Questions for Benjamin Lorr
Interviewed by Joslyn Hamilton
Have you read Hell-Bent yet? Do. Benjamin Lorr’s provocative but thoughtful book about both the seedy underbelly and the silver linings of the Bikram yoga world transfixed me from start to finish—twice. He blessed me with this interview, which I am so excited to share with you here on Recovering Yogi now.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
As someone who spent years immersed in the same sort of intense behind-the-scenes yoga world you became privy to while writing this book, I’m curious how you had the guts to present such a straightforward account of your time in the Bikram underworld without worrying about getting whacked by the yoga mafia. I get the feeling you don’t worry all that much about what people think of you. Is that true, or do you have a coping mechanism you’d like to divulge?
Haha. On the contrary! I am a hopeless suck-up. And spent a huge amount of time, when I should have been writing, rubbing my knuckles raw and worrying about how all the very nice people—sincere beyond belief, and yet financially and emotionally enmeshed in the net that is Bikram Choudhury—would react to the book. An outsized number of reviews focus on how “compassionate” the book is—and I’ll take that feather in the cap—but I think a real part of that compassion was just not wanting to get it wrong, not wanting to sell anyone’s experience short, honoring all these lives I was interacting with… in short, caring a lot more about what people would think than it is ever cool to admit.
The one aside I’ll make to this is that writing did require having a firm moral compass. I was approached by an always-growing number of teachers and students who urged me to “focus on the positives” and/or to “write about the yoga and ignore the man.” Justifications for intolerable behavior were passed around with the cheery conviction of political slogans (my personal vote for most loathsome being “think about all the good he has done”). There is a lot of pressure to conform. There is no strategy here, except maybe smiling and nodding at these people, and then mentally throwing up a big middle finger in their face, feeling secure that 99% of morally sentient human beings will have your back when the facts come out.
I taught high school dropouts in Bushwick Brooklyn for six years before writing Hell-Bent. There are a lot of reasons why an inner-city student drops out, but abusive situations are shockingly high on the list. And so I went into this book having seen firsthand the interpersonal destruction sexual manipulation can cause. That added a lot of moral clarity. At the end of the day, I couldn’t have looked myself in the mirror if I participated in the type of cowardice that allows a guru to become a predator. Silence is enabling.
Here’s something you said in a Washington Independent Review of Books interview that struck me: “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.” What do you mean by fear-based community?
“Fear-based community” speaks to exactly this inclination toward silence and cowardice in morally complex situations. It refers to the defensive crouch the Bikram community maintained. It refers to isolating people who voice dissention, ratting out others to get closer to the top because you are worried about your own position, or even feeling the need to exaggerate legitimate benefits of the yoga because you are afraid people won’t see them as satisfactory compared to the hype.
I don’t think most people in the Bikram Community knew all the details of what was going on—and unless subsequent lawsuits are filed, they still don’t (if my experience was accurate, Sarah B. is just the tip of an iceberg). But instead of speaking up when they saw something dubious, they felt pressure to conform. I don’t want to undervalue this pressure—it was based on huge financial ties, careers and bank loans, huge interpersonal ties, a supportive community and knowing firsthand how much the yoga could changed lives—but if that pressure defines your community, then the possibility for someone to abuse it is present.
Another quote from that interview: “The attitude that yoga is somehow exclusively virtuous, and therefore exclusively safe, might be the most dangerous idea of all.” Can you expand on this?
I think people should always be wary of anything sold as “the answer.” That is a sign that you are being asked to check your critical thinking functions at the door. It makes people enormously vulnerable. And I think yoga—because it kind of waltzed into the West from India and was immediately romanticized—is very susceptible to this mentality.
In your book, you talk about narcissism and charisma as being two sides of the same coin. Having myself worked closely with a yogalebrity on par with Bikram, I notice a lot of similarities in their personalities and in their relationships with the teachers and yoga students around them. Egomaniacal craziness seems to be the domain of many of the bigger yoga teachers. The question is whether fame and success breeds narcissism, or is it that the charismatic narcissists have a bigger chance of gaining success? Do you think it’s possible to separate charisma from narcissism?
