February 7, 2013

Naked Emperors: Hell-Bent on Bikram. ~ Norman Blair


“People come to me and think yoga is relax. 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!” ~ Bikram Choudhury

I have wanted to write about Bikram Choudhury for a long time: the infamous Bikram, the hot yoga man. First, though, some background. I have practiced yoga for 20 years. In that time I have twice been to Bikram classes: once in London and once in California. Two good friends of mine with long-established yoga and spiritual practices swear by their regular Bikram sweat. I know of a senior Ashtanga teacher who has had the Bikram practice as her guilty secret.

Is this the yoga equivalent deep-fried Mars bar?

I know of outstanding teachers who started on that slippery mat in all the heat—who did their trainings with the man himself, who then earned their living as Bikram teachers. I have seen the snobbery towards those who practice this form as if it isn’t real yoga—whatever that may be.

To start at the beginning: I think that people make many assumptions about the man behind the myth. At best, he is portrayed as bit of an idiot—at worst, a power-crazed megalomaniac obsessed with bling. Ridiculous explanations are made for his behavior: “he’s from a region in India where it’s considered normal to tell stories with a little flair so what he says must be taken with a grain of salt.” (1) That is like saying everyone in Wales plays rugby, or that all Scots eat haggis.

And then I read Hell-Bent. This is a great book by Benjamin Lorr with the wonderful subtitle of “Obsession, pain and the search for something like transcendence in competitive yoga.” Unlike many yoga books, this felt gripping with plenty of laugh out loud lines. Reading it, I started to think that maybe I had underestimated Bikram, and that there is actually more to this story. It is clear that Bikram introduced many millions of people to yoga. And it is also clear that there are excellent teachers within this system.


I am confused by Hell-Bent: it is both maddening and inspirational, which could be a decent summarization of the Bikram brand. It certainly has some very funny lines—on dedicated practitioners: “innards so clean, their shit comes out with the same heft, virtue and scent of a ripe cucumber.”

What is astonishing to me is that Lorr only started practicing yoga in 2008. This is surprising because it reflects a lack of experience that potentially undermines the strength of his critique. A mere four years later, he had done the 11-week teacher training with the master himself, starred at yoga championships, read hundreds of articles and books about yoga and has now written one himself! My Ashtanga teacher has been practicing for more than 25 years and my Iyengar teacher began teaching in 1991—neither has yet written a book.

Whatever happened to depth training and immersion in practice? Four years is a blink of an eye.

According to the book, Lorr wanted to lose weight. But perhaps there was an intention to write such a book as Hell-Bent from the beginning… or maybe not. Maybe he is just a very driven and striving practitioner, which is part of the inspiration. He details adventures in “the backbending club” which became known as “the Jedi Fight Club.”

The morning after I finished reading Hell-Bent, I was pushing myself deeper into backbends, enthused by such stories.

From his account, I suspect that Lorr is one of the more naturally flexible: to get so quickly through postures, even with the addition of extreme heating, is unusual. But what is lacking in the details of this driving ambition is self-reflection. Who is the man in these sweaty mirrors? What are the motors of his personality that drove him to such extreme events as the Jedi Fight Club? What makes Lorr such an ambitious yogi?

As well as the personal accounts, this book contains an analysis of heat and how it impacts both body and mind. It is interesting that over time Bikram has demanded that the temperatures be increased for the classes. What started out at maybe 80-85 degrees has now sometimes become more like 110 (which is very hot—and to do strenuous exercising in such heat can potentially be harmful).

Having said that, there is evidence that practicing in hot temperatures can be therapeutic for some people. One scientist states, “heat acclimatization is more practical than altitude training.” But we have to consider the impact on our body when we go out from such high heats into much colder temperatures (as happens many months of the year in many countries). It can be a real shock to the system that perhaps over time could be damaging.

Another view is that high levels of heat are draining for the adrenals and kidneys and that practicing in this way fuels existing imbalances, like overactive thyroids or the low secretion of serotonin.

These imbalances can push people towards their sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) when actually an aim of a grounded yoga practice is to encourage the parasympathetic system. This is the relaxation response where we are less defended and more open; the immune system is stronger, blood pressure decreases, digestive processes are improved. In short, the body gets on with nourishing and maintaining itself.

When people are operating more in the sympathetic nervous system, there can be a mentality of self-punishment and flagellation. This can be true amongst Bikram practitioners, although obviously such tendencies are present in other forms of yoga.

Miracles and Marvels

But in Hell-Bent, there is an almost endless list of individuals who have recovered from serious injury and life-threatening illness, all thanks to Mr. Bikram. It reads like a litany of the miracles and marvels of the modern world. This is not to denigrate very real experiences, but the question here is: how does this happen?

After the accounts of extreme bending and a detailed explanation of pain and its mechanics, Lorr then investigates the placebo factor present: perhaps people are simply thinking themselves better.

One reason is that they are taking responsibility for themselves, manifested by getting on the yoga mat. This is a fascinating discourse that has support from somewhat surprising places. A recent article in The Economist ended with the words: “a healthy mind for a healthy body.” Research does indicate that we have an amazing ability to almost think ourselves well—and possibly this innate ability is drawn out by a practice like yoga.

As my reading of Hell-Bent came to an end, I began Sacred Fire: My Journey into Ashtanga Yoga by Kino MacGregor. Ashtanga is one of my practices and Kino is one of very few teachers to receive certification from the guru, Pattabhi Jois.

There are similarities between the two practices: both follow a regulated sequence of postures, both have gurus, both emphasize dedication to practice and both have been called the McDonald’s of the yoga world.

There are also interesting contrasts between the two books. Lorr is a much better writer and Hell-Bent is an easier read. But Kino has some of the longevity that Lorr lacks; she has been practicing since the late 1990s, visited Mysore on numerous occasions to study with her guru and began teaching in 2002. As well as this practice, she has also done three 10-day SN Goenka-style Vipassana retreats.

End part 1 of 2. Go to Part 2.



Norman Blair has been practicing yoga for 20 years and teaching since 2001. His practice and teaching embrace both Ashtanga yoga and yin yoga as well as mindfulness meditation. He believes that yoga is accessible to all of us and through regular practice we can experience profound changes in our mind and body. His own experience has taught him that yoga is an enjoyable way to release and make available energetic potential to enhance our lives. He is becoming happier where he actually is. For details of classes/workshops in London and other writings, go to www.yogawithnorman.co.uk.


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Assistant Ed. Caroline Scherer
Ed: Brianna Bemel

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