My Problems with Hell-Bent

I read Hell Bent as soon as it came out. However, I struggled for a long time if I should review it here or not. Why? I don’t have positive things to say about it, and I think I am probably in the minority. Most people seem to truly love it. But after much thought I decided to go ahead and write up my thoughts on it. I think my thoughts on this book are an important critique of it and not just negative ramblings.

I don’t want to spoil the book for you if you haven’t read it. I’ll try to write this up in a way that doesn’t spoil it.

Here are my two issues with the book:

1. My first beef is the least serious. It’s this: The book lacks a clear focus. Is it a book about competition? Sort of. Is it a book about the author’s journey into developing a Bikram practice and the community at large? Sort of. Is it about key players in the Bikram community? Sort of. You get my point. It’s sort of about a lot of stuff and never about anything specific. As a result, Lorr dips his toes into lots of pots on a primarily superficial level. I learned some new things from the book,  but not that much. I was able to follow the book. It’s just not clear to me what the overall purpose of the book was.

2. My second issue is the most serious. In reading this book, I had to wonder if a purpose was to make Bikram, the man, look as bad as possible. I’m not saying Bikram is a golden child who doesn’t do jerky things. What I am saying is that Lorr appeared to go out of his way to uncover everyone’s bad experiences with Bikram as well as lay out any negative rumors/conjecture with minimum evidence to back up his claims. He collected many negative stories about Bikram in depth. A bad form and misuse of triangulation in research. It made me question his motives.

Wait a minute. Who said this was research?

Well, the description of his book on amazon says that this text was a, “…culmination of two years of research.” So I think it’s fair to critique the quality of the research.

But really, is the point of the book to share negative stories about Bikram? I don’t know. The book lacks a clear focus. This is just one example of that at play.

I’m not saying that the stories Lorr collected about people’s negative experiences with Bikram are false or inaccurate. I accept that each person is telling his/her truth. I’m not questioning their authenticity. But what I know as a researcher is that if you get a bunch of evidence that paints a key player in your project in a negative light you better go and talk to that player – or at least try to.  Lorr never interviews Bikram or has any significant conversation with him. As far as I know, he didn’t even attempt to talk to him. I could forgive the absence of Bikram’s voice had Lorr said he reached out to Bikram and was refused, but he didn’t say that. And you should know, there are at least two serious allegations against Bikram in the book that shouldn’t be there without additional evidence beyond an interview with the person making the claim. Are these more serious stories true? I don’t know. I cannot trust that I am getting all the information I need to make a decision because one interview does not provide all the information. What I do believe is that you don’t go making serious claims about people in print without real, verified evidence. And Lorr does not provide it. All he does is fuel the rumor mill.

As a researcher, Lorr committed a very serious sin in my eyes. He wrote a book based on a man but did not provide that man a full voice. Instead, the voice that he gave Bikram was what he found in the community. And by not speaking to Bikram, not allowing Bikram to have his own voice in the text, he effectively silenced and marginalized him. It doesn’t matter how rich Bikram is or what you think of him or if you think he would have told the truth had he been included. None of that is the point. If you’re going to write a book that critiques a person, that person has a right to have their voice included or at least opt out.

Are there things to enjoy about this book? Sure. There are fun and interesting stories, and it was cool to learn that, “L like Linda” is a real person, and I enjoyed reading about Tony Sanchez. But I can’t get over the way the research for this book was conducted. It’s a major flaw of the book which results in an overall lack of credibility on the author’s part.

 

 

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24 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. benjaminlorr
    Jan 06, 2013 @ 12:54:43

    Author here with a very quick reply. While it is true that Bikram’s voice is absent, and it is true that I regard that as a weakness in the book, it is NOT true that I didn’t try to interview him. I reached out to him countless times: through his press agent, through studio owners in the community, directly in-person after class and during training. All trying to get him to comment on the book and/or give me more information about the history of the lineage. (Which was a big piece of my original idea for the book). My interview requests were all denied – usually politely by saying “he would think about it” and then ignoring my follow-up requests, usually with the caveat that there was a history of negative press. This before and after the whole Details Magazine article which I think was a true example of warped journalism, but which Bikram decided to participate in fully for whatever reason.

