It was in 2006, after being a vegetarian for a little over 5 years, I really decided to just switch to a vegan diet. Primarily I was making a final attempt to get my high cholesterol down. I also had started to seriously look at the way dairy cows are treated. It was bothering me.
When I started teaching yoga in October 2005 I also began to incorporate the other "limbs" into my practice. I started attending zazen, somewhat irregularly at first, with the Zen Community of Oregon. This helped me look closely at the cultivation of concentration, meditation, and wisdom. It was while I was taking a class on Life Vows from Hogen that I vowed to uphold the Yamas, the "Rules of Life" in yoga practice.
The first of the Yamas is ahimsa, non-harming. I'd read some things about the Buddhist Precepts at ZCO and found that the first Grave Precept is to not kill, but to affirm life. I also had spent a lot of time reflecting upon Thich Nhat Hahn's book Anger which begins with a discussion of diet. He felt that it was important that we not consume, nourish these bodies which practice, with the panicked, dying, suffering energy of an animal slaughtered for food.
In the spring of 2006 those things came together for me after listening to Howard Lyman speak at the NW Veg VegFest. After spending a day listening to people talk about dairy I finally committed myself to doing what had been considering doing for months, I stopped eating all dairy products the next day. That was the last step, I became a vegan.
Because I live in Portland this was a fairly easy transition. I just became used to assuming that most places I went to, most gatherings I attended, would not have food I would eat. I would make dishes and bring them to share to be certain I would have something as well as show how tasty vegan food was. Most of the time it didn't matter, sometimes it hurt to feel the way this choice put me even further outside of the mainstream.
My focus all along has been to improve my health. To avoid as many as the diseases that plagued the women in my family - diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attacks, angina, and obesity. Once dairy was taken out of my diet I began to lose weight again, finally dropping the last 40 pounds to have my weight fall into the "healthy" range for my height.
The weight loss alone caused my doctor to shake his head and smile, but when my cholesterol started to drop dramatically he told me not to change anything I was doing. By 2008 my cholesterol had dropped 100 points and I was still losing a few pounds. I went in for a chemical stress test to get a clear picture of how my heart was doing and was told that people 10 years younger than me should have a heart working as well. This spring my doctor called me "skinny".
I feel as though my commitment to changing my diet to improve my health has created space for me to appreciate the choice of being a vegan even more. Over the past several years I've moved more and more to trying to buy organic products, local ones where possible. I have never lost the lessons of the Outdoor School program, of the interconnectedness of everything on the planet and how the choices I make do matter. A vegan diet is an environmentally responsible one that makes a commitment to improving the health of the planet.
When I was at the Loving-Kindness sesshin this past April I had a lot of opportunity to think about this. Because the sesshin really awakened some emotions long buried during my childhood the feeling that I was not included was rather intense at times, especially on nights where during formal tea everyone else would be served a beautiful, fancy cookie while I was served the same store-bought ones I'd brought out to the monastery. One night there were steamed carrots, but only a very small portion without butter set aside for me and it brought up sad feelings.
Later that night, in the dark, cool zendo I would have time to breath through and comfort the child inside of me who felt left out, hurt. In my mind I talked with her about the importance of not having the fancy cookie, that the cookies I'd brought from the store were ones I liked and that I still got a cookie with everyone else. By the time I was served the same cookie I had most of the week that child inside of me and I were both OK with.
What had hit me through keenly feeling the separateness of my vegan diet was that I have been slowly moving my life towards peace. That is what the path of yoga and zen is for me. It is the cultivation of tranquility and calm-abiding. For me there is absolutely no question that the literal foundation must be nourished by food that supports this path. Since we are constantly in change, our cellular structure constantly going through the death/birth cycle, then the base components for that structure must nourish peace. This is how my practice is built, it begins with what I put into my body.