Monday 13 April 2015

Benjamin Lorr - Author Profile and Interview - Bent to Hell and Back Again

Bent to Hell and Back Again!

Benjamin Lorr is the author of Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Bikram (Competitive) Yoga! The book grabbed me and to be honest I have been thinking about if regularly for over a year. I reached out to Benjamin and he agreed to take some time out of his schedule to answer some questions for the readers here at Book Reviews and More.

1. When you were younger did you know you would be an author?

Definitely. Writing is just how my brain works, and almost nothing - sex, drugs, alcohol, yoga included - feels as fulfilling to me as actually having written. It's been in me as long as I can remember. I wrote a first novel when I was 12 years old, a flimsy Hardy Boys influenced murder mystery. Before that, before I could even write sentences actually, my mother will tell you about me coming home from elementary school with a long rhyming poem I'd been working on all day in my head, and making her help me transcribe it.

It helps that writing runs in my family, so making a career out of it doesn't feel like an odd or unreasonable choice. More like coming to accept the family trade.

2. When did you know you were going to write a book about Bikram Yoga?

As soon as I got an advance to do so!

3. Your research and commitment for this book was years' worth of time and a lot of money and travel. Looking back was it worth it?

Of course. You're talking to someone who wants to be writing. What better thing would I be doing with my time?

Not to mention this particular book had a considerable positive impact. When I wrote it, none of the women I spoke with would go on record. There was an intense fear in the community about speaking out negatively, about questioning claims, about looking beneath the surface for the fear of what you'd find. After it was published, people wrote me about reading my book secretly, teachers passing it around the locker room as forbidden contraband. Six months after publication, you have the first women coming forward publicly with allegations of sexual assault and rape. Now seven women have come forward. The dialogue within the community has changed. I know Hell-Bent pushed that conversation forward.

4. Some people attribute your book Hell Bent as releasing a watershed against Bikram Choudhury regarding sexual assault and abuses. Your book is one of the first public accounts of these incidents. Did you have any concerns including that and possible backlash from his inner circle?

Definitely. Bikram Yoga has been a platform for profound personal transformation and change. Many people - often the ones most profoundly changed by it - feel intensely beholden to it as a system, and by extension Bikram the man. Their connection isn't logical; it is emotional. I was certainly worried that they would direct their anger at its failures&complexities at me, the messenger.

5. Do you still have many friends or contacts with those in the Bikram community?

I do. The Bikram community is huge, and for the large part made up of really wonderful, intelligent, kind, interesting people. There are more than a few whackjobs thrown in, increasingly proportionately with proximity to Bikram the man. But that would likely be true of any large community.

I think the fact that I don't currently do as much yoga means that our relationship has changed. When you are rolling around on a sweaty carpet exploring the Advanced postures with someone for 3 hours every week, you develop a real closeness to them. It's only natural that now that I don't do that so much (yoga at room temp for me!) (for the most part) (always will be room for the occasional hot class) that my relationship with them has changed.

6. Do you have any regrets from your experience in writing the book Hell Bent?

I regret that I didn't push the lawyers harder to keep some of my stronger language about rape and sexual assault. But at the time, with none of the women willing to speak on record, we all felt like we were taking a considerable risk. It was a great relief when people started coming forward.

7. What did your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?

Haha. No thanks! That is pretty involved answer which people write whole books about. For anyone seriously interested in writing non-fiction, I'd recommend buying two books: Non-Fiction Book Proposals Anyone Can Write and Bulletproof Book Proposals and making a study of them. They are exactly the two books I used - in conjunction with Publisher's Marketplace - to write the query letter and proposal I used for Hell-Bent.

As for my personal writing process, I wish I had one. Or one that was special enough to warrant waxing on and on about. I wrote 80% of Hell-Bent in the green Naugahyde boothes of the Hudson Diner which was around the corner from my apartment at the time. It was relatively quiet and full of coffee. I got there early, stayed late, and tipped well.

8. Throughout the book Hell Bent you refer to it at 'the Yoga' if that was intentional what is your intention behind doing it that way?

This is probably the most common question I get asked, although I'm always a bit perplexed by the confusion. It was definitely an intentional decision, designed to highlight the fact that "yoga" refers to an impossibly broad tradition full of wildly diverse, often contradictory teachings. There is no one concept of yoga. Not Patanjali's Sutras, not the Nath's, nor via Vivikananda, Yogananda, Jois, Iyengar, or Bikram. It is modern myth-making to believe there is a single concept of yoga or that everything using the word yoga must be connected. By using the definite article, I wanted to distinguish "the yoga" I was immersed in, as opposed to the myriad of other types of yoga which were being practiced around me or found in India's spiritual tradition. I also think attaching the definite article gives a sense of the personal connection and ownership people feel with their particular practice. In a way, it speaks to the tribalism endemic to modern American practice.

9. One of your books is available in electronic formats but with that comes bootleg distribution. What are your impressions of eBooks and the distribution of them through torrents and other illegal means?

