Questions for Benjamin Lorr

Published on April 30, 2013 by      Print
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Hell-Bent

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.

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Joslyn HamiltonAs 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? 

Benjamin Lorr 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.

Joslyn HamiltonHere’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?

Benjamin Lorr  “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.

Joslyn HamiltonAnother 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?

 

 

Benjamin Lorr 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.

 

Joslyn HamiltonIn 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?

 

Benjamin Lorr 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.


Joslyn HamiltonA 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?

 

Benjamin Lorr 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.

Joslyn HamiltonIn 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?

 

Benjamin Lorr 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.

 

 

Joslyn HamiltonAlong 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?

Benjamin Lorr 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.

Joslyn HamiltonWhat 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?

 

Benjamin Lorr 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.

 

Joslyn HamiltonAnd when it turns out that our teachers are “only human,” does that negate the effects of the practice?



Benjamin Lorr 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.

 

 

Joslyn HamiltonOkay, 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?

 

 

Benjamin Lorr 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.

 

 Benjamin Lorr’s website 

 

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17 Comments !

  1. Jerod Morris says:


    What a terrific interview. Thank you Joslyn and Benjamin. I have been practicing for about a year now, but I have yet to try a Bikram class. I only just recently realized that “Bikram” is actually the name of the person who designed the sequence! I’m intrigued to try, though I must say that the shadiness with which so many of his actions have been described recently taints my view of the Bikram practice itself. I don’t think that’s right, per se, just my pre-mat impression. One of these days I’ll give it a try and form an opinion of the practice itself, separated from the man. Very interested to read your book too Benjamin. It sounds very interesting.

    • Yelba Zoe says:


      Hi Jerod,

      I have been teaching Bikram yoga for ten years and practicing for more then double that time. I have also studied various other forms. There are many wonderful teachers of this style of yoga. Bikram may have come up with this particular sequence *and it’s a very effective one — and I can certainly understrand your inhibition with the current events, but Bikram is the messenger, not the message. Bikram yoga is Hatha Yoga in a heated room — you may enjoy this style and the many other teachers that teach it.

      Namaste,
      Yelba Zoe

      Response posted on April 30th, 2013 , 8:27 pm
    • Alison says:


      To be clear, Bikram Yoga is a hatha a form in a heated room which

      1) financially rewards the man Bikram Choudhury (via the licensing agreement) and
      2) carries the name of the man Bikram Choudhury and thus perpetuates his Guru status.

      Taking any class called Bikram directly supports Bikram. There are many heated yoga classes to be found in almost any city that do not carry the above entanglement.

      Do what you like, of course, but clarity matters, and these details matter.

      Respectfully,
      Alison

      Response posted on May 2nd, 2013 , 6:44 am
      • Paul says:


        That is factually incorrect. Most studios pre-2008 and many since do NOT pay a penny to Bikram Choudhury. Many of the owners, when asked, for whatever reason, refuse to. Please check your facts first

        Response posted on May 2nd, 2013 , 2:58 pm
        • mary says:


          The above is true. The vast majority of Bikram Studios do not send any money to Bikram via licensing/franchise. Almost all of the locations on Headquarter’s website do not send money.

          Response posted on May 6th, 2013 , 3:14 am
  2. Crona Airgid says:


    Great interview! Now I am interested in reading the book!

    Response posted on May 1st, 2013 , 8:36 am
  3. Louis says:


    Great interview Joslyn. I have had Benjamin’s book on my reading list ever since I heard him being interviewed on NPR. He comes across as eloquent and real, whether he is talking about yoga in general, the phenomenon of Bikram or his own personal experiences. I think I would have been interested in reading his book even if I had no interest in the practice of yoga because it seems like it’s a great story told from an intelligent perspective. The fact that it is that and it revolves around a subject that I have great interest in as well, makes for what I’m sure will be a great read.

