My first read of the year was Hell-Bent (St. Martin’s Press, 2012) by Benjamin Lorr. The book offers an informative, eye-opening and engaging look into the world of Bikram Yoga, as the author dives in head-first, researching it’s history, learning of the health benefits it has had for so many, training for competition, and participating in a multi-week teacher training course in California. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ben about competition in yoga, some of the preconceived notions that exist, the moment he decided to make his experiences into a book and much more. Read on to see what he had to say…
Andrew DeCanniere (AD): In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that when I picked up your book I knew little or nothing about yoga — I’m just totally outside of that world — so it really surprised me to learn that it can actually be this competitive sport.
Benjamin Lorr (BL): Right. Well, yoga and competition is certainly an oxymoron on the face of it, because yoga is, at it’s heart, a quest for union. A quest to see unity in things. Hatha Yoga as well is about going inward to connect with the universe, as opposed to the Christian concept of praying outwardly toward the universe. So, on one hand, with this activity that is predicated on union, it seems pretty strange that you would be pitting people against one another. However, I think that when you talk about yoga in terms of competition, it’s really subverting the notion of competition. It’s not rat-race competition. It’s not dog-eat-dog. It’s what we mean by inspiration. Whether it is looking at other people — your peers, your competitors — doing something and being inspired by them to do the best that you can do. When you think about that in terms of a yoga competition, it makes somewhat more sense, because you have people on-stage and they’re doing demonstrations. There’s no rivalry. There’s no trash-talking. What’s really subversive about it is when it starts to leap into other ideas of competition. Me doing better doesn’t depend on someone else doing worse. Me doing better depends on me doing better, and actually seeing someone else do better can help me do better. To me that’s really the essence of yoga competition. It’s kind of a beautiful mind shift. It’s also fun because a lot of yoga, especially Hatha Yoga, is really defined by this quest to resolve dichotomies. Yoga competition — this seemingly opposite thing — gives us this great opportunity to resolve this dichotomy in a kind of mental twist.
AD: It seems like it’s pretty unique in that way, particularly among sports. It’s unique, for one, in that different sort of dynamic. It seems like, when you talk about so many sports, even when people are on the same team there’s a certain amount of competition going on between teammates.
BL: Yeah. I think the idea is that anywhere there’s competition, that spirit is there. There are these mental barriers that people can’t get across, and then we start to see someone do it. You realize ‘Oh, I can do that, too.’ I think that’s the essence of yoga competition, to get that inspiration from others. I think that a lot of people are threatened by competition. Our society is very competitive in general, and a lot of people go to a yoga studio to escape those pressures. They use it as a way to decompress and relax from what are perhaps the crasser aspects of their lives, so I think that to suddenly have someone label explicitly that they are bringing competition into this space that they have carved out as sacred can be very threatening.
AD: As I said, I personally don’t come from that world at all. I’ve never taken a class, so I really wouldn’t know, but —
BL: Right. That’s one of the things about the book. I wasn’t trying to write a book that was just for yoga people. I think that it really just uses yoga as a touchstone to look at more complex issues of narcissism and pain. It’s really just a jumping off point for a tour of all sorts of interesting ideas. As a writer, that’s what attracted me to it. You have this deeply meaningful thing that people pour their lives into, that really consume them. Whenever you have something that is that meaningful to people, it can teach you a lot about the human condition, which is ultimately what a writer is looking for.
AD: Interestingly, you say that there are some people who have some preconceived notions of what yoga is too, right?
BL: Absolutely. I think that when yoga came to America, it came in fits and spurts. Certainly our parents’ generation was exposed to a very particular type of yoga — in leotards and leg warmers, often accompanied by crystals. You know, if you go to India there is that type of yoga, but there’s also a myriad of other different types. Yoga is not just one thing. It is a spectacular range of things, and I think we’re so desperate for authenticity because so much of what we think is authentic has been taken from us by our culture, by consumerism and by competitive forces. When we see something that we label as authentic — like yoga from the mystical east — we romanticize it and start to capture it and make it into something that’s actually just as fictional as anything we can create in our own culture.
AD: And I know that you yourself just had kind of fallen into it — for lack of a better term — as a result of trying to find some sort of exercise you felt was a good fit for you at the time.
BL: Absolutely. That was exactly how I got into it. I was plump and had hurt myself and was horrendously out-of-shape. I am someone who has always been pretty athletic — never a Mr. Universe-type body, but I always tried to be fairly health-conscious. Then I slipped into this kind of a slump for a long time and I just really ballooned up and all of a sudden I kind of realized ‘Oh, I have to do something about this. I can’t just keep putting on 30 pounds a year. That’s not going to end well.’
AD: I’d think not. Gaining 30 pounds a year is definitely not the healthiest thing one can do.
BL: I don’t know if it’s the same in Chicago, but in Brooklyn — where I was living — yoga is everywhere.
AD: It’s pretty popular here, too. There are something like two different yoga places just two blocks away from me. So, when did you realize that this is what you wanted to write about? When did you realize you could make a book out of this?
BL: Fairly early on. I certainly didn’t walk into a yoga studio and think I’m going to write a book, but fairly early on I found myself getting obsessed or enveloped in this oddball world full of crazy characters. Of course I heard stories about this madman guru, and that was raising all sorts of questions. As a writer you’re always looking for subject matter. So, fairly early on I was like ‘This would make a compelling book.’ For me, it gave me the opportunity to explore these questions that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to. I was a teacher when I started writing the book. I was teaching full-time. If you’re teaching full-time — or you have any other full-time job — you might have all of these other curiosities about things, but you don’t have the time to track them down and indulge them in a way that being a writer allows. That was really the path to writing Hell-Bent.
