Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga by Benjamin Lorr
Author Benjamin Lorr wandered into a yoga studio and fell down a rabbit hole
Hell-Bent explores the fascinating, often surreal world of Bikram Yoga, a style taught to millions by a very living guru, Bikram Choudhury. Bikram Yoga is distinguished by the extreme heat it is practiced in (105 - 120 degrees), an overt focus on pain, and the materialism of its founder. It is also distinguished by impressive results—elite athletes swear by it, body-conscious supermodels swoon for it.
Lorr walked into his first yoga studio on a whim, overweight and curious, and quickly found the yoga reinventing his life. He had slimmed down and toned up, when a run-in with a competitive yoga champion convinced him to take his practice to the next level: to train for the national championship.
So begins a journey populated by athletic prodigies, wide-eyed celebrities, medical miracles, and predatory hucksters. It's a nation-spanning trip—from the jam-packed studios of New York to the championship stage in Los Angeles, where Lorr competes for glory. Along the way, Hell-Bent explores the health claims behind yoga, the neurology of pain, the latest in therapeutic rehab, and more.
The culmination of two years of research, featuring hundreds of interviews with yogis, scientists, doctors, and scholars, Hell-bent will change not only the way you think about yoga, but how you view the fragile, inspirational limits of the human body.
PART I It Never Gets Any Easier (If You Are Doing It Right)
This story expresses, I think, most completely his philosophy of life. ... He thought of civilized and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths. He was very conscious of the various forms of passionate madness to which men are prone, and it was this that gave him such a profound belief in the importance of discipline.
— BERTRAND RUSSELL WRITING ABOUT JOSEPH CONRAD
It Never Gets Any Easier (If You Are Doing It Right)
You adjust to being upside down pretty quickly. Sure the blood starts pressing down on your face, and the floor and all its weird grainy ephemera are a whole lot closer, but in general, your body adjusts. Your breathing relaxes; your brain sort of shrugs. When you look around, things don't appear upside down. They appear as things. That's a woman siting in Lotus, there's a radiator, a row of mirrors, a pair of leopard-print Lycra shorts, someone's irregularly bulging poorly shaven crotch.
At the moment, I'm upside down, marveling at this fact, staring at these things. Across the room from me, Kara is going into her regular seizure. Lauren, two people down, is weeping softly to herself. Michael Jackson is pumping on the sound system. He's telling us "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." I've heard the song my whole life, but right now, belly-button to the sky, and back bent in a shape far closer to a V than the desirable and healthy U I'm aiming for, I decide he's a prophet. A glowing saint. His voice is so fucking pure, so enthusiastic and happy, it's difficult for me to hold it all together listening to him. As I rise out of my backbend, uncurling to a standing position, I feel a wave of electricity, a shiver up my spine. The room in front of me goes wavy like a reflection in water; blue and red dots flood my vision. Behind and between these, staring straight back at me from the mirror, is my smile. I watch, amazed at the size of my grin. Then I inhale, stretch to the ceiling, and dive backwards for more.
We're all here — weeping, smiling, twitching on the carpet while experiencing profound neurological events — because we are training to become yoga champions. Literally. Not in any elliptical, analogous, or absurdist sense. But actual trophy-wielding champions. This is Backbending Club, a semisecret group of super-yogis who gather together from across the Bikram universe to push one another to the limits of their practice. It's a little like the Justice League, Davos, or TED, only for yoga practice. For two weeks at a time, otherwise dedicated citizens — husbands, shopgirls, bankers — strip out of their pantsuits and ties, shed all civilian attachments, strap on Speedos, and dedicate their lives to asana practice.
