One night while I was in college, some friends and I began discussing philosophy, reaction to the Viet Nam war and the military presence at our college, and if there was a common point between spirituality or activism. Our feeling was that spiritual practice is an internal process where we see external reality as an illusion, and activism is believing that only focused political action can create change. That night, we spoke into the wee hours. In the morning, my friend needed to stop at the library to work on a paper. I accompanied him and was drawn to the philosophy section. My body drew me to the yoga section—right to the Bhagavad Gita. I spent the next 2 hours totally enthralled in the Gita and felt as if I had read it many times before. What Krishna was teaching Arjuna was the conversation we were having the night before!
Arjuna cannot see a place for connection of spiritual practice and political action. Krishna teaches him that people can only be in spiritual practice if they act in the world in the moment from their truth and bring their spiritual knowledge into the human condition. This was so powerful for me; it showed me how I could deepen my spiritual practice by following my activist feelings against that war. This was the beginning of my true spiritual path and exploration. As I demonstrated against the war and the injustice and hypocrisy, I also began practicing yoga and meditation. I felt rather than demonstrating in anger that I was coming more from conviction and true wanting to shift my consciousness and that of the people I was close to.
The next semester I walked into a class on Eastern philosophy with my best friend. The teacher taught the basics of yoga philosophy eloquently, and I felt as if I was back in India learning outside in a field with a breeze, flowers, and birds. We could almost hear the birds chirping. The course turned out to be life-changing for me—studying the full realm of yoga philosophy from the Rig Vedas up to the words of Shankara. The depth of the discussions and their relevance in our day-to-day life was transforming as we explored the Gita, Yoga Sutras, Narada and Shiva Sutras, Vedas, and other ways to look at reality. The key here was that they all involved some type of physical or mental regimen that allowed me to experiment with various practices, from pranayama to chanting, asana, and meditation.
I continued to explore yoga and philosophy in college, making philosophy a minor in my program. I took yoga classes, taught yoga, deepened my outdoor pranayama and meditation practice, and chanted on the quad with some friends. I felt my consciousness opening and inner clarity deepening.
My medical education was tedious and often boring as most of the materialistic philosophy that was applied to healing made no sense to me. I was firm in believing in prana and an energy body by then and craved to learn about natural methods. My education was supported by my yoga practice. The postures kept my body healthy, as what meditation did for my mind. The lessons of the Gita and Yoga Sutras kept me feeling centered and in myself. When on call two nights a week, I used pranayama rather than coffee to stay awake all night, and I found it to keep me clearer and more relaxed than were the other students and interns. I was able to relax the patients and doctors around me. The practice had a profound effect on my belief in yoga practice and the philosophy of the existence of subtle bodies. I encouraged patients to relax, stretch, and breathe, resulting in my patients being released much more quickly from the hospital than patients not encouraged to do this.
While in medical school in 1976 I saw an advertisement about the Kripalu ashram and that the Guru and a few residents would be visiting Chicago. I attended the meeting and fell in love with the idea of living a yogic lifestyle while doing work that was uplifting for people and society.
I began to lead the Kripalu group in Chicago while in medical school, and later when I was in DC in 1979 during my internship. We spent much time studying the yogic writings and ways to integrate the teachings into our day-to-day life. This led me to meet some people who were being treated with homeopathy. I saw how they were helped medically in a nonviolent way and began an apprenticeship in homeopathy.
I moved into Kripalu in 1980 and spent most of the next 15 years there. It was a great training ground to learn more deeply about yoga practice, to study the yogic scriptures, and to teach them to other residents and students.
Since 1997, I have led workshops around the world on yoga practice, teachings, and lifestyle and how we can integrate the teachings into our lives and practice for greater health, vitality, and consciousness. I feel that my initial experience of finding and reading the Gita while in college was one of the greatest and best turning points of my life.
Jeff Migdow will be leading "The Practical Wisdom of the Yogic Scriptures" on November 10, 2018.