May 30, 2013

Bhava Ram & how Yoga Literally Saved His Life. {Interview} ~ Karla Rodas

Brad Willis a.k.a. Bhava Ram is a former NBC News war correspondent who reported from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and beyond. He is the recipient of the prestigious Alfred I. duPont Award, considered the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, for his work inside Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

Self-healed from a broken back, failed surgery, and cancer, he is now devoted to teaching the sister sciences of Yoga and Ayurveda. He is the founder of Deep Yoga, based in San Diego, the author of two previous books, a spiritual musician, and leader of Mastery of Life trainings, retreats and workshops in the U.S. and India. Bhava Ram has recently published his third book, Warrior Pose, A War Correspondent’s Memoir (How yoga literally saved my life).


20 years ago could you have imagined being here, having this life, leading and guiding people through yoga?

I never could have imagined that possibility. I was a classic Alpha male and very devoted to my career as a journalist, which was very rewarding but also because I was a journalist and I saw a lot of conflict and corruption globally, I was very jaded and very cynical. I didn’t trust anybody or take at face value what anyone had to say to me. To see myself in this life today would have been impossible. I would have scoffed at such a thing.

What struck me was your sensitivity and empathy of others and your intention to shine the light on what was going on in the world.

To me, this was a foreshadowing or a glimpse into the yogi within you and within all of us. Do you believe that all of us have that inner goodness, no matter how skeptical or jaded we’ve become?

That side was always within me even since a young age, since the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, really moved to do something about injustice in the world in my country and globally and have always had great compassion for those that have been victimized by all levels not just government, corporate concerns and white collar crime and so forth. And, a lot of my compassion went to children because they’re always the most innocent of victims. We all have a soul, inner knowing, we all deeply know at the core level what’s right and what’s wrong.

We all have an amazing moral compass. But oftentimes we’re not connected with that at all and sometimes we even do things to darken that so much that we can’t see it or hear it. But, I think even some of the famous arch villains of our time deep inside knew how terrible it was what they were doing. I think we all know the right path. We all have an intuitive wisdom to how to heal ourselves and balance ourselves. How many times do we say to ourselves when we know we’re eating wrong or living wrong, “I know what I should be doing.” It’s acting on that knowing that’s wisdom. That’s what yoga is such a great science for-it gives us the tools to turn knowledge, inner knowing, into wisdom by actually embodying it in our lives.

In your previous life, you were known as Brad Willis, but decided to take on the spiritual name of Bhava Ram- Can you explain the significance of your name?

We all know that even the pope takes a new name, now, I don’t think I’m the pope by any means but it’s a signal of our continued journey towards transformation. In this particular tradition, Bhava Ram means, “Purest state of being in the heart.”

That doesn’t mean that I always have the purest state of being in the heart but it’s something for me to always aspire to. Whenever I remind myself that I’ve taken that name it reminds me to move to that softer, more transformative place. There’s so much in our culture, our society that pulls us back into more unconscious, habituated behaviors that we need a lot of reminders. A spiritual name, not that I’ve taken on airs, believe me, I don’t think I’m a swami, a sage, or a guru or anything like that, but I know that through the obstacles that I had to overcome that I was handed a light and I feel like I’m the carrier of that light forward. The name, Bhava Ram, reminds me of that great honor to do that in my own humble way and that obligation to do my best to stay the course.

You detail your journey as a war correspondent, the first few chapters take us with you into your incredible adventures as an NBC news correspondent, covering conflicts in the Middle East, Persian Gulf War, drug wars in South America, apartheid in Africa, sex slaves in Thailand. Can you talk about your life back then?

It was an incredible privilege to be a correspondent on a national level with a prestigious organization because I had a capacity through my work to make a positive contribution to helping people become more aware or what was happening in the world. And, the more people become aware, the more positive change is possible. I always felt great satisfaction in exposing a white-collar fraud where people were being taken advantage of in one way or the other. Or exposing things such as catching major timber companies illegally logging in Redwood National park and seeing an end put to that. Or seeing a white collar criminal brought to justice or locating or revealing a high ranking Nazi war criminal living in California.

