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January/February 2004
Raising Consciousness, Yoga-Style

The Satya Interview with Sharon Gannon

Sharon Gannon is an internationally renowned yoga teacher who, with her partner David Life, founded the Jivamukti Yoga Center in New York’s East Village in the mid-1980s. Gannon and Life are well respected for their accomplishments as yoga practitioners and teachers, and for their rigorous teacher-training program. They are longtime animal activists, and are unique for integrating awareness of animals, compassionate living and vegetarianism into their yoga teachings.

Whenever they have the chance, Gannon and Life show their students and teachers-in-training Victor Schonfield’s 1981 documentary The Animals Film (Slick Pics International). Gannon says The Animals served as a major turning point in her life. Narrated by actress Julie Christy, the film examines the various kinds of animal abuse and the activists who fight against it. Although more than 20 years old now, “There’s not been a film like that made since,” Gannon insists. It’s still an effective tool to raise consciousness about animals; they’ve even screened it at major yoga conferences. Part of it explores how bodies of euthanized dogs and cats are rendered into pet food. Incredulous audience reactions to this day indicate the film’s ongoing relevance.

In the late 1990s, Gannon published Cats and Dogs are People Too (Jivamukti Press). Her thoughts are well summed up in the book’s subtitle: A Look into the Vile and Insensitive Attitudes that Result in Commercial Pet Food with Health-promoting Alternatives that are Easy to Incorporate into Your Lifestyle.

Sharon Gannon took some time to share with Catherine Clyne some of her thoughts about how we treat our companion animals and how yoga can help create change.

Generally, what are your views on how humans care for their companion animals?
In our culture, I think the caring for cats and dogs is thought of as a charitable act. A lot of people feel, “If I give them a home, that’s enough; because if I didn’t, they might die on the street or be euthanized in the shelter,” and that if there is any benefit, it should be to the human caretaker. You see signs [that say basically]: “If you want unconditional love in your life, adopt a dog or a cat.” I don’t think it’s nice to say you care about someone and then not really see how your relationship might be benefiting them. A good relationship should be mutually beneficial.

I think any way we can get animals adopted is good, but the messages that are out there are so mixed up. It’s thought of as normal to make orphans of cats and dogs, most people do not even give it a second thought. But breaking up family units, that’s a pretty serious and sad situation; and of course I suppose people rationalize it in several ways. One is, “I can’t take more than one animal, because I have a small apartment or home”—thinking it really doesn’t matter that the mother never sees her babies, or the babies never see their parents or siblings, because after all, they’re just animals; they don’t have the same kind of feelings reserved for human beings. And of course, that’s not true; that’s been scientifically proven. [Cats and dogs] have feelings and grieve and have a sense of loss.

Another thing people think is, “if I have more than one animal in my home—even just two or three—they won’t give me as much love. Their attention will be diluted or diverted away from me.” That’s an unfounded fear. Like anyone, happiness is going to overflow and they’re going to be affectionate with many beings around them. I think these ideas are so established in our present culture that they’re not talked about much or even questioned. I would like to see people adopting whole families or at least more than one cat or dog.

Many vegans believe it is ethical and healthy to serve an exclusively vegan diet to their feline companions. What are your thoughts on this?
I have no real easy answer. It’s one of the two biggest conflicts in my life with regard to cats. We don’t really know enough about the nutritional requirements of cats. The commercial pet food companies would make you think we do by claiming [on their label] “complete and balanced” food—all you need. It’s legal to say that, but the fact is, we don’t even know what the complete nutritional requirements are for human beings! And many more studies have been done to try to discover that, than to find what cats or dogs need. People are pretty gullible when it comes to advertising. It is a fact that cats can’t synthesize a very important amino acid called taurine, found in meat. Other animals, such as humans or dogs, are able to synthesize this through other food sources. It has been isolated and synthesized into a [supplement] not derived from an animal source—you can buy it in capsules and mix it with food. I feed this to my cats every day. But still, I’m not sure, so I do feed them some meat, but the amount is minimal. They don’t get that every day. It’s a conflict. I’m not so 100 percent. I have to admit that.

