Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga - Review

Title: Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga
Author: Benjamin Lorr
Source: Library (but saw on The Relentless Reader)

Author Benjamin Lorr wandered into a yoga studio—and fell down a rabbit hole

Hell-Bent explores a fascinating, often surreal world at the extremes of American yoga. Benjamin Lorr walked into his first yoga studio on a whim, overweight and curious, and quickly found the yoga reinventing his life. He was studying Bikram Yoga (or “hot yoga”) when a run-in with a master and competitive yoga champion led him into an obsessive subculture—a group of yogis for whom eight hours of practice a day in 110- degree heat was just the beginning.

So begins a journey.  Populated by athletic prodigies, wide-eyed celebrities, legitimate medical miracles, and predatory hucksters, it’s a nation-spanning trip—from the jam-packed studios of New York to the athletic performance labs of the University of Oregon to the stage at the National Yoga Asana Championship, where Lorr competes for glory.

The culmination of two years of research, and featuring hundreds of interviews with yogis, scientists, doctors, and scholars, Hell-Bent is a wild exploration.  A look at the science behind a controversial practice, a story of greed, narcissism, and corruption, and a mind-bending tale of personal transformation, it is a book that will not only challenge your conception of yoga, but will change the way you view the fragile, inspirational limits of the human body itself.

My thoughts:

I love my yoga classes. I love hitting the mat and letting go. I practice the easy, "YMCA"like yoga though I guess. Mostly vinyasa type classes. I have never tried Bikram Yoga, because of the heat factor. I have high blood pressure (hereditary, yay) , and  I was always afraid I would stroke out. Well, after reading Lorr's book, I am sure that I would have!

Lorr wanders into yoga, his only intention being to try different forms of exercise and to achieve his goal of weight loss.  He takes a Bikram class, then another, then another, and eventually becomes a devotee. To me, the classes truly do sound like hell! I am interested in trying to the postures, but I am too much of a wimp to repeatedly subject myself to the discipline. Because that is most definitely a major aspect of Bikram, discipline, mental and physical.  Lorr goes on to Teacher Training, and passes a class that sounds like boot camp for yoga.  Attendees vomit, sob,  faint, become dehydrated, and in some cases have more serious side effects, like seizures. But if you take this away, you have a practice that sharpens and strengthens you, from the inside out. You must be strong mentally and physically to achieve these poses and to hold them, all within a room that is heated to 105 degrees.

As the story rolls along, we are introduced to many big names in yoga, in all styles of Bikram and back bending. We learn as well, that Bikram, them man behind the yoga, is a narcissist, a chauvinist, an abusive parent that his students are always trying to please. The more I read, the less I liked the man. But you do have to say one thing for him, he does know yoga.  I was more impressed with Tony Sanchez and wished that I could take his class. It just sounded more like what I imagine yoga to be.

The competitive aspect: When I read these two words together, it just seemed wrong. How can yoga be competitive? Well, I learned how. Competitive yoga contestants are at the peak of their practice. They are strong and flexible, and can perfectly demonstrate a pose.  The goal is not to win - it is more to inspire others with the depth of their practice, and to inspire themselves to be there.  This is a good article if you are interested. And it has pictures! I have to admit that I tried to get into some of these poses, the ones I had the most slight chance of attempting. Certainly not anything with back bends or my feet on my head or anything like that. I tried standing head to knee pose - and was pleasantly surprised to find that I could almost do it! Lol.  I could stand with my leg out like that, holding it, I just couldn't make it quite that straight. The others though, forget about it.

Lorr did a phenomenal job showing all aspects of Bikram yoga, the good, the bad, the obsession, the pain.  He introduced us to so many different ideas and people in the yoga community, all with varying memories and beliefs.  Sometimes I even felt like I was in that hot tent with him at Teacher Training. I really enjoyed this book, and now I know, Bikram is not for me. I can see why some people would love it - I might even try it, if I thought it wouldn't be detrimental. It is definitely a practice that makes you understand your body, and your mind, while strengthening both.


  1. I'm glad you liked this one Erin...I was a bit nervous ;) I learned a lot about a subject I didn't realize could be so fascinating!

    1. At first I wasn't sure I was going to like it, actually. I couldn't understand why someone would subject themselves to that, or to revere Bikram the man. What an egotist! But then halfway through it clicked in place, and I really could enjoy it. I really learned a lot too!

  2. This book sounds fascinating. I was really into yoga a few years ago but I prefer the slower yoga where you hold the poses for awhile. I could never get into the hot, sweaty yoga especially in a room filled with other sweaty people (ew). Great review.

    1. I like that type too! The slow kind not the sweaty. ;)


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