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Get ‘Hell-Bent,’ Benjamin Lorr’s Tale of Obsession, Pain and Competitive Yoga – Interview + Giveaway

in Giveaways!, YD News

Lately yoga memoirs seem to be blossoming like mold spores on a Bikram carpet, but Benjamin Lorr’s new “Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga,” has a lasting stickiness, more like a fungus (yogi’s foot?) and we mean that in a good way. For instance, how many yoga books do you know about a journey through yoga hell and back that are cited as a reason for settling a million dollar Bikram lawsuit?

In “Hell-Bent,” we’re taken on Lorr’s adventures from yoga newb to addict to recovering addict with tales of weightloss, obsession, narcissism, vomiting, competition, and Bikram Choudhury depicted as “an overgrown child and chronic liar with a penchant for emotional abuse,” as described by a recent in-depth LA Times review. It’s not a total slam, though. On the contrary, in the middle of all the late night Bollywood movie torture and awkward turns in asana-offs on stage, is curiosity, inspiration and awe for the power of yoga and the extent of the human body in this highly popular subculture, with scientific research to boot. (Read an excerpt here.)

We were fortunate to speak with Mr. Lorr over email and grill him ask him a few questions about his voyage through the world of Bikram and of course his favorite Bikram quote. And on top of that he generously agreed to give away copies of his book.

Read on!

YD: What made you start practicing yoga? Why Bikram?

BL:  I walked into my first yoga class overweight, injured, and a little depressed after a break-up. My only goal was to lose some flab. Lo and behold, I loved it and quickly fell into a daily Bikram practice that verged on the pharmacologically addictive. A practice where I would lose about 45 pounds over the first three months, reinvent myself into someone who regularly used “juice” as a verb, and find myself surrounded by a community of otherwise normal-to-too-thin looking people who were basically doing the same thing. It was weird and fantastic and I decided I wanted to write about it.

What were your preconceived notions of what yoga/Bikram was?

None. Or rather none regarding Bikram. Yoga in general, occupied this kind of ambiguously good place in my mind, right up there with trying to eat more fruit, being kind to strangers, and Bob Ross on PBS. Basically, it was something I had always wanted to try, but had never really found the time or excuse to dip my toes in.

Has your perception changed?

About yoga? Not so much. I still see it as an all around good thing; I suppose my conceptions of yoga and what it means to have a yoga practice have broadened a bit. I don’t see it as limited to a physical routine anymore, and certainly not a single asana sequence.

In your book you chronicle your time in Bikram teacher training. What was the most outrageous thing you experienced during that time?

It wasn’t outrage exactly, but watching just how lonely Bikram appeared certainly raised my eyebrows the most. And this in a training where my eyebrows were constantly being elevated — be it from the people running out of the room to vomit, sobbing into their palms after a shattering class, or telling the most amazing stories of how they used the yoga to transform their lives and heal. Bikram’s position – on throne, surrounded by acolytes, babbling away at lecture, and yet, achingly brittle, often sad, always needy – never failed to surprise me. He would say things about how he could withstand any amount of physical pain, but “put me in a room by myself and I will kill myself.”

I was fascinated.

In the wake of Eat, Pray, Love, there are a lot of stories about diving into yoga and reaching some point of transformation (or not), would you say you reached a transformative turning point?

No. My thinking certainly evolved over the course of writing the book. I came to many insights and explored a huge range of ideas about charisma, pain, narcissism, the placebo effect, my sense of self, my relationship to the material universe — but the book is not really a yoga memoir, nor even very focused on me. And so a narrative with some sort of ‘come to Kali’ moment at the end would have been patently dishonest.

That said, I happen to think the book has a really beautiful ending as it is. One that does a much better job of capturing the complexity and craziness of life than any single transformational turning point ever could.

Was competing in yoga all you expected and more?

Competing was fantastic. Seriously. I’ll never do it again, and would never have done it in the first place except for the book, but it really opened me up. It is a sharing; a willingness to openly and honestly try your best at something you care about. As someone who grew up using procrastination, sarcasm, and/or competing obligations to mask his best, I appreciated the risk it took to be completely earnest.

Basically I like to think of yoga competition as the most beautiful conception of what all competition could be: focusing on your best instead of your opponent’s worst; allowing yourself to be inspired by your opponent; using that inspiration as a challenge; letting that challenge give you the excuse to practice all day and indulge in something you love. Its the exact opposite of the rat race competition people are used to.

Do you think it will make it to the Olympics? Will you? 🙂

If I had to guess, no. I mean ultimately, asana competition is 100% physical, and the movements – as well as the scoring – are very similar to gymnastics. And when you place the two side-by-side, Olympic gymnasts will routinely do things that even the best competitive yogis today can only gasp at.

