Yoga News / Yoga Stuff

Book Review: HELL-BENT by Benjamin Lorr

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.CoverArt-Lorr-HELL-BENT

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.”


4 thoughts on “Book Review: HELL-BENT by Benjamin Lorr

  1. I thought the book was very interesting. For about a year, I’ve been practicing hot yoga twice a week. I used to practice “cold” yoga twice a week. My hot yoga is not Bikram, as there is no Bikram studio in my area. But I love hot yoga and from what I know about Bikram, especially after reading Mr. Lorr’s book, is that it is very limiting. It seemed like the teachers at the end of the book all came to the realization that Bikram was controlling their practices and the hot yoga community and limiting them to benefit only himself, which is the antithesis of the foundation of any yoga practice.

    I really do think it would be beneficial for the entire hot yoga community to move beyond “Bikram” being the “end all, be all” of hot yoga. The thing I don’t like about Bikram and Bikram-style classes is that a limited number of the same asana’s are practiced at each class. One may not move past that limitation and miss out on thousands of asanas (done in a hot room) that may take them even further into their practice/self-exploartion (or whatever yoga does for them).

    Please comment because I find this subject VERY interesting. Thanks and Namaste.

    • Hi Cindy,

      Thanks for your comments. I, too, have been practicing hot yoga lately, but it’s really more like heated yoga, as the temperature never goes above the low 90s. This is more than enough for me, and I get the added benefit of being able to practice a style of yoga that changes with each class. My teacher always seems to have something new up his sleeve, and this not only keeps things fresh, but it’s better for the body. (If you just do the same thing over and over, your body acclimates over time, and the physical benefits diminish accordingly.)

      As far as the actual poses in the Bikram series goes, I can’t really say all that much since I’ve never been a regular Bikram practitioner. What I do know (with some degree of certainty) is that there are other poses and sequences beyond what you get in the standard Bikram class. As I understand things, the 26 postures of the basic Bikram class are just the first series, or Level 1, or whatever you want to call it, of the Bikram system. But practitioners can and do advance to other sequences, which are more advanced.

      Even if this is true, the Bikram system seems to suffer from the same flaw (or maybe “limitation” is a better term) as Ashtanga. But this structure is also its strength, at least some would claim. As a practitioner, you can just lose yourself in the set sequence of poses, and you know what the challenge is each time, so you can work within that structure and really focus on the task at hand.

      I like to think of Ashtanga, Bikram, or any other pre-determined sequence of poses as something like classical music, whereas vinyasa flow is more like jazz. One is not necessarily better than the other, but you’ll know pretty quickly if you’re in one camp or the other. Of course, there is some crossover, but most people will have a strong proclivity for one style or another. For me, I love the freedom and creativity and improvisation of flow yoga. Sure, I’ll do a Bikram or Ashtanga class from time to time, but this is usually like taking medicine for me — I know it’s good for me, but I have to hold my nose to get it down.

      • Hello Ekachakra,

        Thanks for your comments and I apologize for my delay in responding. I think what I want to work through with the “yoga community” is the abuse of power by Bikram after he proceeded to not only sue many studio owners over their misuse of his copyright. But it appears that he actually destroyed many peoples lives and/or livelihoods by his actions.

        I am a lawyer, so I understand his need to protect his copyright through litigation. However, it seems like he went much further than necessary. A quick online search and reading of Mr. Lorr’s book reveal Bikram creating a culture of “my way or the highway.” People who have had multi-year relationships with him were just thrown out of his life like trash. It just seems so non-yoga. If you go online, it appears that people are disenchanted, getting frustrated with him and moving on.

        I give Bikram 100% of the credit for the formulation of a series of 26 poses done in a hot room and copyrighting that procedure. It was brilliant. And, I respect his right to protect that copyright. He worked hard his entire life to get there and he deserves to benefit from it. Did you know that because of his litigation, the US patent and Copyright office no longer copyright physical exercise programs? He is grandfathered in with his copyright, but that type of protection is no longer available. However, I believe, it is really unnecessary to have anything to do with Bikram’s copyright. What do you (or anyone) think? He just got so angry about it. Maybe that’s what it takes to get to that level of income and power from a product….

        Some days I love doing the Bikram-style series. But other days, doing a flow class in a 110 degree, 50% humidity room. There’s room for both, and so much, more in your life.

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