Longing for those Bikram days – ‘Hell-bent’

As I mentioned in my first post non-fiction is a genre I have struggled with in the past. Aside from the funny lady biographies (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham and so on) I am more of a fiction girl. I think a large part of it is from trying to read the genre and being overwhelmed with academia, and the other is that I have spent the past few years studying and like to escape when I grab a book. However through this blog I am happily discovering that there are non-fiction books out there which are my jam.

I picked up Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain and the Search for Something like Transcendence in Bikram Yoga, by Benjamin Lorr with a mad grab the second it caught my eye. A book about competitive yoga may sound a bit odd but anyone who has done Bikram before will understand. It’s an interesting world. Aside from the stories you hear about Bikram Choudhury himself, the practice is intense and the people committed to it are committed hard. I mean no harm in saying this because once upon a time I was one of those obsessed Bikram yogis. I practiced six days a week – sometimes more – once even doing the 30 days in a row challenge. But I always felt like it wasn’t enough and I know those in the studio felt the same as others managed to do 60 and even 100 days in a row.

Bikram is not as competitive and restorative as other yoga. It’s the same 26 postures every class, each one repeated twice and in a 38 degree heat. If you make any modifications you will be corrected which is a warning sign in itself because no body is the same. Despite this, you get a massive rush from the practice and get addicted fast. The community is deep and slightly intense at times but ultimately you feel like you are part of something supportive and caring. I stopped Bikram after my studio closed down for a few months and I ended up practicing more traditional power yoga during which time I realised just how intense Bikram had been. No longer did I feel the pressure to get everything right! No longer were the best students singled out in class while the rest of us felt like failures! And for once I was allowed to make modifications which I discovered reduced my back pain a lot.

This being said I did love Bikram and wanted to read this book to hear about another person’s experience with the practice. The title alone was a good indicator that Lorr had the same confusing love/hate/obsession feelings towards Bikram as I did, and I was happily hooked from the first chapter.

benjamin lorr
Lorr competing in the yoga championships. Credit from The Yoga Lunchbox

Lorr has made a series effort to present an even-sided description of the Bikram world. He is not defending Bikram as a practice or the man himself, nor does he argue that this is a dangerous yoga created by a mad-man. Instead the focus is on what Bikram did for him and the people he has met through the practice which was interesting as hell. Not only did Lorr practice like a maniac, he attended back-bending camps where people literally spend hours walking their arms behind them down a wall in an attempt to tough their ankles, he talked to the teachers who Bikram trained and loved before suddenly exiling them from the yoga community for no apparent reason. Lorr even went to one of Bikram’s 9 week teacher training camps and told the reader everything they wanted to know about how hot, gross and amazing the experience was. Throughout the book he makes sure to include interviews with people he met as well as medical professionals to hear their opinions on practicing yoga in extreme heat and what makes a narcissist (spoiler: it’s a pretty good description of Bikram). The only thing missing is a proper look into the sexual harassment claims which have been made against Bikram but I can understand that this would be an entire book on its own.┬áRegardless of how healthy or cult-like the practice is you do met some wonderful people through Bikram and build up a whole new family. I could tell that Lorr, like me, found the practice addictive but managed to see how it was more an addiction to the people and feeling of being part of something than anything else. This book was well-written and incredibly well-researched without being overly academic or preachy. Not only did I love it but I had so many feelings afterwards including a longing to do just one more Bikram practice. Not sure if that is a positive but it has me giving this a five out of five!