Yoga for Change

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When Andrea Boyd walked into her first Jivamukti Yoga class in 2002, it felt like coming home. She had practiced Bikram and hatha yoga, but Jivamukti's powerful combination of chanting, dynamic asana practice, and spiritual teachings fed her like no other class had. "It was like church, but sweaty," she says.

Boyd signed up for Jivamukti teacher training the next year, and there she met her future husband, Jeffrey Cohen. In 2004 the couple moved from New York to Charleston, South Carolina, and in 2005 opened a yoga studio offering primarily Jivamukti classes. This past January, they reopened the studio as Jivamukti Yoga Charleston, making it the sixth Jivamukti center in the world and the only one in the United States outside New York.

"We wanted to take this beautiful method and spread the teachings," Cohen says. The couple also wanted to plug their students into the energy of the larger Jivamukti community. "It felt like this was the way to honor the work the students had been doing and connect that with a global push, a shift in compassionate consciousness," he explains.

Founded in 1984 in New York by longtime yogis and performing artists Sharon Gannon and David Life, Jivamukti has become a major force in the yoga community. Its vigorous vinyasa classes, use of kirtan, and emphasis on bhakti (devotion) and spiritual and political engagement have influenced a generation of teachers and students.

Jivamukti is a variant of a Sanskrit word that means "liberation while living," and students of the method are taught to seek spiritual realization not only through practicing yoga but also by being agents of change in the world. "To be a yogi is to be political," Gannon explains. "If you want enlightenment, you have to look at your relationship to everything on Earth. Yoga has the ability to dismantle this present culture that tells us the Earth is there for exploitation."

The main Jivamukti studio in New York, a 12,000-square-foot space in Union Square, serves as a hub for the method's social and environmental activism. In 2007 three major animal-rights events were held there, including Farm Sanc-tuary's celebrity-studded Benefit for Compassion, cohosted by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, a Jivamukti devotee. The studio has also started its own animal-compassion program, Animal Mukti, to support the New York Humane Society.

Although the Jivamukti centers are independently owned and operated, their owners strive to provide a similar sense of spiritual community and political engagement.

The Toronto Jivamukti studio, for example, raises funds for environmental and vegetarian groups through an ongoing donation-based meditation class.

At Jivamukti Munich, in addition to fundraisers for vegetarian and environmental causes, a free weekly satsang is held, bringing together students for meditation and discussions about environmental and political causes. The center is also a partner in a local vegan restaurant—Germany's first, according to studio owner Gabriela Bozic.

And the London Jivamukti center offers special classes and fundraising events to support breast cancer organi- zations, an orphanage in India, and other causes.

Cohen and Boyd began offering monthly vegan potlucks and raising money for environmental and animal-rights charities, such as PETA and the Rainforest Alliance, even before they officially joined the Jivamukti network. Now these activities serve as an expression of the movement's tenets.

"With Jivamukti, yoga is taught as a deep healing process, a recovery of our spirit," Cohen says. "It's based on the idea that we as individuals can exert a huge influence of peace on the interconnected web of being."