What’s your bottom line take away from the experience, personally and perhaps as a lesson/fair warning to readers?

I hope that readers value the complexity presented in the book. That they can embrace the very ha-tha idea of unity within opposites, and hold on to the notion that any one person, or event or practice can be both incredibly beautiful and terrifyingly dangerous at the same time. That we don’t need to reduce the world to simplistic categories. That this includes our leaders of course, but probably ourselves most of all.

What’s your favorite Bikram quote?

How about:
“People come to me and think yoga is relax. They think little flower, little ting sound, some chanting, hanging crystal… No! Not for you! Waste of time! Here I chop off your d*ck and play ping-pong with your balls. You know the Ping-Pong? That is yoga!”

Is this a family friendly blog? Can you print that? There are a few other great ones, but I suppose you’ll have to buy the book for those.

GIVEAWAY: We’re giving away two copies of “Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga” by Benjamin Lorr.

TO ENTER: Authors or not, we all have our own personal yoga stories to tell. Complete this sentence with whatever you’re possessed/inspired to share and leave it in the comments: Before yoga I  ____, and now I  ____.

Entries accepted until 11:59pm Thursday, December 20. Two winners will be chosen at random and announced soon after. Good luck!

UPDATE: Congrats to Kathryn and Nolan! Thanks to everyone for sharing in the comments. Rock on.



83 comments… add one
  • Morgan E.

    Before yoga I feel anxious and tense, and now I feel calm-minded.

  • Before yoga I was scatered in thought and motion, and now I am grounded and aware.

  • Amy T.

    Before yoga I starved, and now I thrive.

  • Alex Macias

    Before yoga I thought I only had a body and a mind, and now I know I also have a soul.

  • Before yoga I was in pain and felt trapped, now I feel strong and free.

  • Daveareeno

    Before yoga I couldn’t walk and now I Mountain Bike.

  • Gaugs

    Before yoga I worked , and now I play.

  • ambryn

    Before yoga I jumped, dived, flung, and startled, and now I sigh, drop, spread, and collect.

  • Florin C.

    Before yoga I cared about physical discipline only, and now I value mental discipline as much or even more.

  • Vallory Welday

    Before yoga I was, might be, would be, and now I am.

  • Moi

    Before yoga I was a mess, and now I can function.

  • Terri

    Before yoga I was scattered, tight, and unaware and now I am calm, loose, and aware.

  • Kim

    Before yoga I lacked self confidence after yoga I can go forward with my life confidently. Makes me a stronger person physically and mentally.

  • JenniferLorman

    Before yoga I watched reality TV, and now I am my own true reality.

  • Lisa G.

    Before yoga I judged myself and others and now I can look at myself in the mirror and accept myself as I am each day and be more accepting of others.

  • Emily

    Before yoga I was me, and now I am me 2.0.

  • Lucy

    Before yoga I was searching for a physical discipline to catch my imagination, and now my imagination is the only limit to what I can do physically.

  • Before yoga I cried and now I laugh…….

  • Kathryn

    Before yoga I survived, and now I embrace life.

  • Keith Milby

    before yoga I was not open to things that made me uncomfortable , after yoga I am more open minded

  • Before yoga, I let life run me over, and now I’m the one at the steering wheel.

  • Nancy

    Before yoga, I was not comfortable in my body, after yoga, I love my body!

  • Before yoga I had an antagonistic relationship with my body, and now my body and my mind are on the same team.

  • Before yoga I hurt, often with pain that my surgeon said there was no way to correct without a third back surgery; and now I breathe easy through pain-free days and no more appointments with my surgeon.

  • Before yoga I was so ridden with depression & anxiety that I couldn’t walk out my front door to pick up the mail, and now I am a 2-time published author, Yoga teacher, and a smiling person who leaves the house often. 🙂

  • Shawna Cunningham

    Before yoga I could barely walk and now not only do I teach it,I walk just fine 🙂

  • Brandy Jones

    Before yoga I had no idea what I was capable of, now I know that there’s nothing I’m not capable of.

  • Alegria

    Before yoga I wanted to save the world, and now I only care about my Self.

  • Before yoga I ate, slept and had sex.

    After yoga I ate. slept. and had sex.

  • Sydney Hayter

    Before yoga I entered doors seeking what was in it for me, and now I look for opportunities to give back and spread knowledge and love!

  • Maryannk

    Before yoga I was self-conscious about my body, and now I don’t care who sees me in dressed in luon!

  • Hui

    Before yoga I slept in tears, and now I awake with hope.

  • Before yoga, I was a a depressed, stressed out, Type A worrywort on medication & now I’m a calm, happy, blissed out yogini on meditation!

  • Janice Malloy

    Before yoga I was easily frustrated. Now I have patients not only in yoga but in my everyday life. I sleep more soundly now.

