I just re-routed a tiny spider into my succulent garden that was making journey across my laptop. Twenty years ago I may have blown him right off the screen with complete disregard to his beingness but today, I recognize that beautiful soul as me. I know that the energy that creates worlds, the very same that created me, is also within my miniscule eight-legged friend. Our essence is exact and I know this to be true but that was not always the case.
I consider myself a yogi, someone who puts the practical application of yoga into action. One who lives the eight limbs in equal measure and considers the ten ethical principles in navigating everyday life. I understand that I am always creating. I am fully aware that every word I speak, every action I take and every thought I indulge is the precursor to what I am creating and contributing to the world.
Part of my yogi life includes inflicting as little harm as possible during my time here on earth. I understand that simply by walking on the earth each day I am going to cause harm so my focus is always to limit my negative impact. Through my yoga practice I have fine tuned my skill of noting how I move through the world. This is how I stay “on to myself” and aligned with my commitment to find my most loving expression in this life. What I put into my body is included in this alignment I speak of. I understand that what I put in me, becomes me but it wasn’t until I became vegan in 2011 that I was able to fully grasp this concept as truth.
I turned vegan to benefit my athletic performance, I’m not embarrassed to say that at first it was not for the animals despite having been an animal lover my entire life. I followed names like Scott Jurek, Rich Roll and Brendan Brazier. I learned about the anti-inflammatory properties of a vegan diet and the increased rate of recovery. For me that meant more days training, less down time and perhaps better performances in my future.
I describe myself as a natural born vegetarian and always an intuitive eater even as a child. Innately, I noticed disconnections and I questioned why. Eggs never really made sense to me. I mean weren’t they supposed to be something else after all? Corned beef reminded me of what a dead person would look like and I was always fascinated by, what I now know to be, the fascia, tendons and ligaments of the flesh on my plate. All that said, I followed suit to what everyone else was doing. Eating animals seemed, as Dr. Melanie Joy calls it, normal, natural and necessary.
At the time I turned vegan, I knew that the lack of meat and eggs would not be an issue for me. It was my addict-like cheese consumption that beckoned my attention. To understand my obsession with cheese you should know that it accompanied every one of my meals while also serving as my go-to snack for years.
One night at my favorite restaurant I ordered a salad and I said “hold the goat cheese”. Panicking and celebrating at the same time I knew I had just experienced something monumental. I ate the salad and I survived. I woke up the next day and ate breakfast without cheese and survived. I ate lunch without cheese and survived. And so on and so on.
For ten days, I continued to sit with my desire for cheese and I continued to abstain and I continued to survive. Then one morning I woke up feeling like I never had before. I had no morning phlegm. In fact, my allergies seemed to disappear overnight. My energy was sustained throughout the day, no highs or lows. Over the course of a month I lost 10lbs which, to this day, has never come back.
The physical was adding up just as others had reported. I was training for Ironman Lake Placid at the time and I was experiencing quicker recoveries. Overall just better bounce from workout to workout and higher levels of sustained energy but there was something else that was happening. Something deeper than physical performance. It was something so incredibly profound yet at the same time was total common sense.
I was no longer angry. My frustration was subsiding. My fear was melting away. My suffering was lightening. I realized that I was being freed as I was freeing others. I was no longer eating the dead flesh of an animal that wanted to live. I was no longer a cog in the wheelhouse of violence. I was not eating the secretions of a mother’s milk that were meant for her baby. I was no longer taking part in the violation of another’s right to live or bond with their offspring. I was a participant in freeing others of their shackles, bars, cages and oppression.
I was learning more and more about the industries that I supported for decades and nothing I was finding felt normal, natural or necessary. I was experiencing bouts of intense grief followed by deep journeys into self-forgiveness as the stillness of meditation allowed me to heal. The absence of violence in my diet was notable and I could not deny the effect.
Today I find myself successfully training and racing on a whole foods vegan diet in my second decade as an endurance athlete. I have become the very athlete that inspired me to turn vegan. I can tell you now, without hesitation, that my performance is not the reason I stay vegan. I am vegan because I don’t believe that I have the right to take a life in order to eat. I am living proof that humans can thrive on a vegan diet.
Yoga has taught me many things that have transformed my relationship with myself and how I move through the world. At the base of it all, I believe its principle of non-violence is from which a true yogi is born. This experience I have shared is mine and I have a complicit understanding that we are all on our unique paths. Non-violence has taught me to meet people where they are at and to remind myself that in one way or another I have been there too. Therefore I do not shame those who choose to eat the flesh of dead animals or drink the milk of a mother cow or goat. Living an ahimsa life, to me, means that I am no better because I am vegan but that what I am contributing to the world is aligned with my highest truth.
I live the example of non-violence for others. I do not meat shame, I plant push. I know the essence of the whole; the animals, the plants, the slaughterhouse workers, the children, the calves, the farmers and myself are the same. We are love, it’s just that not all of us have fully awakened to this essence but I know we are all on our way. So for now all I can do is love because I know without a doubt that the ahimsa of love is the answer to it all.
Jess Gumkowski is the co-founder of and Head Yogi at YogiTriathlete
Holistic Performance (YT). She is a vegan endurance athlete, yoga instructor, meditation teacher, Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, author of the YogiTriathlete Cookbook: High Vibe Recipes for the Athlete Appetite and host of the popular YogiTriathlete podcast. She’s been featured in Triathlete Magazine, Men’s Journal, Massage Magazine, Elephant Journal, and TriZone for her knowledge in holistic health and nutrition.