It felt good. It felt like I was making a positive contribution and it also let me see the other side. There was a very good and positive side too of our system of (jurisprudence) justice that always made me feel good when I could see them step in and do work after my reporting. I also took great satisfaction when viewers were often impacted. For instance, when I was able to get back to Boston where I was living after Afghanistan and broadcasting my reports, the viewers started pouring in with donations. Hospitals and burn treatment centers, prosthetic limb providers and we were actually able to airlift children back (to the US). The airlines provided free passageway and so, seeing that was incredibly rewarding. While I saw the worst in people, I also saw the very best in people.

Do you see now see similarities in the work that you’re doing now?

I see great similarities in the work that I’m doing now. The difference is I think I’m a much more conscious person and instead of going out there and exposing and being in confrontation with the worst in us, now, I’m gathering with groups of people and helping us all bring out the best in us.

What happened to turn your life upside down and change your life as a successful, well respected, foreign correspondent for NBC?

{In the book, Bhava, details how in preparing for a storm he was batting down the storm window beyond his reach and he came crashing down, breaking his back and altering the course of his life. He subsequently continued to hide his pain from everyone in order to further his career. This drove him to rely on heavy pain medications in order to live.}

The injury was just an accident on a vacation.

I created a real imbalance by pushing forward and thinking I could be macho about it and I would get past it which led to chewing more and more pain killers and withdrawing from many aspects of my social life, just focusing on work. I was becoming slowly a more and more difficult person because when you’re in chronic pain your tolerance and your patience gets deeply, deeply diminished. People often don’t know why so you impact them in a negative way. That caused ultimately the bone in my back to snap open and for me to have a fully broken back and lose my career and my identity.

The profound change came about in my life when I finally awakened to the fact that we are all the creators of our own destiny. The way in which I proceeded and responded to these great challenges had the primary impact on what their outcome would be. Before, when I was fighting and forcing, things were going downhill and when I started embracing and having gratitude and doing my best to be skillful in my action, rather than react, things really started to change.

You say that your son, Morgan inspired you to live. The moments that you had playing with him were the only times that you felt present.

Why did you decide to start keeping a journal for Morgan? Later in the story, you wrote a heartbreaking goodbye letter to him. Were you preparing to die?

I was preparing to die but I couldn’t cope with leaving this beautiful little boy’s life. By keeping a journal, I think now that I look at it, I was trying to be there for him after I was gone. I was trying to let him know how much I cared and how much I loved him and how much I didn’t want to leave his life. Even though, at the time, I think I wanted to leave my life. There wasn’t anything to do and the thing that really cracked me open was realizing that it wasn’t all about me. That is was more about this little boy and that helped me start to move away from the ego, the self-pity, the self-despair, and to start to move ultimately towards my inner power.

In your book, Warrior Pose, you describe that times with your son were the only times that felt moments of joy and of being present. When your son was very young and began to speak, he looked at you one day and saw the state that you were in. He knew then that there was something wrong with his Daddy. He said to you, “Get up Daddy!” Your son’s words became your mantra. Can you talk about how his words inspired you?

{A mantra is a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of “creating transformation” (spiritual transformation)}

I felt those words more than I heard them. It was like and energetic opening in my heart center-in a place that I didn’t know I had. I felt it at the time at the deepest level. In a way those little words awakened the soul that had been so masked by all the drugs, alcohol, depression and emotional despair. It awakened that spirit inside of me that was so dormant. He spoke to me in his own way, not knowing, he spoke to me at the soul level and that’s when I opened my inner eyes and realized that I had to do something. It was a profound experience. In yoga, we have something called, Prajna, a flash of illumination and often times we have these in our daily lives, “Ahas or I knew I shouldn’t have done that, little intuitions, but all too often we pass them by or we don’t act on them.

