Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga
St. Martin’s Press: 312 pp., $25.99
The sweaty, two-year odyssey Benjamin Lorr chronicles in his new memoir, “Hell Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga,” begins as so many great journeys do: with a drunken, late-night slip on a patch of ice that results in a separated rib.
Six inactive months and many pounds later, Lorr decides to get back in shape. Sheer laziness leads him to a Bikram yoga studio near his Brooklyn apartment, but the choice turns out to be a serendipitous one. Lorr instantly becomes hooked on the punishing regimen, in which yogis perform a rote series of 26 postures in rooms as hot as 110 degrees. The new habit transforms his body.
“My skin glowed. My brain glowed,” he writes with the fervor of an addict.
The honeymoon is short-lived. After his favorite instructor suffers a stroke, Lorr falls into an Internet “rabbit hole,” researching the health risks of hot yoga and the dubious reputation of its founder, Bikram Choudhury. This crisis of confidence happens to coincide with Lorr’s decision to take his practice to the next level by entering a yoga competition.
What follows is part undercover investigation, part initiation, as Lorr, almost against his better judgment, becomes more and more committed to the practice. He joins “Backbending Club,” a “semisecret group of super-yogis”; he enters his first competition, which requires him to pose on a stage in a New Jersey mall, wearing little more than underwear; and he even trains under Choudhury to become an instructor.
In his pursuit of answers, Lorr touches on a surprising number of disciplines, pivoting from Vedic philosophy to neuroscience to sports physiology with great confidence. He approaches the subject of Bikram yoga not with journalistic detachment, but with something that, at least in this case, turns out to be more powerful: the personal investment of a believer forced to question his faith.
He gradually learns to take an a la carte approach to Bikram’s teachings, embracing the belief that “the yoga” yields nearly miraculous physical results. He is decidedly less forgiving when it comes to Choudhury himself, who comes across in “Hell Bent” as an overgrown child and chronic liar with a penchant for emotional abuse.
This distinction comes into focus most vividly during the hellish nine weeks he spends at teacher training at a run-down hotel near the San Diego airport. Stranded in this no man’s land, Lorr and 380 other devotees are subject not just to twice-daily classes conducted in a sweltering, filthy tent that “evokes the hygiene of a worn-out Band-Aid,” but to all of Bikram’s cruel eccentricities — including regular verbal lashings and mandatory Bollywood screenings that run until the wee hours of the morning. It’s a New Age hazing session.
There’s a conspicuous, stunt-like quality to this section of the book — you never really get the sense that Lorr is interested in teaching, only in fodder for his memoir — but in the end it doesn’t matter much, because it’s where he does some of his best writing. It seems consciously modeled on “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” David Foster Wallace’s essay about life in a cruise ship, and it works.
Lorr’s frustration with Choudhury doesn’t extend to the guru’s many acolytes, many of whom are lovingly profiled in “Hell Bent.” Lorr clearly appreciates big, ridiculous personalities, like Janis, the Latvian he rooms with during teacher training who keeps piles of thousand-dollar bills on his bedside table.
But his peers aren’t just amusing, they’re frequently awe-inspiring. “The process of witnessing, discussing, and reveling in personal transformation never grows old,” Lorr says, and he certainly seems to mean it: “Hell Bent” includes a somewhat excessive number of testimonies from people who’ve used Bikram yoga to kick heroin addiction, chronic back pain or rheumatoid arthritis.
Plenty of athletes speak in fuzzy cliches about the “high” they get from running marathons or free-climbing cliff faces, but what makes Lorr such a powerful writer is the precise, nearly microscopic detail he uses to describe his yoga experiences. He recalls resting during his very first Bikram class: “Lying on my stomach, staring at nothing, I could hear the blood gulping my heart as I recovered; it made an almost squeaky noise as the valves struggled to keep up.” Later, in the middle of a particularly brutal yoga session, Lorr flees to the bathroom and wretches into a toilet bowl tainted by droplets of urine the color of “disgustingly dehydrated cheddar cheese.”
Lorr’s high-definition style isn’t always for the faint of heart, but it certainly makes for engaging reading.