While on the road to becoming a public health physician, Larry Siegel came face-to-face with his
long-standing anger problem. Through yoga, he gradually found compassion toward himself, and others. Working with HIV patients and teaching yoga has given him a trenchant perspective on both practices. Kathleen Kraft recently sat down with him to discuss his road, his work, veganism, and the prescription of psychiatric medication.
Kathleen Kraft: Tell us about your path to yoga.
Larry Siegel: I started practicing yoga in 2002, using Crunch videos. I was an intern at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. I had gone into public health and I was on a path to compassion, but throughout college, and during my residency at Harvard, it was known that I had an anger streak—an “over-passionate streak.” Even though I was compassionate, I had a lot of conflicts with people, and I was told by my advisor that I was going to be a great doctor, but that I had to do something about my temper. I had heard about yoga, so I bought these tapes, and I would come home at the end of the day and put them on. And after a 35–40-minute routine, I would come out feeling blissful. Eventually, I moved to NYC and found Jivamukti through a friend of mine, and I’ve never looked back since.
KK: How is your anger streak now?
LS: It’s still there, and I definitely have some flare ups, but it’s not like it was. After years of dedicating my classes to people I seemingly didn’t like, it turned my idea of who they were upside down, and I realized they were also compassionate, holy beings. At Jivamukti, the message was simple yet complicated. I remember my first class with Matthew Lombardo; he talked about giving money to the homeless, and he said that it didn’t matter how much you gave, but it was the intention and the thought behind the action that mattered.
There’s a social worker here and, when I first started working here, I was so focused on a mistake she once made, I couldn’t get past it. I must have dedicated like a hundred classes to her, and I began to realize after a while what a compassionate and great person she is. We are close friends now, and we work together on the Empathy Committee. We have a memorial service every year for the patients, and she personally mentioned me during the staff speech as being very compassionate. I can’t believe how far we’ve come. I still have my moments, but yoga is a practice.
KK: Tell us about your work with HIV patients.
LS:The program I work for was founded to help people and provide primary care and HIV treatment to those who don’t have any money. It's so the underserved don’t feel underserved; they might actually feel “over-served.” In New York, the number of HIV cases has stabilized somewhat, but we still have the most cases in the United States.
KK: How does your work compliment your yoga teaching and vice versa?
LS: The purpose of medicine, at its core, is compassion, but the problem with medicine is that there’s a secondary gain to being a doctor. You’re paid, and you’re paid significantly more than the average person. And there’s the feedback you get—we talk about our patients here—and doctors are very happy when they've cured someone. That, in and of itself, is a secondary gain. When you teach yoga, you’re not really practicing for a secondary gain. You’re practicing it so you can be compassionate and get no feedback from it. The fact that you’ve been compassionate should be your gain.
There’s also the nuts and bolts—yoga can help with various medical diagnoses, especially things like back pain and depression. Jivamukti is a vegan practice because of compassion. As Sharon Gannon would say, "anything that’s not good for an animal is probably not good for you."
Interacting with primates and killing primates was not a good idea. As a result, we have HIV. That doesn’t mean that I focus on that in a patient's visit, but, when you look at it with a yogic perspective, it translates to things beyond veganism, like having a lot of sex partners, smoking a lot of cigarettes, doing a lot of drugs. I try to get people to think about it. If I throw something out there and a patient shows an interest, I’ll go into it. I try to be forgiving—I know meat tastes good, and we’ve had it for a long time.
KK: What is your attitude towards prescribing anti-anxiety medication and other kinds of mood stabilizers?
LS: Anxiety is a huge diagnosis in America, and the medications prescribed for it are in the top of all the drugs prescribed, and they don’t really work that well. When it comes down to it, no pill is going to be your friend forever. You want to look for a long-term solution, and people are more open to meditation and mindfulness now. I’ve never heard a patient say they didn’t feel great after a yoga class.
I try not to start a person on anti-anxiety meds, and, out of all the doctors here, I prescribe the least amount, but I go where the patient is, and I understand the value and role of certain drugs. So I ask how they might feel about taking a pill for the rest of their lives, and how much happier they would be if they could solve this problem themselves. I plant seeds. They may not figure it out in this lifetime, but, as we say in yoga, they may in the next.