In a few days, I’ll be attending my first non-Ashtanga workshop ever. Gasp.
Giselle Mari, the Funky Jiva, is coming to Indianapolis for a weekend, and I’ll be taking classes with her like “Break through without Breaking: Backbends” and “Fire in the Soul: Twists.” I’m sure it will be a good time.
Don’t worry, I’m not abandoning my dedication to Guruji’s practice. This is just a fun little side trip on my Ashtanga path. A few weeks ago, CITYOGA asked me to interview Giselle Mari prior to her workshop there this weekend, and they gave me full access to her workshops. Who am I to turn down a free class or two?
To be honest, the only thing that appeals to me from Jivamukti is its outspoken dedication to veganism and animal rights, but that appeals in a big way. I wish Ashtanga were that vocal. I know more than a few meat-eating Ashtangis, and here in Indianapolis, I may be the only vegan Ashtanga practitioner. I have a hard time reconciling the concept of ahimsa with anything but veganism. I think Giselle would agree with me.
Local Ashtangis, let me know if I’ve misclassified you as non-vegan. I hope you’ll respond to my challenge about ahimsa, and tell me how you’re practicing it in your lifestyle.
Check out my interview with her below. It appeared originally on Indy Yogi, the local yoga webzine.
Emma Hudelson: How did you get the nickname “Funky Jiva?”
Giselle Mari: I’ve had a lot of students say that I have a distinct style of teaching that is down to earth, unconventional, modern in its spirituality yet rooted in tradition. I thought it would be fun to have a nickname that captured that spirit while also acknowledging that I too am on the path of Self-realization; hence, the Jiva part which means individual soul who is not yet enlightened.
EH: What makes Jivamukti different from other styles of yoga?
GM: In general I feel yoga styles have more in common with each other than differences, but of course they all have their own unique distinctions. If I were to make a distinction about Jivamukti Yoga it’s that it was and still is the punk rock of yoga. At its core, it’s about Spiritual Activism. Jivamukti Yoga is about political conscious action utilizing the platform of yoga. Historically, Yogi’s and Yogini’s are the counter-culture who question long standing beliefs- both within ourselves and in our societies. The practices of yoga help us make connections we may not have otherwise realized. What is realized is that we are all in this together and that each being not only matters but the choices the individual makes impacts the larger web. Jivamukti extends the practice of yoga way beyond the confines of the mat. The more you practice, the more you begin to live in a way that comes from a foundation of peace, kindness and compassion for all beings. That kind of thinking in this time is still quite unconventional and radical.
EH: What sets you apart as a Jivamukti practitioner?
GM: I don’t see myself as apart from other yoga practitioners. Although we all have our own flavor, style and/or preferred teacher, we are all climbing the same mountain but from different sides. The more we can come together, the stronger the yoga community becomes.
EH: How do you embrace the five tenets of Jivamukti in your daily life (and what are those five tenets)?
GM: The 5 tenets of Jivamukti Yoga are: 1) Ahimsa (non-harming) 2) Dhyana (meditation) 3) Bhakti (devotion) 4) Sastra (scripture/text) 5) Nadam (sacred sound).
I practice these tenets daily as they are like my touchstones. Sometimes I rock them out 100%, other times I fall short. I do the best I can each day – and that’s what I encourage others to do. Find their dance within them or whatever practice they are engaging in. If we become a fundamentalist in our spiritual practices, we become very rigid and that’s not how I perceive Yoga.
How I embrace the tenets is this: each day when I wake up I listen to what comes up in me. From that insight I use these tenets as a framework. So whether its eating food that causes the least amount of harm, devoting my time to serving someone, or getting reconnected through reading texts that inspire me, I’m always in the practice. People often ask me if I practice yoga everyday… and I say “yes!” they then ask, what kind of sequences I do… I reply, yoga isn’t just about being on your mat, its also about how you are in the world, how you treat those around you in the everyday circumstances that life rolls out for you – that is a huge aspect of the yoga practice, in my humble opinion.
EH: What does a typical Jivamukti class look like? A beginner class?
GM: A Jivamukti class is an experience and not something you can see, but rather something you feel. All Jivamukti classes will have the 5 tenets represented whether overtly or subtly. Each teacher brings their own interpretation of the monthly focus, which are commentaries primarily written by the Jivamukti founders (Sharon Gannon & David Life), through the vehicles of chanting, dharma talks, a rigorous asana practice, meditation, amazing hands on assists and music that supports the over arching messaging. It’s a full experience and requires skillful means on the part of every Jivamukti teacher.
