Hell-Bent Journey into the Crazy World of Bikram Yoga.

Via Peter Sklivas
on Dec 21, 2012
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A review of the book Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga

* Note: the author received this book for free in return to review the said offering. That said, he says what he wants—good or bad, happy or sad.

Benjamin Lorr has accomplished the impossible.

He has written a balanced comprehensive overview of Bikram Yoga whose guru Bikram Choudhury proclaims the oxymoronic gospel of a yogi living completely out of balance.

“People come to me and think yoga is relaxing. They think little flower, little ting sound, some chanting, hanging crystal … No! Not for you! Waste of time! Here I chop off your dick and play Ping-Pong with your balls. You know Ping-Pong? That is yoga!”

If you haven’t met Bikram up close, here’s your chance. Mr. Lorr does a credible job of packing as many of Bikram’s thousand yoga aphorisms into his personal account of competing in the world of Bikram Yoga.

Benjamin Lorr pouring every ounce of strength into Lotus Peacock. (Not a standard Bikram class asana)

While it’s easy to dismiss Mr. Choudhury as a chauvinist greedy egomaniac, please be forewarned. Bikram defies categorization. Once you have neatly pigeonholed this one-of-kind caricature yogi, Hell-Bent will charm you with accurate stories of Bikram exuding the simple boyish joy of being alive.

Everything about Bikram swings wildly including a display of wizardry in the last days of a teacher training where the yogi invites trainees on his stage. With dizzying speed correcting asanas from tiny nuance adjustments to pulling on a ponytail to yank back a neck into a deeper backbend, Bikram dances with delight.

Love or hate him, this book describes the ineffable hurricane forces of nature that are Bikram Choudhury and Bikram Yoga.

Famously pumping in heat to create a steam room effect, Bikram Yoga has produced the sort of extraordinary results which have altered the entire fabric of the yoga business. Before Bikram, the vast majority of yoga studios operated more like intimate communes than high profit/high rent corporations packing maximum bodies into tight confined spaces. At his biannual teacher trainings Bikram takes $10000 (and up) tuitions from as many 500 trainees dedicating two months of their lives in the quest to become Bikram Yoga instructors.

Hell-Bent tells Benjamin’s own story of extremes.

Scorpion Backbend is not in a standard Bikram class. But it sure looks great. Doesn’t it?

Attending Backbending Club trainings that sound like something out of an X-Men movie where society’s misfit freaks gather at clandestine locations learning techniques to defy the laws of gravity. Except these yogis don’t use any Hollywood CGI special effects. They just bend into super Gumby backbends as a means of decimating mental and physical limitations. Like any riveting before and after testimonial, Benjamin starts out as an overweight out-of-shape pudge ball. Bikram Yoga changed not only Benjamin’s body but also his mind and the reality of the many people whom he encounters at his local Bikram yoga studio, the Bikram Yoga Teacher Training and others in the zany universe of Bikram Yoga.

So many miracles happen for Benjamin that he decides to attend Bikram’s two month marathon 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Trainings. As one in a legion of devoted young zealots Benjamin drinks Bikram’s Kool-Aid hoping desperately the receive a smile of approval from the guru. Benjamin fudges his way into Bikram’s yoga competition (which masquerades as an open yoga competition) to discover what is behind the sort of manic determination required to practice at the elite performance level.

Mr. Lorr depicts the full paradoxical insanity surrendering the charismatic Mr. Choudhury.

So if you have ever practiced Bikram and would like to know more about its creator, pick up Hell-Bent.

To write this book Benjamin understood that he would have to walk away from the rank and file cult which Mr. Choudhury demands in exchange for being part of his inner circle. While Mr. Lorr has not lost his love for Bikram Yoga, he does practice with yogis branded as disloyal heretics by Bikram. Hell-Bent poses questions of readers whose answers will best be discovered in one’s own practice.

The “Search from Something like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga” is one more oxymoron. Competition and yoga leading to transcendence? If these terms sound contradictory that’s because the usage of competition implies focusing on defeating other individuals and conferring victory from some external authority. Then, yes. It’s yoga-on-steroids. The element of competition must inevitably become a transitional phase in the journey of yogis who grow to a deeper more intimate relationship to the practice. Benjamin’s Hell-Bent journey takes us through his steps of humble awakening.

If you’re looking for a memorable gift for someone who practices hot yoga, you can’t go wrong with Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga.

Ed: Lynn Hasselberger

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13 Responses to “Hell-Bent Journey into the Crazy World of Bikram Yoga.”

  1. Asana says:

    "The “Search from Something like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga” is one more oxymoron. Competition and yoga leading to transcendence? If these terms sound contradictory that’s because the usage of competition implies focusing on defeating other individuals and conferring victory from some external authority. Then, yes. "

    Hi Peter – I've not picked up the book yet and am looking forward to having a read. That said, your comment above about about yoga as it relates to competitions is fundamentally wrong. Specifically, you're referencing "yoga" as a catch all. All yoga. You see, a very important nuisance, that is often overlooked, is in the name of these competitions themselves… plain for all to see.

