ENCINITAS — Coronado resident Brad Willis, also known as Bhava Ram, was a hard-charging NBC News war correspondent in the 1980s.
Then he broke his back. And later, he was diagnosed with cancer, sending him further into despair. In this Q&A, he talks about his past as a journalist and how yoga fueled his unlikely recovery.
Willis will be at Encinitas’ Soulscape Yoga Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. to talk about his new book, “Warrior Pose: How Yoga (Literally) Saved My Life.”
Q: You were celebrated as an investigative journalist, particularly for your work as a foreign correspondent. What were you like then?
A: When I was a foreign correspondent, I was a classic Type A male. I needed to work harder and longer than anyone else to succeed. I didn’t think I was smarter than anyone else in journalism, but I was convinced I could outwork them.
Q: Was journalism a big part of your identity?
A: From the moment that I stepped into a television station and was hired for that first job, journalism completely defined who I was. It was an opportunity to make a positive contribution to the world in a way that was adventurous and exciting and fulfilling. I could do an investigative report on white-collar crime or political corruption, and it often would result in prosecutions, rectifying the problem. I could see my work making a big difference in the world.
Q: Of the pieces you put together, is there one you’re particularly proud of?
A: The work in Afghanistan in 1986, during the Soviet occupation of that country, was truly the most momentous event of my life. After being with the freedom fighters up in the mountains, and documenting their struggle against the mighty Soviet Empire, I went down to the refuge camp along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This was the largest refugee crisis at the time.
That’s where I met a little boy named Mahmoud, who was about 11 years old with napalm burns all over his body, and this touched me deeply. We filmed Mahmoud and the other children, and subsequently upon airing the report, people responded incredibly. We were ultimately able to airlift scores of these children into the U.S. for treatment of shrapnel in their faces, napalm burns and missing limbs. To me, I’ll never forget that — to see not only how my reporting helped make a difference in the world, but to see what incredible people Americans are to rise up and give themselves and meet a crisis like that.
Q: I read that you broke your back in 1993, essentially putting an end to your journalism career. How did that happen and how did it affect you?
A: I actually broke my back in 1986 just after coming out of Afghanistan and on a very rare vacation. I was in a tropical storm in the Bahamas. I was battening down storm windows and fell off a ledge about 12 feet onto my lower back, cracking my lowest vertebrae. Being so Type A, not wanting to jeopardize my career, I pushed forward for seven more years. All through the Gulf War, Africa, South America, Asia — working harder and longer than anyone else as usual — but chewing a lot of painkillers and drinking more every night. And in 1993, the crack in my spine split wide open when I was in the Philippines and started to get into my spinal cord. I blacked out and had major surgery subsequently and it failed. Suddenly, I went from having a global life to being confined to a body brace, and I couldn’t even sit up to eat a meal.
Q: Could you walk after a few months?
A: I could walk with a cane eventually. But I was on even more medication. I had lost my identity, because journalism had so fully defined who I was, so I became deeply depressed, filled with self-pity, anger and fear. And that went on for four more years, until my only child was born. I finally felt that there was a reason to live. I started to pull out of my darkness.
But three months later, I was diagnosed with stage four cancer from exposure to depleted uranium during the Persian Gulf War. I was told I would not live for (more than) three years. And so I spiraled into even greater darkness.
Q: Was there one moment in particular that turned your life around or was it a gradual shift?
A : My little boy became my world outside of all the drugs and alcohol. I didn’t want to see anyone else. He came to me realizing I was in deep trouble, I think. And in his 2-year-old way, he spoke three words that ultimately changed my life: “get up daddy.” That hit me in a place I didn’t know I had. Over the next few weeks, I contemplated how I could get up. Finally, I checked into a detox unit at Scripps hospital in La Jolla.
I went through seven incredibly dark nights. When I crawled out of my room, in a lot of pain and delirious, they invited me into an experimental clinic for pain that they said could help with me cancer. They said the clinic is about ancient healing modality, along with time-honored Western holistic medicine. I didn’t even know what that meant, but it was my only hope.
Q: Were you skeptical about largely leaving Western medicine behind and embracing Eastern practices?
A: I was skeptical at first when I started these alternative modalities like biofeedback, in which you listen to a guided meditation and it changes your inner-chemistry and relaxes you. The minute I did it, I felt it. And I started listening to a deeper inner-voice that was beyond the cynical and jaded journalist. I chose to follow it. The same thing happened when I started with therapeutic yoga. The minute I experienced it, the voice inside of me told me it’s my journey. I committed everything I had because my life was in the balance.
I went home and built a yoga room in my house and began practicing 12 to 14 hours a day. I became vegan; I fasted for long periods of time; I delved deeply into meditation and pranayama. And I changed my mental attitude and began taking responsibility for my state. I also took 85 pounds off my body with veganism, which I call organic chemotherapy. With the yoga postures every day, after a period of time I was cancer free and pain free.
Q: Do you think your experience was unique? Or could yoga and other Eastern practices replace Western medicine for some people who are really sick?
A: I don’t believe my experience was unique at all. My wife and I worked with several thousand students applying the sciences of yoga and yoga’s sister science, ayurpreda.
And we have seen so many people heal in the face of such great odds. I don’t see it replacing Western medicine, but I believe it should take precedence over Western medicine. If we’re living a more mindful lifestyle, reducing our stress, eating properly and exercising properly, we’re not going to need Western medicine as much.
Q: Along similar lines, what implications does your book have for the healthcare industry?
A: “Warrior Pose,” I’ve heard from people across the country and world, is very inspiring.
I’m starting to get invites to medical conferences to talk about the science of yoga and it’s application. And I’m seeing the Western world open up more and more toward these practices.
I’m hoping the book can help me spread the message that we all have the power to take charge of our lives, to heal to our maximum capacity, to overcome obstacles and to live a more authentic life.