"Hell-Bent" by Benjamin Lorr
Disclaimer: I practice Bikram Yoga. I sit in the audience at competitions. I have attended a clinic with Esak Garcia. I even read the book while wearing my purple Jedi Fight Club shirt (though I just bought the shirt, I'm not a club member.) This may colour my impressions of the book, though I really don't think it will.
The term competitive yoga may be confusing for people. The word competitive seems to be at odds with the whole idea of what yoga really is. But in the world of Bikram Yoga, 26 postures and two breathing exercises in a room heated up to 110F, it's just a part of the experience. The word competitive is probably not the best choice, it's more of a demonstration, yogis of all ages and levels performing the same postures in front of audiences and judges. For most, it's just a competition within themselves, an opportunity to push themselves in their practice.
But behind the scenes of the competitions is a world that many don't know about it. In fact, most of the people who show up at their Bikram studio for a class don't even see this world. It's a world of extreme dedication, back bending clubs, eight hour a day practices, celebrity clientele, all controlled by what many would call a narcissistic and controlling leader. This world is explored by Benjamin Lorr's in Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga.
Lorr was like many first-timers when he stepped into the Bikram studio - curious, a bit naive, and looking for the physical benefits of yoga. But he soon found himself immersed in the competitive subculture of Bikram Yoga. Lorr discusses his initial meetings with champion yogis as well as Bikram Choudhury and how it led him to be come a champion himself. He joined back-bending clubs led by one of the most well-known Bikram practitioners and attended a nine week teacher training that involved two classes a day (for hours at at time) in addition to lectures and movie marathons with the leader himself. Along the way, he discovered the discord between healing properties of yoga and the cult-like atmosphere that is Bikram.
This is more than just a book that "exposes" the world of Bikram Yoga. Lorr meets with researchers and scientists to learn about the benefits of practicing yoga in the heat, talks to people who have had injuries and illnesses healed through this practice, and experts in the field of psychology to discuss obsession and narcissism. Lorr looks at the history of yoga in India, it's arrival in America, and Bikram Choudhury's own life to discuss why Bikram has become such a popular form of Yoga around the world.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book however is the look at Bikram the man and the interviews with former top yogis who have now left the practice. In the book, Bikram comes across as greedy, self-important, and spoiled, probably because he is. There is no denying that this is a man with a narcissistic personality and that many people in his world attribute cult-like status to him. Many people who took up yoga with him in the early days in America have left on their own accord, though many have been forcefully pushed out. The term "exile" pretty much sums it up. This book isn't meant to be a scandalous exposé on the man, everything that Lorr shares can pretty much be pieced together through internet searches, but it gives you a viewpoint from those who are right inside, who are the closest you will ever get to Bikram himself.
This is a well-written book with the exception of some obvious typos (though that has more to do with proof-reading than the writer himself.) It has everything that is needed in this sort of book - personal experience, interviews, and supporting research to paint a full picture of the world that is being shared with us. You don't need to have taken a Bikram class or do any yoga to find this is a fascinating book.
My opinion on it all? I found Bikram Yoga when I was experiencing panic attacks and anxiety. The only reason why I started taking these classes is because there was a Bikram studio on my street. Yes, my journey to Bikram had everything to do with location. But once I got in there, I found something that changed my life. Practicing yoga for 90 minutes in a room heated to 110F taught me that if I can survive that, I can survive a panic attack. Two years later, I'm panic attack free and my anxiety is gone. And along the way, I've found an exercise that pushes me each and every class, where I notice the subtle changes in my body, and where I feel I have accomplished something when I see my toes go a bit higher over my head in Standing Bow Pulling pose. I don't want to compete. I don't want to do backbends for 8 hours a day. I don't want to attend teacher training. And I don't care to know Bikram the man. I'm just happy to have found something that at the end of the day, makes me feel good. All of the negative stuff you hear about Bikram can be separated from your practice. It's about doing what is right for you, body and mind. And, as this book shows, everyone arrives at that realization in a different way.