Yoga teaches us, especially the ancient texts, that when you have a flash of illumination, you need to hold on to it, that’s called Smriti, you need to integrate it into your life because you’re hearing that wisdom. We know that the ancient sages when they went in their caves in the Himalayas and meditated for hours, days, weeks, months, years on end, they’re the ones who downloaded that wisdom of the Vedas from which yoga arises. What they were doing was listening to their own souls because all of that intelligence and wisdom is encoded in us, just like an acorn has an oak tree encoded within it, incredible intelligence in this tiny little thing. It’s been passed down throughout the ages and we all have it. We live in a mass media dominated culture in which we are sensorially bombarded by so much that our consciousness is fragmented, that we rarely hear that wisdom. The practices of yoga help us hear that more and more. That’s moving toward understanding spirit and understanding our own inner voice. He (Morgan) awakened that in me. He turned me toward my inner voice and it took a while to really listen but that’s what opened my inner eyes.

Intuition-inner knowing- is written about several times in the book. One example is when you were going to receive an epidural injection to relieve your pain. You sense that the doctor is distracted and almost call it off but you didn’t and the procedure went awry causing you horrible side effects.

How important is it for us to listen to your own inner wisdom?

It’s so important to tune in. It’s so important to listen to that inner voice because it is a deeper knowing and a deeper wisdom. If we have so much distraction in our lives and fragmented consciousness it takes some time to know which is that inner wisdom and which is our ego just approaching us in a different way. We can dilute ourselves if we’re not careful and think that our inner wisdom is telling us something that’s actually something that we want to believe about ourselves through our ego and that can lead to problems. The practice is to soften and to look inside and to release the ego again and again while we’re seeking that inner wisdom. That way, we know that it’s more and more authentic. At the time when I was getting the epidural shot I wasn’t connected to myself. I was filled with fear and pain and I was seeking an externalized solution and I was week and disempowered which is why I didn’t listen to that voice when I should have listened.

At some point you had to start the long, hard journey. You had to be courageous and let go of many beliefs and expectations. After you went to detox, you made the conscious decision to go to an alternative healing center instead of a residential program.

How did you tap into that strength and courage to make that decision?

I think when I checked into that clinic I started to own my own power. And, when I detoxed cold turkey I started to have the realization that it was up to me. I had to take charge of my life. I had no idea how that looked but I think when you finally make that agreement with yourself then opportunities presents themselves to you that otherwise might not have been there. It was shortly after that when I just knew I wasn’t going to go into that residential center and I was actually kind of frightened that I was gonna surrender and go. They came to me out of the blue and said they had this new experimental program and I just grabbed it and in a way it was like reclaiming the power that I once had as a journalist. I can say that I had very good instincts as a journalist and I always trusted those instincts and relied on them and that always worked out well for me. In a way, I had really owned my power back then and when I lost it I felt weak, insecure and scared. Once I went through that detox I started to awaken to that again. I knew I had to go and find that power again in a new and different way. In making that decision was one of the first steps in that direction.

When did the real healing begin for you? What did you have to do in order to heal?

It happened on so many levels, there was physical healing from back pain, biological healing from cancer and an emotional healing from all of the derangement that I experienced or created for myself and I never sought an outcome. I just did the practices and I intuited what to do and listened to my inner voice. I never thought I would overcome cancer and I never really thought I would fully get out of the back pain but I had some experiences early on with profound relaxation that helped me mitigate pain episodes remarkably. That was another deep awakening. It was an experiential awakening.

It’s one thing to be told something or be taught something in an academic setting and to buy into it is intelligent but it’s another thing to experience it. When you experience it you have it at the cellular level and it does immediately speak to your soul and your soul speaks to it. I just realized if I kept listening, kept following my inner voice and kept following what seemed intuitively intelligent to me, that better things were going to happen.

What was the moment that you felt that the mind and body had to work together to heal you?

I got that in biofeedback and as I started reading Dr. Emmett Miller’s book and more than reading it, implementing the practiced in my life. I soon really got the mind body connection and how important that was and on a deeper level the spirit connection. I realized I had to move towards spirit in one way or the other.

