On a February evening in 2010, I stood in an oversized, overheated exercise studio in lower Manhattan. From my vantage point near the corner, I gaped as a sea of people—mostly women in their 20s and 30s—balanced exquisitely on the ball of one foot: thigh crossed over thigh, foot wrapped around ankle, arms intertwined before their chests. Suddenly, in unison, they descended into a perfect, unwavering, one-legged squat.
Lined up in rows as they were, I imagined for a moment that I was watching not athletes but paramilitaries in sports bras conducting elaborate field exercises.
These guerrillas were, in fact, a fairly run-of-the-mill group of bikram yogis executing Eagle Pose, the same way they—and millions of others like them—do every day in studios all over the country.
As the experts eagle-posed, I teetered shamefully. It was 110 degrees. “Give yourself a mini–heart attack,” our instructor said from his perch, “so you don’t have a real one.”
As an editor doing a little fieldwork, mini–heart attacks in the seminude were more than I’d bargained for.
Earlier that year, I’d read a proposal by Benjamin Lorr for a book called Hell-Bent, about a world of obsessive, extreme yoga. It was a thrillingly original project by a talented debut author, and I was hooked from page one. Colleagues shared my enthusiasm, and I soon found myself Ben’s editor-to-be.
In the weeks to come, I heaped piles of homework onto my unsuspecting author, including a substantial reading list. But there was one assignment I had to complete for myself: bikram yoga classes.
And so it was that I found myself braised inside that Manhattan exercise studio.
Since then I’ve talked with a number of colleagues about the lengths they go for their books. An agent of young adult books told me about the time that, in the name of DIY online marketing, he put together a musical book trailer for one of his authors, in which he not only dressed the part of Bob Dylan (from the iconic “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video), but co-wrote the accompanying music and lyrics.
One editor told me that as she was editing a book by a UFC titan, she took up kickboxing and became so wrapped up in genuine interest for mixed martial arts she started practicing air punches on the treadmill.
An editor of health books had no shortage of stories of deprivation: forgoing sweets, grains, dairy, often for weeks on end; consuming miraculous (and suspect) dietary concoctions. All in the name of researching—and supporting—her books.
A U.K. editor told me about the time she published a celebrity who lived in the U.S. who was so delinquent in returning page proofs that the editor was forced to travel to the West Coast on a day’s notice, sit by the author’s side for a week as the author essentially rewrote the book, and then shuttle the pages back home to meet deadline. (The book, it bears noting, became a major bestseller.)
A few days after my first class, Ben and I met for the first time. Wiry, exuding nervous energy, he didn’t strike me as the kind of guy who could sustain mini–heart attacks. But any doubts I had about his yogic prowess were put to rest when he described the first time he stared at his heels the wrong way—bending backward at the waist.
I told him about the pain I had been feeling since those classes—a nerve pain that shot from my shoulder to my lower back each time I took a deep breath. That, he said, was what an instructor might describe as my body “opening up”—certainly no cause for alarm.
I was unconvinced, and I confess my career as a yogi was short-lived. But the classes, few as they were, helped me appreciate what drew Ben and millions like him to hot yoga. They allowed me to take in the ferocious athleticism of his subjects; the sometimes serene, sometimes stifling quality of the setting; and the particular language of the yoga—all in a way that (I think, I hope) the book ultimately benefited from.
I’d do it again for the next book. Only this time, I hope I’m wearing pants.
Yaniv Soha is an associate editor at St. Martin’s Press. Hell-Bent by Benjamin Lorr publishes on October 30.