AD: Though your book is about so many things — among them your own experience with Bikram Yoga — the backbending, the training for competition, the multi-week teacher training session you partook in — one of the things that you touch on are the allegations of sexual abuse and sexual assault that have relatively recently surfaced. It seems like the reports have really been everywhere in recent days, including on Good Morning America and Nightline. For those who don’t know, a number of women in the yoga community allege he sexually abused or sexually assaulted them. Assuming that all of these allegations are true, there is clearly this very dark, very disturbed side to this man that so many seem to have put their trust in.
BL: Absolutely. First of all, I think that — in the book, at least — he becomes symbolic of exactly that Hatha notion that we were talking about earlier in regards to competition. All things are the merger of opposites. We’re constantly negotiating these dichotomies in life. In Bikram’s case it’s someone who is capable of doing a lot of healing and a lot of harm. There is really no doubt in my mind that he has done a tremendous amount of healing through the spreading of his yoga practice. He pretty much single-handedly brought this style of yoga to America. He’s enormously influential and there’s no end of people who will tell you that he has changed their lives, both in very physical ways — rehabbing knees, elbows, chronic pain and painkiller addictions — to more spiritual things. There’s no end to those stories and I give them total credit and weight. I believe them just as much as I believe the people who have interacted with him and paint him as an extraordinarily malicious and manipulative person who has a need to dominate. In the book, after talking with some experts in the field, I label him a pathological narcissist. Those coexist within this one guy. I think there’s a big inclination in our culture to label one way or the other and make everything all black or all white. In the book, at least, I wanted to spill all of that stuff out there and kind of present that. Just as yoga competition seems to be an implausible kind of riddle of an idea, this idea of Bikram the man is an implausible riddle.
AD: They’re both certainly at odds.
BL: Absolutely. Having talked to the people I have talked to, there’s no doubt in my mind that he can be extremely manipulative and uses the leverage of his healing to hurt people sometimes. The fact that people come to him as vulnerable and they achieve breakthroughs with him, which makes them feel dependent on him, gives him a power over them. In some cases that power is benign, in some cases that power is used to awful means. I think that is one of the things that makes people so fascinated — or at least what makes the topic so fascinating to me, as a writer. I always say that the parallel is not to workplace harassment. I think that’s something that Nightline kind of misses. The parallel is to incest. This is a community of people who are dependent on each other. They depended on Bikram because he was offering his healing. They depended on him because he was giving them money in the form of their jobs, which were totally dependent on him. They were dependent on a network of friends that they made under him, who were similarly dependent on him. So, the pressure to remain silent and not rock the boat is intense.
AD: And then, from reading your book, it seems that he can have this power or this ability to ostracize. It seems like he can literally order members of the community not to speak with someone and there are at least some people who will listen.
BL: I mean he doesn’t actually have that ability, but he certainly does everything in his power to act like he has that power.
AD: I mean, based on what I read in your book, it would seem — from their perspective — that they have this incentive to listen. If they don’t, it seems like it is entirely possible from their perspective that they will be ousted as well. Personally I wouldn’t be inclined to listen to someone like BIkram, but it seems that there are plenty of people in the community who are, and that’s a lot of influence for one person to have.
BL: From an outside perspective it’s difficult to understand. I think that’s what makes those Nightline reports possibly unsympathetic. ‘You went back to this guy who raped you? Why would you ever want to be in his presence again?’ Again, that’s because the parallel here isn’t a rapist jumping out of the bushes. It’s not even a parallel to a date rape. It’s something that is much more insidious that involves much more trust and many more levels of coercion from the financial to the social to the interpersonal. It’s extremely alarming, and anytime that you have that tight-knit type of community, run by someone who exhibits those tendencies, I think it is a very dangerous situation.
AD: This brings me to my next question, which is the question that inevitably seems to get asked by so many whenever these types of incidents come to light. For instance, I know that a similar question came up with Woody Allen and abuse allegations that recently resurfaced and were all over the news. It seems many wrestled with this question of whether it is possible to separate the films from the filmmaker. So, what do you think? In this instance, as is so often asked, is it really possible to “separate” Bikram the person from the yoga? I don’t know that anyone should really want to, as it could end up doing a real disservice to many people.
BL: The problem with that phrase is that it’s too often used by apologists for the person. It’s obvious that we can separate a physical posture from a person. On some level that separation is so obvious it doesn’t even bear repeating, and you don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. On the other hand, I think that the phrase ‘separate the man from his yoga’ or ‘separate the man from his art’ is often used by someone who is an apologist. What they’re really saying is that they can have their cake and eat it too, or that they can keep this person around despite their unsavory qualities, that they can keep this person around because of all the good they’ve done. That, of course, is a very dangerous attitude. It is actually complicit in the abuse when you have a community of people who adopt that mindset. It encourages silence. It encourages people not to speak up. If someone comes to you and tells you ‘He raped me,’ and your response is that it might have happened but they have to separate what the man did from the yoga they’re practicing, that they have to deal with these external factors —- and you mean they need to deal with it internally — that is reckless and irresponsible. That is a destructive thing to tell someone because there is no reason why they have to internally deal with it and it prevents the predator from being stopped. So, that phrase is a little problematic, especially within the community. I will continue to do yoga, even though Bikram taught me how to do yoga indirectly. I don’t think yoga is the source of his problems. I don’t think that yoga is what made him do it, and I don’t think the people who are doing yoga will suddenly turn into abusers.
Benjamin Lorr lives in a small apartment in the West Village of Manhattan. For the six years prior to writing Hell-Bent, he taught high school science and sex education in Bushwick, Brooklyn. He currently consults with New York City public schools and is at work on his second book. For additional information, visit his website. You can also follow him on Twitter.