Benjamin Lorr's memoir on Bikram Yoga, "Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga" is a fascinating romp through the yoga world’s most bizarre (it's very, very hot) and profitable subculture. We asked him a few questions about the book and if, after everything, he still practices (he does!).
Can you give us a little background on how you started Bikram Yoga?
Lets see. I walked into my first studio overweight and injured - with little or no preconceptions about Bikram or yoga of Bikram Yoga — and quickly fell into a daily practice that verged on the pharmacologically addictive. A practice where I would go on to lose 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 so I decided I wanted to write a book to try and understand it all
What do you say to people who think that Birkam is a weird, hippie cult?
Does anyone still think of yoga as hippie anymore? It feels so overwhelmingly mainstream these days, a little less exotic than an eggroll. Bikram Yoga in particular is just about 100 percent anti everything I associate with hippies. Aside from attracting exceedingly Type A individuals (viz. the stockbrokers, lawyers, and dancers dripping sweat around the locker room), it features using fossil fuels to add heat in the era of global warming and a guru obsessed with money and gangsters, decked out in enough bling to give Kanye pause.
As for the cult part, well, you'll have to read the book and come to your own conclusions. Suffice to say, even though I don't think so, I can't be nearly so dismissive of the label.
After everything — the book, the backbends, the hurt — do you still practice?
Absolutely. I mean my conceptions of yoga certainly broadened over the course of the book, and I no longer see it as limited to a physical practice, much less a rigid series of asanas, but I still love it. Even run off to a Bikram studio once in a while.
What was the craziest thing you discovered in researching and writing about Bikram?
I'm not sure if this is 'crazy' exactly, but watching just how well the guru, Bikram Choudhury, appeared to fit the profile of Narcissistic Personality Disorder raised my eyebrows the most. And this in a world 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. The guru's personality — 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." Fascinating.
How do you describe Bikram to someone who might not know what it is?
Bikram the man? Or the yoga? Bikram Yoga is a series of 26 asanas performed at 105 degree heat, high humidity, that is designed to be accessible to all body types and has wonderful therapeutic benefits. Bikram the man is a petty controlling hatha yoga master who designed the aforementioned series. He lives in Beverly Hills surrounded by expensive cars, true believers, and his own ever increasing loneliness. All of which is, of course, why the book makes such an interesting read.