Jivamukti Yoga 101: A Tell-All Interview With Jivamukti Teacher Maria Macaya

Last Updated:

One of the most interesting things to do as a traveling yoga teacher is to visit yoga centers and classes while abroad.

I recently had the chance to meet Maria Macaya while in Barcelona, Spain.

She is an experienced yoga teacher and educator in the Jivamukti yoga style, which gave me a great opportunity to take a traditional Jivamukti class and get to chat with her.

Jivamukti yoga is a modern form of yoga that incorporates elements of traditional Hatha yoga, including postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), meditation, and spiritual teachings.

In this article:

  • What are the origins of Jivamukti yoga?
  • What is Jivamukti yoga?
  • Interview with Maria Macaya, a Jivamukti yoga teacher.
  • A Jivamukti yoga practice

Read on!

a woman in forward fold

What are the origins of Jivamukti yoga?

Jivamukti Yoga is a modern yoga style that was founded by Sharon Gannon and David Life in the early 1980s.

The origins of Jivamukti Yoga can be traced back to the dynamic and vibrant atmosphere of New York City, where Gannon and Life first met.

Sharon Gannon, a dancer and musician, had been practicing yoga since her 20s.

She had studied different yoga styles and became deeply involved in the teachings of Swami Nirmalananda, a yogi from India who emphasized the importance of devotion and self-realization in one’s practice.

Gannon’s interest in spirituality and the connection between yoga, veganism, and ethical living also played a significant role in shaping the philosophy of Jivamukti Yoga.

David Life came from a background in art, music, and fashion.

He discovered yoga while searching for ways to alleviate stress and find inner peace.

Gannon and Life decided to combine their expertise and shared vision to create a unique yoga practice that would address not only the physical aspect of yoga but also encompass the spiritual, ethical, and philosophical dimensions.

This led to the birth of Jivamukti Yoga, a Sanskrit term that translates to “liberation while living.”

What is Jivamukti Yoga?

Jivamukti Yoga draws inspiration from ancient teachings such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, as well as modern influences like veganism, activism, and music.

The first Jivamukti Yoga center was established in 1986 in New York City, and it quickly gained popularity among individuals who sought a transformative yoga practice that went beyond the physical benefits.

The practice integrates vinyasa (flowing movement), chanting, meditation, pranayama (breath control), and philosophy into a dynamic and invigorating yoga experience.

Its unique approach, which combines physical rigor with spirituality and activism, has attracted a diverse community of practitioners who are committed to making a positive impact on themselves and the world around them.

Jivamukti yoga is not associated with Yoga Alliance.

a jivamukti yoga class doing twisting lunges

Interview with Maria Macaya, a Jivamukti yoga teacher

While in Spain, I had the opportunity to take yoga classes in a wide variety of studios and yoga centers and practice different styles with different teachers.

I quickly realized how popular the Jivamukti style of yoga is, especially in the city of Barcelona where Maria Macaya, teaches this style of yoga and others at the Jivamukti Yoga Center, right in the heart of the city.

I had a chance to take a Jivamukti class with her, as well as sit and chat to discuss a bit about this style of yoga, and her journey as a practitioner and teacher.

Here is the interview with Maria Macaya:

YOGAJALA: Hi Maria, thank you for taking the time to chat with us.

Let’s jump right in!

YJ: Tell us a bit about your journey into yoga, and in particular, into Jivamukti:

MARIA MACAYA: I discovered Jivamukti yoga in 2001, shortly after I began practicing. My first class was in the NYC small uptown center with Yogeswari – who is to this day one of my main teachers as well as a close friend.

Although I continued practicing other types of yoga, Jivamukti was the practice I always returned to.

YJ: Since yoga is a deeply personal practice, how would you describe some of the core principles and philosophy of Jivamukti Yoga, and how they’ve impacted your life?

MM: Jivamukti yoga is, as written by its founders Sharon Gannon and David Life, “a path to enlightenment through compassion for all beings”.

It looks to cultivate this through its 5 tenets: Ahimsa (non-violence), Shastra (scriptures), Nada (sound), Bhakti (devotion) and Dhyana (meditation).

As you can see the physical practice is not in there!

Inevitably, once you dive into Jivamukti, it affects your life. It is not just a practice you can go to a gym, do, and leave. It is a practice that makes you think, reconsider, and question how you live.

The physical practice might be what you start with, but the rest is not something you leave behind in the studio after practice.

people sitting cross legged and meditating

YJ: What made you want to start teaching, what is your “why”?

MM: That is a great question!

When I went to the teacher training I did not necessarily have plans of teaching, just of digging deeper. But after one month of deep learning, I discovered I liked to teach, too.

My teachers, especially Jules Febre and Yogeswari have been an inspiration for me and have given me a reason to continue on this path.

I love connecting with people, I like to share something that is important to me in a way that matters.

Teaching is also a form of mindfulness; when I’m there, I’m fully present in the room and the people in it; all else ceases to exist.

YJ: What sets Jivamukti Yoga apart from other styles of yoga?

MM: The importance it puts on the different aspects of yoga, not just the physical part. Jivamukti places a great deal of importance on animal activism for example.

Other aspects that make it a more complete experience is the chanting.

Having introduced music into yoga has also been a wonderful way to bring yoga not only to the world of artists that Sharon and David came from, but in general to the west’s monkey mind.

a group of people chanting together

YJ: Speaking of chanting, when I came to your class, we began and ended with you playing the harmonium, and chanting a mantra, which was super powerful. Could you explain the significance of chanting, music, and meditation in a traditional Jivamukti Yoga class?

