Picture a scantily attired competitor performing a series of stunts on a spotlighted stage at the Westin Los Angeles. Two billboard-sized screens broadcast every miniscule muscle twitch to a room of more than a thousand spectators, who are silent except for the MCs commentating between performances. A row of scrutinizing judges award points for each maneuver based on its difficulty and the skill and grace with which it’s executed.
Imagine the training prior to this event, during which one competitor regularly goes into seizures. Others hallucinate, lose sensation in their limbs, repeatedly pop their ribs out of place, and weep their way through their routines.
What event am I describing?
If you guessed the National Yoga Asana Championship, I’m impressed.
Before reading Benjamin Lorr’s Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, published in 2012, I didn’t know these competitions, or their hell-bent participants, existed.
Let me say upfront that Hell-Bent explores Bikram Yoga. The word “Bikram,” whether referring to the man or the yoga, tends to provoke strong reactions in the yoga community. The heat of the yoga room (typically between 95 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit), the locked knee, the script Bikram requires his teachers to parrot, and Bikram Choudhury himself (who, according to recent news reports, has fled the U.S. to avoid legal troubles)—all are controversial.
If you deem “competitive yoga” an oxymoron, or if you see injury, pain, and hallucinations as antithetical to yoga, or if you’d just rather not read any more about Bikram, you might have dismissed Hell-Bent when it came out a few years ago.
Give it a chance. This book gently challenges your most ingrained assumptions about the natures of yoga and transcendence.
After a drunken fall and a separated rib in 2008, the author, naturally thin and intermittently athletic, spends months on the couch gaining weight. When his socks no longer fit, Lorr takes up hot yoga, and quickly comes to believe he has “discovered magic.”
Although Lorr recounts his impressive physical transformation and his fluctuating perceptions of the Bikram world, Hell-Bent isn’t really a story about transformation. The weight of this book rests on the scientific and sociological research Lorr amasses on the role of heat in exercise, the nature of pain perception, and the relationship between charisma, narcissism, and power. In a yoga universe built on myths (a world so strange Lorr often describes it in hallucinatory terms) the author works tirelessly to make sure his readers have facts: Facts about what heat does to the body, how SSRIs act on the brain, why modern science has discarded the “pain pathway” model, and how the word “yoga” has evolved over thousands of years. Lorr knits his varied subject matter into one startlingly vivid tapestry, demonstrating that science, philosophy, and spirituality all have a place in discussions about modern yoga asana.
Of course, Bikram looms in the background, and occasionally makes personal appearances. Clearly, Lorr is conflicted, writing, “just when you’ve decided the man is an unending charlatan, a self-promoting boob, a yogic version of a spoiled American child actor grown old…You’ll watch him talk to an elderly student with the heartbreaking compassion of a master healer.”
This book is about much more than Bikram Choudhury, but still, he refuses to be ignored, and probably shouldn’t be—this is a man whose comments range from the wise (“God makes everyone a gold mine. Your job is to dig it out and process it”) to the ridiculous (“I control ninety-eight-point-five percent of yoga in this world”). According to Lorr’s interviews and to six sexual harassment and sexual assault lawsuits, Bikram’s violence is not solely rhetorical.
In my eyes, this is not an “anti-Bikram” text. Whether you’re a Bikram devotee or a yin enthusiast, you’ll experience moments of satisfied vindication and moments spent reassessing what it means to practice yoga. And if you don’t have an opinion on hot yoga or yoga competition, Hell-Bent offers a rounded, fair introduction from an author with the rigor of an investigative journalist and the passion of a man openly enchanted by this fascinating world.
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