I think cats should be fed fresh food, even if it’s vegan. The dry kibble—that’s usually what the vegan food is—is like eating cereal every day, day in and day out. It’s great that there are companies producing this kind of thing nowadays; I feed it to my cats as a snack. I just don’t think that any living being can be healthy eating just processed food every day.

You serve them mostly “whole” foods, right?

Salad; every meal they have some type of raw vegetable—lettuce, arugula, shredded carrots, parsley, they love raw corn and raw green beans. This isn’t just, “Oh, let’s see if the cat will eat this green bean.” This is what they eat twice a day. They eat a meal that has primarily—90 percent—vegetables, some cooked, and grains as well. They like seitan; they’re not too keen on tofu, I’m sorry to say. Squash, asparagus and broccoli. These I cook—steam—for them, every day of their life. Usually, the first thing they eat on their plate is the raw vegetables. This idea that cats are primarily carnivorous, I don’t believe it, because my experience tells me otherwise.

What’s the other conflict you have about companion cats?
Spay and neutering. [My partner] David [Life] and I founded the first free spay/neuter clinic in New York City, and we have been successful. Since we started Animal Mukti through the Humane Society of New York, we’ve reduced the number of cats and dogs that are euthanized by 30 percent, which is a great accomplishment. But spay/neutering is horrible and invasive. I’ve been in the operating room and seen the surgery, and although we have the best veterinarians available and they do a great job, still, it’s an invasive surgery—it’s hideous. So that’s a conflict I have, but the alternative is more grim: to have unwanted animals that starve to death or are euthanized.

I’m curious about your response to this question: Do you think animals practice or need yoga?
[Laughs.] No.

Why not?
[Incredulous.] Who are we to say? Yoga—as I think you’re referring to it or as I would, being a yoga teacher—means techniques and methods that have been developed by human beings for spiritual development and, finally, enlightenment. I really don’t think that we know enough about other species to even assume they don’t have their own methods of feeling more deeply the life they’re living or bring about an expanded awareness. We can assume, but we really don’t know.

I’ll tell you, it drives me up the wall when somebody says something like, “Oh, but cats, you know, they meditate all day long.” And I’m like, “How do you know this?” I think cats and dogs, like any other animal including human beings, go through a variety of emotional ups and downs in a 24-hour period, they have their own trials and tribulations and frustrations, elations, memories and aspirations, and all the rest of it. It’s speceisist, I think.

You and David seem to be unique in that you incorporate awareness about animals, the environment and vegetarianism into your yoga practice. How do you convey this to your students?
How? We teach it—it’s part of the teachings and fundamental to yoga. Enlightenment—or any kind of heightened awareness of who you are and what reality is—cannot come about unless you address this issue of the “other” beings we’re living with.

All [yogic] practices are focused on the attainment of enlightenment. What that is, or what is realized in the enlightened state by the yogi, is the oneness of being, and so you have to accept that the biggest obstacle to yoga or enlightenment is “otherness.” As long as we perceive others and not one, then we’re unenlightened. Otherness is—we can use the common word prejudice—prejudice against other human beings because they have a different philosophy, different religion, a different color, or different sex. We know these kinds of prejudices all too well. But speciesism seems to be so ingrained in us that we don’t notice it; and it’s much more insidious because it’s so much a part of our culture. Even certain religions have made the grandiose assumption that the human being is the crown of creation and that all other beings exist only to serve humans and to give them pleasure, which of course, [laughs] is just absurd.

The amount of suffering incurred by animals at the hands of human beings at this time on the planet is so outrageously over the top that if you are interested in enlightenment or even just in creating a happier, more peaceful life for yourself, you have to address that. And you have to do everything you can to reduce the amount of suffering that you are causing to other beings. Twenty-five billion animals are slaughtered in the U.S. for food every year. That number is staggering, for so many reasons, one of which is that there are only six billion humans on the entire planet!