Backbenders are not like you and me. These are practitioners for whom two classes a day is an unsatisfactory beginning. Who sneak third sets into regular class. Who stay long after everyone else has left. Who work on postures quietly in the corner until the studio owner gently asks them to put on some clothes and leave. Bodies so finely muscled, so devoid of fat that they're basically breathing anatomical diagrams. Innards so clean, their shit comes out with the same heft, virtue, and scent of a ripe cucumber. Almost every studio has at least one practitioner like this. You know them by their works. By the way you eye them when you are trying not to. By the purely curious way you wonder what skin that tightly upholstered actually feels like. And if your gym, studio, or workplace doesn't have an actual Backbender, it certainly has someone with backbending in her heart. Who desperately wants to go hard-core, if only someone would give her permission.
Backbending Club is what happens when this community of loners crash together. We are here now in Charleston, South Carolina. Local studio owner David Kiser is hosting. To host, David has opened his home and studio to the group for the next two weeks. We take class at his studio, carefully cramming ourselves into the back of the room so as to disturb his regular students as little as possible. In between classes, we practice further. Then we take class again. Then we continue to practice, often not returning to his home until after midnight.
In this respect, Backbending is the antithesis of those glossy lavenderscented Yoga Journal retreats. We eat; we do yoga. There are no catered meals, no spacious rooms, no hammock time, no sandy beaches. No refined sugar, no alcohol, no processed foods. No coherent schedule, no personal space, no sarcasm, and no coffee. There are also no fees. Participants pay what they can, when they can.
Right now, surrounded by those hallucinatory red and blue dots, we are wallwalking. For the uninitiated, this means standing with your back to a wall, reaching upward to the ceiling, dropping your head back like a Pez dispenser, and slowly curling your spine backwards. I imagine peeling a banana. To guide yourself as you peel, you walk your hands down the wall. First your head goes past your neck, then your hips, then your knees. Finally, your face ends up on a flat plane with your feet, and your chest is pressed against the wall. It is not a yoga pose. It is an exercise Backbenders practice to increase the range of motion in the spine. By leveraging the pressure of the floor and gravity, each wall-walk pushes the spine into a deeper and deeper backbend.
Michael Jackson is paused. The room goes suddenly silent except for our breathing.
"Everyone look at Karlita."
Twenty-two heads turn. It takes me a second to find her because my internal gyroscope is spinning a lot faster than the room, which it turns out isn't actually spinning. Finally, in the far corner, I find Karla González — a twelve-year-old who flew in from Mexico City. Karla, looking a bit like an insect, is in the logical conclusion of a wall-walk: on her chest, ankles on each side of her ears, feet flat on the floor. She has a sweaty agonized look on her face I usually associate with women giving birth. She does not look like she wants us to be looking at her.
"Now come up slowly. Finish with your arms last."
Keeping her ankles in one place, Karla pushes up from her chest and uncurls to a standing position like a slow-motion pea shoot sprouting from the soil. Suddenly, she is a twelve-year-old girl again. Her face flushes as the entire room applauds. I have the distinct urge to tell her that I love her. Instead, I inhale and try to stabilize the internal gyroscope so as not to puke.
* * *
The voice instructing Karla belongs to Esak Garcia. At thirty-four, Esak is a legitimate Bikram Yoga celebrity, the guru's favorite son. His body ripples like a snake when he moves, his torso the keeper of a thousand muscles I have never seen before. Esak attended Bikram's very first teacher training as a teenager — just before heading off to college at Yale — and returns to training every year, twice a year, to, in his words, refresh from the source. More to the point, Esak is also an authentic yoga champion, the first male to have won the international competition, having bent his way to the top in 2005. He is one of the very few Bikramites authorized by the guru to run seminars and is constantly flying around the world giving lectures, demonstrating postures, and gently guiding the spines of the middle-age practitioners willing to pony up his speaking fees.
Backbending Club is a different space. Unlike his seminars, it is an invitation into his personal practice. It is the yoga community he hopes to build. The work here is a refinement of the program he used when training for the championship in 2005. That is the reason for the do-it-yourself mentality, Byzantine dietary restrictions, and the donation-only payment plan. Esak is here to practice; he invites like-minded members of the community to support him.