In the title of your memoir, Warrior Pose, you credit yoga for “literally” saving your life. What was the pivotal moment when you took a leap of faith and tried yoga?

I took that leap of faith the first day that I walked into the yoga room. I was having more and more of these prajnas, flashes of illumination and really got a hit when I went into that room intuitively that this was it, there was something here that was rich, ancient and powerful and I was going to completely open to it.

What would you tell others that are in pain and suffering about yoga and other holistic practices?

I would say that one of the greatest things that you can do is take charge of your healing and not just let it happen to you. To see the obstacles that you’re facing as opportunities, as difficult as that may be, opportunites for personal growth, messages from your sense of higher power or Mother Nature, that there’s some balance that needs to be sought. Not only can you participate in your healing but that you can be the primary guide in your healing. You have a capacity within you to do amazing and remarkable things no matter what you might have believed in yourself in the past.

We can’t all overcome Stage IV cancer, we can’t all overcome a broken back but all of those through these incredible sciences of yoga and Ayurveda, we can maximize our own individual healing potential. In the process, we can learn a whole lot more about ourselves and about spirit and we can come to a deeper place of realization and inner peace no matter what.

Spirituality comes up in your memoir as well, inevitably, when we talk about life and death. You embraced the words of the Serenity prayer while at the pain center and Father Joe’s advice about finding your soul. What does spirituality mean to you?

I describe spirituality as the eternal umbrella under which all human consciousness stands. That it’s something that’s far beyond religion. Religions being sort of subsets of spiritual practice that often offer great goodness for people but also offer too much control, dogma, difficulty and exclusivity which can be hurtful and harmful. Spirit is understanding that we’re all in this together and that it is really a Uni-Verse, a single song. All life is woven together in this ongoing, mystical, magical experience of being. Spirituality is opening to that, “it’s not all about me.” It’s not all about the individual self, it’s about all of us, we’re in this together. The more we honor Mother Earth the more she honors us. The more we honor on another the more that we have peace in our own lives. That to me is spirituality.

In the beginning and at the end of your story, you describe your connection to nature and how that made you feel. You beautifully describe as you practice yoga in the outdoors, “realigning with the natural rhythms of Mother Earth and the cosmos.” How did nature help your healing and why is that connection important?

We are nature. Our entire body comes from Mother Nature and the food that she grows. We are the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and space. As many spiritual practices teach, “As above, so below,” meaning that the macrocosm dwells within the microcosm. We have inner rhythms inside of us, in every cell of our being, that are tied to the rhythms of nature. We’re not separate. But, when we separate ourselves through artificial environments, artificial foods, and artificial behaviors then we create a disharmony-a dissonance that causes suffering. There is phenomenal medicine in just sitting at the beach and listening to the waves, hiking in the forest, there’s a rhythm there that’s attuned to our inner rhythms, more than a rolling wave, rather than the staccato of city life. It’s deeply healing. Nature is one of the greatest healing things that we have to experience in our lives. Getting back into nature immediately starts to give us a sense of relaxation, of belonging, of presence. Relaxation is the beginning of all healing-the capacity to let go.

At the end of the book, you describe your process after coming back home from detox and the pain center, yoga in your (Himalayan cave) at home and your organic chemotherapy. Can you talk about the radical steps that you took in order to get well?

I switched from a steak and potatoes Western diet to complete veganism. I came to understand that there was a direct connection between what you put in your body and what your body becomes so it became logical and intuitive, I didn’t need to read a book to realize that if I only put in pure organic food in my body I was likely to have a vastly better outcome. I immediately wanted to eliminate anything with additives or toxins. I also knew that I wanted to reduce my body weight greatly and purify myself. I started fasting on a regular basis, sometimes long and sometimes periodically one day a week. I explored yoga postures for hours so that I was embodying coming back into myself and listening to my body, finding my own natural alignment and where I needed to nurture and strengthen myself and where I needed to soften and open myself. It was the same thing with visualizations, a radical and emotional letting go. A letting go, purging, letting go of all my inner demons and my self-absorption, moving to a more conscious place. That was radical for me.