MM: Thank you for noticing and bringing it up. I think this is one of the things that makes teaching jivamukti special. As I said three of the tenets you are getting at here are Bhakti (devotion), nada (sound), and dhyana (meditation).

People come to yoga usually a) because they hope to become calmer and self regulate, and b) because they want to become more flexible.

Those who really stick to yoga do so because of what you are getting at here – because it reaches and touches your heart and our spiritual self – that part that is connected to others and to something more than our physical self and ego.

Chanting does this, meditating does this. It lets us be free of our small selves and worries for a bit and lets us realize there is something more important where we feel a bit more at once free and supported.

a woman on a blue yoga mat doing downward dog

YJ: Jivamukti yoga, like many other styles, is not only the poses. How do you incorporate teachings from ancient yogic texts into your classes?

MM: Within the structure of the class, a jivamukti Yoga class and teacher has to incorporate a 5 minute talk around the subject that has been written as the Jivamukti Focus of the month (FoM) – a text written by one of our teachers and published on the website for all to see. This FoM is always around a philosophical theme.

Each teacher can then interpret the FoM in their own way and share what they feel to be important, often with the support of texts written in the past or present.

YJ: In Jivamukti there is a lot of adjusting. Why are adjustments, particularly physical adjustments that require touch, so important and prominent in the style?

MM: It is one of the aspects that Jivamukti has gotten to be known for. A jivamukti teacher, in difference to many other styles, does not practice with the students and guides the class only with their voice. A large part of our training is in assisting in a way that helps, or accompanies.

We call it assisting instead of adjusting because of the different connotations each word holds. You “adjust” something that is wrong, while you “assist” something that is right and can be accompanied. Assisting was one of the aspects Sharon and David learned from their teacher Patthabi Jois and which they decided to make an essential part of the method.

a woman adjusting another in a yoga studio

YJ: You’re also a Trauma-sensitive trained teacher, so, how do you create a safe and inclusive space for students of all levels and backgrounds in your classes while staying true to the Jivamukti tradition?

MM: Although both are yoga, they are very different practices. They have different intentions, the role of the facilitator or teacher is different, and the way we share it is different.

I think most people who come to my Jivamukti classes notice a difference in my way of teaching: more options, a focus on self-care, or less competition with the practice and among students.

However, they are different practices and my Jivamuki classes are not fully trauma-informed and sensitive, and my trauma sensitive do not follow the “rules” of Jivamukti.

I share both but each in its own space.

When they feed each other but in each room I am faithful to that method and intention.

To explain this, I always use the example of restaurants; I may be able to cook Italian and Chinese, but if you come to my Italian restaurant I’ll give you Italian food, and if you come to my Chinese restaurant I’ll give you Chinese food.

I think there is a lot of work we can do not only in Jivamukti but in the yoga world, in general, to improve at being more inclusive of all backgrounds and “levels”.

The word levels is already an issue for me; there is a hierarchy in the word we need to get rid of. Why should we say something is better or worse than something else? Could we call it intentions? Purpose? And adapt the practice to that?

For some of my Jivamukti colleagues for example doing handstands, or being very flexible are important to their practice. For me on the other hand, it is not.

What I did when I was in my early twenties is different to my practice today as I near my 50s.

Creating rooms where we can each listen to our bodies is key.

I know you do a lot of work around inclusive yoga, and I hope to learn more from you about that.

As yoga teachers, we are not trained to be trauma-sensitive, we are not taught how to work with all types of bodies and physical capacities. Both are essential learnings.

Backgrounds is also an issue: yoga classes are expensive, teacher trainings are expensive, living from teaching yoga is difficult. This makes it very prohibitive for many people to access yoga. When you go into a yoga room it is not as diverse as it should be, or rarely so. If yoga means Union, in this sense there is a lot of uniting work to be done.

a woman meditating on a white sofa

YJ: And finally, what is one practice or ritual that is supporting you right now?

MM: I recently had surgery so I’ve had to adapt my practices. My mornings have since years been reserved for my personal meditation and yoga practice.

Currently, yoga has been replaced by rehabilitation exercises, which may not all “look” like yoga, but it offers me the same space of presence, mindfulness and embodiment – which is probably what matters most to me of the practice.

YJ: Thank you so much for your time, Maria, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you and learning more about Jivamukti yoga.

A jivamukti yoga practice

To conclude

The Jivamukti Yoga method aims to awaken the practitioner’s higher consciousness and promote compassion, environmental awareness, and a deep sense of interconnectedness with all beings.

Photo of author
Laia is an Afro-Catalan accessible and inclusive yoga & meditation teacher. She has trained in hatha, vinyasa, trauma-informed yoga, yin yoga, and restorative yoga and holds E-RYT 500 and YACEP accreditations with the Yoga Alliance. Additionally, she is a freelance writer and translator, publishing in Catalan, English, and Spanish. As a former professional athlete who lives with a chronic illness, Laia has gained valuable insights into the benefits of self-care and the importance of pausing and slowing down. She is dedicated to sharing accessible and sustainable practices of yoga and meditation to help people create a more harmonious life. Being a black and chronically ill individual, her mission is to empower non-normative yoga teachers to find their unique voices and develop tools to make wellness practices accessible to the communities they serve, thereby taking up space and creating a more inclusive and diverse yoga industry. Furthermore, as a writer and creative, she is passionate about supporting other creatives and innovators. She fosters a genuine community dedicated to finding balance while staying productive and inspired. Laia has developed unique techniques that intertwine yoga and meditation with writing, journaling, and other accessible methods to help each other stay creative and mindful.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.