Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Read Hell-Bent by Benjamin Lorr

I have never done hot yoga.  The style I teach and practice is intended for a "comfortably warm" space -- maybe 80-degrees.  The idea is the practioner should generate an internal heat through controlled breath work and intentional movement as opposed to entering a room already cranked to 100-degrees and assuming an exaggerated sense of flexibility that could lead to injury.  Makes perfect sense to me.  Plus, an 80-degree room is plenty warm for exercise, can't we all agree?

A lot of people don't agree.  Hot yoga is an exceptionally popular mode for practice, Bikram Yoga being one of the most preferred.  I had heard of Bikram in a vague sense when it was first becoming really trendy and was shocked to learn on a Today Show news segment one early morning that Bikram was, like, a dude.  There he was, on my television.  Jovial and boisterous and beyond any reasonable level of pretentious, obnoxious, and arrogant.  This guy "invented" a style of yoga?  Isn't yoga supposed to be about the opposite of pretentious, obnoxious, and arrogant?  Isn't it supposed to be about simplicity and quiet personal growth?  Isn't it supposed to be about expanding your mind, not expanding your vintage car collection or your number of diamond studded watches?  Who is Bikram Choudhury and where does he get off?  But the journalist, Jenna Wolfe, seemed charmed by him and also declared herself a believer in his school of thought.  I watched this interview and thought, "I would never do this man's practice -- he goes against everything I believe to be beneficial about yoga."  It's like believing profoundly in God only to go to church to find the minister staring greedily at the congregation while holding his hand out for an offering. 

I hadn't thought much about Bikram or his yoga since seeing that interview and, in the meantime, continued to devote myself to my own practice, including doing teacher training last spring.  For me, yoga is a way to slow down life, to make myself take a moment to breathe, and to see how much (or how little) I have changed from one day to the next.  It has taught me to be comfortable in my own skin.  So I can't do peacock or put my foot behind my head -- who cares?  I work with modifications or props -- I take myself to my own depth and that's all that matters. 

Recently, some of my yoga friends have started talking about a book -- a book I must read.  It became a topic of conversation at a recent teacher training reunion party where a few of the women were in the midst of this page-turner -- Hell-Bent by Benjamin Lorr.  A nonfiction account about Bikram, his yoga, his teacher training, and his pursuit of making yoga an Olympic sport.  My curiosity got the better of me and I added this book to my Kindle the next day.

Ladies, you were right -- I couldn't put it down.

Lorr talks about his own path to Bikram that started with a general malaise in life that lead to him becoming lazy and overweight and somehow landed him in one of Bikram's self-declared Torture Chambers (his term for the rooms where his trademarked classes take place -- how very yogic).  The yoga was impossible at first but strangely very addictive and before Lorr knew it, he was a Bikram junkie, attending class every day, sometimes multiple classes per day, and escalating his devotion to two-week intensive backbending "retreats" with other diehards and eventually doing the nine-week/$11,000 teacher training as well as a trip to Nationals.  Lorr's book includes other narratives similar to his own -- extreme personalities (Type A's, addictive/obsessive personalities, anorexics, drug addicts, etc) who devoted their lives to Bikram Yoga, many of them claiming the practice healed them from illness and/or injury and gave them the proverbial new lease on life they'd all so desperately needed.  Desperation is a common theme in this community, it seems.  People who need need need something to fill them.  Bikram Yoga and its 26 prescribed postures occupies the void -- it fills them -- even if it hurts like hell.

This passage from Hell-Bent recounts Lorr's first time with the Backbenders, an official/unofficial group of extreme Bikram practioners.  The speaker here isn't Bikram but his wife's son Esak Garcia, once instrumental in the Bikram community but later ostracized for seemingly no reason -- a never-ending story within the confines of this world.  Here, Esak is parroting what many of the senior Bikram teachers say on the founder's behalf.  This style of yoga asks students to embrace pain, not back away from it.  Clearly, there are dangers in this.  Pain exists for a reason -- it's a warning from your body.  It's asking you not to go further -- it's implying danger.  Pushing yourself to your limit is one thing -- ignoring those limits is another ballgame all together.

And for a yoga that claims to be so healing, it comes with quite a laundry list of problematic ailments.

Of course, the section on teacher training dropped my jaw the most.  The entire event seemed to be designed to torture and humiliate, very nearly turning some people into drones or, worse, animals struggling to survive.  And for what?  To memorize a 45-page script written by a man who taught class from a throne on a stage.  Insanity, what?  Lorr tells stories about the fickle nature of Bikram that astounded me in this section.  One of the most memorable is a man who completed the entire nine weeks only to be called up to Bikram's suite the day before graduation and told he would not be graduating because this man had taken classes in a studio Bikram felt had tried to rip off his trademarked practice.  And even though this man wasn't a regular student there and had no intention of working for or with this studio, Bikram still refused to let the man graduate and refused to give him back his money, adding that he had known since Day One that he would never allow this man to become one of his instructors on account of this "transgression."  

And then, of course, there are the women...

Bikram is currently being sued for sexual harassment.  The book details lots of examples of women being objectified and disrespected by this man who they (at least once) worshiped and adored.  He's a man in power, no different from any other narcissistic person in power who believes sex, money, objects are his for the taking and that the honor belongs to these women he's selected.  Lorr talks about the women who lose the stars from their eyes the moment Bikram lays an unwanted hand on their thighs. 

Maybe even Bikram is bigger than Bikram -- his persona, his myth has taken over and crushed the man who came from India to the United States at the age of 28 and offered free classes until Shirley McLane quite famously informed him that Americans "don't respect anything that's free."  Everything after that is Bikram's experiment in being American -- the more expensive it is, the more people will want it because it will seem luxurious.

"Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. 
Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God."

Sri T. Krishnamacharya

To me, this is where yoga is at its purest -- just breathing -- just focusing on what is internal and allowing it push into the external.  Bikram Yoga seems, at its most base, to want the same thing -- but as an industry, it feels counterproductive to me -- it feels like a greedy church who loves its parishioners for their deep pockets, not their deep faith in God.  

Lorr's book is fascinating and will surely grip the attention of those who practice and those who don't because it's not a book about yoga -- it's a book about a sociopath and his followers.  Read it -- get bent.