Jivamukti has a series of different class offerings to complement all levels of practitioner. For the days when you don’t have time for a more robust practice the Magic 10 Warm up is perfect. It’s a series of 10 poses done in about 10 minutes. There is the 1-hour scripted class called Spiritual Warrior, the 90 minutes Open Class which is an all levels practice, beginner vinyasa and finally the Basics Class. The latter is a carefully thought out curriculum done over the course of 4 weeks. Each week has a specific focus that is broken down. Week 1 = Standing Poses, Week 2 = Forward Bending, Week 3 = Backbending, Week 4 = Turning It Upside Down and Putting It All Together. Students can take this month long program as many times as they want to hone their skills or take it once and move to the other offerings as they become more confident. It’s an excellent and thorough offering and one that many teachers go back to regularly.
EH: Jivamukti is known for “making yoga hip and cool.” Why does yoga need to be hip and cool?
GM: Ha! That’s great that people see Jivamukti that way! That said, I don’t believe this was the goal of my teachers when they developed this method. What they wanted to do was bring all the depth and tradition of the spiritual teachings of yoga and make them applicable to a modern lifestyle. So I suppose when you offer a practice that is relatable to your audience, it may resonate as hip and cool.
Yoga on its own is yoga- its a practice and a state. It is the seer that makes it more than it actually is. Reminds me of a very popular yoga sutra from Patanjali.
PYS IV.15 Vastu-samye citta-bhedat tayor vibhaktah panthah.
[Meaning:] Each individual person perceives the same object in a different way according to their own state of mind and projections. Everything is empty from its own side and appears according to how you see it.
EH: Like many contemporary yoga methods, Jivamukti is trademarked and branded. What benefits does this have? What drawbacks?
GM: At the end of the day we are human beings that are mediated by our minds. Our minds like to categorize, analyze and make meaning and sense of our world. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we want to define things. Trademarks and brands provide a form of context and distinction. I see it as a form of navigation. If you are a yoga practitioner at a party, the first question you’re asked is “what kind of yoga do you practice?” This is part of our lexicon as most people will know what you’re talking about when you say you practice Jivamukti, Iyengar or Yin. To me its no different than a genre of music that has many bands within it. They may all play the same style of music, but each has their own sound and distinctive characteristics.
EH: Which workshops will you be doing at CITYOGA and why did you choose them?
GM: I’m very excited to offer Detox the Soul House, Fire in the Soul: Twisting, Breakthrough without Breaking: Backbends, and From a Solid to a Liquid: Yoga Nidra. I always give the studio, conference or festival the option to choose my offerings as I feel they have a better pulse on their community and what they need/want. It also keeps things interesting for me. It’s like a little surprise every time.
EH: You (and me, for that matter), fall into the stereotype of the thin, white, pretty, vegan yoga practitioner. What does Jivamukti do as a whole to ensure that yoga is available to all demographics and body types, including underserved populations? What do you do in your own teaching?
GM: Ah yes, the stereotype indeed. Being Mexican-American with a dose of African-American, I think there are a lot of assumptions made about practitioners- myself included. Again this all goes back to our yogic practices of digging deeper within ourselves and into the world we live. For yogis, seeing is not believing, hearing is. We must listen more deeply – tune in and move beyond the surface of things.
Jivamukti offers 1 U.S. teacher training and 3 international teacher trainings in India, Germany and Costa Rica every year. As a result we have teachers from all over the world that represent many different cultures, religions, ages, and body types. Jivamukti at its core is about spiritual activation, which means getting in touch with the spirit of all beings and things. It inherently creates a platform for the teachers and students to feel empowered to find their social passion and become an activist for the underserved.
At any given time, you’ll find Jivamukti teachers involved in many social issues ranging from teaching classes to raise money for inner city schools and finding ways to bring yoga to their communities, to raising awareness about factory farming and animal abuse, to working with the elderly. It runs the gamut.
Jivamukti Yoga is about making this world a better place through the very act of raising awareness using yogic tools. As I mentioned before, when we become aware that we are all in this together, humans, animals and eco-systems, we want to cause less harm and bring more harmony. We start to make choices that are in the spirit of uplifting lives rather than finding ways to take down or separate.
For me, I do my best everyday to live what I teach and teach what I live. For many years now, I’ve been involved with the non-profit organization The Art of Yoga Project both as a teacher who raises money for them but also as a member of their advisory board. This organization goes into the south bay area’s juvenile system for incarcerated girls and teaches them yoga, art and journaling. The hope is that through body movement/awareness, and creative expressions through art and writing, a voice can be given to a chunk of their lives that has been voiceless. When we give someone a voice, they have the opportunity to express and through expression can begin to heal. If these girls can begin to feel self love, acceptance and for the first time feel good about who they are, there is a decreased chance of them being incarcerated again. The Art of Yoga Project has had many success stories and I’m very proud to be a part of this organization.
