Today I am back with a book review! Benjamin Lorr: Hell-Bent. Obsession, pain and the search for something like transcendence in competitive yoga. New York 2014. First thing I noticed when I googled the title is that there are obvisouly two versions. The cover you see above (which I own) and this one:
This arose a question in me: Is Bikram Yoga then always competitive? (I am aware how controversial the whole Bikram topic is, especially since the sexual harassment accusations Mr. Choudhury has to face. If you managed not to come across this, just google it and you will find a lot of articles written on it. Anyway, I don’t want to go into this aspect in detail here)
My Bikram experience
In a way, Bikram Yoga opposes a lot of classical yoga principles with his approach like not hurting yourself, don’t compare yourself to anyone, work on the inside during the asanas etc. Maybe exactly because of this, it has gained such huge popularity all around the globe. I’ve heard and read a lot about Bikram Yoga before I actually went to my first class and as most of the Bikram newbies, I felt dizzy, dehydrated and REALLY challenged while being in the hot-room. Instructors would use phrases I’ve never heard in my 4 years of doing yoga classes: “Push! Push further!! Pull it! Pull it closer! LOCK YOUR KNEEEEE!!!”) Afterwards though, I was overwhelmed by a deep sense of calmness and peace. I felt like a sponge that has been wrung out properly and my skin was supersoft. I did the beginners offer in 3 different studios with a gap of 1-3 months in between, so I can’t inform you what a regular Bikram practice is like. But I can tell you that it gets better and that it is a little addictive probably due to its extreme nature. I felt very comfortable in one of the studios, but a monthly membership for 100€ is just not in my students budget right now – and honestly maybe this is not the only reason.
I don’t like the heat in general, I sweat easily, I have a low blood pressure and I’ve always been drawn to a trip to the fjords rather than a beach holiday (which can be fantastic too!). But when you go to a Bikram class there are a lot of people in usually rather small changing rooms, you absolutely have to shower afterwards but your regular clothes will stick on your body nevertheless because the studios seem to have an overall humidity like a tropic jungle.. So I always felt kind of gross after a class (and a shower). On average I spent half an hour going to the studio, being there at least 20 mins before class, changing into tiny pieces of cloth, doing 90 mins of Bikram Yoga, taking 20 mins to change/shower/hair-dry and another half an hour to go home. Seriously I would always have to go straight home with my deep red head, my wet hair sticking on my forehead and my clothes clinging to my body. This is just NOT the condition you would go anywhere else. Fitting that into a daily life is close to impossible. I did 9 classes in total. 4 in November 2013, 1 in February 2014 and 4 in April 2014. Especially in April I loved the classes, cause they got me out of my winter laziness. I was dedicated to fit in as much classes as i could in one week and usually I felt very fit afterwards. Nevertheless I remember taking a class at noon and having to go to sleep afterwards because I didn’t feel energized at all but simply really really tired. So these are my experiences in a nutshell. During all this, I still kept up my “normal” practice at home while going to my “normal” studio once or twice a week. I have a highly ambivalent relation towards Bikram yoga as you might have noticed 😉
So what’s the fuzz all about?
So this is my experience and the book “hell-bent” gave me a deeper insight into the Bikram Yoga world. The author Benjamin Lorr starts off from a point in his late 20s where he is fat, unathletic and sick. A drastic lifestyle change lead him into his nearest Bikram studio. He felt brand new and totally fell for it. Only when one instructor tells him about his stroke, he began to question everything:
“From my very first class, I had wondered about the intesity of the postures: the extreme heat, the pounding in my heart during class, the pain that resulted. It was easy to write off those aspects if I was making myself healthier. But now I began questioning everything. I had changed a lot from the yoga. But what was the cost? What if the backaches and pulled muscles were warning signs? Had I been so caught up in weight loss and the newly muscled man in the mirror that I was ignoring basic messages my body was sending?“(p. 23.)
From this, Lorr begins an intense and interesting journey. He consults doctors and sport-science-experts, former students who were with Choudhury since he came to America (in the 1970s) and lots of (former) hardcore Bikram yogis. Lorr explores the science of heat and its effects on the body and on physical exercise, he portrays the ambiguous, bizzare person of Bikram Choudhury and he explains a lot about pain and neural networks in all its facets. He even gives an abstract of historical yoga. Later in the book he joins the Asana Championship and he signs up for the expensive Bikram Yoga Teacher Training with the master himself, where he would do Bikram classes together with 380 (!) other people in one big heated tent. His impressions of the training sounded like hell to me, literally. The training mainly consists of doing the Beginners class with 26 postures and learning the “dialogue” of Bikram you are supposed to recite during a class as an instructor, by heart.
“Bikram is a man without vocabulary for moderation.” (p. 148.)
This is one thing I simply dislike about the person Bikram. I haven’t met him of course and I feel like I am being a bit unfair, judging people I’ve never met. I am searching for moderation and balance in my life, also through my yoga. And what I read about him was, that on the one hand he is a very charismatic and inspiring person while on the other hand he is just as self-righteous, choleric and violent, in an oral way at least, at the same time. I feel like Bikram enforces a lot of “selfish” behaviour, I think he would bring out all those destructive aspects in me that I am trying to transform (a drive to be better, prettier, (insert any “desirable”quality) than others for example). Nevertheless, Mr. Lorr offered me a better insight into “why someone does competitive yoga”. It has a meditative quality to it that has never occured to me before, a sense of being in the present moment in a very special way. What matters in the end is
“(…) the critical memory that no matter what heights of accomplishment you ascend, you are precisely not a freakish superhuman, that your normality is what made it all possible, that you are euqipped with a body capable of failure and a brain driven towards hubris and mistake. That true balance means exactly 50 percent of the time, less is more. That we all have a fulcrum point in our lives we need to identify and study. Negotiating that line is the true edge.” (p. 280)
To sum it all up: I liked this book a great lot more than I would have expected. Lorrs writing style is captivating and lively. It feels like he takes you by the hand and you travel through hot yoga land, visiting each and every corner. It is a most intruiging book, whether you do yoga or not because it touches many aspects of what it’s like to be human after all 🙂 I recommend this book wholeheartedly to all of you!
Have a great week and thanks for reading!