    Second and last, you are under a serious misimpression if you think I printed all the “dirt” on Bikram I found or tried to make him “look as bad as possible.” There is a whole second book full of negative stories waiting for someone; I left them out of my book because I did not want Hell-Bent to become an expose or tell-all. And it simply is not that: it does not come close to “telling all” that I found or all that is out there, instead just enough to give the reader a sense of the emotions I experienced while writing it. It would have been cowardly and dishonest to anything else.

    Reply

    • leighahall
      Jan 06, 2013 @ 18:38:04

      Thanks for the response Benhamin! I would say that it would have been helpful to have known how you attempted to reach out to Bikram while I was reading the book. It would have been nice to see perhaps an afterwards chapter that mentioned your attempts and discussed the limitations of the book in light of not having an interview. Such information would have effected my view of the book and my interpretation of it while reading it. You can see how I interpreted your book in light of not having such information readily available.

      It’s really difficult to write a book no matter what it’s about. You were dealt an interesting and challenging problem of what to do with the stories you received but without being able to speak to Bikram. The next question then becomes one of sampling. Outside of the big names in the Bikram yoga world, how were individual’s stories and experiences collected? How did you find these people, or did they find you? You noted how many negative stories there are out there that you opted not to write about. Was there a systematic way you went about finding these stories?

      Thanks again for taking the time to respond.

      Reply

      • benjaminlorr
        Jan 06, 2013 @ 20:14:52

        Although the book was written using the techniques of creative non-fiction, it was researched, to the best of my ability, as a journalist. That means, if I present an assertion in the text, especially one that is potentially defamatory (but even one that is merely an unusual fact), I have multiple sources to back it up. So if you read an interview with Chad saying “Bikram is an XYZ scumbag,” I went out and found other people to back up Chad’s statement. I didn’t just rely on Chad or whoever else as the final word. Now these other people aren’t included in the text because this is a story – with narrative flow – but you best believe they exist in my notebook or audiotape records. Otherwise, 1) Bikram could sue my ass for defamation, and 2) I would probably lose the trust of my readers when other people challenged my account. If you read the endnotes, you will notice that I say as much in the very first sentence of the very first one.

        Additionally, the book went through a very thorough legal vetting. My publishers were pretty concerned with Bikram suing their ass too.

        How did I find these people? Was there a system? The short answer is yes of course, the tried and true system of journalists everywhere: I talked to anyone and everyone who would talk to me, listened to their experiences, then asked them if they could think of anyone else who could give additional insight. I sought out people who were close to Bikram, people who I assumed would say flattering things, and I sought out people who had been booted from his orbit, who I assumed might balance that picture out. I did this both with ‘big names’ and with the regulars I knew from my local studio. I began with no agenda to smear Bikram in the slightest.

        Here is the exact moment I realized the book was going to take a dark turn. I was sitting in posture clinic at TT, scribbling notes for my book in my notebook, listening with one ear while someone recited dialogue in the front, when a woman I did not know very well passes me a note. The note said: “We all want to know, are you going to write the real story? Because a lot of us think you should.”

        Her friend had just been sexually harassed by Bikram in his suite and was freaking out; this woman was pissed off because nobody seemed to care. I had at this point been advised by many people to “focus on the positive”, “don’t let the behavior of the man cloud the yoga”. And, at that point, I had actually assumed they were referring to his cars, flashy clothes, jokes, cursing, whathaveyous. But that is not what they meant. And as I learned more stories, I realized I would have to include a very small taste of how dark it can get when people surrender their lives to you if my story was going to have any type of integrity.

        Reply

        • leighahall
          Jan 07, 2013 @ 07:17:49

          I don’t think focusing on just the positive is the way to go with any piece of research. So I agree with you that tuning out or not including negative aspects that you found would not be the way to go. The negative is just as much part of the story as the positive. The question becomes about what to include and what not to include.

          I think the question you got asked about writing the real story sets up a bit of a false dichotomy. The “real” story depends on the purpose. You can only present so much of any story in a book. That was one of my main critiques of your book is that I could never get clear on what the actual point was. Ultimately, for me, it appeared to be a set of experiences that were never really connected with a united thread.Thus almost any story, negative or positive, had the potential to be a part of the book because there seemed to be no purpose through which to filter what did/did not make the cut.