I’ve also recently become an ambassador for Yoga Gives Back. This is another non-profit that focuses on raising awareness and funds for micro credit programs specifically for women and children in India who would otherwise not have access to traditional banking systems. We are currently working on setting up a yoga class charity event to raise awareness and money for the cause.
EH: Indiana is an agricultural state, and unfortunately has more than 2,000 CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) in which animals live in deplorable conditions. What can concerned citizens and activists do to help?
GM: The first thing you can do is to stop eating animals. It’s hard to have more than 2,000 CAFOs if there is no demand for it. You may not be able or willing to be on the front lines of activism, but you can be a wallet activist. When you stop financially supporting a company that isn’t in alignment with the greater good, and your message spreads, things change. The organic food movement is a prime example of this.
Second, be an informed activist. The more educated you are about BOTH sides of the issue, the more potent you can be. Most people don’t like being told what to do or that they are wrong for doing it. When you are skillful in your activism, you don’t see the opposing side as someone to get rid of, or someone who doesn’t know anything, you see them as someone who is doing the best they can with the knowledge they have, just as you are doing your best. By finding common ground and not making yourself right and your opposition wrong, you have a chance to make affect changes. I’m not saying this is easy or that change will come fast and easy – I’m just saying this is a less confrontational way to create change.
Third, be sure to write letters to your local governments, state governments and keep going up the chain.
Fourth, locate other like-minded people in your community so that you can create a peaceful movement.
Fifth, don’t give up when things get tough. Remind yourself that any action that is for improving the lives of others – no matter how small – is necessary and has a ripple effect.
EH: What suggestions do you have for people who are interested in going vegan but feel like they lack the willpower to commit?
GM: Firstly, start small. True transformation takes time, commitment and awareness. It requires you to take an honest examination around your relationship to the current food you eat, why you eat it and the unwinding of that. Eating animals for food is a long-standing habit for many people and it’s ingrained not only in our emotional comfort but also its steeped in the traditions of our cultures. It’s deeply rooted stuff.
Know that not everyone can wake up one day and become vegan regardless of how educated they might be about the atrocities of factory farming. If you can, great, if you can’t, take one step at a time.
It’s just like an asana practice – you don’t just decide to take a level 2/3 class if you’ve never taken yoga before and expect to stick with it. You have to start at the beginning. Learn the basics by educating yourself so that it helps to fortify your trajectory.
I’d also recommend getting a really great vegan cookbook and experiment by making vegan meals regularly during the week. My teacher Sharon Gannon just released one called “Simple Recipes for Joy” – its awesome and a favorite of mine.
EH: I read in your bio that you have four dogs (I do too!). What are their names and stories, and what do you love about providing a home to so many furry friends?
GM: Ahh, one of my favorite subjects. I have two Chihuahua’s, Moby and Nigel and 2 Pit Bulls (technically that is not a breed of dog but rather a popular term to classify a wide swath of bully breed dogs). Juno is an American Staffordshire Terrier and Rocco is an American Pit Bull Terrier. I’m a huge advocate for these dogs as they win the unfortunate distinction of being the most euthanized while also populating animal shelters across the country more than any other breed of dog.
By being the joyful parent of these fur babies I have an opportunity to showcase what great dogs they are, particularly my “Pit Bulls.” If we want change in our world and speak up for the voiceless, sometimes we have to put ourselves in positions that not only advocate on their behalf, but be willing to be on the front line by having them as part of your family. It takes a thick skin and a ton of patience to be a parent to these amazing dogs as my family encounters a ton of prejudice, fear and hate, but its worth it to me.
We don’t know the story of Moby and Nigel, but Juno was part of a liter of 8 puppies that at 6 weeks old were deemed dangerous and vicious by the SF animal control because their mother bit a stranger who reached in to touch one of her puppies. That’s just a bad idea when dealing with ANY mother, human or otherwise. Animal control euthanized the mother leaving 8 puppies orphaned. After much push back by two Bay Area “pit bull” rescues, the puppies were released to them. Juno was the runt and very sickly so she was the last to be adopted- lucky us that we got her!
Rocco was left in a box along with his four other siblings in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Fortunately, they were found by a gardener. They were so starved, sick and covered with terrible mange you couldn’t tell what color they were. One of my dear friends fostered Rocco and his brother Rigby back to health. Rocco is now with us and Rigby is with my friends’ mother.
Our Pit Bulls and Chihuahuas lead a spoiled and luxurious life. I feel its my job to give them the best of everything as so many of their brethren are abused, tortured and trained for nefarious activities. Like all beings, they want to be loved, understood and cared for. I feel so blessed to be given an opportunity to share in their lives and serve them with heaps of love.