Jive To a New Beat

More than just a new style of yoga practice, Jivamukti is about bringing people together. by Anna Lisle

I have vivid images of what a Jivamukti class would be like. I would be sitting next to Gwyneth Paltrow for starters. We would be in Locust Pose, while hits from The Beatles play over the speaker system. We would then grab a chai latte after class and casually chat about which sequences we found the most stimulating. Perfect, I thought. That is exactly what I need after a tedious day’s work.

But as I sit on my mat, waiting for class to start, I spy some chanting books in the corner of the room, and I realise that I’m in for a more challenging experience than I imagined. I grab a book and scan the pages, daunted by the thought of saying the wrong thing. Meanwhile, the class is rapidly filling up, and soon there are more than 30 people crammed into the room. Mildly alarmed by the prospect of chanting, I keep thinking, surely this class has to be good if there is this many people willing to give up their Monday evening for it?

Unlike in New York (the founding city of Jivamukti), where you may find yourself sitting next to the likes of Sting or Gwyneth in class, Jivamukti is a relatively unknown style in Australia. There are only a handful of certified teachers in the country, but they’re confident that this style of yoga will grow here. “In Australia, people come to yoga because of a physical interest but they stay for the spiritual, how it enriches their lives, both on and off the yoga mat,” says Katie Manitsas, director of Samadhi Yoga in Sydney’s Newtown and Jivamukti teacher. “And I think this is why Jivamukti has taken off because it really does that.”

Modern Enlightenment

David Life and Sharon Gannon

Founded in 1984 by Sharon Gannon and David Life, Jivamukti (meaning “enlightenment”) is now one of nine globally recognised styles of hatha yoga. It incorporates a fairly strong, dynamic asana practice, as well as scripture, devotion, prayer, music and meditation. What sets Jivamukti apart from other popular hatha styles, however, is its focus on developing a relationship and responsibility to the earth. Jivamukti followers are typically vegans who are environmentalists, political activists and animal-rights supporters.

“We teach yoga as a path to enlightenment,” explains David Life, who spoke to Australian Yoga Journal on a visit to Sydney in February. “Right now people are desperate for a reconnection both with each other and to the natural world. People feel alienated, isolated, impotent and impoverishedyoga cures all that.”

“When I started practising Jivamukti in New York with Sharon and David, it was like slipping into a warm bath. I just fell in love with it,” says Dr Richard James Allen, who now teaches Jivamukti at Life Source studio in North Sydney. “It is a profound spiritual awareness that shapes how you live your life.”

What to Expect In Class

Jivamukti classes must be taught according to the five tenants of Jivamuktiahimsa (non-violence), scripture, nadam (sacred sound), meditation and bhakti (devotion). In some form or another, each tenant must be taught during the class. However, each class shifts in focus;  depending on your teacher, every Jivamukti yoga class will be different.

In my class, we began in stillness. The teacher, Sarah Trestrail, explained the importance of listening to your body and knowing how far to push each pose, based on how you’re feeling today. She also explained that our asana practice is not the most important thing we’ll do here today, it’s the fact that we’re all here together.

We chanted “Om” and then began a series of traditional Ashtanga Sun Salutations to warm up the body. Despite not reaching the sauna-like atmosphere of Bikram, the vinyasa series certainly worked up a sweat. Sarah offered students an easier option in every pose and suggested holding Downward-Facing-Dog Pose, if we were finding the movements too fast. At this point, I glanced around the class and everyone seemed to be going at a different pace.

The pace of the class finally slowed as we moved into Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Salabhasana (Locust Pose) and Mermaid Pose  (a modified version of King Pidgeon Pose). As we twist our bodies, Sarah explains the origins of this mermaid pose and I felt like I was a part of a ‘story’. Suspend your antipathy at this cliché, but it really was one of those yogic moments when everything felt in syncmy mind, body and soul.

The final section of the class included an inversion and Sarah encouraged, if you were up for it, the “king of asanas” (the Headstand). As I attempted to move myself into some form of a pose, Sarah explained that inversions help us to conquer our fear, to look at the world in a different way and to be okay when the world turns upside down on us. Finally, I collapsed in Balasana (Child’s Pose) and it was utter bliss.

Throughout the class, there is a combination of traditional and modern music. And, much to my delight, David Bowie played during the Savasana (Corpse Pose). After all my worrying, it turned out this class didn’t involve any chanting—to be honest, I was relieved. After “Namaste”, I rolled up my mat, vowed not to eat meat for the rest of the week and walked out feeling re-energised and inspired.

Anna Lisle is Copy Editor for Australian Yoga Journal.

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