    Response posted on May 2nd, 2013 , 8:57 am
  4. Joslyn Hamilton says:


    Thanks, Louis! I was thrilled to get a chance to interview Ben because I was so impressed with his book. I went into it assuming it would be an expose by someone who got burned in the yoga world. Instead, I found that it was an intelligent book written by a practiced author with well-honed critical-thinking skills. In addition to being really smart, the book is a page-turner.

    Response posted on May 2nd, 2013 , 11:02 am
  5. Sunday Salutations: Heart-Melting Photos, The Heart of Teaching, and Are You Man Enough? says:


    [...] Questions for Benjamin Lorr (link) [...]

    Response posted on May 5th, 2013 , 6:33 am
  6. paul says:


    Both the man and his style have nothing to do with the Yoga I practice… as a practitioner of Yoga for over 40 yrs. and a teacher for 20 it saddens me to see him and his style become such a trendy activity…

    Response posted on May 7th, 2013 , 11:23 am
    • Jessica says:


      Paul, if you think that another style of hatha yoga has nothing to do with your yoga practice, how limited is your conception of yoga?

      After all, presumably out of the eight branches you also practice hatha yoga… Bikram yoga is hatha yoga. Bikram yoga also incorporates other branches (raja yoga, karma yoga, et cetera). Isn’t the whole idea of yoga union? So why the separation and antagonism? Especially for someone who’s been practicing and teaching for as long as you have, this close-mindedness and judgmental attitude surprises and disappoints me!

      Also, on sheer logic, it doesn’t make sense to like anything more or less because it’s popularity or trendiness. Value is neither increased nor decreased by ubiquity.

      All the best.

      Response posted on June 28th, 2013 , 8:44 pm
    • Nicola says:


      I wouldn’t worry about the popularity of Bikram yoga or any other kind of yoga. Most people who practice yoga are kidding themselves; they’re going through the motions without understanding; hence, not yoga. Call it hyped up calesthenics, gymnastics, or whatever else you want to name it. Hey, it’s a world of illusions, so cheer up and understand it’s not important.

      Response posted on August 6th, 2013 , 9:11 am
  7. Sean Feit says:


    Excellent interview, and I comment Benjamin for his honesty, transparency, and for writing the book (which I haven’t read yet but hear is wonderful). Just this week I wrote about one of my Buddhist sanghas (Rinzai-ji and Joshu Sasaki Roshi) that is going through a similar misconduct scandal, and deeply feel right now the pain that such behavior causes. Here’s my reflections on that: http://www.nadalila.org/sila-shunyata-sex-sasaki/

    I see both the effects of patriarchal power and charisma on a fledgling spiritual path in the west, and the implications of some of the yogic teachings that we’ve inherited, translated, and adjusted to suit our temperaments and social desires.

    I’m a yoga teacher who works in both the Buddhist and Hindu yoga worlds, and don’t have much experience with Bikram’s style or philosophies, but recognize the abuse of power in the name of spirit and transformation. And hope that our continued sincere, wise practice is itself the force that brings our yoga communities more and more toward the true goals of the path: kindness, non-attachment, deep integration, and complete freedom from distress.

    Response posted on May 8th, 2013 , 12:12 pm
  8. Kate says:


    So very much yes to this dialogue. Can’t wait to read the book.

    Response posted on May 22nd, 2013 , 7:33 am
  9. Nicola says:


    A very thoughtful interview; questions and responses. I can hardly wait to read the book!

    Response posted on August 6th, 2013 , 9:03 am
  10. Disgruntlasana says:


    Bikram and hot yoga is nothing nothin more than an extremely limited fashion show. If the room wasn’t always heated to 105 degrees or whatever, Bikram yoga is about as difficult as a level one yin class at the health club. Competitive? Seriously, when your whole repertoire consists of 26 poses, you have no right to think your better than anyone and that your doing things that no one else can do. Sorry, but thems the facts. As far as the spiritual aspect goes, if your foolish enough to put your faith in a silly Ganesh statue or a fradulent Buddhist teaching, you deserve what you get.