent was selfish and I didn’t want to be so selfish.

From that moment, in my own way, I set out on a path to lead a life that enhanced the lives of others. Each moment in our lives leads us to the next and I am sure that the suffering of my early life was necessary and important in helping me wake up to veganism and yoga. But it wasn’t until 1982 when I saw the Animals’ Film that I woke up to a suffering much greater than my own. That film pushed me to become vegan and then an animal rights activist and yoga teacher.

I have written many times about fat-shaming in the vegan community. Are there similar biases among yoga practitioners, for example, ‘you can’t be a yogi and be overweight?’ How can these seemingly compassionate, inclusive communities – veganism and yoga – begin to do better?

I don’t know much about other yoga communities, so I don’t feel qualified to speak for them. In our Jivamukti community we are very influenced by our studies of the Yogic Scriptures-especially the Bhagavad Gita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The message found in the classical yoga teachings say that one should not be kind and compassionate in order to get any thing for themselves. Instead one should offer every action to God—and become God’s instrument for bringing more Truth, Consciousness and Bliss into the world.

Maybe I should define “God” here? God, being, that which is the only True Reality; That which is unconditional love and boundless joy. Every action should lead to an increase in unconditional love and joy in the world.

So to be a vegan because it will help you lose weight or become healthier is not in accordance to the yoga teachings. Yogis do not choose a vegan diet for health reasons—but because simply because it is the kinder choice—it is more ethical—it causes the least amount of harm to others and so increases joy. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises Arjuna, “ Let go of the fruits of your actions. Your job is to act as perfectly as you can—My job is to take care of the results.” According to the Yogic teachings, a “perfect action” is an act devoid of selfish intention. In other words: compassionate. Basically the yoga teachings about what to do—what actions to take—what can we practice to help bring us to enlightenment can be summed up in this way: remember God and be kind to others.

1218_R_Sharon in kitchenIt’s astounding to me that yogis and others in the spiritual community not only continue to consume animals and their secretions, but mindlessly purchase tickets to animal exploitation entertainment, wear the skins and fur of other animals, and purchase household and beauty products tested on animals. It would be one thing to be able to plead ignorance, like the larger public, but I’ve written for eco/spiritual blogs and websites and seen so many creative excuses for continuing to exploit animals from readers who consider themselves spiritual. As a leader in the spiritual community, what has your experience been like?

I am a teacher and so am committed to communication—to education. In my experience I have found that films are very effective in providing others with a window into the reality of animal abuse and exploitation. Because it was a film that woke me up I am a big supporter of showing films to bring the animal rights/abolitionist message across. In our one-month residential Jivamukti Teacher Training courses (offered four times a year in the U.S., Central America, Europe and Asia) we show many animal rights films as well as films about GMOs to the students. Most people have never seen these films or never seen them back to back for many days in a row followed by discussion from a yogic perspective. I am proud to say after graduation at least 99 percent of the people who take the course remain vegan and become animal rights activists. Recently one of those amazing people, Kip Andersen, made a brilliant documentary film, Cowspiracy. I am very proud of Kip. I think this film is the most effective film out there, which shows clearly the link between raising animals for food and the devastation of our environment—the real inconvenient truth.

What are some of your favorite “spiritual” excuses as to why it’s okay to continue to exploit animals? Why do you think there is such cognitive dissonance in the spiritual community? Will Tuttle says “The disconnect in both activists and spiritual aspirants hampers their efforts, and the core teaching of veganism provides the key missing element, which is to be radically inclusive in our approach to compassion and justice.”

I just am not qualified to speak for the whole yoga community, but I’ll attempt to speculate. The concept of ahimsa (non-violence) as been around for a long time, it forms the foundation for most of the spiritual traditions of the world and is found in most, if not all, religions. But to extend non-violence to include other animals, besides human beings, is a radically new concept.

