If you’ve been following my blog for awhile, you’ll know that I’ve never been a fan of Bikram Yoga or other forms of hot yoga. Like many vinyasa flow practitioners, I’ve had a lot of strong opinions about Bikram — the style of yoga and the man — and most of these were negative. Admittedly, a lot of my ideas were based upon rumors and gossip. I’ve only taken one official Bikram class in my life, and maybe ten or so hot yoga classes. In other words, I’m pretty much of guilty of judging without knowing, and disbelieving without personally experiencing.
Well, my entire view of Bikram has now been turned upside-down (and back again) after reading this book: Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, by Benjamin Lorr. This book has been getting a lot of buzz, so I’ve been meaning to check it out. I’m glad I finally did.
Mr. Lorr takes you straight into the belly of the beast. Not only does he chronicle his own experiences as a “hard core” yoga practitioner; he also takes his readers on a wild ride through the crazy world of Bikram devotees, secret backbending clubs, and competitive yoga. Amazingly, all the madness of the Bikram Universe starts to make a little sense. Until it doesn’t, and you start to see why so many yogis walk away from Bikram feeling cheated, jaded, or just plain burnt-out.
When in Rome, I must do as the Romans do. When in America, copyright and trademark. – Bikram Choudhury
Hell-Bent is a wide-ranging book, touching on everything from the history of yoga, to the philosophical underpinning of yoga, to the science of pain. One of the most interesting sections of the book is Mr. Lorr’s discussion of the physiological benefits of heated exercise. Proponents of hot yoga tout the benefits of a heated practice, claiming that the heat helps to open up the body, allowing for deeper postures (and therefore deeper healing) than “cold” yoga. Skeptics, such as myself, counter this claim by arguing that all the heat does is make you sweat a lot, even though you haven’t really earned it, so to speak. In this way, the heat just tricks you into thinking you worked a lot harder than you really did.
As it turns out, there are several researchers looking into the therapeutic effects of heat on the body. This research is still in its infancy, but, as Mr. Lorr discusses in his book, there’s evidence that the quasi-magical healing experienced by some Bikram practitioners is not entirely in their heads. Through the process of acclimatization, the body seems to adapt to repeated exposures to intense heat. Over time, this seems to result in increased athletic efficiency, decreased levels of blood cortisol, and other changes in the body that could be viewed as beneficial. The take-away from this whole discussion is that the claims about heated yoga may not be entirely fabricated. Maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but this is news to me.
“I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody fucks with me.” – Bikram Choudhury
Of course, the best part of Hell-Bent is the behind-the-scenes look at the world of Bikram Yoga, culminating in the circus that is the official Bikram teacher training program. And it really is like a circus, and not just because it involves 300+ people under a massive tent. You’ll just have to read it to see for yourself. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, as the experience of going down the rabbit hole with Mr. Lorr is really just one revelation after another. So let me leave it at this: Bikram, the man, really is as nuts as you think he is. But he is also the creation of others–those Bikram devotees who feed the monster, giving him money, power, sex, as well as a throne to sit on while he lords over his empire.
By the end of the book, Mr. Lorr assumes a tone that is not unlike that of a recovering addict. Or someone who has escaped a cult. But he isn’t angry, or vengeful, or even particularly hurt. Instead, he is remarkably levelheaded about his journey through yoga, taking his Bikram experiences in stride, while also declaring unequivocally that “we have a legitimate chance to kill our guru.” Of course, he doesn’t mean this literally, but Hell-Bent can be read as something of a call to arms. It’s time to move beyond Bikram. But not because he is a false guru. Rather, as Mr. Lorr writes, “See him as a perfect guru because he is so thoroughly imperfect and thus all the easier to discard.”
- Book Review & Author Interview: Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi (yogaisforlovers.wordpress.com)
- ‘Hell-Bent,’ by Benjamin Lorr (nytimes.com)