But I wasn’t so sure I’d be interested in reading a book about it, much less one which dealt with Bikram Choudhury and competitive yoga. Of the times I’ve practiced that style, I’ve left his so-called torture chambers unimpressed with the 26 poses, rote instruction and kitschy decor. Turns out, what’s not necessarily relevant to my practice, is fascinating subject matter for Benjamin Lorr’s smart new book Hell-Bent, in which the author immerses himself in the hottest and most hostile regions of Bikram Nation.
The result is, first and foremost, a searing portrait of a singular character; a trenchant biography of both a compelling yoga super hero and megalomaniacal arch villain; a man Lorr hilariously describes as the “prom king of the apocalypse”. But bad Bikram stories are a dime a dozen. What Hell-bent does particularly well is reveal the depths, complexities, nuances and emotions of a polarizing individual who has arguably done more for the worldwide growth of yoga than anyone. We see his sensitive, giving side nearly as much as the tyrannical, selfish one. It is an account with color, contrast, insight, humor and honesty.
When Lorr is not profiling “Boss”, he is practicing. A lot. A dedicated wall-walker, regularly attending extreme back-bending summits, Lorr sacrifices his spine for the sake of his story. He sweats out a third of his body weight for the 2011 Asana Championships. And he somehow survives a farcical, 9-week, $11,000 Bikram teacher training odyssey. Throughout his tour of this yogic underworld, we meet all manner of earnest student, ex-acolyte, obsessed instructor, besieged studio owner, Bikram groupie and lost soul. People who worked with Bikram at the outset. The ones who endured the wild, celebrity-driven formative years at his very first studio in Beverly Hills. The ones who either left, or were left behind in the churning wake. These are the Hell-Bent of his title. Lorr meets and practices with all of them, and they are the ones who help fill in the the most telling, and eventually damning details on this unique sub-culture of yoga.
Perhaps best of all, though, the book is able to shift its focus away from the carnival sideshow that Bikram can be. Hell-Bent is most compelling as a yoga memoir depicting Lorr’s personal practice with his friends, and his observations on the transformative powers of any type of yoga. He astutely examines its origins, its growth and the physiological benefits it offers. In the end, this book is not meant merely for the Hell-Bent few, but any of us who feel that a big part of any great practice should be a great story.
Written by Tom Cartier