Veganism is one of the core foundation principals of Jivamukti Yoga. As far as I know it is not emphasized in any other current style of yoga practice. Why not? Simple: Most people teaching yoga these days are not vegan themselves and so do not feel it is important. Teachers teach what is dear to them—what they are passionate about themselves. Many yoga practitioners as well as people in general view veganism as just another dietary preference similar to liking chocolate over vanilla or raw versus macro-biotic—not acknowledging that there is much more at stake. They haven’t made the connection. Why? Most people feel disempowered and suffer from low self-esteem, feeling that what they do as individuals doesn’t matter much to the whole. They are consumed by envy and greed. They look at accomplished people like celebrities and think they got lucky. They don’t understand how things work in the world. They don’t understand how karma works. They don’t understand that each person (whether they are a human, animal or tree) is experiencing the world they are experiencing due to their own actions—luck has nothing to do with it. But it is easier to play the victim and blame and complain about what others are doing or not doing or not doing good enough. One thing is certain: an enlightened being and a victim—never the twain shall meet—they cancel each other out. A yogi is someone who is focused on enlightenment. A Jivanmukta is a yogi who is living a compassionate enlightened life in order to uplift the lives of others.

We all want to be happy. The yoga teachings are clear: if you want happiness then do all you can to increase happiness in the lives of others. Many people ignorantly believe that happiness will come to them by depriving others of happiness. This is the underlying reason why people eat meat and dairy products—they ignorantly believe that by enslaving and killing an animal they will benefit –it will contribute to their health and sense of well-being. This is one of the many lies we live by.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra we find this advice: maitri adisu balani. Maitri translates as friendly, adisu actually means “etc.”—so attributes like friendliness, like kindness, compassion, consideration—and balani means strength or success. So the sutra says, Through Friendliness Success comes.

Community is important. The Hopi Prophecy declares, “The time of the lone wolf is over.” At this time it is better to invest in strengthening community rather than in a single savoir. I find it more rewarding to find common ground with others rather than to point out differences. In the yogic teachings satsang is considered the most important spiritual practice at this time of great conflict and upheaval. Satsang means to hang out with others who believe that awakening is possible. The mind is like a crystal—it will reflect the environment that it is placed in. So the teachings advise us to choose our company wisely.

2_Sharon feeding the deer_RFor our readers who are not familiar with Jivamukti, can you share what makes Jivamukti unique among other schools of yoga? And for readers who aren’t familiar with the philosophy of yoga, can you please touch on ahimsa or non-harming?

Jivamukti Yoga is a path to enlightenment through compassion for all beings. It is a style of yoga practice developed by David Life and Myself 30 years ago (in 1984) in NYC, with the blessings of our teachers, Shri Brahmananda Saraswati, Swami Nirmalananda, Shri K. Pattabhi Jois and Shyam Das.

The method includes a vigorous physical asana practice and follows five tenets: Ahimsa, Bhakti, Dyana, Nada and Shastra, or non-violence, devotion to God, meditation, music, and the study of scripture, respectively. We recognize that all of life is alive with the animating spirit of God and that in the core of each living being God dwells as Truth Consciousness and Bliss. We strive to live in musical harmony with all of life—including other animals and the environment and are committed to the eradication of ignorance in the world through eradicating it in ourselves. The enlightened realization that comes to the yogi when ignorance is lifted is the realization of the oneness of being. Spiritual practices should help one get rid of otherness so that oneness is revealed. The yoga teachings say that as long as you are seeing others and not God; not experiencing the oneness of being then, first and foremost don’t hurt them. That is the meaning of ahimsa.

In the book you make a point to yogis striving for freedom that eating and using animals actually creates slavery and removes the freedom of animals, and that a person who eats animals is condoning and supporting slavery. Would you mind expanding on that here?

Yoga teaches that whatever we want in life we can have, if we provide it for others first. So if we ourselves want to be happy and free, then to condone and support slavery will not help us to achieve our goal. How we treat others will eventually but inevitably be how we will be treated. Animals raised for food or other forms of exploitation are slaves. They are humiliated, abused, betrayed, raped, exploited in every and all possible ways and are murdered. As long as we continue treating other animals in this way we insure our own future—in other words, we will plant the karmic seeds for that reality to happen to ourselves. The Sanskrit word for liberation is moksha or mukti. The message is clear: freedom comes to those who contribute to the happiness and liberation of others. Violence only brings more violence. When you have a choice—it is always better to be kind rather than cruel—veganism is simply the kinder choice.

There seems to be a movement within the vegan community towards “love and light,” which on its face sounds great. Unfortunately, what’s really happening is that vegans are taking in the negative feedback from non-vegans and believing that people aren’t vegan because of something we’re doing wrong. I appreciate that you use strong and truthful metaphors and language in your advocacy and writing, so am I correct that you’ve personally found the direct, ethical approach to be the most effective?

