“I think it’s really good when we’re able to take something we’re really energetic about and channel into something that’s really positive for the world.”
The full brunt of a hurricane was about to descend on the Being Yoga Conference at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies as dusk shook down on the Rhinebeck, N.Y. campus on Saturday, August 27, and this correspondent had an interview scheduled with David Life and Sharon Gannon, founders of Jivamukti Yoga.
The sky was churning and the rain was already here, though I wasn’t about to take cover and duck out…even though I was a bit nervous. Not as much about the weather as coming face to face with two outspoken activists and fellow New Yorkers who I’ve been admiring and contemplating for close to a decade from afar. I’ve always perceived a bit of mystery in the dynamic of their story, their relationship, their presence. I’d taken classes, attended kirtans, and listened to lectures at their New York City studio back in the ’90s, when there were trollies in NYC and we had to fetch water from the East River. My history of intrigue was about to culminate in two sets of compelling eyes and a microphone.
I started practicing yoga as asana during a period in my life where feeling grounded was a primary goal. Heck, it sure enough still is. Though from a physical perspective, what drew me to asana I’ll never know as stretching comes less than easy to me. My hamstrings are tighter than a kite string in gale force winds, and my mind is a monkey. A cheeky monkey, at that. Though muscle has always been my abundant asset. I can acquire muscle as easily as a backpacker can acquire scabies (I’ve had that mite three times.) What?
I look at pictures of David and Sharon in yoga postures and they embody the representation that is unlikely to settle into my physical self in this lifetime. They’re inverted and balancing on one another, for Pete’s sake.
I mean, did someone prop them up for that shot or what? I doubt it. I bet they just get up into handstand and intertwine their ankles while they’re waiting for the pasta water to boil. And hang out there for nine minutes, what the heck.
Aside from their astounding prowess in the realm of asana, there’s something else about these two that captivates me. Sure, their staunch dedication to animal rights is admirable. Yes, they pioneered and originated a philosophy of yoga in New York City during a time when yoga wasn’t popular and were successful at it. And, they come from an original band of artistic merrymakers living and breathing New York City during the early ’80s–a period of time that was, per the accounts of those who experienced it, pretty darn special.
But then there is, what I perceive, a hard exterior to David. From his chiseled cheekbones, cool eyes, and lean and angular body, standing back on his heels with his arms across his chest, both grounded where he is and slightly pulled away. There is a mission that seems to be seeping from his very pores, and it’s fierce.
And Sharon, the embracer, the dancer, the pixie, with dark eyes full of merriment when she laughs and yet something else. Her jet black hair curtains her face which despite its playfulness still implies knowledge of a long, mystical path that has weaved its way through far away places linking to the look in her gaze that settles on you, though may not stay for long.
What I’m seeing when I perceive Sharon and David is projected through the veil of my eyes. I know this. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that there truly is something different about these two. What is it? I often conduct my interviews via phone, though we were meeting face to face, and in person I record my interviews using an online application and call guests on their cell phone even though they’re sitting right in front of me. “David, do you have your phone with you?” David’s eyes go a bit wide. “A cell phone? He doesn’t have a cell phone,” says Sharon. “Neither do I! I think David had one some time ago, and then it broke, and we didn’t get another one.” Right. I’m relieved to have cracked the code so early in the interview. I realize I don’t have a single second to waste with these two. They’ve got bigger seitan to fry, so let’s get straight to it.
Diane Ferraro: I’m here with David Life and Sharon Gannon and I can’t contain my excitement because number one, they’re fellow New Yorkers, and two, Sharon is tickling me.
David Life: (interjects) That’s proof that we’re actually here. It’s one of those phone interviews.
DF: He’s in the flesh and literally sitting across from me. David, tell me about the destruction of the world and what we can do about it. (Sharon laughs)
DL: The world will be fine in the end. That’s the first thing. We all think it’s up to us to save the world but you know what? I’m quite confident that the world will roll with this, you know? In the meantime, I think it’s up to human beings to do the best they can to examine everything they do in their daily lives from getting up in the morning to eating breakfast to going to bed at night. We have to look at it all. How we use our resources and the kind of atmosphere we’re creating on the earth. It’s important for us all to remember that extinction is the rule and survival is the exception and it would be really cool if human beings were to survive. But we have to plan for that.
DF: Well, that’s true. So what got you interested in yoga so many years ago? What was the bright light that went on in your head?
DL: I was interested in really cool dates with Sharon Gannon.
DF: She’s very cute, by the way.
DL: She is. She’s hot. And I thought the only way I could do it was accompanying her to these yoga classes.
DF: Now wait a minute, David. She was your waitress at Life Café back in the 80’s.
DF: Do you see a conflict of interest here? I thought students weren’t supposed to date their teachers.
DL: Yes. Definitely. So I got rid of the café.
DF: Nice! Smart man.
