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.
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?
“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.
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