Opening myself up, being vulnerable, humble, peaceful and soft as opposed to being aggressive, powerful and macho and all those things that especially men are taught from when we’re very little. I had to turn all of that around. All of that was a radical reorganization of my life and the view of the world around me. I had to radically eliminate all the negative influences in my life. I eliminated mass media, going to any places that were aggravating, friends from my life who were deeply negative, angry and emotionally or psychically toxic. I realized that everything that we expose ourselves to becomes part of us.

How do we recapture our inner power and strength? How can we all stop blocking and sabotaging ourselves and begin to heal-emotionally, physically and spiritually?

We are designed to create habits in our lives and that can be very useful because then we don’t have to remember or re-learn everyday how to climb a tree to get a coconut or how to run when we hear a particular sound from a predatory animal or whatever it happened to by in more primitive times. Habituating ourselves was a very powerful way of evolving but as we mastered the basics of survival we started to think more about our pleasures and distractions we begin to habituate ourselves in negative ways. And then, with a consumerist mass-media self-indulging culture, we’re taught and programmed to habituate ourselves in all those negative ways. We’re actually taught to be disempowered and not believe in ourselves because then we’ll go shopping. We need something to fix it, something external, then we’ll drink and drug and do whatever to escape from the discomfort that we feel because we’re not connected or harmonized. To get into that state of negative agreements of who we are and what our capacity is or to have negative habits that have a lot of power over us, we need to practice the opposite in a ritualized and daily basis.

What is one small way that we can do that on a daily basis?

That practice is called, saddhana, in yoga practice and a daily practice is extremely important for growing. Old behaviors will always deliver to us old results and the only way to change our lives is new behaviors. For those new behaviors to take hold, we have to have faith in ourselves, shraddha, and we have to have courage, virya, and tapas, which is building that inner fire of self-discipline. We all learn that we’re not gonna have good oral hygiene unless we brush our teeth two or three times a day. At first, we’re very resistant when we’re little children and mommy or daddy has to tell us a thousand times. After a while, it becomes our nature, it becomes a beautiful, positive habit. We have to practice to have self-confidence, self-esteem, good health, good mental health, self-affirmation and self-belief and love.

Some things that people can do, they don’t have to do 12 or 16 hours a day, I was dying, had a broken back and was under radical circumstances. The best thing to do is seek a little victory. Oftentimes people will attend a retreat or read a spiritual book and will think, “I wanna do everything and I’m gonna meditate for two hours every morning and do three hours of yoga asana. We set ourselves up for great failure because we haven’t habituated ourselves to those positive practices well enough to be able to do it. It’s sort of like saying, “Gee, I love running. I’m gonna go run a marathon before we’ve practiced running around the block for a few months.”

If you could just take five minutes in the morning and:

Just sit and breathe deeply, close your eyes and visualize what you need emotionally, maybe it’s gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, courage or loving kindness. Breathe it in deeply and feel it in your body and as you exhale, feel like it’s washing all over you and you’re becoming gratitude, compassion, courage, healing, you’ll start to have a change. You’ll have a little victory and you’ll feel a little better and maybe you’ll add a few yoga poses that you’ve learned somewhere and that will be your day. Two or three months later, you’ll start to realize that you’re doing 15 minutes a day and you’re naturally eating better foods because it makes sense to you because you’re listening a little more closely. Suddenly, six month later, you’re practicing 45 minutes a day and you’re feeling great and you can’t do without it. Now, when we have a meal, we have to brush our teeth afterwards because it feels right.