While we wall-walk, Esak bends along with us but out of time. We go down the wall, he stays up watching, giving corrections. When we come up, we see only his stomach and pelvis arching outward. His eyes have a peripheral vision that brings to mind a frog's tongue zipping out to catch flies. He can be across the room, holding down a conversation, scrutinizing a posture, when suddenly he will yell out a correction in response to your first, tiniest mismovement. A slippage from exhaustion, a momentary cheat. A week into the training, these staccato barks are really the only one-on-one interaction I have had with him.
As we wind down tonight's set of wall-walks, Esak puts Michael on pause once again.
"I know you all are in pain. I know because I can see it in your faces; I know because I am there too. But remember, this is why we are here. Each of us needs to find the painful place and go through it. Do not try to avoid it." He pauses. "The pain is temporary. It is a phantom. But if you avoid it, you will never move past it."
As he speaks, I look around the room. At least three of the women bending on the wall next to me have little blue X's of surgical tape peeking out from below their sport bras. The surgical tape was put there by a chiropractor earlier in the day. The women are doing backbends so severe their ribs are popping out of place. The chiropractor pops them back in and the women return for more backbends. I know this because as one of the only people with a car, I drive them to and from the studio when it happens.
When I drive the women to the chiropractor, I worry about Esak's pain rhetoric. It feels like the worst type of adolescent masochism, Nietzsche filtered through David Blaine. But at the moment, smiley and vibrating with joy, I know exactly what he is talking about. I know because if I let my concentration slip for a second, my whole body will scream in hammer-on-thumb-kick-the-nearest-object-across-the-room rage. Although my ribs are solidly in place, my spinal column feels like someone is driving a knife into it, like it's wrapped in barbed wire. There are precise points that feel black and blue, other places that feel disembodied and almost silly. My fingers are numb. But I find myself backbending easily anyway. Buoyed by my incongruous elation, I find that if I focus on the pain, I can interface with it. It doesn't mean that it stops hurting; it means that the pain shifts and begins to feels like a medium I am moving through. It feels like a melting. When I have melted through, there is another side where I can just breathe.
After the set of wall-walks, we run through postural routines. This is specific training for the Asana Competition. We are drilling seven of the most difficult postures. This is less overtly painful, more just exhausting. Each posture demands muscle contraction, concentration, and then an extended moment of stillness where you inhabit it. In many ways, the routines, with their exacting movements and wild contortions, look like break dance slowed down to a freeze-frame pace.
Esak runs us through them with a stopwatch. At his direction, we repeat the seven postures again and again and again. He pushes us. Then he lies to us. The refrain "this is our last set" begins to signify that maaaaybe it is the fifth or sixth from last. Then he chastises us. Finally without warning, there is an actual last set. Esak announces this by telling us to work on any postures we didn't get to. The room responds by lying still and breathing.
Then he reminds us to finish our chores.
The chores are one of the ways the community gives back to David for hosting us. All the yoga teachers have to donate a class or two to David's studio. That is their chore, so they wipe themselves off the floor and hit the showers early. Those of us who are not yoga teachers have more specific chores. Laundry. Carpet cleaning. Stocking the studio refrigerator. My job is spraying down and wiping the mirrors. The sweat from the day has aerosolized and made them filmy. As everyone else leaves the yoga room, I spray each of the fourteen floor-to-ceiling-length mirrored panels and make circular motions to wipe them clean. It is surprisingly painful work. Karate Kid references dance in my brain. For the last few panels, I notice that my left arm is so tired that I have to physically support it with my right one. It feels like a puppy dog arm. Finally, well after midnight, we clamber into cars and drive back to David's house to sleep on his floor.
How I Got to Here: The Journey of a Skeptic Addict
In 2008, I arrived at Bikram Yoga Brooklyn Heights fat. Fat fat. About six months prior, I separated a rib in one of those ill-advised drinking moments that I used to specialize in. After somewhere between five and twelve vodka sodas at a good-bye party for a friend, I found myself on the iced-over campus of Columbia University, sizing up the relative merits of the campus hedges. And the merits of a hedge after five to twelve vodka sodas refers exclusively to the amount of potential cushion and elasticity it will provide. That I found myself in this scenario was neither an accident nor a drunken inspiration — the good-bye party was for one of my premier drinking buddies, a freshman-year hallmate, and we had returned to our alma mater expressly to engage in a freshman year tradition: bushjumping.