          Thanks for the discussion. I appreciate the time you took to respond. I don’t agree with all your methods for writing this book, but I don’t have to. Thanks for helping me understand your approach.

          Reply

          • benjaminlorr
            Jan 07, 2013 @ 13:05:00

            I’m sorry you couldn’t uncover the “thread” or “focus” of the book for yourself. It is true that I didn’t include a summative chapter/paragraph, or take a heavy narrative hand and tie everything together into a cute bow, but not because I didn’t have a clear idea or focus, not because the experiences in the book aren’t carefully curated, selected from my experience to illustrate a point, but because for this particular point its up to the practitioner, or in this case the reader to actually connect the dots and make them unify.

            Hatha yoga is the process of finding unity within opposing forces – be they strength and flexibility, contraction and relaxation, or the wildly oscillating experiences of a narrative journey that included miracle healing and predatory hurting within the same human, occasionally at the same time. The book is nothing more than experiences from my life illustrating that lesson.

            And with that point now spelled out with an ungainly heavy hand, I’m going to thank you for a blog post that allowed me to correct a few common misconceptions and withdraw from this discussion into the cold sunny New York day that awaits.

            Reply

            • lyle
              Aug 07, 2013 @ 16:39:25

              “The book is nothing more than experiences from my life illustrating that lesson.”…. I have never been to a Bikram class but have practiced yoga for a number of years and found the book very inspiring. My practice has become deeper and more focused as a result of reading this book. Thank you.

              Reply

  2. Justlilolme
    Jan 06, 2013 @ 15:51:51

    Thanks for posting here and filling in the blanks, Benjamin. I look forward to reading your book; just checked and I am now number two on the public library wait list . . . patience . . . . 🙂

    Reply

  3. teenieyogini
    Jan 06, 2013 @ 20:04:39

    I just bought this on kindle, can’t wait to read it! Thank you for the review! And totally awesome to read Mr. Lorr’s reply as well.

    Reply

  4. Simmm
    Jan 07, 2013 @ 17:24:11

    I recently finished reading this book, and I agree with your first point. It feels like a book about everything and nothing. It did not bother me, but then again I am not in the literary field.

    Benjamin, I also really appreciate your replies here! I enjoyed reading your book very much. I am sure the effects of it will be long-lasting regarding how I view Bikram, the whole Bikram universe, and how involved I want to be in it.

    Reply

  5. Roxanne Kelly
    Jan 22, 2013 @ 09:44:25

    Wow, thanks to the author Benjamin Lorr for the responses in this blog, that really did clear a lot of things up. I read this book recently as well. I’m not a Bikram yoga practitioner, I practice other types of yoga instead, but have taken a few Bikram classes. To be honest, I’m not shocked by any of the revelations in the book regarding Bikram’s behaviors. If you look at how he lives his life, you can already tell all these things. He’s clearly obsessed with money and fame, he’s a control freak, he’s vain, etc. However, I believe that this book and Bikram’s story really just illustrates human nature in general. Power corrupts, and people all have a dark side. This is why it is dangerous to elevate any person to the status of a God among us. Very few people can handle that kind of worship without it corrupting them somehow.

    It does make me sad that it seems as though Bikram has become so vicious, violent, and callous. He is being the very opposite of what he is supposed to be. Nothing about him sounded spiritual at all in the descriptions in this book. I find it ironic that he fears being alone more than anything else, and yet when I think of spiritual leaders, I think of people that should be introspective and spend a great deal of time by themselves examining their own true natures. My gut feeling is that this is why Bikram has so much fear about being alone. If he gives himself any time to actually look honestly into one of his many mirrors, he won’t like what he sees there, and he will have to face how far he has come from the person he should try to be.

    For me, one of the worst segments of that book that shed the worst light on Bikram, wasn’t the implications of sexual harassment or the harsh casting out of people from his inner circle, it was simply the fact that Bikram felt it was ok to do everything on the cheap in his own studio, the poor treatment of the illegal immigrants doing the laundry who were having to deal with the faulty wiring and unsafe work conditions, dryers catching on fire, etc. For some reason this bothered me the most. This guy has buckets of money and he can’t pay the poor woman washing his sweaty towels a decent wage? He can’t spring a couple hundred bucks to buy a few new dryers so that they won’t catch fire? He has become a typical tyrant if you ask me. We should not elevate people to a God-like status, human nature can’t handle it. We all become little Stalins and Hitlers if given too much power unchecked in this way.

