The Satya Interview with
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
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
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
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?
[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
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
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
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
yoga teacher, I have perhaps an even bigger advantage than most animal
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
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.
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 www.JivamuktiYoga.com
or call (212) 353-0214.