Last summer, my heart filled with excitement. I had waited 5 years to enroll in this 500-hour yoga teacher training. The reason I’d waited so long was it had never felt quite right. I had enjoyed my 200 level training at a local yoga studio in Los Angeles, California, but I knew the next time around, I would have to find a guru who truly lived a life of pure yoga.
During my first training, I decided to commit to a vegetarian diet for the duration of the program. While it wasn’t part of the program to eat vegetarian, I felt it would be right to honor the yogic tradition and give me the discipline I needed to see if I could commit to a vegetarian diet.
As a young adult, I’d watched my father and mother-in-law die from horrific cancers. In both cases they were related to lifestyle choices. I began to search for answers as I didn’t want my family and me to suffer the same demise. I read The China Study and watched as many vegan documentaries as I could find.
When I started the first day of the 200 level training, there was eye-rolling from some of the students and even teachers that yoga practitioners should practice vegetarianism. A few others who were already vegetarian or vegan helped me figure out what I was doing along the way. While it seems completely bizarre now, I honestly didn’t know what to eat.
After I completed the 200 hours, I decided to stay vegetarian and work on transitioning to a plant-based diet. I started to trend away from purchasing leather but still, I was slippery. I think at the time, I was still more selfish and ultimately concerned about my own wellbeing than with seeing the whole picture.
I continued to eat plant-based and was almost always perfect about it for the next few years. It was easy to do. I lived in Los Angeles. Supermarkets were full of wonderful options. There were vegan restaurants for any occasion popping up everywhere. My husband had joined me on the plant-based diet and our daughters were, for the most part, vegetarian. Our friends accepted our lifestyle. All was going well.
We uprooted our family in 2014 to Fairfield County area of Connecticut. We maintained a plant-based diet at first but started getting sloppy. I started practicing yoga at an Ashtanga studio where many of the yogis were vegetarian. I found it difficult to meet new family friends and decided at that time to eat cheese. My perspective, although I completely disagree with it now, was that if we didn’t at least eat pizza, people would be too uncomfortable to invite us over. I had taken a break from teaching yoga when we moved. As I look back now, I had lost my grounding and was ignoring my inner voice.
This slip from plant-based lasted for about a year. After 10 months of an Ashtanga yoga practice I switched back to a vinyasa style I had been practicing and teaching for the years before. As fate would have it, I ended up taking a class at a small Wilton, Connecticut, studio called “Hello Yoga.” The teacher, Molly Lehman, had studied with Dharma Mittra. Her classes were wonderful! I was hooked. Very soon after that, they asked me to teach there, too.
As I began to teach more, I went back to a plant-based diet. I had found my yoga community and allowed my true nature to reveal itself. The teachers at the studio and I took a field trip to NYC, to take a master class with Sri Dharma Mittra. I was blown away. This 77-year-old man, kicked my ass. His class was very different from what you experience at many yoga studios these days. He had a great sense of humor and practiced the inversions in such a childlike manner. The class was demanding. While he was unbelievable physically, you could also sense his seriousness with the practice. He focused on more than just the physical yoga poses. What I remember specifically from that particular class was the final resting pose, savasana. He led us into a 15-minute deep, meditative savasana. It was amazing. At the end of the class, he mentioned there was wonderful vegan food across the street and to go check it out.
About a year later, Sri Dharma Mittra was offering a “Life of a Yogi Teacher Training” which fulfilled the 500-hour Yoga Alliance Certification. I knew in my heart this was where I needed to be. As I applied for the training, I was so happy to see that one of his requirements to go through the program was that you had to transition to a vegetarian diet prior to your first day at the intensive.
On day one of the first 8-day intensive training, he made it perfectly clear how he felt about the suffering of the animals and why he is vegan. He let everyone know that when you keep animal products, especially meats, in your refrigerator, it becomes a morgue. You could see so much feeling in his eyes. I think it was at that moment, I switched my mindset from plant-based to vegan. I felt at home. I was grateful that I had found a teacher who not only was keeping the vegetarian teachings of yoga alive, he was transitioning us all to vegan.