So, how do we overcome “otherness”?
One of the wonderful things that yoga provides is a way to look more deeply into the things that you do every day and not to live life on a superficial level without a deeper contemplation about your actions. I think that most human beings don’t want to cause harm, or see others suffer, they don’t consider themselves violent people, and yet they continue to cause violence in these indirect ways. Our culture is such that it is very difficult to have a direct experience about anything—everything is virtual; there are so many in-between people that the whole process is so removed from your actual experience. Yoga teaches that if you want to get over otherness, the first step is ahimsa: as long as you see others, do not cause them harm, to the best of your ability. The yoga sutras give that as a practice, meaning, you do the best you can. That’s all we can do, right? And by doing the best we can, we discover ways for doing better.

When I wrote Cats and Dogs are People Too, I wanted people to make immediate changes in the way they viewed companion animals. That was why I wasn’t so strict about veganism, because I wanted people to just throw out that horrible commercial pet food, and start treating them like they would treat another family member, and to cook for them, or at least share their own dinner or lunch. And to think of them as deserving of that kind of consideration. I think the more you practice that and the more conscious you become, your own food choices begin to change.

Hopefully, maybe one day we’ll find a way to have totally vegan cats; I’m pretty close to it. When left to their own devices, they will go out and eat mice and squirrels, they will do that; but they will also eat vegetables, and that’s one thing I really wanted to drive home to people.

Do you have anything that you’d like to add?
Well, I think that if I wasn’t a yoga teacher, I would be 100 percent an animal rights activist. But I do feel that because I am a yoga teacher, I have perhaps an even bigger advantage than most animal rights activists.

How so?
Because the yoga teachings are an excellent way to bring activism into people’s lives, and the ideas of karma, which are essential to yoga. If you really give people a deep understanding of how karma works, their relationship with other animals, other human beings, is going to change dramatically. Because karma says what you do will come back to you. Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutras, For the one who is established in nonviolence, no harm will come to them. And we’re all seeking that in our life—a situation where we’re at peace, we’re happy—and yoga philosophy says that can be attained. What you have to do is not cause others to be unhappy. It’s sort of like “enlightened self-interest.”

But I have hope. I mean, don’t you have hope?

Yeah, I do. What gives you hope?
Oh! The breakthroughs that are happening. I mean, 10 years ago if you walked into a restaurant and asked for soy milk in your tea, they’d look at you like you’re crazy; and now that’s not so crazy. It’s happening.

People are really beginning to question things. We still have a long way to go, but there are many more people involved. I mean, just 20 years ago it was hard to even find another person who had these kind of views. And now, look, there’s a great magazine; there’s Martin Rowe, publishing amazing things [with Lantern Books]; and—oh!—Matthew Scully [author of Dominion]. [Laughs.]

I’m often asked, Why do you think that yoga is so popular these days? Every person from the media always thinks they know the answer, and of course, they think it’s that celebrities are doing it.

But I ask, Yeah, but why are the celebrities doing it? I mean, something came before that. I truly believe that the reason yoga is so popular these days is the same reason that the animal rights movement is gaining. It’s nature; Mother Nature has had enough. And she’s working through some of us [laughs] to bring a different type of message.

The message that has been the manifesto of our culture so far is, Mother Earth belongs to us. And of course, when you own something, that means you can do whatever you want with it. People like you, like me, like many of the great people out there, we’re bringing a different message, we’re saying, No. Mother Earth doesn’t belong to us. And that the only way we can ever really find any kind of solution to the major problems in our world, culture, society, is to find a way to harmonize, to partnership, instead of exploit—and that’s a whole new way of thinking. If we can start immediately cultivating a different type of relationship with the animals we live with by thinking of their welfare, and considering how that relationship can be mutually beneficial instead of just one-sided, that’s radical—unlearning so much [of the] conditioning in our psyches.

To learn more about Sharon Gannon, the Jivamukti Yoga Center and Animal Mukti, visit or call (212) 353-0214.


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