Bushjumping! Just writing it makes my heart leap (and my ribs quiver). The basic idea is self-evident enough: a long running start, a leap, a landing in the hedge. If it went Olympic, points would be allocated for form, difficulty, and volume of scream. But points are beside the point. Lying drunk in a bush, laughing about a new hole in your shirt, and discovering a new zippering scratch the next morning are what really matter.
From an outsider's perspective, all this may seem debatably idiotic for an eighteen-year-old young man, fresh with the taste of freedom from moving out of his parents' house. But the sad fact is that as I stared down this particular bush, on this particularly magic wintry night, I was twenty-nine years old. I had just broken up with my live-in girlfriend. A girl so wonderful and loving that she tolerated almost all my ugly failings so well that I found her intolerable and gradually chased her out of my life. My childhood friend was constantly asleep and living on my couch. I had a meaningful job that I was good at and couldn't stand. Nothing in my life was correct. Anyway, it might make a better story if I separated my rib on that bushjump. But I didn't. My jump that night was a reasonably fine backflip. I landed safely. My friend crashed next to me. We lounged in the hedges and laughed. Then I got up and ran straight ahead into the darkness and dove face-first against the icy ground. I think the idea was something along the lines of a Slip 'n Slide. But it was the dead of winter; there was no water, or ice, or anything except pavement. And so I crashed against the ground belly first, heard an audible crunch, and felt enormous pain before a uniformed officer came over with a flashlight and told me to get lost.
* * *
I spent the next six months milking that injury for all it was worth. By milking, I mean using it as an enormous excuse not to do anything physical. These were days spent sitting on my couch reading. Weekends spent at my friend's house sucking up order-in lo mein. The closest I came to athletics was trudging up the stairs to my apartment and collapsing on the couch. Conveniently, this was one of those marshy New York springs. The rain fell; I watched it from indoors. Soon I started ordering Diet Cokes and substituting Sweet'N Low for sugar in my coffee.
It's pretty hard to totally destroy your body with genes like mine. I'm naturally lean. Not muscular-athletic, mind you, but tight-waisted, small-chested, and prototypically pencil-necked. Up to this point, I had led a moderately athletic American life: soccer through high school, occasional jogs to make up for occasional binges, and the standard intermittent commitments to local gyms. This meant the weight, when it came, didn't come on easily or evenly. It took effort and follow-through: imagine a boa constrictor swallowing a sheep, imagine an R. Crumb woman as a man: weird areas of slender breaking into weird areas of sloth.
But determination eventually prevailed, and by month six or so, I was completely transformed. My face looked swollen, my gut smoothed and rotund. Startling things like my socks (!) had stopped fitting, while my new oversized T-shirts simultaneously stretched loose over my stomach yet clung tight to my nipples. Most disturbingly, my ankles started to swell and pulse when I stayed standing too long.
One evening at a party, I overheard a good friend say, "It looks a lot like Ben ate Ben."
I tried glorying in my new physique, especially the belly. I would rub it in mixed company. Use it as a ledge for the remote control on the couch or as a kettledrum when standing above the toilet to pee. On the beach, I became that pregnant-looking fellow, thrusting my stomach forward with a huge grin. But no amount of faux pride could carry me forever. One day I realized I had lost sight of my penis completely.
A Short Note on Folk Singing and the Space Between Solutions vii
Prologue: Bombproof? 1
Part I It Never Gets Any Easier (If You Are Doing It Right) 5
Part II The Living Curriculum 75
Part III Not Dead Yet! 107
Part IV Like Kool-Aid for Water 131
Part V Sickness of the Infinitude 191
Part VI All Lies Are Aspirational 215
Part VII Finding Balance 251
Reading Group Guide
About this Guide: The following author biography and list of questions about Hell-Bent are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach Hell-Bent.