  • lori hatton

    Before yoga I said “See ya later” ,now I say “Namaste”.

  • Janice

    Before yoga I fought my body, and now I embrace my body.

  • I don’t remember a time before yoga, since I grew up doing it.

    But, the painful knocks of being in the yoga industry, like being bullied at school, has made me a stronger, more capable person.

  • Monica

    Before yoga I was very judgmental, and now I…well, I’m still judgmental…but less so, and I am much, much better at calling myself on it!

  • Before yoga I was on the search for my purpose, now I found my dharma.

  • nicole

    before yoga, i was underwater. now, i sit on clouds.

  • Ramon M Ramirez

    Before yoga I had not very healthy lifestyle habits, and now my lifestyle gravitates around Yoga.

  • Amber

    Before yoga I just lived life and now I live my life with my eyes wide open.

  • Rac

    Before yoga I was on mental illness medication for 6 years, and now I practice yoga daily and therefore require zero medication.

  • Before yoga, I had a hard time claiming space for myself and now I breathe and stretch and connect.

  • Vision_Quest2

    Before yoga I didn’t know the meaning of whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger; after yoga I know the meaning of whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger … but practice, mindfulness, ahimsa toward self, and middle path always, anyway …

  • Before yoga I was full of fear……….after yoga I am fearless, accepting and loving.

  • Leeanne Porta

    Before yoga I was overweight, stressed out, on a lot of meditation and unhappy, and now I am a size 4, am more relaxed, on no medication, and I’m happy. 🙂

  • C Quintal

    before yoga i was competitive and always striving for the next level, now i have learned the only level that matters is the one I am on.

  • PattyS

    Before yoga I was squirrelly, and now I am tranquil.

  • Colleen W

    Before yoga I was an anxiety-ridden mess, and now I am still anxiety-ridden but now have yoga tools to cope with it and not become so much of a mess.

  • Before yoga I was afraid to change, and now I embrace it.

  • Before yoga I was asleep, and now I’m awake.

  • Susan

    Before yoga I couldn’t touch my toes, and now I can.

  • Rebecca Ramsey

    Before yoga I was broken, and now I am on the mend.

  • Caitlyn

    Before yoga I hated my body 100% of the time and could not see its innate power and capactiy. Now I still struggle, but I more often remember to be grateful for the strength I do have.

  • Leslie

    Before Yoga I was me, After Yoga I am you.

  • Monica

    before yoga my body was mine to abuse, after yoga my body is mine to care for so it will care for me

  • Before yoga I slept, and now I rest.

  • Janine Pangburn

    Before yoga I always forgot to breathe, and now I’m addicted to oxygen.

  • Kristen J.

    Before yoga I thought of exercise as an obstacle to get to my incentive, now I know it is my greatest tool.

  • kerrie

    Before yoga I had a painful arthritic knee, now my pain is gone.

  • stacey

    Before yoga I walked through life, now I float!

  • Briony

    Before yoga I thought that I knew it all, and now I know that I don’t.

  • Before yoga I wasn’t worthy, after yoga I was.

  • Before yoga I chopped wood and carried water, and now I chop wood and carry water.

  • Before yoga, I was 20. After yoga, I am 34.

  • Melisa

    Before yoga my mind was like a bowling alley on a Saturday night and now, sometimes, it isn’t.

  • Michele McCormick

    Before yoga I thought mostly of myself, after yoga I think mostly about connection.

  • April Evans

    Before yoga I was unawares, after yoga I am amazed.

  • Nolan

    Before yoga I was a bro, now I’m a present bro.

  • Before yoga I doubted myself and others, now I accept doubt, myself, and others.

  • Nolan

    this could’ve worked too…

    Before yoga I was a bro, now I’m a Yoga Dork.

  • jennifer

    Before yoga i was lost, and now I am found.

  • Laura

    Before yoga I suffered, and now I thrive.

  • Before yoga I would never have said something like “I feel so totally blessed,” or “honor your body”, and now I’m one of *those* people. 🙂

  • Peter Cook

    Before I did Yoga, I has some money, some time, didn’t appreciate much of anything. Now, I have almost no money, and I realize how awesome my life is!

  • Robin

    Before yoga I was full of hurt, cynicism and self-doubt, and now I am healing, recognize my blessings and believe in myself. Transformation!

  • Heather

    Before yoga I was ‘suffocating’ in so many ways and now I can breathe.

  • kerrie

    Before yoga I was anxious and worrisome, now I breathe easier and don’t sweat the small stuff!

  • Jennifer Brewer

    Before yoga I was half empty and now I am half full

  • Lauren T

    Before yoga everyday was tackling a new challenge. After yoga everyday is embracing a new adventure.

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