Author Q&A with Benjamin Lorr

  • February 26, 2013

Ashleigh Andrews Rich interviewed Benjamin Lorr, author of Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, which explores the fascinating, often surreal world at the extremes of American yoga.

Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga explores the fascinating, often surreal world at the extremes of American yoga. Benjamin Lorr walked into his first yoga studio on a whim, overweight and curious, and quickly found the yoga reinventing his life. He was studying Bikram Yoga (or “hot yoga”) when a run-in with a master and competitive yoga champion led him into an obsessive subculture—a group of yogis for whom eight hours of practice a day in 110- degree heat was just the beginning.

So begins a journey. Populated by athletic prodigies, wide-eyed celebrities, legitimate medical miracles, and predatory hucksters, it’s a nation-spanning trip—from the jam-packed studios of New York to the athletic performance labs of the University of Oregon to the stage at the National Yoga Asana Championship, where Lorr competed for glory.

The culmination of two years of research, and featuring hundreds of interviews with yogis, scientists, doctors, and scholars, Hell-Bent is a wild exploration.

The author, Benjamin Lorr, graduated from Columbia University with a degree in environmental biology and creative writing. He lives in New York City and is currently at work on his second book.

Q&A with Benjamin Lorr: Hell-Bent

Hell-Bent chronicles your journey from out of shape yoga newbie to serious competitor.  Along the way, you constantly encounter inspirational stories of how yoga has changed lives for the better—but you also uncover some dark, gritty details that the average yoga student is probably totally unaware of.  What is the role of yoga in your life now?  Do you still practice every day?  Do you continue to practice Bikram yoga, or do you prefer a different approach?

I think I’ll always have a yoga practice of some sorts, and that it will always include a Bikram style component to it. Even though the book explores many of the extremes (and extreme contradictions) in the Bikram practice, I have a lot of love for the hot room. You can learn a lot about meditation, calm, and compassion in there.

That said, right now, the majority of my yoga practice takes place between my bookshelf and my couch on the cold hardwood floors of my apartment. It takes advantage of one of the most beautiful things about asana: simplicity: you need absolutely nothing except your body to practice.

When and how did the idea for this book develop?  Was it early on in your yoga journey?  Did you push yourself to a more extreme level of practice for the book than you would have otherwise?

The idea for the book developed almost exactly as detailed in the book. Here I was, in this early romantic swoon with the yoga, developing a daily practice that bordered on the pharmacologically addictive – a practice where I shed a little more than 45 pounds in the first three months and reinvented my personality into someone who regularly used “juice” as a verb – when one of my favorite instructors suffered a stroke. This was a studio owner, healthy, wealthy, handsome, and wise, and his stroke struck me hard: not unlike learning that your chess instructor was actually getting dumber for all the chess he was playing. Scales dropped. And I decided I wanted to learn more, not only from a health perspective, but also why this yoga compelled so many interesting intelligent people with such intensity.

Now, once I actually channeled this desire to learn more into a book proposal, got the agent, the editor, began the research – did it effect my relationship with the yoga and how far I was willing to take my practice? Of course. How? Can’t say. It’s a bit of a historical conditional, impossible to answer completely, ‘if the Japanese hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor’ type stuff. There are certain fantasies we all have, and in many ways getting a book deal, which includes an infusion of cash, includes an obligation to pursue leads, makes materializing these fantasies possible. So did I do anything ‘for the book’, things that I did not want to do, but thought, jeez you had better do this to sell copies? No. In my opinion, that would be crossing a line. But, at the same time, would I have gone to a 9 week $11,000 Teacher Training while holding a fulfilling day job, and without holding a book contract? No again.

Writing first person narrative nonfiction is very tricky this way. In Hell-Bent, I try to call the reader’s attention to the writing process a number of times – especially when I am close to that line – which is my way of handling this issue, planting little flags that point the reader outside the narrative, without letting the whole issue become too meta and intrusive on the story.

What has the response to your book been from your friends and acquaintances within the Bikram community?  What about the more general responses from different corners of the yoga world?

The response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive. I have been approached by people all over the yoga community – studio owners, practitioners for 10, 15, 20 years – and the consistent message has been: thank you. Thank you for being honest. Thank you for separating the practice – which can be quite beautiful – from the man, Bikram Choudhury – who can be quite ugly. Of course, there is a part of me that is still waiting for the other shoe to drop. It is a very fear based community in many respects, and I guess I am still waiting for that fear to bite me.