Great questions. I don’t know. I have such limited experience with true charismatics on the order of Bikram, Steve Jobs or Lance Armstrong. I imagine it’s a classic intertwined dynamic, not an either/or. I do think that the pressure toward narcissism must be intense, just as the pressure to take advantage of natural charisma unimaginable. There is a great Chris Rock line about Republican Senators hounding Bill Clinton: “Ain’t no 20-year-old girls trying to blow Orrin Hatch… You ain’t never gonna hear Newt Gingrich go ‘Man I wish these hoes would back up off me.’”
In many ways, it is because these pressures are so intense that the community needs to maintain standards—protect the leader from him or herself.
A quote of yours from the book that grabbed me: “Yoga is simply one of those thing impervious to certainty, as incapable of corruption as it is of authenticity. And no amount of bossy, possessive attempts to claim a ‘real yoga’ will make it otherwise.” First of all, amen. Second, what do you mean when you say that that yoga is incapable of authenticity and corruption?
Just that once you go beyond very basic definitions—i.e., “yoga is union”—and into practical techniques and methods, there is such a wide and divergent historical umbrella that talking about authenticity is silly. We do it in the West because we romanticize yoga. But like everything else, yoga is the product of diverse communities, all of whom are independently innovating. It would be like fetishizing the one authentic type of “craft” (macaroni art vs macramé) or rejecting a Sioux hunting technique as inauthentic because it was different when compared to an Inuit method. Nonsense.
In light of the recent Sarah Baughn lawsuit, I have to ask: to what extent do you think Bikram’s students, teacher and senior teachers have a responsibility to call him out—or at least choose not to support his yoga? In other words, are they partially responsible for feeding the monster?
Absolutely. I think they are equally responsible. If you surrender yourself to another person or thing you are inhibiting them as much as you are inhibiting yourself.
Along those lines, there’s a lot of talk about Bikram being a narcissist, but what do you think about the quest for extremism of the people who actually choose to do Bikram yoga and to take it to the extremes you described in your book? Outside of the Bikram community, people in the yoga world like to turn their nose up at the idea of yoga competition and say that competing is “not yogic” (whatever that means). But in your book it seems like the spirit of competition actually acts as a positive force in the Bikram world, in certain ways. In hindsight, what are your thoughts about competing in yoga?
I don’t think I’ll ever compete again, but I have nothing but positive reflections on my experience. For me yoga competition was all about subverting my notion of competition rather than subverting my notion of yoga. It was a chance for me to indulge the physical aspect of my practice—which produced more than a few metaphysical benefits, by the way—and share something I cared about with others. Competition in yoga is about being inspired by others and letting that push you to new heights, rather than the reverse that it is in so many other areas where we compete by hoping others fail.
What really comes across in your book is that Bikram is human. What do you think about the expectation yogis seem to have that their teachers will be spiritually elevated to the extent that they somehow transcend being human and fallible?
I think it is good to have ideals and heroes. I think the idea of a true guru is aspirational and important. But I don’t think we should let ideals, and the hope surrounding them, cloud our judgment. Similarly, the urge to transcend, to push boundaries, is very important—it is one of our best qualities as humans. The obsessives are often the ones who bring us the greatest advances, be it in the political, the technological or the physical realm. But it can become dangerous. I think my point in the book is that we need to pay attention to the balance. We need to study the fulcrum point where these forces sway between the constructive and destructive, and be mindful of the choices we are making.
And when it turns out that our teachers are “only human,” does that negate the effects of the practice?
No way. What else could they be! Discovering your teacher is not some godlike colossus should be comforting and inspirational. It puts your accomplishments in perspective.
Okay, last question. Yogis love to bandy about the marketing buzzword “transformation.” What do you think of this word? Do you think you transformed during your Bikram experience?
I sure hope so. We’re all constantly transforming. Its one of the best parts of being human. And so even if the word occasionally becomes a little buzzy—some yogic counterpoint to teeth whiteners and antioxidants—I’m still ready to revel in it. People can do the most beautiful and unexpected things.