December 21, 2012

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

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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