DL: I think she should chime in, because she’s defenseless here. I have the microphone. But that’s the truth. That’s what got me to yoga with Sharon.
DF: You did alright for yourself.
DL: You know, I think it’s really good when we’re able to take something we’re really energetic about and channel into something that’s really positive for the world. So you see, I was really interested in Sharon and I turned it into a whole movement. Right?
DF: You really did.
DL: A whole movement to change the world just out of one simple love.
DF: And Jivamukti means “Sharon is hot” in Sanskrit.
DL: That’s the translation. (begins to rap) Sharon is hot, that’s what I got. (passes the mic to Sharon).
DF: Sharon, now it’s your turn to defend yourself and tell your side of the story. What did you think the first time you saw David?
Sharon Gannon: The first time I saw David, he was running the Life Café and I was in a band and he was helping us set up our sound equipment. And I thought: “What?!” I had never had this kind of experience. He was so generous and he did more than what I was normally used to a person in that situation doing for us AND he let us keep all the money that we collected at the door. I mean, it was only fourteen dollars, but…
DF: That’s a lot of money.
SG: That’s a lot of money. And all the vegan chili we could eat. So, it was a pretty good deal.
DF: Well, that worked out alright. He fed you, I don’t know if he clothed you, but he provided shelter and food.
SG: And fourteen dollars.
DF: That’s nearly twice the rate of minimum wage right there.
DF: David Life is the best boss in the whole world. And now you’ve got amazing protégés like Seane Corn out there teaching.
SG: You know, Seane is her own person. She’s wild and free and wonderful. I really can’t take credit for any of that. She’s a self-originating incredible teacher and speaker and beautiful person. But yeah, she did work at the cafe for David for five years. She came there when she was 17 or 18.
DL: (speaking up from the peanut gallery) I fired her, though.
SG: (laughing) Oh right, David fired her. But he also fired me at one point.
DF: This is getting good.
SG: You know, he wasn’t so calm at that stage of his life and he would have these temper tantrums and everyone would kind of shake in their boots. Kind of what people are doing now with this hurricane, closing up their shutters.
DL: (takes the mic). Eddie Stern from Ashtanga New York was our delivery boy. Life Café seems to have been the hot bed of yoga in New York City.
DF: Well, it’s kind of like the “Sesame Street” of yoga.
SG: (cracking up). He’s Big Bird.
DF: We’ve got some good identities and deities now associated now with Jivamukti and Life Café. If you were going to do it all again, David, would you start it the same way?
DL: I would try to avoid some of the egregious errors I made along the way but basically, you probably couldn’t do it the same way again, because you couldn’t duplicate it, but I would aim for close by without maybe so many mistakes. But you know it’s always interesting to reflect that if one thing was different in your life, one little piece, you’re whole life would be different right now and that’s always interesting to reflect on. And it’s always a good idea, I think, to look at what you’ve got now and the way your life has gone and see all that is contributing to your life. It all came together to make you who you are and create the opportunities you have. It’s not like you got over things “In Spite Of.” Like, “I carved out a good life “In Spite Of” what happened to me as a child.” No, that part of you is like a diamond inside.
DF: Do you usually share what it is that happened to you at some point, or does it even matter, where you’ve come from and what you’ve transcended into?
DL: You know, I think people like to hear each others stories and histories. I think it helps them feel like they’re not alone and struggling, and it might be that there are different issues in their life but it might help to just hear it out to know that someone persevered and put everything together is sort of helpful to people. Not that I was falling to pieces at Life Café. I don’t want to give you that impression. Things were good there. And look at where it led.
DF: Right. You got the girl.
DL: Right. I got the girl. The girl inspired me. In Hindu philosophy, the woman, the Shakti, is the energetic aspect and the men just lay around. The male principle of the Universe just kind of lays around, and it’s the female principle of the Universe that shakes things up, kicks him out of bed and gets things rolling, and I really think that’s the way it works. What do you think, Sharon?
SG: Yeah, and I’m tired! Somebody get up and do something around this house for a change!
DF: Sharon gets ‘ir done.
SG: (laughing) Oh, David certainly does his share. More than his share.
DF: And here you guys are, this wonderful couple in this yoga community, and I would just like to applaud you, if I even have the authority to do so, and say that you guys are really cool and really authentic. And what I think is particularly awesome is that you’re living your love together in front of everybody, authentically, and I think that is an inspiration for those of us walking through this path of yoga and wondering if Brahmacharya is going to be the path for us. I look at the two of you and I see that there is a light in your love.
SG: (laughing) Okay!
DF: Thank you, David and Sharon, for talking with me, and I can’t wait to have you on again. Maybe we can do the Muppet Capers. “The Muppets Take Manhattan.”
DL: Okay. We need a stretchy muppet that does yoga.
DF: (laughing). We’ll get one. Thanks, guys.
SG: Okay, you just keep shining brighter.