Erika Mitchener is a vegan, yogi, Buddhist, martial artist bodybuilder, plant-based nutritionist/trainer and Founder of Evolve with ePower
Interview: Keli Lalita Reddy, Mantralogy
Keli Lalita Reddy: Tell me about how you were first introduced to hardcore and punk music.
Erika Mitchener: I grew up in Worcester, MA, where there has always been a good underground music scene. I stumbled upon it when I was a freshman in high school. I was at an Offspring show and a band called Quicksand played, and I fell in love. I found out that they had members from a band called Gorilla Biscuits, and I started listening to them. I was also more of a tomboy, and I was friends with a lot of guys that were skaters and alternative music people. I would see fliers for shows in my high school and one show turned into another show. I became part of the scene. That was around 1994. Very soon after I learned about the whole scene, I became totally dedicated. I memorized all the lyrics of bands I loved and knew I wanted to be in the mosh pit.
KR: You were famous in the hardcore scene because you were a girl that danced in the mosh pit. Few women were seen doing what you did. Maybe they didn’t feel brave enough or strong enough to throw themselves into that level of violence, but you did, and that earned you the nickname “Carla Mosh.” What is unique about you that let you have the bravery and the desire to face that as a woman?
EM: At times I felt a little intimidated. But my next thought was always “Fuck that, I don’t care.” I had already been training in martial arts for a few years; I started when I was twelve. My dojo was traditional Japanese karate, judo, jiu-jitsu, kobudo (weapons), all that. My sensei taught me the first long form of tai chi as well. But it was essentially an MMA dojo before that really became well-known like it is today. So by the time I started going to hardcore shows, I had developed a strong level of physical training. I was training with the adults, and I remember that was so incredibly intimidating, and I had already conquered that. So being right up front and in the mix of a mosh pit wasn’t too big of a deal to me. I wanted to be a part of the incredible movement. I just couldn’t stand still when the music played. I had to be moving my whole body to it.
KR: In yoga and South Indian martial arts, kalaripayattu, the teachings talk about becoming embodied, or even to think of the body as being made of “all eyes.” What you’re describing sounds like you had a desire to have this awakened experience, and hardcore shows provided that for you.
EM: It’s true. My training provided full embodiment and hardcore music became an extension of that.
KR: You studied martial arts that have a connection to Buddhism. Do you feel like martial arts were the crucial precursor to your spiritual practice?
EM: Definitely. My sensei would give me books every year, books that were intended to help his students take to a spiritual path. Our physical practice was always matched with meditation. We started every class with meditation and ended every class with meditation. I read the stories of the Zen monks in Japan and how they would have to sleep outside of the temple they so desperately wanted to be part of for a whole week, with no food and no water, just to be accepted into the temple. And I thought to myself, I want to do that. What kid wanted that?
KR: Do you consider veganism to be an expression of your spiritual practice?
EM: For me it goes hand in hand with my spiritual teachings, although I was exposed to PETA for the first time at a hardcore show. It’s tough, because there are many monks and practitioners of Buddhism that don’t have this as part of their practice. But for me it definitely is.
KR: For a long time, your life partner has been John Joseph, the singer of the Cro-Mags, the original and earliest Krishna hardcore band. He’s also a very accomplished Ironman triathlete and the author of the book Evolution of a Cro-Magnon and the book Meat Is for Pussies. Does his path of Krishna Bhakti enhance your life and spirituality?
EM: It does a lot. Now I realize I was never going to escape it! It was always right there; as part of the punk and hardcore music thing, it went right along with that. Many of the bands that I really loved were part of that, bands like 108, Shelter, and the Cro-Mags. But my own path was strongly set in Buddhism; it was ingrained in my life and imprinted in my heart. So I wasn’t going to just jump ship on that because Krishna Consciousness was popular in hardcore. That wouldn’t have been very genuine. I chanted and I would go to the Krishna temple with friends. The difference was that when I went to the Buddhist temple, I felt a heart connection, like fireworks. When I was 25, I went on a “vision quest.” I thought, I don’t want to just be someone that is into Buddhism. I want to be Buddhist. So I found a sangha, the Shambhala Center of Boston, and went to learn and develop a meditation practice. I always assumed from my Japanese training that I would be a part of a Zen sangha, but surprisingly I found my heart connections with a Tibetan school. I learned shamatha meditation and eventually took my Refuge Vows. I was given a Tibetan spiritual name of Tsultrim Pekar, which means Disciplined White Lotus. I’ve had some profound and genuine meditation experiences, glimpses of bliss or emptiness, small compared to my teachers. The practices I have learned make me feel like I can deal with the material world a hell of a lot better than before. Then I moved to California, and I did find a sangha to sit with. It just wasn’t the same as it had been in Boston. It was at that point that I met John and he brought Krishna Consciousness back into my life. I was no longer involved in the hardcore scene at all, which was where my introduction to that had been. When he came into my life, he brought that awareness back to me in full force again. He knew I was Buddhist, but he encouraged me to explore his path as well. He told me that in his tradition the Buddha is considered to be an avatar of Krishna, and I felt inspired to know more. When I first met him, he explained to me how Krishna Consciousness truly saved his life. How could I not want to embrace it and explore it? So I read the Gita, and I thought, this all comes from the same source. It doesn’t feel like it’s not a Buddhist text.
KR: Buddhism requires discipline. I can’t imagine that when you are training for a bodybuilding competition that eating perfectly and never missing a workout doesn’t require a monk-like level of discipline. Can you comment on that?
EM: When your teacher gives you your refuge name, you receive the name as a form of energy that you are meant to work with. I did often visualize myself as a monk-in-training in the mountains during that time. And my refuge name gave me strength to struggle through the lack of disciple that I saw in myself. The way it came to me was that if we take care of our own bodies, the practice will help us manifest a kind of strength to help other people and to do good work in the world. When I train for bodybuilding competitions and I am super disciplined and I am eating clean and not being distracted, then I attract that energy more into my life—the most disciplined clients, the most inspiring people who would make me want to excel even more. The type of energy I put out would come back to me. My discipline goes all the way back to my first sensei. He encouraged his students to stay completely focused on the breath, just like we do in yoga and tai chi. Martial arts can be seen as a moving meditation, with total connection to the breath. Later, in bodybuilding, in lat pulldowns or pushups or squats, being mindful of the breath changes everything. Because that is where my power was. You can harness an intense level of energy throughout the whole body. This is where the teaching comes full circle and ties back into meditation, because the breath is what you focus on in meditation. You can do the same practice lifting weights, in yoga, meditation, or even while chanting.
KR: How is it that people from the world of really loud violent music and aggression segue onto the very Shanti path of meditation and yoga? What do you see as the connection between those two things?
EM: Every student or devotee of whatever path they are on, some are more intellectual and quiet, and some are more of the warriors, outspoken and with high energy. In hardcore music you get a lot more of the warrior personality, young kids trying to understand the tricks and truths of this world, trying to make sense of this madness we live in. So I think a lot of hardcore kids naturally evolve into seeking a path of seeking spirituality to answer those questions. Real warriors get their strength from a quiet spiritual place of practice. So there I see the connection between the two which might not be so obvious at first glance.
Inspired by Erika’s years of training in martial arts, combined with her love of vegan bodybuilding, the ePower brand is on a mission to provide fitness, nutrition, and mindset coaching for the modern warrior.