About the Book: In the early pages of Hell-Bent, author Benjamin Lorr describes yoga as "one of those things impervious to certainty, as incapable of corruption as it is of authenticity." To one person, yoga might conjure up a studio and a sequence of prescribed postures. To another, it could represent contemplation, a union to the soul. But as Lorr notes, in its three thousand–year history, yoga has just as easily stood for the promise of clairvoyance, material gain, or the violent fusion of forces. It is a subject that defies easy definition. Or as the author says, "It is ten thousand rain droplets rather than one holy spring."
It's precisely that richness of meaningyoga's ability to comprise all these notions and morethat allows Hell-Bent to explore such a broad range of ideas while still being, unmistakably, a book of yoga. At the heart of the book lies a powerful story of personal transformation: Lorr went from skeptic to obsessive, undergoing changes both physical and spiritual, before he arrived at a satisfying balance. Along the way it introduces themes as far-reaching as the psychology of narcissism and the perception of pain. It introduces a world of competition that, to many readers, will feel miles away from their preconceptions of yogato some, something worse, a kind of corruption. And it introduces characters that defy belief, who have the power to both inspire and repel, often at the same time.
The journey, the pain, the surrender, the obsession. In his parting words, Lorr reminds us: "It's all yoga after all." Hell-Bent is a work of dogged reporting, a story of personal triumphs and tragedies, a portrait of unforgettable figures, a nation-spanning romp, and a celebration of what can be achieved when the human body is pressed to its absolute limit.
About the Author: BENJAMIN LORR graduated from Columbia University with a degree in environmental biology and creative writing. He lives in New York City.
1. The book opens with the author stating "In many ways this is the story of a crack-up." What is the "crack-up" at the heart of this story?
2. The author suggests that the "forceful fusing of opposites" is a crucial concept in hatha yoga. How is this idea – that one entity might contain opposing forces – echoed throughout the book?
3. How is the yoga during the Backbending/Jedi Fight Club sequences different from the yoga you practice? Did you notice any similarities or areas of overlap?
4. Bikram Choudhury is a man who has been quoted as saying: "Nobody loves himself more than I love myself. That is why I can love you all so much." How does this take on his self-regard contrast or compare to the author's description of Bikram as a pathological narcissist? Can you cultivate healthy self-love without courting destructive narcissism?
5. Copyrighting yoga has been controversial. Based on the information presented in the book, how do you feel about Bikram's decision to copyright his yoga sequence?
6. In the text, the author describes Esak by saying "We stare at him a lot while we practice and he has to bear the weight of our stares." According to Jimmy Barkan, Paramhansa Yogananda described the word guru as meaning the weighted one. What is the weight gurus carry? Is this an inherent part of being a guru, and what would it mean to be a guru without that weight?
7. Did the footnotes enhance your understanding of the book or of Yoga itself? What in the footnotes surprised or interested you?
8. Throughout the book, the author repeatedly uses the phrase "Courtney Mace style yoga competition." What does he mean by this? How is Courtney Mace as a competitor different than, say, your typical high school track star? How realistic is it to believe that our competitive impulses can be channeled as per Courtney?
9. After reading the book, what do you think of USA Yoga's stated goal to put "Yoga in the Olympics"?
10. Compare the author's description of clinical narcissism on page 208 ("Indeed, in the most extreme cases, the world itself – the very fabric of reality – exists only as an extension of the self") with his discussion of the interior quest of the hatha yogi's on page 54 ("Yoga postulates an ‘in-stasy,' a journey into ourselves, whereby… we become connected to the entire universe"). Do you think the "in-stasy" sought out by a strong yoga practice necessarily leads to narcissism? If not, what balances the practice? What prevents connecting with the self from leading to self-absorption?
