My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It may strike one as hokey that this book has one author, but two names on the byline. But, it’s apropos of an autobiography describing the fundamental transformation of a man.
Part I is the story of Brad Willis, a journalist on the rise. Willis goes from stumbling into a reporter job at one of the smallest markets in the country to being the Asia bureau foreign correspondent for NBC (National Broadcasting Corporation, one of the largest American television networks.) There’s no mention of yoga in this part of the book. It’s the story of a driven journalist covering major world events. Willis made a name for himself reporting from Soviet occupied Afghanistan in the 80’s. He tells harrowing tales of covering the drug war in Latin America, the Desert Storm Gulf War, and human trafficking in Thailand. He was also one of the few American journalists to visit North Korea. There was nowhere he wouldn’t go for the story, and he took serious risks along the way. His highly driven nature is the one point of consistency throughout the book. Willis is not a man to do anything half-assed, be it following a story or pursuing the yogic path.
Then Willis’s world was torn asunder by health problems, and this is the subject of the second part of the autobiography. First, a fall caused a hairline fracture in one his vertebrae that became crippling when Willis refused to take time off from work or to do anything for it. He couldn’t be diverted from his on-the-go foreign correspondent’s pace. Considering the dangerous places Willis traveled, it’s ironic that he initially broke his back on vacation at a Caribbean resort while closing a window during a storm. When the deterioration of his vertebrae made work untenable, he underwent a surgery that failed and left him “permanently disabled.”
Then Willis was diagnosed with a cancer in his throat that spread from his tonsils into lymph nodes. On top of the ailments themselves, Willis’s health rapidly declined because he became dependent on painkillers and other prescribed medications, and—against advisement—he began to drink alcohol in conjunction with these meds. Not only did he become hooked on the medications and alcohol, he became dependent on a back brace, a cane, and a lethargic lifestyle that kept the body from healing itself. Yoga is only briefly mentioned in passing in this part of the autobiography.
The third part is about Willis’s transformation into the yogi Bhava Ram, and his successful battle against cancer. After an intervention that resulted in drug rehab, he was referred to a pain center at Scripps that employed alternative therapies. (As an aside, the book is in part an indictment of a healthcare system in which this Pain Center both helped many people and was completely unsustainable because insurance companies could reject claims on the basis of the treatments being unconventional—but because it was staffed by medical professionals it was too expensive for most people to afford without insurance. Willis points out that there was never a rejection of any claim for any of the expensive medications or surgery that failed to helped him, but the Pain Center that put him on the road to good health went under due to failure to pay.) The Pain Center was the key to his turn around. After progressing with physical therapy, biofeedback, and—most uninsurable of all—Jin Shin Jyutsu, Willis is introduced to Yoga.
The final part charts Willis’s pursuit of yoga both through a series of teachers as well as any books that he can get his hands on. He voraciously reads up on the subject, and begins a sadhana (personal practice) that is marked by all the drive he had earlier given to his journalism career. The practice starts out rough. His muscles have atrophied, his spine curved, and he gained a tremendous amount of weight on a steak, potato, and beer diet mixed with a sedentary lifestyle. However, over the period of a couple of years, well beyond when he had been told he would be dead, he transforms his body and his mind through an intense daily practice and an adjustment of his world view.
I’d recommend this book for anyone. It will definitely be of interest to yoga practitioners—though don’t be surprised that yoga doesn’t come into play until the final quarter of the book. It could also benefit individuals with serious health problems as a way to reconsider how they approach health and treatment. Willis points out that falling into the role of victim was one of the main killers. He inherited a bad situation through an accidental fall and a case of cancer that he believed was attributable to his experience in Iraq (i.e. related to depleted uranium shells.) However, it was only when he stopped gorging on food, alcohol, and self-pity that he made a turnaround.
Even if I wasn’t interested in yoga and alternative approaches to healing, I would’ve found this to be an intensely engaging read. Willis’s journalism career gave him a unique insight into some of the major world events of the 1980s and 90’s. Willis builds lines of tension and sustains them. One wonders what will happen to his marriage to a woman who married one man (a confident and successful foreign correspondent in Hong Kong) and found herself in a marriage with another—first a lethargic addict and then a man who sunk himself hook-line-and-sinker into to the yogic lifestyle. One wonders whether his cancer remission will hold. One wonders whether he can keep clear of the pain meds and stick to the life of a yogi. I haven’t read a book that caught me this much by surprise in some time. I hadn’t heard of this book before I bought it, and didn’t have particularly high expectations (it was on sale on Kindle or I probably never would have picked it up), but I quickly became hooked.