Is Bikram A Great Yoga Teacher Or Crazy Cult Leader?
Benjamin Lorr holds nothing back in his book Hell-Bent:Obseession, Pain and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga about his experiences with Bikram Yoga. After walking into his first class overweight, injured and a little depressed, he quickly found himself in what he calls a “full-blown yoga romance.” Fast forward a few months, tons of synthetic quick-dry yoga gear piling up in his gym bag, and learning how to wall-walk, Benjamin transformed himself from an out-of-shape-dude into a back bendy yoga competitor.
From the craziness of the famous 9-week Bikram teacher training (where popping a rib is considered a no-big-deal occupational hazard), to analyzing the health claims of 110 degree yoga from a scientific point of view, to the history of the lineage, and the celebrities from Shirley MacLaine and Raquel Welch to Madonna and Michael Jackson who piled into his class, this book offers a view into the world that is Bikram: sometimes cartoonish, sometimes zany but always honest. Lisa Dawn Angerame talked to Benjamin about this great and searingly honest summer read.
Lisa Dawn Angerame:Did you set out to write a book about Bikram the man or Bikram the practice?
Benjamin Lorr: The book was a tumbleweed of ideas, growing from a few quiet gnawing questions into a great big mess of experiences as it rolled through life. I submitted a proposal for a book, with a focus on Bikram Yoga, but it was originally going to be about the science and health claims as well as the history of the lineage, specifically Bikram’s teacher, Bishnu Ghosh. I got a deal and it accelerated the whole process. It gave me the incentive, liberty, and rationale to research and indulge in a passion that my full-time job would have otherwise precluded.
LDA: Did you go to teacher training because of the book?
BL: I don't think I would have gone without the book, but I am grateful in many ways that they book provided the opportunity. But let’s face it, by that point, I knew more or less what I was getting into, and the idea of spending $11,000 to desert an otherwise lovely life and girlfriend for 9 weeks while practicing grueling yoga and memorizing the mangled instructions of a megalomaniac lunatic healer was probably not in the cards.
LDA: Let’s talk about the science. You interviewed several doctors and researchers. What is the deal…is practicing in the heat good or bad for you?
BL: I wouldn't characterize any of the scientific research as good or bad in terms of yoga. The research on either side simply isn't there to support either conclusion. I talked to scientists at the University of Oregon about heat acclimatization. And they discussed ways that regular exercise in heat produces physiological changes, such as increased cardiac output and increased power output, increased blood plasma that led to performance gains and which carry over to exercise in the cold. They believed performance gains like that could lead athletes to train in heat in a similar manner to the way athletes train at altitude now.
Those scientists also point out how the cardiac benefits of exercise in heat can be made available to people who might not otherwise be able to achieve cardiac benefits, like people who are injured, crippled, obese, or elderly practitioners who cannot run or swim or jump up and down vigorously but, when in high heat, can do much more minimal movements and achieve substantial benefits. This is, by the way, something Bikram Yoga has excelled at for a long time.
On the other hand, Susan Yeargin, the 'sweat scientist' I interviewed, points out the truly catastrophic consequences of heat when it causes core body temperature to rise as well as the dangers that arise due to chronic dehydration or micronutrient imbalance. However, she certainly did not characterize this information as meaning a yoga practice in heat is bad. She was very careful to say she just didn't know. Bottom line, it is an unstudied are and ultimately, danger depends on a number of complicated factors. In general, I would say, the research points to the overwhelming failure of good and bad dichotomies when thinking about yoga, health, or scientific research. It just isn't that simple.
LDA: You tell a lot of stories in the book about healing and transformation that Bikram students and teachers attribute to the practice. What you do think makes a great teacher? In other words, does someone have to be a drug addict, majorly injured or have gone through a hard time?
BL: Are you kidding? Of course not! In fact, whether it is popular or not to say, I think some of the best teachers have theater backgrounds because there is technique to imparting inspiration just as much as there is to imparting instruction.
LDA: Is Bikram, the yoga, authentic to you?
BL: I think 'authentic' and 'yoga' are poorly matched words, especially if you are talking about a 'style' of yoga, whereupon the word 'authenticity' becomes completely meaningless. But in a conversational sense, as compared to any other yoga practiced in India or America, yes, of course! Bikram yoga is perfectly authentic. Anyone who says otherwise is projecting their personal romantic ideas about what yoga should be onto others. Or is clueless about the history of yoga. Or clueless about Bikram. Or all three.
LDA: Did you get excommunicated for writing the book?
BL: Who knows. There are parts of the Bikram world that are "culty" enough to ex-communicate someone and I certainly pissed them off. But the bulk of the Bikram community is diverse and tolerant and received the book very enthusiastically. In Bikram, you practice in front of a mirror, which definitely has some negative consequences, like everything if taken in isolation or to extremes. But one of the wonderful things about practicing in front of a mirror is that it encourages facing the reality of yourself even if there are things you don't particularly want to see there. I think many people in the community received the book in that spirit and I happen to know many senior teachers there thought the book was quite necessary and well-written. But, I probably won't be invited to Bikram's studio in Los Angeles to teach!
LDA: But I couldn't tell at the end of the book, are you are still teaching Bikram? Or are you just practicing alone at home? You said you had enough for one lifetime!
BL: Most of my practice is at home these days. The postures and meditation are still heavily influenced by the Ghosh/Bikram lineage and the temperature influenced by whatever temperature the room is that day. But I still enjoy the hot room on occasion. In fact, I just came from Bikram Yoga Herald Square today. Absolutely beautiful class.
LDA: So, what do you think about Bikram, the man in the final analysis?
BL: I'm not sure I have a final analysis of Bikram. He is a human not a math problem. And he has a wonderful capacity to grow, change, and surprise just like everyone else. The Bikram I experienced in the book was, however, a very potent symbol, capable of both devastating cruelty and extraordinary kindness, often to the same person, occasionally at the same time. He was abusive and predatory and a master healer, directly responsible for changing many, many peoples lives for the better. If hatha yoga is 'the yoga of force' as it is often translated because it involves fusing opposites and resolving dichotomies then I think Bikram Choudhury is a perfect embodiment of it.