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This Is Your Brain on Yoga: A Q&A with HELL-BENT’s Benjamin Lorr

What is it about hot yoga?  While many of my friends are real fitness addicts, none compete at the level of those I know who are into Bikram Yoga.  They are crazy about it.  So when I heard that Benjamin Lorr had written a book about Bikram yoga–which was part memoir, part history and part science–I knew I was going to have to pick it up.  I was not disappointed.  In all honestly, HELL-BENT: OBSESSION, PAIN, AND THE SEARCH FOR SOMETHING LIKE TRANSCENDENCE IN COMPETITIVE YOGA may be the best book I’ve read all year.  Imagine, if you can, the lovechild of a sober Hunter S. Thompson and Elizabeth Gilbert and you’ll get an idea of the prose.  But what really hooked me on HELL-BENT were all the ideas being explored–absolutely nothing is sacred.  Here, Lorr talks to me about the surprising science of heat, “beneficial addiction,” and why yoga and neuroscience are complementary disciplines.

Q:  For a yoga memoir, you talk a lot about science in HELL-BENT.  Why did you feel you had to add in that particular point of view?

LORR:  Is it a yoga memoir? I’m always a little terrified of that term, probably precisely because – to me – it implies some sort of squishy, teary-eyed, journey of the spirit. The type of book that maybe privileges self-discovery and personal insight at the expense of critical thinking or Science with a capital S. There are some really inspirational ideas in Hell-Bent – as emotionally powerful as you’ll find anywhere – but I guess, for me, a lot of the power comes from the fact that they are juxtaposed by sections critically questioning those insights. 

Equally important, I think neuroscience and yoga are natural buddies. Yoga is this incredibly internal experience – my practice is an attempt to connect (or yoke) first to myself, and then to the universe as a whole by going inside. Delving in the human brain, with our 100 billion neural connections, literally galactic in complexity and expansive possibility, is a natural analog. I can’t really imagine writing about yoga and not writing about the brain.

Q:  Given your experience, which part of the science did you find most compelling?  Why? 

LORR:  Learning about the physiological benefits of exercise in heat was particularly exciting. I went in not really understanding what made the heat work – there is a lot of boilerplate propaganda, pro and con, coming from yoga studios  – so it was interesting to talk to experts. I spoke with one scientist who thought heat acclimatization might become a routine training method adopted by elite athletes, not unlike hypoxic tents or altitude training is now. Definitely not something I expected going in.

Q:  What do you think Bikram (of Bikram yoga fame) and VS Ramachandran would discuss over a few cocktails?

LORR:  They’d discuss Bikram of course! Bikram would talk lovingly about himself and his yoga, and Rama would listen fascinated, maybe occasionally interjecting polite areas of agreement. That’s how I imagine it at least. It’s hard to imagine anyone meeting Bikram in person and not being briefly taken by the force of his personality. The man is charisma incarnate. 

But even excepting the charisma, I think the two would get along terrifically over the short term. There are so many areas of overlap between neuroscience and yoga, its hard not to imagine the two of them finding tons to agree on and laugh about.  

Q:  What is it about Bikram yoga, do you think, that is so compelling—perhaps even addictive?

LORR:  Well for me, it’s not ‘perhaps addictive’, it’s 100% addictive. I remember being at a training and listening to Emmy Cleaves – a very senior Bikram teacher – refer to her own practice as a ‘beneficial addiction’ and thinking that right there she had just summed up so many of the incredible positives and negatives about the practice. 

As for the mechanics of the addiction, I think it operates on both a physical and psychological level. Physically, for some people – myself definitely included – there is an enormous rush that comes after class, like a runner’s high on steroids. It is the feeling of relief after being completely wiped-out, the rebuilding after burning yourself to the ground. What exactly happens on a chemical level, I can’t say — there are a number of hormones released after high intensity cardiac workouts to stimulate recovery, and I am sure they are swimming around. 

Psychologically, you are dealing with postures – especially when you get into the advanced sequence – that are very very difficult to perfect, but very very simple to conceive. You can learn the basic form for Standing Forehead to Knee in one class, but you can practice it for 5 or 6 years and still struggle. That feeling of not quite being able to master something, but knowing you are oh-so-close is also very compelling. Especially to a subset of honor rolling/ model UNing/ varsity lettering overachievers who are used to judging themselves based on other people’s expectations. Eventually, I think this aspect of the practice teaches humility — but the road to that humility can inspire some pretty fucking compulsive behavior in the meantime.

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Q:  Do you still recommend the classes to friends?

LORR:  Absolutely. On a purely physical level, I think hot yoga has a great place in a balanced workout. Bikram Yoga, with its extraordinarily well defined sequence, and rigorous postures that are still accessible to all different body types, is particularly attractive for people who are out of shape or recovering from injuries. The addictive qualities, I talked about earlier, can be incredibly positive, acting almost like jumper cables on an otherwise dead battery. 

That said, I don’t practice Bikram 6 days a week anymore, or even 2. There is so much else – from yoga in the cool of my apartment to pickup basketball – that I like doing as well. I can see that changing over the course of my life; but right now, that is where I want my practice, one option among many. 

Q:  What do you hope people will take away from the book?

LORR:  I don’t really know. I wrote the thing as much for myself as anyone else, never really thought about some grand take home message. I guess I hope people value the complexity presented in the book, the idea that one person or thing can be both incredibly beautiful and terrifyingly dangerous at the exact same moment. That we don’t always need to reduce the world into simplistic categories. That this includes ourselves most of all.  

HELL-BENT is available at major booksellers on October 30, 2012.

Photo Credit:  Benjamin Lorr


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