I imagine, like many authors, I have pretty complex feelings here. You know, one part of me just wants people to read the book. Period. To get my name out. To get my work out. To give the book a life, which, for a book, depends entirely on having readers. Another part of me wants to be able to making a living writing and conducting longform research intensive journalism that is both personal and gives real insight. And to the extent that those forms of illegal distribution take away from my ability to do that by making it an unsustainable occupation -- uh, well, that suck for me personally and is shortsighted socially.

10. Some authors monitor torrent sites and have their publishers contact them to remove their content. Do you do so are have someone do so for you?

No. Can't possibly go down that rabbit hole mentally. As a writer, I am here to create not to police other people.

11. Benjamin my first question that came to mind when you agreed to an interview is can we expect another book from you? Do you have any works in process? If so can you share any hints?

Yes! I am under contract now working on a book; it is on the grocery industry. But I'm going to be coy and leave it there, since I'm still in the research phase.

12. What was it like transitioning from teacher to full-time researcher and yoga practitioner to prepare for writing Hell Bent?

I left classroom teaching to be an educational consultant in 2008. This was a few years before writing Hell-Bent. That change was hard and meaningful and necessary. A real loss of identity. I loved teaching; I could have been happy doing it for the rest of my life. The one thing I couldn't do while teaching was write seriously.

But by the time, I started work on Hell-Bent, I was an educational consultant. This was a job, I kind of hated. I wasn't working with students. I wasn't thinking creatively. My schedule was insane, sometimes going to three different schools per day to meet with teachers and principals and administrators, offering advice on problems for which everyone out there is only guessing at solutions and for which my personal best guess is the only real solutions will occur on a social level (i.e. engaging with poverty, racism, policing, and parenting). In short, I was participating in the well-intentioned, but totally f**ked part of our educational-industrial complex that values abstraction, quantification, and "expertise" over action, creativity and interpersonal growth. But it did pay exceedingly well.

Anyway the transition away from that was all too easy: accept a pay cut, do something that felt good again.

13. What were some of your favorite authors in your teen years who helped shape you?

A lovely question. Books from my teenage years that I loved and still love: Virginia Woolf's To the Light House; Tom Robbin's Still Life With Woodpecker; Joseph Heller's Catch-22; anything Dave Barry; and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

14. What were your favorite books and authors to read as a youth?

As a kid, I read just about anything. Lots of sci-fi, fantasy, mysteries, adventure. Piers Anthony's Xanth series, Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, Robert B. Parker Spencer novels come to mind. All the Hardy Boys. All Roald Dahl with special love for the BFG. Winnie the Pooh of course.

15. What books would you recommend for someone looking to expand their knowledge of yoga?

My website - - has a list of the books I found most insightful while researching. In general, for yoga history I think everyone teaching yoga should read at least some David Gordon White and all Mark Singleton. Leslie Kaminoff's Yoga Anatomy is also a great resource in terms of the practice of asana.

16. What are some of your favorite books and authors now?

For non-fiction, I have an unabashed love of bombast. Hitchens. Gore Vidal. Hunter Thompson. Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. I read Fast Food Nation in college, and it was tremendously influential. I remember my immediate gut level reaction was that I should drop out of school and go find Eric Schlosser and offer myself as some weird Old World style apprentice to him. (Probably good I didn't execute on that; I imagine he would have sent me away). I sometimes think I'll grow out of my love for David Foster Wallace's essays but then I'll pick them up and realize they are just as intense and fresh as ever.

For fiction, a few quick random ones: Donald Barthelme, Nabokov, P. G. Wodehouse, Annie Proulx, and Raymond Chandler. Chandler belongs up there with David Wallace and Hunter S. in my personal holy trinity of American prose stylists.

17. You went from hardly doing yoga to competing in a world level. What is your practice of the yoga today like?

Chilled out. My asana practice is there to support my life. If I have aches, pains, twitches, stress, I'll bend. I create lots of mini-sequences, either to play with a posture or get at a particular issue. Taking a formal class is a great occasional luxury. In terms of physical fitness, I do a lot of barbell and body-weight work these days. I do miss the regularity of a longer posture routine, and the introspection and mental clarity of asana. But it's always there if I want it.

18. You completed the Bikram Yoga Teacher training but as of the writing of the book I believe you have not taught. Do you think you will ever enter the teaching market?

I'd love to teach the occasional class. In my mind, it's all about finding the right situation. I'd love to share my home practice, a combination of the Ghosh advanced series and body weight movements.

19. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 10 books to read again and again, what books would you want with you?

More book questions! Let's see:

Hamlet or Macbeth (but not both)
Infinite Jest
Fear and Loathing
Moby Dick
The Dialogues of Plato
The House at Pooh Corner
As I Lay Dying
60 Stories by Donald Barthelme
Huck Finn
Sonnets to Orpheus

20. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?

Listen to yourself. Have faith. Then engage with the world.

Benjamin Lorr took the lid off the can of worms in Bikram Yoga. He explored the practiced to its depths, competed internationally and pushed to get the information out that was being kept in the dark. The book was an addictive read and I am looking forward to Lorr's next offering.

Books by Benjamin Lorr:
Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga

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