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A war correspondent reporting from the frontlines of the world’s largest refugee crisis uncovers the power of yoga—and love.
1999. CORONADO, CALIFORNIA
My back is broken. Fifth vertebra snapped when I fell off a ledge while battening down windows during a tropical storm. Failed surgery. Declared permanently disabled. I can’t sit up to eat a meal or walk without a cane, but it’s not the pain that’s killing me. I have Stage Four throat cancer, likely from exposure to depleted uranium while I reported from the frontlines of the Gulf War for NBC News. It feels as if someone has planted IEDs—improvised explosive devices, which pocked the roads in Iraq—into the deepest recesses of my brain. They detonate in my mind every time I stress out: They burst when I scream at doctors for not fixing me; when I spit harsh words toward friends if they offer comfort or if I feel criticized. I approach panic when I think about how I’ll be leaving my toddler son, Morgan, without a father.
Morgan sits atop my body brace to play while I lie flat on my back every day around the house. It was his second birthday a few days ago. My oncologists have said that they don’t believe I’ll live to see his third.
Morgan gazes deeply into my eyes. He trembles, then whispers like he’s making a wish he knows will never come true: “Get up, Daddy.” The words crack something open inside me.
I feel a rush through my veins. It’s unlike the acidic adrenalin and edgy cortisol that have been spinning me into anger, fear, and depression. It’s a sweet nectar. For a moment, everything feels OK. In this instant, I consider that my love for this small child, and his for me, is my only chance for survival.
1986. THE HIMALAYA, AFGHANISTAN
My cameraman and I are in thick forest and deep snow with mujahideen freedom fighters, who are battling the Soviets who have invaded their homeland. I’ll air my reports on the NBC television station in Boston … if we get out of here alive.
A Soviet MiG fighter jet screams high overhead. We join the hundreds of mujahideen scrambling for cover. If we’re seen, the pilots will radio the attack helicopters with the coordinates of our position. I have no idea how these warriors have managed to survive in this brutal terrain. The snow is hip deep. The slopes are nearly vertical. The freedom fighters live on rancid goat grease and naan as they stave off the Soviets, who have the largest army on earth and are intent on controlling Afghanistan.
It takes 12 days to capture this segment of the story. After my cameraman and I have the footage we need, we sneak out of the mountains on foot in the dead of night with our interpreter. We reach our Jeep hidden in the foothills, then slip through the tribal territories between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here, too, capture by the Soviets is synonymous with death. It’s sunrise when our wobbly vehicle coughs its way into Pakistan on a dust cloud impersonating a road. Our interpreter is at the wheel and suddenly slams on the brakes. My cameraman grabs the video gear. The dust clears, revealing thousands of makeshift tents littering the tortured landscape of rocks and baked earth.
We encounter a flood of dazed people as we wade into the largest refugee crisis in world history: Five million Afghans—nearly one third of the country’s population—are displaced. This is among the largest camps, and disease is rampant among young and old. I witness missing arms and legs. I see shrapnel wounds in tiny faces. A mother’s wailing lament for her child who has just died pierces my skin. I gently approach with my microphone as my cameraman films. We invite refugees to share their stories with the help of my translator.
Soon, before we become overwhelmed by hundreds of people who want to share their heartbreaking circumstances, the three of us politely push on, forging our way toward the refugee hospital.
It’s close to 1oo degrees F under the scorching sun, and even hotter inside the hospital. Sweat drips down my cheeks as I scan the scene. The floors are stained with blood. The war-wounded fill metal cots. Yet silence underlies the pervasive urgency. I kneel down beside one cot to interview a child, Mahmoud. He is wrapped in gauze. Most of his body is covered in third-degree burns from napalm. Yet, somehow, he seems at peace with the destruction of his village. The loss of his family. His searing pain.
We find the hospital head, who agrees to a quick interview. Dr. Shahwani, a Pakistani, reveals his amazement that so many of the Afghan patients manage to survive when it seems medically impossible. The Pakistani fighters, mostly mercenaries, don’t fare as well. This, he says, is his “medical mystery.”
