Hell-Bent by Benjamin Lorr

If, like me, you’ve ever been part of a book club you’ll know the usual drill – choose book and set date to meet up to discuss it. Fail miserably to read book with plenty of time to spare and end up scanning it at speeds not seen since A-Level English, finishing it on your way to talk it through with fellow members. Briefly talk about thoughts on the tome before spending the rest of book club drinking wine and gossiping…

But it’s always helpful to receive recommendations for good reads and swap and share thoughts and ideas, and with a huge number of yoga related books on the market, I thought it would be worth reviewing a few that are on my bookshelf or bedside table.

First up – Hell-Bent by Benjamin Lorr. Or to give it its full title, Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Bikram Yoga. (At least he’s only searching for something like transcendence. Trying to find actual transcendence might have put me off.)

Bikram yoga must be one of the most controversial yoga styles out there. Some purists think the heated rooms and copyrighted series of postures  have moved away from the origins of yoga while some dedicated practitioners claim it has changed their life.  And with the (in)famous Bikram Choudhury frequently in the news, it’s only getting more and more well known.

Standard reading pose...

Standard reading pose…

Hell-Bent is partly a look at how Bikram came to take over the yoga world and partly Benjamin’s own journey. His story is one many yogis will recognise (see ‘about’ page on this very blog) – overweight and wanting to tone up he enrolled in a local Bikram studio and swiftly became addicted.  He quickly began searching out every opportunity to do yoga, encouraging friends to sign-up for classes and pushing himself further.

He recounts joining a group of dedicated yogis called ‘the backbenders’ who would meet up for yoga conferences, sleep on each others floors and spend their free time walking their hands backwards over their heads down a wall to bend themselves backwards. (I’ll admit, when I read that I stopped what I was doing to try it. And got stuck…) And he gets involved in the world of competitive yoga, where yogis are judged on their most impressive asanas in the manner of gymnasts or ballroom dancers.

But it’s when Benjamin enrolls on Bikram teacher training under the gaze of the man himself that the book gets really revealing. Lorr uncovers the charismatic Choudhury without ever feeling that he fully gets close to him and questions if that contributes to the seemingly unwavering devotion of his followers. As Bikram himself becomes more and more controversial, I can’t help wondering if studios and teachers will move away from being associated with his name while still wanting to attract students with the style’s health benefits. For this, Hell-Bent is a fascinating insight into one of the biggest changes that’s happened to the yoga world in recent years.

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