One of my favorite things about this book is that you devote a lot of space to investigating the physiological/health implications of yoga.  I am particularly interested in the Bikram-specific issues around the effects of exercise in extreme heat.  Early in the book, an interview with Dr. Susan Yeargin in the Department of Applied Medicine and Rehabilitation at Indiana State University is enough to put the fear of God into any Bikram newbie: “Most of my work is telling people to avoid exercising in exactly that type of situation… [it] can be devastating if core temperature rises to a dangerous level… Rapid deterioration of organs, coma, death.”

Throughout the book, you describe some pretty extreme physical reactions to heat and dehydration in your yoga practice. But your concerns about the safety of Bikram yoga certainly don’t stop you from pushing yourself to extremes, and they seem less pressing later on in the book, when you discuss acclimatization and the placebo effect.  What are your conclusions on the safety of Bikram practice?

Yes. Objective takes on the health and science claims were very important to me. One of the unfortunate characteristics about the yoga literature at this point, is that it often tends to regurgitate the same exaggerated claims, and/or triumph personal discovery over objectivity. I definitely did not want Hell-Bent to fall into that trap.

As for safety and health concerns, the book looks at a wide swathe of yoga and it’s important to separate things out.

Susan Yeargin’s quote, in my experience, is not really relevant to the Bikram Beginners Class. Despite the heat, core body temperatures do not rise much during that 90 minute class. Your body is working hard to cool you down – this is one of the reasons the class burns so many calories. If this wasn’t the case, you’d be hearing many more reports of heat stroke, heat stress, and all of the horrible complications Susan Yeargin discusses. But that just isn’t happening to large numbers of people. In general, I tend to think of the Beginner Series as quite safe.

(Which isn’t to say you can’t hurt yourself. You can injure yourself on a chin bar, jogging in the park, and/or taking a shower. Yoga is no different. The attitude that yoga is somehow exclusively virtuous, and therefore exclusively safe, might be the most dangerous idea of all).

On the other hand, I would separate out the Beginners Class from the more extreme practices in the book. Take Backbending Club [a group of yogis who practiced for 8-12 hours a day]. While I never observed any injuries at Backbending, I would suggest that injuries there are beside the point. Backbending is an extreme experience – people are trying to bend their spine backwards until they can see their ankles! People are hallucinating from the manipulation of their spinal nerves! – safety is just not the category we should use to try to understand it. As with hang gliding, trekking, or a marathon, the goals and benefits are not entirely physical and the fact that you must face your edge is entirely the purpose.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to a study of Bikram Choudhury. He is an extremely complex figure—as you acknowledge, even the most basic biographical facts are difficult to pin down and separate from fiction. One thing you make clear is that over the years, he has hurt and alienated many people, including members of his inner circle. These wounded ones seem to quietly disappear from the scene, rather than speaking out.  Why do you think such a divisive figure has remained so successful?  Will there ever be a “reckoning” for Bikram?

This is certainly at the heart of the book – and one of the key reasons I think that although framed as a ‘yoga’ story, it resonates with people who have no interest in yoga at all.  Without going into too many details here, I see Bikram Choudhury as emblematic of a number of powerful men in our society – Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, Lance Armstrong come to mind immediately. Men, often tremendously inspiring and innovative, who rely on great will power to propel themselves to great heights. We are captivated by them, often filled with admiration by their accomplishments – but we forget the price that exerting such great will exacts.

I am not concerned with a ‘reckoning’ for Bikram. That is for the people who feel injured and cheated and hurt by him. I am fascinated by the dynamics that empowered him, that fueled his adoration, and resulted in intelligent capable people surrendering their lives to him. I am also – as a writer – interested in viewing him as a whole: exploring this notion that one person can be both a master healer and a predatory hurter to the very same person, often at the very same moment. To see Bikram interact with his followers is fascinating.

Over the course of your experiences (or research for the book), did you come across any particularly good books or other resources you would recommend to yoga newbies?

Absolutely. I spent a year of my life buried in yogic texts and have an extensive list of recommendations (ranked for easy reading or in depth study) on my website:

What’s next?  Do you have any current projects you’d like tell us about?

I’m currently working on another book. Tentatively looking at another obsessive community, where money and corruption, narcissism and need are all colliding: a non-partisan exploration of hydrofracking and US energy policy.

Ashleigh Andrews Rich is a writer living in Fairfax, Va. She studied English and history at Cornell University and works on publications for a think tank in Washington, D.C.

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