    I understand that the practitioners of Bikram love the yoga and feel a big benefit from it, but I would be careful about defending a person like Bikram. It seems to me that he has gone way off the path that he first started on. It doesn’t mean the yoga itself is bad or should be abandoned, but don’t blindly follow the man without using your brain and questioning his actions.

    Reply

  6. Natasha Milanovich
    Jan 22, 2013 @ 17:43:05

    I have not read the book, but I do beleive in honest journalism ( if such a thing still exsists today)
    I have been practicing Bikram yoga for 10 years, I own a Bikram studio, and have been to 5 teacher trainings where I have sat with and spoken to Bikram personally. While I will agree that Bikram is not a saint, he is a talented, intelligent and kind, yes you heard that right kind man. Bikram wears many different hats, not all of them are pretty, Bikram can often come across as rude, arrogant and conceited, but you really need to look a little deeper. Bikram plays the yoga Master at teacher training, but that is only a small part of who he is.
    I also think it’s really easy to judge a man who is rich and has made it ALL through yoga. I find it interesting that people have no problem with Doctors or Lawyers making vast amounts of money, aquiring fame or celebrity, but when it comes to yoga we should all be living like monks, teaching yoga for free while we chomp down on wheat grass and ride around on bicycles; there is a huge double standard.
    One thing that may not have been mentioned is that while Bikram certainly makes money, so do we ( Teachers and Studio Owners ) and to date not one studio that I know of has paid a dime to Bikram to teach his method, or use his name, though I would gladly do so. Lastly I would like to say that for every 5 negative stories, I could probably find you 10 positive ones, the view ultimately depends on where you are standing, and what you want to see.

    Reply

    • Jill
      Mar 22, 2013 @ 18:46:16

      Hi Natasha!
      Of all the post here I really appreciated yours the most. where is your studio. I live in Hawaii. I’m Jill. I teach at Bikram Yoga Mililani on Oahu, HI. I attended teacher training in Fall of ’05. Thank you for your post. Would love to know where you are! Sincerely, Jill

      Reply

    • Andy Jacobs
      Apr 23, 2013 @ 02:03:04

      havent lots of studios paid a lot in franchising fees? i thought that on and off he had fees, sometimes small sometimes big, never really promising anything with them?

      Reply

  7. leighahall
    Jan 23, 2013 @ 15:16:57

    Thanks Natasha for taking the time to write this. I think you make some excellent points – particularly about how we come to understand people and the different standards we hold for them. Thank you for sharing your experiences with Bikram and as a studio owner.

    Reply

  8. Natasha Milanovich
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 19:00:49

    Hey Leigha,
    I’ve just started reading the book, so far it’s made me laugh a lot and cringe a little, will keep you posted,
    Warm wishes,
    Natasha x

    Reply

  9. Eric
    Mar 16, 2013 @ 09:49:46

    Hi Leigha… and Benjamin!
    Thank you for this. I too enjoyed the sections on Tony Sanchez. Have you seen this Bikram versus Tony page? http://tonysanchezyoga.com/bikram-vs-tony/

    Tony did a comparison of their instructor training. I thought it was interesting.

    Reply

  10. Kevin
    Mar 16, 2013 @ 16:21:58

    I loved the book and found a deeper appreciation for the yoga as Benjamin brought us through his journey. I may be wrong, but I think his respect for the yoga is evident. I have to agree with Benjamin that a second book is begging to be written, especially as the civil lawsuits begin to pile up against Bikram.

    I have no doubt that for every bad story about Bikram there are 20 others that would tell a good one. But those bad ones are truly bad and should be told, and he should be held accountable for his behavior.

    Reply

  11. John Kincaid
    Mar 19, 2013 @ 15:31:53

    I am gathering data for a major suit against this man. So far I have 27 women who have come forward that I am representing and all are independent of each other. Amazing it has taken this long.

    Reply

  12. LeighAHall (@LeighAHall)
    Jan 14, 2015 @ 05:05:11

    My Problems with Hell-Bent http://t.co/G83j8eI5XJ #bikramyoga #yogaholicsmag

    Reply

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