By Bhava Ram
As a foreign correspondent for network news, I witnessed tragedy firsthand, over and over: Afghan children with missing limbs, faces ravaged by shrapnel, bodies burned by napalm. Drug-addicted kids living in holes dug into dry riverbeds in Bolivia. Young girls forced into Thailand’s sexual slavery trade. Starvation in Africa. Scores of innocents killed in the Persian Gulf War.
As a journalist, I felt I was making an important contribution by raising awareness about the horrors of war, poverty, and exploitation, but for the last seven years of my career I was also keeping a deep secret. I had cracked the lowest vertebra in my back shortly after my time in Afghanistan, when I fell from a ledge during a tropical storm. I masked the pain with medication and a few more drinks each night. Every time the pain became unbearable, I thought about the plight of the wounded children and kept pushing forward.
After the Gulf War, I was put in charge of coverage for all of Asia. In 1993, while on assignment in the Philippines, the crack in my vertebra split open. I collapsed in all-consuming pain, and was flown back to the States for major back surgery. To my shock and disbelief, the surgery failed. I was declared permanently disabled, confined to a body brace, and given even heavier medications.
The emotional pain cut deeper than the physical. I had lost my identity. I no longer felt I had any worth, or even a reason to live. I was so sedentary that my weight ballooned up to 225 pounds. I drank even more heavily, chewed painkillers and muscle relaxants all day long, and became a master of anger, fear, and self-pity. For the next four years, I plummeted into the darkness, and then—like a miracle—my son was born.
He gave me a reason to live, and I embraced it with everything I had. But three months later, I became profoundly ill. I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, caused by exposure to depleted uranium used by American forces in the Gulf War. My doctors told me that I would not live more than two years.
Consumed by guilt that I was leaving this little boy’s life, I pushed everyone out of my world, except him. My relationship with his mother was all but over, and I can barely imagine what it must have been like to be with me. As we celebrated his second birthday, I knew it would be my last with him. A few days later, my boy came to me as I lay in bed, and spoke three little words that would change my life: “Get up, Daddy.”
His voice and those words whirled through my mind during Christmas and the dawning of 2000. But how could I get up? I was broken, pain-wracked, dying. I finally resolved to check into rehab and kick the drugs and alcohol, hoping that one day someone would tell my boy that his daddy did his best and died with a little bit of dignity.
Going cold turkey after 14 years of heavy drugs brought many dark nights of the soul. I crawled out of that experience completely dazed, in greater pain, and with no idea where to turn. It was at that point that I was invited into an experimental pain clinic. I’m not sure that I even understood what the doctors were saying as they explained that the methodology was based on ancient Eastern healing modalities, blended with Western holistic therapies, but I grabbed onto it like a lifeline. To my surprise, that experience gave me the understanding that I had a role to play in any healing that might be possible for me, and that I had to completely remake myself in body, mind, and soul.
One month into this journey, I began therapeutic yoga. I had never tried yoga, and the jaded, cynical part of me scoffed at it. But a deeper voice inside me was screaming, “This is it!” I chose to embrace yoga with all I had. A few weeks later, when the clinic closed for lack of funding, I went home and built a yoga room. I practiced 12 or more hours every day, reading the ancient texts, and exploring asana, pranayama, meditation, fasting, veganism, and intense hatha purifications.
The healing happened so slowly and organically that I barely noticed. The weight came off. My emotions softened. The back pain subsided. The cancer departed. As my son turned four, I fulfilled a promise that I had never dreamed possible. I carried him on my shoulders through our village’s annual Christmas parade. Thanks to yoga, Daddy got up.
I now devote my life to sharing yoga and Ayurveda with students and seekers around the world. I’ve learned that we all have an amazing inner power to heal ourselves, overcome obstacles, and manifest our fullest potential. This is the power of Spirit, and it is our birthright. The science of yoga guides us there, and, through this wisdom, we all have the capacity to transform our lives.
Bhava Ram is the author of the memoir Warrior Pose, How Yoga Literally Saved My Life, and founder with his wife, Laura Plumb, of the Deep Yoga School of Healing Arts in San Diego. He also teaches at Kripalu.