Sharon Gannon, best known for introducing the Jivamukti Yoga method with her life partner David Life, is also the proprietor of the Jivamuktea Cafe, a much admired vegan oasis near Manhattan’s Union Square. In Reality Sandwich’s early years, this gentle, charming, high ceilinged spot served as our unofficial offices, where we held meetings over plates of tempeh BLTs, Montana salads, and cups of chai and soy lattes. I’ve long wished to try some of these dishes at home (particularly the dahl!), and now I can. Sharon is releasing a cookbook, Simple Recipes for Joy! It presents recipes from Jivamuktea Cafe in a thoughtfully articulated, lavishly illustrated volume that beautifully captures Sharon’s approach to cooking. We recently exchanged some emails about the new book for the interview below.
This Monday, September 22, at 8:00 p.m. EST, Sharon will appear live online for an interactive video webinar to speak and answer questions about Simple Recipes for Joy! This session is free to those who pre-order the book and fill out the form here: http://www.simplerecipesforjoy.com/preorder-simple-recipes-for-joy.
Reality Sandwich: Did the cook book emerge out of your yoga practice? What’s the connection for you between yoga and food?
Sharon: Did the cookbook emerge out of my yoga practice? Well, if you define yoga practice as what a person does in order to increase their chances for enlightenment, then yes — the cookbook came out of that desire. I hope that everything that I do could come from my yearning to increase devotion and get closer to God. Why do anything that doesn’t bring happiness — for goodness sake? If it doesn’t increase happiness, why do it? Life is short, do any of us we have time to waste engaged in mundane drudgery?
Happiness is the goal of life. The yogic concept of enlightenment is the remembrance of one’s true nature as Bliss. Bliss is synonymous with happiness. The yoga teachings advise that whatever you want in life, you can have if you make it happen for someone else. So if you want to be happy — do all you can to increase the happiness of others. Veganism seems like the most direct way to do that. I hope with this book, that in some small way I will be able to contribute to more happiness in the world.
Eating meat and diary products does not promote happiness. A meat and dairy based diet — the Standard American Diet, the S.A.D diet — is just that. It promotes sadness for the eater, the animals who are enslaved and slaughtered, as well as the for environment whose destruction is linked to raising animals for food. It certainly does not promote more happiness or joy in the world for anybody. The title of the book is meant to suggest that veganism is a simple, easy and direct way to create more joy.
The fact is, none of us can live a life totally free of violence. Living insures that we will cause some harm. There’s some degree of violence in what we do, even if we are vegan, so it is best to be humble about it. Eating plants causes some harm, even if the plants are raised organically. Yoga suggests that we find a way to cause the least amount of harm. That is why ahimsa (non-harming) is given as a practice. We are expected to do our best — not be perfect at it. I mean, you could opt for not eating at all. Some have tried that. Good luck! But if you are going to choose to eat, then eating a vegan, plant-based diet will assure that you cause the least amount of harm.
Does the food we eat prepare us – sensitize us, even – to receive the greatest benefits from the asanas we practice in yoga class?
Asana is a physical practice, and what could be more physical then what we eat? The physical body is made from the food we eat. The Sanskrit word for the physical body is annamayakosha — it means “food sheath” or “food covering.” According to Yoga philosophy, the particular body we have is determined by our karmas, or the actions we have taken in relation to ourselves and others. Eating certainly involves action. The purpose underlying the practice of asana is to purify our karmas/actions. Asanas provide us with a way to resolve our karmic relationships with others. Yoga teaches that we have come from Love, that all has come from love — it is the source of our own being. To heal our own suffering we must stop causing suffering to others. This practice of compassion resolves our negativity into love.
Asanas bring up a lot of psychological-emotional issues, because every unresolved issue is stored in our bodies. Asana practice triggers old stuff that we are holding on to, causing it to resurface, allowing us to feel those unresolved negative emotions like fear, anger, resentment, jealousy, blame, sadness, shyness etc., in the tightness and pain held in our muscles, and even in the way we breathe. If we want to decrease the amount of fear, anger, violence, etc. in our bodies, in our world, we have to stop contributing to it. Awareness is the first step towards resolve. The asana practice gives us an opportunity to accept ourselves as we are and let go with every breath.
Most people suffer from low self-esteem and to compensate take it out on others. In our culture we are taught that power comes from disempowering others — the old Might is Right concept. This is the underlying reason why people eat meat — they feel that by killing and eating an animal they will gain something from it, and if they have the money to buy it, they have the right to it, regardless of how much harm it may cause. Yoga takes the opposite approach and teaches that the source of power and strength comes from being friendly and kind to others.
