Yoga, meditation, and cults: L.L. Kirchner recounts wellness journey in new memoir

Yoga, meditation, and cults: L.L. Kirchner recounts wellness journey in new memoir

When L.L. Kirchner attended her first silent meditation retreat in 2007, she knew it had the makings of a memoir. Facing a divorce, she quit her job and headed to Bangalore, India, finding respite in a 10-day course of vipassana meditation, embracing her inner Buddha, and “meeting my inner bitch,” she says.

“I labored under the false assumption that I was cured,” Kirchner tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “This is my blissful thinking, right? I’m better now because I say I’m better. That sort of toxic positivity.”

Now, 15 years later, Kirchner’s second book, Blissful Thinking: A Memoir of Overcoming the Wellness Revolution (available from Motina Books), documents how she expanded far beyond that meditation course. It finds Kirchner — a former City Paper columnist — on a full-blown wellness-seeking “odyssey,” encompassing her experiences with silent meditation, yoga, and chanting, as well as a dalliance with a sex cult.

“I didn’t realize I was on this quest until it was well underway,” she writes in the book’s introduction.

Kirchner is also at work on a forthcoming historical novel, Florida Girls, and is the author of two screenplays and a one-woman show, among other works. The Pittsburgher returns on Oct. 29 to host Unstick Your Magic, a yoga workshop at Om Yoga Lounge in the Strip District in support of Blissful Thinking.

The author’s relationship with wellness has been lifelong and multifaceted. Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, at age 12, her father announced he’d bought a gym in Murrysville and their family would staff it. She began her journey with addiction recovery at 19, describing her 12-step program as “the wellness cult that … keeps my substance use disorder in check.”

When her marriage ended in 2006, she decamped from her marketing job launching Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (the setting of her first book, the 2014 release American Lady Creature) to start yoga teacher training in Goa, India. At that time, Kirchner was 10 years into recovery, and the divorce brought back memories of when her first boyfriend tragically drowned, which had caused her to relapse.

“That was through death. This was through divorce, but the heart is not aware of those distinctions,” she says. “I knew based on how I felt that if I didn’t do something dramatic, I would continue on [that] path.”

She says the desire to stay healthy and in recovery was part of the “genesis” for Blissful Thinking, because “I really believe that there are no stories out there of what you have to do in long-term sobriety to maintain your sobriety. And I think [also] a lot of people can relate to getting stuck in that hamster wheel that something is wrong with me and I have to figure it out.”

During her search for nirvana — during which Kirchner did find solace in yoga and meditation, ultimately becoming a yoga teacher — a $5 trillion wellness industry also sprang up around her. Kirchner recalls receiving the earliest email newsletters for Gwyneth Paltrow’s company Goop, now an emblem of wellness as an all-consuming lifestyle. The coronavirus pandemic also saw a rise in alternative wellness practices, including anti-vaccine sentiment, raising red flags for Kirchner.

“I really regained the fever for the book, [because] so many wellness influencers are out preaching their message to people who are in real trouble,” she says. “My fear is it’s so easy to get blindsided by it. But I think if you read a funny story about somebody who checked out all these things, [it] might occur to you… ‘Oh, I am going down this crazy rabbit hole.’”

Kirchner describes herself as “an open-minded skeptic,” who doesn’t think positivity should come “at the expense of truthfulness.”

“I do believe that there is a solid ground that we operate from,” she says.

Embracing self-acceptance, rather than constant self-improvement, will be a novel message for readers, she believes.

“There’s not a lot of self-help guru-dom out there based around the fact that, oh God, what if nothing’s wrong with you?” she says.