I do feel that truth-saying is the best way to communicate. But I also feel that to really come from a place of truth means that one must come from a place of love. The nature of ultimate Truth is love. God is Love. To be an effective activist we must simultaneously have our feet in both worlds, the ultimate as well as the relative. If we want to communicate our animal rights message to others who are not vegans yet, we must be able to relate to those others as holy beings. That means that we must let go of anger towards them. Others can feel it when we feel animosity towards them, and it causes a shutdown, which disables effective communication.

As long as we create good guys and bad guys in the world, there is no chance for transformation into Truth. We must be willing do let go of our negative judgments towards others to be able look deeply into the soul of the other and see the Ultimate Truth. When we can connect to that ultimate reality within the other, soul to soul, then we have a chance for effective positive communication. Trying to force another—bullying them with anger and condemnation into becoming a more kind and compassionate person—doesn’t work. Violence and anger creates more of the same. Love is the only effective weapon to bring about positive change in the world. Look, if we are talking to a meat eater and we really do want them to become a compassionate person, then we must see them as a compassionate person. If we can’t see them as a compassionate person, how dare we demand that they become one?

Now, you’re one of the most outspoken advocates we have, but earlier on, were you concerned about being vocal in your veganism? Veganism certainly did not enjoy the popularity that it does now, at least the diet. Have you found more or less receptivity to veganism over the years?

When I first woke up to the horrors of how animals are being treated I was overwhelmed and angry—at others and at myself. By nature I am an introverted person. Social skills and speaking in public have never come easy for me. I have had to work hard to improve my ability to communicate to others. I don’t think it is enough to be upset about the injustice in the world and to know the facts and profess them. A communicator has to work harder than that—if, that is, they want to do more than express their own anger and blame others.

What “recipes for joy” do you make when you’re cooking for nonvegan guests? Can you offer some suggestions from the book for feeding people who may be skeptical about hippie vegan food?

I don’t discriminate against vegan or non-vegan at the dinner table—I feed everyone the same—they all get vegan food. Regardless of whether or not a person is vegan, tasty food seems to be the most important criteria for everyone. I don’t think anyone should eat something that doesn’t taste good to them, no matter how nutritious or good for them it may claim to be. Life is precious—why do anything that doesn’t increase more joy and happiness in your life?

But, if you are asking me to recommend one recipe from the book, Simple Recipes for Joy, I would suggest Page 112—Dressed-Up Glass Noodles—seems to be a favorite among all.



Dressed-Up Glass Noodles

This recipe contains a mélange of contrasts—sweet and savory, soft and crunchy, green and yellow, red and white.

6 to 8 sun-dried tomatoes

6 cups water

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil, plus more to taste

Two 6-inch-long commercially prepared vegan sausages, cut into small discs

½ apple, cored and chopped into small pieces

1 bunch spinach, kale, or collard greens, chopped into small pieces (5 to 6 cups loosely packed)

½ cup fresh, frozen, or canned corn kernels

2 ounces saifun noodles

Soy sauce, tamari, or Braggs Liquid Aminos to taste

In a small bowl, place the tomatoes, add boiling water to cover, and let stand for about 10 minutes, until the tomatoes are rehydrated. Drain the tomatoes and discard the soaking liquid. Using kitchen scissors, cut the rehydrated tomatoes into thin strips and set aside.

In a large pot, bring the water to a boil over high heat. While the water is heating, in a medium frying pan, heat the sesame oil over medium-high heat. Add the sausages and sauté for about 3 minutes, turning once, until well heated and starting to brown. Add the tomatoes and apple and cook for 1 more minute, then remove from the heat.

Place the greens and corn in a stainless-steel pasta strainer or simple wire strainer. Add the noodles to the boiling water and boil for about 2 minutes, until soft and clear, then drain them through the strainer over the greens and corn. The hot water will “cook” the greens and corn.

After straining, transfer the noodles, greens, and corn back into the empty pot. Using kitchen scissors, cut the noodles into smaller pieces. Add the sautéed mixture to the pot and mix well. Add more sesame oil and soy sauce to taste.


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