    The United States Yoga Federation who hosts these competitions in America, does not call them a "Yoga Competition" or "Bikram Competition". They are called "Yoga ASANA Competitions" or Championships. The key word here being "Asana", or posture as they're often known. You even link to Wikipedia's entry for asana above. Here's a highlight:

    From Wikipedia:
    "As a repertoire of postures were promoted to exercise the body-mind over the centuries, to the present day when yoga is sought as a primarily physical exercise form, modern usage has come to include variations from lying on the back and standing on the head, to a variety of other positions.[5] "

    As I'm sure you're aware, Asana's are one part – the third limb – of the 8 limbs of classical or Raja yoga. Essentially, the physical part. In these competitions, it's the Asana, and only the asana, is what's being judged. Placing judgement on any other of the 7 limbs of yoga makes no sense. Thus, when people say "yoga competition" to me, like when they do to you, yes it's an oxymoron. But, only inso that the competitions that are being held are not using the same terminology that you are. They present a clear and articulated focus on the Yoga Asana.

    In the same paragraph I reference at the very top of my comment, you conclude with:

    "The element of competition must inevitably become a transitional phase in the journey of yogis who grow to a deeper more intimate relationship to the practice."

    Now you're getting it. As someone who's competed along side Benjamin (separate events, but you get the idea), I can tell you first hand the vast majority, if not all competitors, think along those lines. I absolutely viewed my training as the ultimate reward. Allowing me, as you state, to become much more in tune with my practice, and as a result, myself. It did become more intimate and I grew immensely because of it all. Mind, body and spirit.

    Finally, that entire paragraph is about Transcendence and Competitive Yoga. Have a look at this, written by William J.D. Doran regarding Asanas:

    "Indeed, using asanas to challenge and open the physical body acts as a binding agent to bring one in harmony with all the unseen elements of their being, the forces that shape our lives through our responses to the physical world. Asana then becomes a way of exploring our mental attitudes and strengthening our will as we learn to release and move into the state of grace that comes from creating balance between our material world and spiritual experience."

    Yoga is what it is to me, just as it is to you. Transcendence as well. If executing a 180 degree standing split in Dandayamana-Dhanurasana, on stage, under lights, while being photographed, in front of 700 spectators helps me become transcendent — thats works every day of the week in my book.

  2. […] sweating before the class even started. (I know that’s not saying much, but if you don’t like Bikram Yoga, then you really should never attend a class with me. I’m essentially an oversized space heater). […]

  3. How is an ASANA Competition different from a Gymnastics competition? Physically endowed individuals can train to perform impressive asanas while ignoring Ujaya breath, bandhas, energy awareness & surrendering ego. But are such demonstrations asanas? Bikram's standard assault on Ashtangis is to call them a bunch of acrobatics clowns. By his own definition, aren't most ASANA competitors little more than acrobatics clowns? NOTE to Ashtangis: Do NOT lump me in Bikram. I have respect for authentic yogis and people who moving closer toward becoming authentic yogis.
    If Asanas are simply used to build physical strength/flexibility or heal injuries, then it's not yoga. Not for me. The bold humility required to step on a mat and embrace the convergence of humanity and soul. This is where Asana becomes yoga. At least for me. What's curious about Benjamin's story is how he evolves through the unfolding of his sadhana.
    Bikram Yoga is a flawed method because: 1. The teachings do NOT encourage practitioners to explore yoga beyond the surface of asana. 2. The body mechanics are terrible. Telling people to hyper-extend their knee is idiotic. 3. Instruction of Ujaya (after 1st posture) & bandhas are non-existent. 4. Teachers are cloned into automatons who are told they are being disloyal to Bikram if they expand their base of knowledge.

  4. Newton says:

    Most in our society have collectively become wedded to the idea that the most effective way to bring about change is to attack those in authority who threaten our worldviews. For one thing it’s an easy way to avoid examining our own faults and limitations, and, of course, it’s much more convenient for our egos to project blame and shift responsibility onto others. I'm not suggesting yogis like Bikram don't need to change. But I believe it's more effective to communicate directly with them, not at them. I’m eager to read how Benjamin Lorr tackles this issue.

    Throughout the American yoga field Bikram has always been an easy convenient target. I‘ve been enriched by Peter's capacity to hold the paradoxes about Bikram necessary to get an accurate perspective of who he is and what he has accomplished. In similar fashion to other gifted charismatic teachers who have blurred/crossed the lines of teacher-student integrity, Bikram has provided a great world service who seems to have left a path of destruction in his wake. Can’t wait to pick-up ‘Hell-Bent.’


  5. I'm the man in the photo doing scorpion pose. Your review has overlooked where "Hell Bent" brought light to the physical and psychological benefits one can revive from Bikram yoga and a competition like this. I started practicing Bikram Yoga as a way to heal myself. As a young man I suffered from Rhuematoid Arthritis, struggled with weight gain, and even had a Heart Attack! Through the practice of Bikram and in setting goals with the Asana Competition I've been able to transform myself.

    Now tell me… How is that not Transcendence through something like competitive yoga?

  6. thanks for all this great and valuable informations …

  7. I think it's the best piece I have read about this subject thanks for sharing

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