I have practiced yoga on and off for the past few years. I started practicing hoping it would make me a better and stronger runner. In the classes I have taken the teachers tended to describe yoga as being non-competitive, telling students that it didn't matter if they were doing a posture better or worse than the person beside them. It was all about being in the moment, connecting movement to breath, listening to your body, and exploring your limits. So when I came across Benjamin Lorr's Hell-Bent about his experiences in the world of competitive yoga I was perplexed. I had no idea such a thing existed. Sure there are people who are obviously gifted and amazing to watch but who knew there were trophies involved.
I was hooked from the first page. Lorr's entry into the yoga world began as a search for regained health and fitness. After an injury and months of inactivity Lorr found himself fatter then he liked. He considered various athletic endeavors and settled on Bikram yoga in part because there was a studio within 15 minutes of his home. (I smiled when I read this detail as my number one requirement for a gym or any type of fitness endeavor is that it be in walking distance of my home because honestly if I have to deal with traffic and parking there's a very good chance I won't last long at said fitness endeavor.) His first class humbles him but also leaves him hungry for more. Within three months he lost the extra weight. The transformation was not without costs, his body growing stronger and leaner while suffering assorted body aches settling into a practice he described as "simultaneously refreshing and crippling."
Despite the pain Lorr was hooked. He dove further into the rabbit hole, attending backbending seminars, enrolling in Bikram teacher training, and competing. As crazy as it all sounded, I got it. Pain hurts but it can also be rewarding when you know that pain comes from working hard, like sore muscles after a hard workout. It is motivating, and so long as it doesn't get out of control, can be healthy. In Hell-Bent Lorr reveals the healthy and unhealthy sides of yoga. He covers a lot of ground - the history of yoga, how it infiltrated the American cultural landscape, Bikram and the cult of personality that surrounds him, and how yoga has changed lives for better or worse. He connects his and other experiences with Bikram yoga to scientific discussions about the placebo effect, the effect of heat on the human body, and personality disorders. It is fascinating. Lorr manages to be both respectful and skeptical while not shying away from revealing the more negative aspects of yoga and the accompanying community.
This is the first book I have completed in the new year and it turned out to be a good way to start 2013. Hell-Bent has inspired me to try to practice yoga on a regular basis again, even hot yoga. That being said, Lorr's book has also convinced me to never take a Bikram class. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who is remotely interested in yoga, even if only from a cultural perspective.