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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.
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.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Lorr
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.