He emphasized that in order to set forth on the path of Self Realization, one must first honor the yogic ethical discipline of ahimsa. This means observing non-violence in action, thought, and deed. This is why vegan is a preferable choice to vegetarian, especially in modern times with our farming commercial practices.
As we neared the end of the first intensive module, we were given a diet plan to follow during the 2- month break until the next session. While we were allowed to just stick to a vegan diet which included a cheat day about once a week, what he really wanted us to do was follow the yogic diet that he designed for this portion of the training after studying with his Guru Sri Swami Kailashananda Maharaji, a.k.a. Yogi Gupta, 1913-2011.
The Dharma Ahimsa Diet Plan was broken down by liquid and solid foods. While I won’t go into all the specific details, it is basically a diet which includes sprouted almonds in a specific smoothie each morning, along with fresh green juices, fresh and steamed vegetables, fruits, lentils, spouted breads, whole grains, tofu, some approved oils and not too much else. There was no salt, onion, garlic, spices, caffeine, or alcohol permitted. The largest portions of food were to be eaten before 6pm. I was a bit overwhelmed.
Our training materials included a CD of a recording of Yogi Gupta’s 1969 lecture in New York, “Yogid Food Concepts.” I listened to the CD in my car multiple times trying to understand exactly why I would make this seemingly drastic change to my diet. He spoke about how we can obtain all of the nutrients we need from this food and from pranayama (yogic breathing techniques). This had been revealed to the ancient yogis through meditation and deep contemplation. The healthiest foods for consumption were live — sprouted raw nuts, beans, and lentils — with raw or lightly steamed vegetables and fruits ranking next. I was impressed at how Yogi Gupta was ahead of his time. It seems like modern society and science are slowly coming to the same conclusion he revealed over 40 years ago!
I adapted the diet plan. After a few weeks, my taste buds adjusted. I gained tremendous flexibility in my yoga practice as my body removed inflammation. I had more energy that I’ve ever had in my life. I lost about 10 lbs. Any remaining body fat that I couldn’t seem to get rid of in past attempts was gone.
After I returned to the second module of the training, we were released from the restrictive diet. We were allowed any vegan food we wished. I ended up sticking with most of his plan, while adding some different kinds of nuts along the way. I increased the amount of times I ate per day to maintain my new weight. I didn’t want to lose anymore.
After another 8 amazing days with Sri Dharma Mittra, his senior mentor teachers and my lovely new student friends, we were off to finish the internship part of the program in our home towns. We were given another diet to follow for the next month or two. This one was similar to the first but now included pepper, homemade hummus, ground sprouted almonds, flax and sesame seeds. While I did use a cheat day for other vegan food or caffeine, I stuck pretty close to the plan.
During the training one of the mentors had expressed that Dharma makes a point to always say something about being vegan in every one of his classes. People come from all over the world to learn from this master who has taught in the city for over 50 years. He knows that sometimes he sees a new student for only one day and wants to make sure everyone has the opportunity to hear that message.
You can find out where you can see Sri Dharma Mitra at his site, http://www.dharmayogacenter.com. I highly recommend that anyone interested in yoga or being vegan check him out while he’s still teaching.
As for me, I will continue to teach yoga and be vegan most likely for the rest of my life. I want to help people make a meaningful connection with yoga and the vegan lifestyle. I feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from this master teacher.
Holly Skodis is a Main Street Vegan Academy-certified Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, a 500-hour Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT 500) and co-founder of Digital Creative Agency, Real Pie Media, Inc. Her goal is to help lead you on a trajectory of building a stronger, happier, healthier and kinder you. She has been featured in Yoga Journal’s “Stoke Your Spirit: 26 Images to Inspire Authenticity,” with renowned photographer Robert Sturman. Holly lives in Fairfield County, Connecticut with her husband, 2 daughters and 2 dogs who are also vegan. Follow Holly on Instagram at @hollyskodis or visit www.hollyskodis.com to connect with her.