It has been two years since Morgan pleaded, “Get up, Daddy.” My only answer for my son then was to check into a hospital in order to detox off the painkillers, muscle relaxants, and antidepressants I’d been prescribed, get off alcohol, and die with some dignity. After endless days of writhing on the floor in withdrawal—uncontrollable vomiting, diarrhea, hot flashes, cold flashes, tremors, and hallucinations—I came out the other side dazed and confused. I had no idea what to do next. The detox ward needed my room for the next patient. My wife was not ready for my return home. (It was a marriage in deep trouble and that would eventually end.)
At that moment, one of the ward doctors walked into my room and invited me to join a small, experimental program at the hospital called The Pain Center. He explained that the treatments combined ancient Eastern healing practices with modern Western holistic techniques. “We can’t help you with cancer,” he said. “But maybe we can mitigate the pain, and you can stay off medications and alcohol.” I was too disoriented to grasp the holistic East-West modality concept, but it felt like a lifeline being tossed to me. I heard myself almost scream, “I’m in!”
A few days later, electrodes were being placed on my skull, my chest, my back, my arms. They were hooked up to computer monitors to track my brain waves, heart rate, skin temperature, breath flow. The technician helped me settle into a plush recliner, put headphones over my ears, and covered my eyes with a soft, padded cloth. Gentle music began. A deep, soothing male voice invited me to relax, and guided me through natural imagery. Waterfalls and rainbows. Warm, sandy beaches. Stunning sunsets. Twenty minutes later, I was relaxed beyond belief. Slowly bringing me upright and removing the electrodes, the technician told me all the baselines had improved, indicating less agitation, more inner harmony.
Six weeks into the program, my nurse at the center announced it was time for yoga. I had never done yoga, and I couldn’t imagine trying to practice with so much pain and with a broken back. Yoga was challenging. I couldn’t even get my legs up the wall in a restorative posture without the yoga teacher lifting them for me. Deep breathing felt unnatural. Yet, after class ended, I was hungry for more.
I studied and practiced yoga until, abruptly, The Pain Clinic shut down. Insurance companies refused to support the treatments. At first, I despaired. Then I heard a whisper from my soul telling me to go home and build a yoga room.
I converted an office into a yoga space, where I practiced for hours every day. Yoga postures brought me flexibility, balance, and strength. I did twists to tone my organs. I studied the ancient texts, especially the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. I shifted my meat-and-potatoes diet to organic vegetarianism. Breathwork slowly purified and enhanced my energy. Affirmations shifted my mental darkness toward the light. Meditation created calmness and inner awareness. Every time I wanted to quit, I chanted, “Get up, Daddy.”
Two years later, my body was 8o pounds lighter. I’d lost 1,ooo pounds of emotional darkness. The back pain was all but gone. I couldn’t believe how such a stiff and broken body could become so flexible. I hadn’t died from cancer. I couldn’t prove that yoga had healed me, but I was still alive.
2O15. CORONADO, CALIFORNIA
In meditation this morning, I drift back to the Afghan refugee camps, the squalid refugee hospital, Mahmoud on his rusty bed. I can see the entire ward now. An Afghan side. A Pakistani side. At every bed of the wounded Afghans is a loved one, holding vigil, fingering prayer beads, whispering mantras in Pashtu dialect. No one is with the Pakistanis. They are mercenaries. Detached from their families. Suddenly it dawns on me, the answer to Dr. Shahwani’s medical mystery: It’s the power of love.
The presence of a loved one, holding conscious space, immersed in mantra, had provided the Afghans a deeper opportunity for healing. Research shows that when we feel supported by loved ones, our body releases a hormone called oxytocin, which lowers stress and supports healing. I now understand that love was—and is—my most powerful medicine.
Love is the essence of our spirit, and the inner light to which yoga beckons us. It is the thread that weaves the ancient teachings of yoga together with the cutting edge of modern science. Love transforms us—and those around us—in body, mind, and soul. My 2-year-old son touched me so deeply with his love that I found an inner power I did not know existed. Morgan is 17 now, and we remain incredibly close. I offer gratitude in my daily yoga practice that I am alive to be his father, to affirm and support him, and to give him my love every day.