It used to be a great effort for me to do these practices and I used to have to dig down deep and find what power I had. Now, I wake up before sunrise, I come downstairs, I only do 45 minutes to an hour, but I do it every morning and it’s nourishing, like taking a jacuzzi, my morning retreat and I feel fantastic. There’s never a time I think, “Oh Gosh, I have to do my practice. It’s part of who I am now. It took years to build that positive groove, vasana, in my life. Transformation happens through creating new patterns. If you go slowly and take small steps, you have victories along the way.

Do you count the broken back and cancer as blessings in your life now?

Oh yes, they’re great blessings. They taught me a lot. They made me a better person although surely not, perfect. They made me a much better and more compassionate person. It gave me the gift of being able to help others along the way. I’ve seen so many other people through what we offer in Deep Yoga, own their power and live their truth, transform their lives and it’s not about us at all, it’s about them. It’s just such a miracle to see other people do this and such a blessing that that’s part of the reason that I feel grateful for my experience.

Do you feel as though all of this happened so that you can share your powerful story about human transformation and touch others?

All of us that have suffered deeply, body and mind, and have found a healing path, feel a deep, inner-knowing that we need to share that. In that way, I suppose it had to happen but not just to me, (Bhava Ram), I think it’s the experience of anyone who’s gone through a transformative healing which is one of the reasons why I never felt like going back to my life as a journalist, as fulfilling and exciting as it was, because this is a deeper calling. It’s financially far less rewarding but it’s spiritually far more rewarding. It keeps me whole.

What’s your intention for sharing your story?

The intention is to inspire everybody to realize that we all have an inner power, from which we have largely been disenfranchised, to heal, to grow, to transform and to manifest our fullest potential. It’s there within all of us and I think that if someone as broken and dark as me can do it than anybody can do it, anyone can do it. I don’t hold myself up as some shining, miraculous example, I hold myself up as someone that was so dark and messed up that, wow, if I can climb out, so can you. I also believe that we’re in a place in the world and historically we’ve always been there, it’s always a tension or a juxtaposition between going toward the darkness or moving toward the light. When we go into the darkness we have wars, suffering, prejudice, ugliness, hurt and pain and when we move toward the light, we have peace, harmony, healing and more happiness. I wrote this book in part, to further that effort to help any and all move toward the light.

Our children teach us so much about being present, being grateful, pure. Your son Morgan is a teenager now, what has he taught you?

He taught me from the very beginning that it’s not all about me. That it’s not all about me and that children are so pure. It takes time for us to become socialized, inter-frustrated, depressed, angry and empirical people. Children see the joy in life; they see the miracle of being. They have great awe at seeing a rainbow, a butterfly, a sunrise, a sunset, as adults we forget. They take us back to that place. My son now, as a teenager is such a wonderful person, so present and so himself, that I never sought to have him be a yogi or be like me in anyway. He’s a beautiful person and when I see his youthful clarity and openness, awareness of all the possibility of life, it reminds me that that’s something that none of us should ever forget no matter how old we become.

After all that you’ve been through and overcome, you met your wife and studied yoga and Ayurveda both here in the states and abroad in India. What did you hope to offer others when you developed your Deep Yoga School, based at San Diego’s Ginseng Yoga Studio?

It’s again to carry that light forward and there’s a little play on words here, in the yoga tradition in India, there’s something called a deepa, a ghee lamp, and it’s a symbol of the light of spirit. You’ll see little deepas floating down the rivers in celebration. Deep is a play on words, but it’s also going back to this ancient wisdom and bringing it forth in a very simple and logical way because it’s so applicable to our modern times. While we train Vedic therapists and yoga teachers, our primary focus is what we call our training, Mastery of Life, because more than train someone to teach yoga postures, we want to help people live their lives in more balance and harmony, through the time tested sciences of yoga and Ayurveda. And, in doing so, be deepas, be little lights to other people along the way. Our intention is to grow human awareness, compassion around the world, a sense of togetherness and oneness, to move always in that direction and in our own humble way to play a role in evolution of human kind; in our humble way.


To learn more about Bhava Ram, his memoir, Warrior Pose, Deep Yoga trainings, retreats and healing programs, please see Deep Yoga.


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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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