It’s not every day that you can say you went to hear a vegan Hare Krishna bodybuilder speak, but that’s exactly what students at the University of Southern California got to experience on November 13th.
The event was part of USC’s weekly Meditation Club, which teaches Bhakti principles and is run by ISKCON devotee and USC Chaplain for Bhakti Yoga and Meditation Jaya Chaitanya Das.
Fifty to sixty students attended the Monday gathering to hear second generation devotee Nimai Delgado explain how he became a professional bodybuilder despite never having eaten meat in his life, in his inspirational speech “How Mindful Eating Helped Me Find My Life’s Purpose.”
Nimai, who has gained a massive online following recently, began by sharing with the audience about how he grew up in the ISKCON temple in New Talavan, Mississippi.
Like many ISKCON youth, straddling the gap between the insular devotee world and the outside world was a struggle for Nimai.
Nimai with USC Meditation Club leader Jaya Chaitanya Das
“My parents brought me to my first day of public school in a dhoti and kurta,” he says. “From kindergarten to third grade, I had to deal with the challenges associated with that – being ridiculed, teased, or just misunderstood.”
Going all the way to high school, Nimai continued to face the challenges of growing up with a different culture in the Deep South, including having a mindful, vegetarian diet in a place where hunting, fishing and barbecuing was the norm.
“The moment someone asked me why I wasn’t eating a hamburger, and I told them I don’t eat meat, it would spark up this entire conversation I didn’t necessarily want to have,” he says. “I didn’t want to be pegged as an outsider or a weirdo.”
So Nimai began to downplay and hide who he really was, so that he could fit in. This continued until he graduated college and moved to California.
Because he didn’t know many people in California, Nimai began frequenting the gym there. He started researching nutrition and how to build muscle and lose fat. He began to set and work towards fitness goals. Horrified by the cruelty inflicted on cows in commercial dairies, he also gave up all dairy and took up a completely plant-based diet.
Soon after in April 2015, he participated in his first bodybuilding competition, run by the International Bodybuilding Association (INBA) in Bakersfield, California, and emerged as the overall winner.
“Ironically, after I won, so many people were asking me what I ate – the exact question I had tried to avoid for so long,” he says. “When I told them I did it vegan, they were so surprised, because ‘vegan bodybuilder’ is an oxymoron for most people. But this time they were really interested and wanted to learn more about it and try it themselves. I started sharing my journey online, talking about what I ate and promoting myself as a vegan athlete. And I started to become proud of of who I was.”
Nimai competes in a bodybuilding competition
Just a few months later, Nimai entered into a second bodybuilding competition, run by the National Physique Committee (NPC) in Fresno, California. While the first had been a natural league where steroids and performance-enhancing drugs were banned, in this one they were allowed – so it presented a much bigger challenge.
But this didn’t stop Nimai: again, he won the competition.
Then, in July 2016, Nimai participated in the biggest bodybuilding show of the year, a national NPC event in Las Vegas, where he won in his height class and gained his status as a professional bodybuilder.
Typically, a bodybuilding diet consists largely of animal-based protein such as chicken, beef and steak, Nimai explains – so what he was doing seemed impossible to many. He drew more and more attention, and went from reaching hundreds of people online, to thousands, and then tens of thousands. Today, he has over 200,000 followers across Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube.
Nimai is an inspiration to all these people, answering questions on how to reach their fitness goals in a conscious way, and helping them take the next step into conscious living.
During his USC Meditation Club speech, as he does online, Nimai started by talking about diet and health, an open-minded platform that everyone can relate to.
Nimai with his mother Madhira Dasi in New Talavan, outside the house he grew up in
He then gradually bridged the gap between mindful eating and spirituality. He addressed the disconnect many people have between the food that’s on their plate and where it comes from. He talked about the fear, anger and terror that a cow feels before it’s killed and how that energy is imprinted in the meat.
“When you consume the meat you consume that energy along with it, and you become more animalistic, less compassionate, and more angry,” he said. He explained that by eliminating animal products from their diet, people could not only help reduce the amount of suffering in the world, but also cleanse their own energy and elevate their consciousness.
Nimai then talked about leading a life of ahimsa, or non-violence, and how we cannot really be non-violent if we eat meat. Because even if we are not directly killing an animal, we are contributing by investing our money in the company that does the slaughtering, thus keeping the cycle going.
He also discussed karma and caring for others.
“Bodybuilders don’t have the best reputation for intelligence, or spirituality,” he says. “So I’m trying to help change that stigma. Bodybuilding is also a vain and selfish industry. So I’m trying to show my audience that you can be a spiritual individual, who cares not only about yourself but about others around you – animals, the environment, the planet – and still be a successful bodybuilder.”
Nimai says he understands “the irony of focusing on your body in the material world, when really it’s just a vessel.” But, he says, “I think we all have our own karma, and I’m just using what I’ve been given to help make a difference in the world.”
Nimai is certainly making a difference. He’s reaching hundreds of thousands of people through social media. He is set to appear in the upcoming 2018 documentary The Game Changers, produced by Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron, which will feature elite athletes, special ops soldiers, visionary scientists and cultural icons who are on a mission to “change the way we eat and live.” And he is beginning to get more and more speaking engagements – this October he spoke to 400 people at VegFest UK in London, and he’s set to speak in Mexico soon.
“I don’t want to be a bodybuilder for the rest of my career – I just want to use it as a platform,” he says. “I want to become a motivational speaker, and I really want to use my background and belief system to talk more about these things and inspire more people.”
Nimai says he has seen that adopting a plant-based diet sets people on the path to be more spiritually conscious. And sure enough, now some of his followers are learning about the process of bhakti-yoga. A number of the attendees at the USC Meditation Club event, for instance, were fans that came from afar just to see him speak – and as well as listening to his talk, they also participated in the maha-mantra kirtan at the end of the program and ate prasadam.
“For so much of my youth, I downplayed, or was ashamed of who I was because I didn’t want to be different,” Nimai says. “But looking back, the decision I made to start being proud of who I was, my heritage and my beliefs, actually opened the door for me to create a whole new life for myself. Growing up in a Hare Krishna temple, with my parents teaching me the amazing values that they did, really shaped me as a person. And now, I’m getting to help a lot of people become more conscious, and ultimately more spiritually conscious.”[ bodybuilder ] [ california ]