11. The author relates several remarkable stories of people who have used the yoga to transform their lives. What role does transformation play in relation to Bikram's yoga? Consider Anna's description of her yoga practice in the endnote on 306: "My yoga integrates me. Healing is the idea that something needs to be fixed. Instead Bikram Yoga integrated me, I am still me – with all the pathetic parts – only better." Is this description of a yoga practice consistent with a yoga based around transformation?
12. As described in the book, is Bikram Yoga a cult? What does would it mean for it to be a "cult"?
13. What does the title mean in relation to the book? Page 213 refers to "Just us, the hell-bent," who is this talking about? In this book, what does it mean to be "hell-bent"?
14. What does Hell-Bent teach us about celebrity worship? How is Bikram Choudhury similar or different from other prominent charismatic "control freak" innovators such as Steve Jobs?
15. In the final endnote on page 310, how does the author describe Bikram Choudhury? What type of peace – if any – has he come to both in terms of his relationship with the man and his yoga?
Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga 4.5 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
Fantastic insight into Bikram Yoga. Truly a healing practice, with a self destructive leader. The practice will continue to grow, only without him. Well written, a great read.
I hope to meet you in the hot room someday!
More than 1 year ago
First, I loved this book. Really loved it. It is funny, inspirational, and REAL. Did I mention funny? Because it had me laughing out loud on the subway publicly embarrassing myself type funny. Second I have no idea what that other reviewer is talking about. Not only is this book in no way a bash on yoga, I actually signed up for 30 days of Bikram yoga immediately after finishing it. As in it inspired me to do more yoga, not less! Look the author is real about the parts of the Bikram world that are weird - even scary - and yeah, there are parts of this book that will scare you. But ultimately one of the things I liked most about it was that it managed to show those parts while still showing how positive and wonderful yoga can be. There is story after story of people yoga has healed... In fact, makes me wonder what the other reviewer read, or if they read it at all, or if they are actually writing on behalf of someone else like Mr. Bikram (who is a major player in the whole scary part of the book) just trying to make the author look bad... But then like I said before, there is some spooky stuff in this book. And based on what I read, I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case.
More than 1 year ago
I have practiced yoga for years in various forms. I was so disappointed in the book and the end message it left you with, negativity. It really became a Bikram bash book both personally and the form itself. I did not see the positive light of yoga at all within this author. I have not practiced Bikram before, but I can say that not every type of yoga fits every person. Just as you wouldn't go to a tennis lesson if you didn't care for the teacher, or Zumba if you didn't like the aggressiveness of it, or run a marathon if you were prone to shin splints, you would not continue to take classes in a particular style of yoga if it were a negative experience for you. I guess I probably should have stopped reading when even Bruce Springsteen got criticized. Though he did mention health benefits, picking apart Bikram or that practice, to me, is not the true inner workings of wanting to embrace something new in a positive form. I wish the author would have tried other forms. Yoga and the benefits of it has changed my life. I would hate for someone who has never practiced before to read this and become discouraged before giving it a chance. I'm glad I walked into the world of yoga with a positive mind. It has really carried over into the rest of my life.
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
Candid and Engrossing!
My teacher often reminds us that yoga is not a competitive practice, which has me wondering now if he has a history with Bikram yoga... A practice I have never and will never pursue. This book blew my mind! I think anyone who practices or is interested in yoga will enjoy this tome on the topic. The author applies several staple yogic traits to his writing: clarity, flow, honesty, humor, and insight. While sharing his lurid story into competitive yoga, you sympathize with his path because anyone motivated to "better themselves" has battled narcissism in some way. Thankfully, he found a way out of the bad and back to a grounded placed for reflection and sharing. I have always been intrigued by the power of the mind and body - may it be its tolerance for pain, ability to defy reason, and the power to heal. He explores this all and more! I highly recommend this book!
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
Subject matter aside, this book is beautifully written and researched. The author rides a razor edge between participant and observer. He stays just the right amount of skeptical while still participating fully. This book fascinated me. I had no idea all of this stuff was going on, and I have been doing yoga for 20 years! I highly recommend this book, even if you aren't really into yoga. The writing is so great. It was one of the best books I have read this year!
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