While practicing yoga it is best to eat a compassionate diet — one that will leave the least amount of karmic residue. Why? Because we are trying to deal with all the karmic residue we have been holding on to for years, if not lifetimes. Why make it any harder by loading on more stuff? The aim of the asana practice is to become comfortable in your own body and at ease with your mind. We can’t change the things we have already done and there is no good reason to feel guilty about it. But we can start now and do our best to be more kind.
Moving forward, the best way to feel more comfortable and at ease is to make others feel more comfortable and at ease, and not contribute to their suffering. Eating a vegan diet can help in a huge way towards this aim. I mean, come on —everything we do will come back to us – sooner or later, but inevitably. There is so much violence and suffering in the world today and most of it seems out of our control. What we choose to eat is within our control, so why choose to contribute to more violence in the world when you can instead vote for more joy and happiness with every food choice?
Do you think that the intention behind the creation of our food – from the way that it is planted and grown, through to how it is prepared for table – effects our bodies and psyche?
Yes, most definitely. What we do matters — it matters to ourselves, to others and to the planet. In fact, it is our own actions that create the reality we live in — whether they are subtle actions like thoughts or more gross, like words or physical actions. Infusing all of your actions with passion will yield good results, and the best passion by far is com-passion.
Your schedule is non-stop, on the road teaching workshops and doing teacher trainings. When do you have time to cook?
Wow — thanks for noticing! Yes I live a busy life, but I still try to find time to cook. Even when traveling, often I will be staying with friends and have the opportunity to cook for them. But even when I can’t find the time to cook, I can always find time to offer my food to God before I eat. It is really one of my main yogic practices — to ask God to accept the offering and bless the food so that when I eat it I may become a better person — someone who will be able to enhance the lives of others and increase happiness in this world.
Americans tend to eat such large portions at meals. Is there a yogic approach to portion size?
Yeah! I like to call it the “Goldilocks” approach: not too much, not too little — just right!
I noticed that many of the recipes in the book are light on the use of herbs. How do you like to use fresh herbs in your cooking?
Hmm, I didn’t realize the book was light on the use of herbs. I grow many herbs inside and outside of my house, and I think I use lots of herbs when I cook. Just recently I experimented and made a very tasty blended red lentil dal. Besides the usual suspects: cumin seeds, coriander, turmeric and curry, I also added lemon and fresh dill weed. Wow, that was an elegant soup!
Do you and David Life keep a garden at your home in Woodstock?
Yes we have a big vegetable garden and grow many types of lettuce, arugula, chard, kale, collards, celery, broccoli, zucchini and other squashes, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, okra, peppers, asparagus, green beans, peas, basil, as well as lots of flowers — including nasturtiums, marigolds, cosmos, gladiolas and roses. All beloveds by birds and bees. We don’t like to pull weeds, so we allow lots of wild plants to co-exist with their cultivated cousins—nettle, dandelion, plantain, bergamot, peppermint, spearmint, lamb’s quarters and purslaine.
We live in a wild forest (only a small bit of land is cleared for the house and garden), so in that forest there are lots of different types of edible mushrooms — chanterelle, black trumpets, chicken of the woods and hen of the woods, all of which have found their way into many of the recipes in the cookbook.
Is veganism often a part of advanced yogic practice?
I would hope so—maybe this book will help. An “advanced” yogi is focused on mukti — which means liberation. The term jivamukta means “a free soul.” Freedom cannot be had through taking away freedom from others. Animals that are raised for food are slaves, exploited for human profit. If we ourselves value freedom we should do all we can to contribute to the liberation of others. Veganism is a big step in that direction.
Before you opened Jivamuktea Cafe in 2006, did you secretly always want to have your own restaurant?
I have had my own restaurant before the Jivamuktea café. In the early 1970s along with two friends, I opened You Are What You Eat restaurant in Seattle Washington, where I lived.
Before I became too busy teaching yoga I worked in many restaurants. I worked in David Life’s Life Café on Ave B and 10th Street, Lower East Side, New York, from 1983 to 1987. First as a cook, then as a waitress. I worked in restaurants for 23 years prior to opening the first Jivamukti Yoga Center. It is no secret — running a restaurant is a lot of work! I have great admiration for anyone who opens a vegan restaurant. It’s a huge challenge, especially in New York City.
Who is the cat in the book cover photo?
That’s my beloved Miten. He passed on last year in June. I miss him a lot. He was a great connoisseur of my cooking. There’s a photo of him inside the book eating a piece of toast with me.
Photos by Jessica Sjöö