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Review of Hell-Bent by Benjamin Lorr

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Updated August 24, 2013

Hell-Bent by Benjamin Lorr

Hell-Bent by Benjamin Lorr

Image Courtesy of St. Martin's Press
As the yoga memoirs keep coming, a dividing line running right down the middle of the genre is becoming apparent. I'm going to call this line context. On the one side, we have some perfectly serviceable, and at times even insightful and entertaining, stories of self transformation. In these, yoga is a catalyst for soul-searching journeys that may cover a lot of geography but don't venture too far beyond the individual. Works falling on the other side of the line include much of the same interior reflection, but with the addition of context, a greater picture beyond the writer's own struggles emerges, making for a story that better engages the reader. Perhaps not coincidentally, these books are also marked by superior writing. The best of these include Poser by Claire Dederer, Stretch by Neal Pollack, and a new entry, Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, & the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga by Benjamin Lorr. Lorr's context is the heat-addled world of Bikram Yoga and its offshoot, competitive yoga.

Inside Bikram

From the first pages, we know that Lorr's look into the Bikram subculture will be an insider's view, as he describes himself waiting in the wings for his turn to perform in a yoga competition. Backtracking, he relates how he began doing Bikram to lose weight, but soon found himself spending weeks on backbending retreats and eleven-thousand dollars on teacher training, where he was able to observe Bikram Choudhury at close range. Though fully immersed in the practice, at some point Lorr's experience also became research for his book. He interviewed many of Bikram's senior teachers, both those who have stayed in the fold and those who have left, some by their own choice and some who were exiled by their fickle guru.

Lorr's context is meticulously researched, as he circles around his central subject reporting on Bikram's biography (trying to separate truth from fiction as he goes), the history of yoga, Patanjali, and researchers who study pain, sweat, heat, charisma, and narcissism, all in an attempt to figure out what makes this yoga so addictive and its leader so magnetic. Lorr's case studies include the man who engineers the best studio heating systems, several former yoga world champions, and Bikram devotees whose physical disabilities and injuries were healed by the practice. Ultimately, he finds Tony Sanchez, a Bikram star who dropped out and reinvented himself as a more mindful, body-conscious, alignment-aware teacher. Exposure to this contrasting practice allows Lorr to see Bikram's system through fresh eyes and begin to realize that there is another way to do yoga.

No Competition

Though the subject of competitive yoga is given top billing in the book's subtitle and runs as a theme throughout, to me this is really a Bikram book. Of course, there likely would be neither yoga competitions in this country nor the much ballyhooed attempt to get yoga into the Olympics without the efforts of Bikram and his wife, Rajashree, so the subjects are quite intertwined. It's difficult not to be impressed with the lengths Lorr is willing to go in the name of first-hand experience. Ultimately, Hell-Bent's success lies in Lorr's facility with story-telling and his ability to present inner and outer narratives concurrently. This book is a page-turner that offers the uninitiated a fascinating opportunity to look into the world of Bikram yoga without having to break a sweat.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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