I was the kid who watched Annie and wished I was an orphan. Even now, reading a book about Scientology makes me itch to sign a billion-year contract, and a documentary about the FLDS will send me off to grab the nearest Pioneer dress and head straight to Crescent City. I have Drama Envy. Show me a life full of pain, terror, deceit, and powerlessness, and I will show you a life that’s a whole heck of a lot less boring than mine.
Benjamin Lorr’s Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga starts out as a chronicle of the men and women involved in the practice of extreme forms of yoga. Apparently there is an organization that is currently campaigning to make yoga an Olympic sport, and it is this organization that conducts international competitions, which are run like gymnastics meets, with postures performed and scored for level of difficulty and quality of execution. The author of this book was already an experienced practitioner of Bikram yoga when he joined Backbending Club, which is a different group that believes in spending hours and hours per day practicing back bends more extreme than the ones taught in ordinary yoga classes. The first half of the book consists of profiles of some of the key figures involved in competitive yoga, some anecdotes from the author’s experiences, a bit of background on the history of yoga, and some scientific and philosophical musings on the subject of pain. Because apparently backbending hurts – a lot.
I’ve tried yoga, of course; I can hardly imagine being a member of my demographic (female, born 1976 in California, two college degrees) without sampling a few classes. I took my first yoga class somewhere in the vicinity of 1996, when I was taking a year off from college. I liked it but was rather mortified at how much and how weirdly my muscles ached the next day. Yoga does things to the body that other forms of exercise doesn’t do. I didn’t make the conscious decision not to go back to yoga at that time – in fact, I remained quite intrigued – but as it happened I stayed away. Then between 2000 and 2004 I probably sampled five or six different types of yoga classes before settling on Bikram, which I liked not because of the hot room (which is awful, but in an intriguing way that makes you feel fantastic afterwards) but because of all the schools of yoga that I sampled, Bikram requires the least amount of time spent balancing on the palms. I have ganglion cysts in both of my wrists, and balancing on my palms hurts. I’ve always thought it would be nice to go back to Bikram yoga someday. I even have the class schedules of several Bikram studios in my local area bookmarked on my browser – you know, right alongside the ten Ph.D programs and the fifteen writer’s colonies and the program where you go work for free on organic farms.
Gradually Lorr’s book becomes a critique of Bikram – both Bikram the man and Bikram the school of yoga. Lorr attends a nine-week teacher training program in which he rarely sleeps, spending hours not only practicing yoga in a hot tent with 360 other people but also listening to all-night lectures by Bikram, who claims that he never sleeps and only rarely eats. Lorr recognizes Bikram’s charisma (so much so that he includes a section of a chapter on the concept of the charismatic leader and on the psychology of both these leaders and their followers in history) and talent as a teacher and as a marketer of his brand, but he also becomes aware of the private man behind the public man (insert requisite Wizard of Oz remark here). Bikram trolls his teacher training seminars looking for woman to massage him (these massages may or may not lead to sex – Lorr does not specify and perhaps doesn’t know); he guzzles Coca-Cola and becomes completely exhausted after just a few minutes of practicing his own yoga techniques, and he routinely expels loyal employees and longstanding teachers of his yoga because he suspects them of some form of vague disloyalty. Lorr uses what is known about Bikram’s early life and about the psychology of extreme personalities to make some guesses about the demons that drive Bikram. I enjoyed this part of the book, but in a way it disappointed me too. I didn’t expect the book to take on the task of discrediting Bikram, and in a way I was even vicariously caught up in the excitement of the competitive yoga events and didn’t want the book to switch gears onto a more sobering topic.
I enjoyed this book (which is not especially well-written, by the way), both for what I learned about yoga and for the insight the book provides into the minds of people drawn to extreme activities. I found it distressing too, since I have read or seen documentaries on any number of other charismatic leaders – Warren Jeffs and L. Ron Hubbard and Jim Jones and even some of the big names like Mao and Hitler and Trotsky – and I find it alarming to learn that an individual of this kind is at the heart of an activity that I have enjoyed in the past and had hoped perhaps to enjoy again. I recommend this book to people like me who enjoy the voyeuristic aspect of reading – the chance to experience the intensity of the author’s experiences without having to actually bend backwards and clasp the sides of your head between your ankles – and also to anyone involved in yoga who wants to know some of what takes place behind the scenes when yoga is practiced at its most elite level.