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Name: Nicole Sopko
Year of Birth: 1980
Birthplace: Livonia, MI
Current Residence: Chicago, IL
Sports: Hatha Yoga

Tell us a little about yourself, what you do for a living, what hobbies / interests / passions you have
I am a teacher of yoga and also help keep things going over at Chicago-based seitan company, Upton’s Naturals. I love my jobs, which keep me on the road about 20% of the year attending events, visiting businesses, meeting amazing people, and talking about yoga! I live with my boyfriend, Dan (owner of Upton’s Naturals), and a small pack of rescued dogs. I teach yoga locally and also at events, retreats, and fundraisers all over.

Why did you become vegan?
I became vegan in 1996 after a year of vegetarianism. I was a moderately-rebellious punk rock teenager who saw a lot of “wrong” in the world that I didn’t have control over. I did recognize, however, the important ability that I had every day to “vote” with my dollars for those businesses that I wanted to support. I already didn’t consume drugs or alcohol and decided to also eat in line with my ethics. As time has gone on, my reasons for being vegan have deepened and expanded and I have never questioned that initial decision. The choice to become vegan was my first yoga practice – years before I ever stepped on a yoga mat or performed a single downward facing dog. My dietary choices have broadened my compassion and set the stage for the rest of my life.

When and why did you become interested in fitness?
I joined a gym looking for something to do with myself. I’d never been athletic or interested in fitness or movement. I wasn’t overweight, but I didn’t have any muscle tone to speak of. I attended a gym yoga class and was instantly hooked. It didn’t take long before I was practicing with more and more teachers trying to find something that I must have known was out there for me in this practice. I eventually dropped all other “fitness” routines and now use hatha yoga postures as my exclusive means for staying in shape. My true passion for yoga as a lifestyle developed upon meeting my teacher, Yogi Sri Dharma Mittra, a real inspiration and also a proponent of a plant-based diet. He is walking the walk of yoga and living life as a divine example, which I strive to emulate.

How would you describe your nutrition program?
I try to maintain a diet based on minimal ingredients with a focus on whole foods. I mainly eat simple foods – fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds, beans, etc – with an emphasis on what is available fresh. I do work for a seitan company, so seitan is always available for me (and someone has to taste-test those new recipes!). I also enjoy a good cookie or two now and again!

How do people react when they find out you are vegan?
People are rarely surprised to find out that I’m vegan, but often they know in advance that I’m a yoga teacher or that I work for a vegan business, so the fact that I don’t consume animal products doesn’t shock them too much. Once in a while, I encounter someone who “doesn’t get it,” but I try to approach every person with compassion. People will often live up to your expectations of them – if you see them as a thoughtless jerk, then they will prove you right. I try to see everyone as someone who is capable of compassion and understanding.

What are some common misconceptions about veganism?
I think a very common misconception about veganism is that it’s limiting. I don’t find that my diet leaves me feeling limited in what I eat, my social life, or where I can go. Since becoming vegan, and even just since refining my diet to reduce the amount of processed foods I consume, I have tried a number of foods that I would have never experienced and am tasting flavors on a level that I had never experienced. I still enjoy a variety of events and time with the non-vegans in my life because those relationships are my priority and not the food consumed, though many of my family and friends are extremely willing to eat vegan meals or visit restaurants where I can eat more than a salad or a hummus plate. And if it’s appropriate, I bring my own food or eat before or after an event. Veganism is only restrictive if you set yourself up to be restricted.

Have you had success in promoting veganism / vegetarianism to others? If so, how did you go about it?
For me, the way to go has always been living as an example. I don’t approach relationships with an agenda and I don’t try to give people a hard sell. Beginning a vegan diet, just like making time for a dedicated yoga practice, is a hard transition for some people. If people don’t see a reason to adapt their lifestyle, then I can spout at them until I’m blue in the face without change happening. I am happy to help anyone who has questions or needs guidance and I have found that just making myself available has given people what they needed to take the leap and I’m thrilled to be a part of their process.

What do you think the most important aspect of training is?
Listen to yourself. If you ignore your inner wisdom, you are probably going to get hurt. Mindful physical activity requires surrender, attention, and concentration in order to prevent injuries. Do everything with attention.

What do you like best about being vegan?
The food. The community. The compassionate connection with my fellow Earthlings.

What advice do you have for people who are thinking of becoming vegan?
Don’t be intimidated! It may seem like a lot to learn and a lot to take on, but as with any new thing, it will get easier and more familiar with time. Many people say to me that they need to “get more flexible” (or “stronger,” or “calmer,” or or or…) before they would feel ready to begin a yoga practice. I always tell them that the only thing you need to do yoga is willingness and yourself, exactly as you are. Veganism is no different. Show up, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and what is meant to come will come.

What do you think of veganbodybuilding.com? Has it helped or inspired you?
I love the site’s ability to bring people together, remove their doubts with inspiration, and put them on their path towards finding their absolute best expression of themselves.

Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share?
Please visit me online at www.nicolesopko.com and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ NicoleSopkoYoga. I would love to connect with you there! (Photos by Jim Pavelec and Kelly Peloza.)