That a yoga memoir can be a totally absorbing, wild-ride of a book says something about the kind of yoga covered, and even more about its author. Bejamin Lorr's new book, "Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga" was, to this sometimes-yogini, the most interesting book I have read on the subject, hands down. That's because Lorr captures something of what I have always found incredibly offputting about yoga (and which finally drove me away from regular practice): the cultlike mentality that seems to invade what, to me, is simply an excellent way to exercise and challenge the body and mind. Lorr dives right into the scariest and most bizarre of the common forms of Western yoga, Bikram, and subjects himself to all those things I have always been afraid of — the very aspects of yoga that put me off after two years of conscientious practice — are what he absolutely reveled in.
In short, that includes rooms heated to the 110-degree temps that Bikram yoga requires (and even hotter in some cases), some extremely disordered and just plain weird eating, people looking for transcendence every which way, narcissistic cult leaders (Bikram Choudhoury, the founder of this type of yoga) and pushing the body beyond all sensible limits. For this cool-temperature loving, never-miss-a-meal atheist with a problem with authority, I loved this book first and foremost because it is beautifully written, but second because Lorr does so many things I never would, but of course am curious about. He did it all, so I don't have to.
Lorr gets into all the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes tell-all memoirs so much fun, from the amusing (Bikram Choudhoury's crazy rants and comical clothes), to the gross (how yoga can modify the body short- and long-term), to the revealing (the history of yoga is not what many of us think we know), to the disturbing (the kind of people who are yoga leaders — and their followers — range from good-hearted human beings to deranged narcissists). All of which leads us back to what yoga is — a totally human expression. There are good guys and bad ones, lucky folks and those who fail despite best intentions. It is, like any good story about anything, universal and very human, which was a surprise to me, what with yoga's supposed connection to the divine, or universal intentions, or to the mysterious past.
At the end of the day, it's Lorr's honesty (and lack of spiritual talk, which yoga is so rife with, and which makes it so unpalatable at time) that brings his road-to-competitive-yoga narrative together with all the other fascinating subjects that an inquiry into the origins and practice of Bikram yoga reveals. He doesn't make yoga anyting more or less than what it is: an exercise practiced by human beings, who attach all sorts of meaning to it. Lorr writes, "There is a long, hearty history where lone individuals have appointed themselves all-knowing gurus and deliberately twisted facts to their own satisfaction and cosmology. So throw your ideas of authenticity out the window, and when I bring up practices like the competition, backbending and hallucinations, try to do something yogic (wink) for a change: Let people claim yoga as they always will but this time, detach, observe, and make no judgements."
If you are into yoga, the book is an honest look inside a part of the culture that you are part of. But even if you are athletic in other ways, you will see yourself here, in this story about how we relate to our bodies and the other crazy humans around us.
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