Jivamukti Yoga Origins and Classes

Inside NYC's Original Yoga Studio

Jivamukti Founders David Life and Sharon Gannon
Jivamukti Founders David Life and Sharon Gannon. © 2006 Guzman

David Life and Sharon Gannon met in New York City in 1983 in the most Bohemian way possible—when her band played at his restaurant, the iconic Life Cafe in the East Village. They were both deeply involved in art, music, and 80s counterculture, and they soon began to practice yoga together.

In 1984, Life and Gannon founded Jivamukti, one of the first hybrid yoga styles to emerge in the United States. Jivamukti is a hybrid because its methodology and philosophy synthesize elements from the teachings of several different gurus. Life and Gannon consider their three most influential teachers to have been Swami Nirmalanda, Ashtanga guru Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati.

The name Jivamukti was inspired by a Sanskrit word that means “liberation while living.” For many years, Jivamukti stayed close to its East Village roots, first on 2nd Avenue and 10th street and later on Lafayette Street. In 2006, Jivamukti moved to Union Square, opening a flagship studio with a cafe and boutique. Early devotees included such Hollywood and music industry celebrities as Gwyneth Paltrow, Christy Turlington, Uma Thurman, Russell Simmons, and Sting.

What to Expect from a Jivamukti Class

Jivamukti is a vinyasa style practice where the asana is usually quite vigorous, though classes can also be lighthearted and fun. Teachers are encouraged to make yoga principles relatable by drawing examples from modern life and contemporary music.

Each class has a theme, which is explored through yoga scripture, chanting, meditation, asanapranayama, and music, which is why Jivamukti appeals to people who want more than a good workout. There is usually a presentation of a theme at the beginning of class and a re-emphasis of it throughout.

One of the strongest currents in Jivamukti's philosophy is a strict interpretation of the yama ahimsa, which means non-violence. Accordingly, Jivamukti teachers advocate, sometimes strongly, for a vegan diet. 

Finding a Jivamukti Studio or Teacher

In addition to the Union Square location, there are several other licensed Jivamukti studios in the New York area and abroad. The U.S. locations are in Jersey City, New Jersey and Woodstock, New York. In Germany, there are centers in Berlin and Munich. London, Moscow, Sydney, and Puebla, Mexico are the other official locations.

But don’t worry if you don’t live in one of these cities. There are many other ways to experience this yoga style. The Jivamukti website maintains a large list of affiliated studios and certified teachers. At affiliated studios, the majority of classes will be Jivamukti style. You may also find certified teachers offering Jivamukti classes in other contexts (non-affiliated studios, health clubs), so search for your location to see what’s available in your area.

You can also practice at home with a Jivamukti DVDs, but this yoga style is so community-oriented that you will have the fullest experience from taking a class. 

Teacher Training

Jivamukti runs one of the most respected teacher training programs in the U.S. One reason is that to become a certified Jivamukti teacher, you have to put in more hours than are required to earn the basic Yoga Alliance registered teacher status.

The first level of Jivamukti training is 300 hours. These rigorous trainings are month-long intensives taught by founders Life and Gannon with senior teachers. About four trainings are held each year in different locations around the world. Students are required to have practiced yoga for at least two years and be very familiar with the Jivamukti method. The areas of instruction are philosophy, anatomy, teaching methodology, Sanskrit, pranayama, and satsang, which means community and includes chanting, meditation, and more. The advanced Jivamukti training is an additional 500 hours of apprenticeship, resulting in an 800-hour certification. 

Not Immune to Scandal

Despite its mostly favorable reputation and respected standing in the yoga community, Jivamukti is not immune to the types of scandal that have diminished other yoga styles with charismatic leaders in recent years, most notably Anusara and Bikram. A 2016 lawsuit against a senior Jivamukti teacher alleged that sexual harassment was all but sanctioned by the strict internal hierarchy that rewarded apprentice teachers who demonstrated complete devotion to their mentors.

Plaintiff Holly Faurot's lawyers planned to paint a picture of Jivamukti as a cult, according to Michelle Goldberg's in-depth article that appeared in Slate in April 2016. The case was resolved with a confidential out-of-court settlement in June 2016, so this legal strategy remains untested. However, the suit itself has called the culture of Jivamukti's headquarters, encouraged by its founders, into question. 

By Ann Pizer, RYT
Ann Pizer is a writer and registered yoga instructor who teaches vinyasa/flow and prenatal yoga classes.