Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga

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9781250042781: Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga
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Author Benjamin Lorr wandered into a yoga studio―and fell down a rabbit hole

Hell-Bent explores a fascinating, often surreal world at the extremes of American yoga. Benjamin Lorr walked into his first yoga studio on a whim, overweight and curious, and quickly found the yoga reinventing his life. He was studying Bikram Yoga (or "hot yoga") when a run-in with a master and competitive yoga champion led him into an obsessive subculture―a group of yogis for whom eight hours of practice a day in 110- degree heat was just the beginning.

So begins a journey. Populated by athletic prodigies, wide-eyed celebrities, legitimate medical miracles, and predatory hucksters, it's a nation-spanning trip―from the jam-packed studios of New York to the athletic performance labs of the University of Oregon to the stage at the National Yoga Asana Championship, where Lorr competes for glory.

The culmination of two years of research, and featuring hundreds of interviews with yogis, scientists, doctors, and scholars, Hell-Bent is a wild exploration. A look at the science behind a controversial practice, a story of greed, narcissism, and corruption, and a mind-bending tale of personal transformation, it is a book that will not only challenge your conception of yoga, but will change the way you view the fragile, inspirational limits of the human body itself.

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About the Author:

BENJAMIN LORR graduated from Columbia University with a degree in environmental biology and creative writing. He lives in New York City and is currently at work on his second book.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PART I
It Never Gets Any Easier (If You Are Doing It Right)
 
 
This story expresses, I think, most completely his philosophy of life.... He thought of civilized and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths. He was very conscious of the various forms of passionate madness to which men are prone, and it was this that gave him such a profound belief in the importance of discipline.
—BERTRAND RUSSELL WRITING ABOUT JOSEPH CONRAD
It Never Gets Any Easier (If You Are Doing It Right)
You adjust to being upside down pretty quickly. Sure the blood starts pressing down on your face, and the floor and all its weird grainy ephemera are a whole lot closer, but in general, your body adjusts. Your breathing relaxes; your brain sort of shrugs. When you look around, things don’t appear upside down. They appear as things. That’s a woman siting in Lotus, there’s a radiator, a row of mirrors, a pair of leopard-print Lycra shorts, someone’s irregularly bulging poorly shaven crotch.
At the moment, I’m upside down, marveling at this fact, staring at these things. Across the room from me, Kara is going into her regular seizure. Lauren, two people down, is weeping softly to herself. Michael Jackson is pumping on the sound system. He’s telling us “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” I’ve heard the song my whole life, but right now, belly-button to the sky, and back bent in a shape far closer to a V than the desirable and healthy U I’m aiming for, I decide he’s a prophet. A glowing saint. His voice is so fucking pure, so enthusiastic and happy, it’s difficult for me to hold it all together listening to him. As I rise out of my backbend, uncurling to a standing position, I feel a wave of electricity, a shiver up my spine. The room in front of me goes wavy like a reflection in water; blue and red dots flood my vision. Behind and between these, staring straight back at me from the mirror, is my smile. I watch, amazed at the size of my grin. Then I inhale, stretch to the ceiling, and dive backwards for more.
We’re all here—weeping, smiling, twitching on the carpet while experiencing profound neurological events—because we are training to become yoga champions. Literally. Not in any elliptical, analogous, or absurdist sense. But actual trophy-wielding champions. This is Backbending Club, a semisecret group of super-yogis who gather together from across the Bikram universe to push one another to the limits of their practice. It’s a little like the Justice League, Davos, or TED, only for yoga practice. For two weeks at a time, otherwise dedicated citizens—husbands, shopgirls, bankers—strip out of their pantsuits and ties, shed all civilian attachments, strap on Speedos, and dedicate their lives to asana practice.
Backbenders are not like you and me. These are practitioners for whom two classes a day is an unsatisfactory beginning. Who sneak third sets into regular class. Who stay long after everyone else has left. Who work on postures quietly in the corner until the studio owner gently asks them to put on some clothes and leave. Bodies so finely muscled, so devoid of fat that they’re basically breathing anatomical diagrams. Innards so clean, their shit comes out with the same heft, virtue, and scent of a ripe cucumber. Almost every studio has at least one practitioner like this. You know them by their works. By the way you eye them when you are trying not to. By the purely curious way you wonder what skin that tightly upholstered actually feels like. And if your gym, studio, or workplace doesn’t have an actual Backbender, it certainly has someone with backbending in her heart. Who desperately wants to go hard-core, if only someone would give her permission.
Backbending Club is what happens when this community of loners crash together. We are here now in Charleston, South Carolina. Local studio owner David Kiser is hosting. To host, David has opened his home and studio to the group for the next two weeks. We take class at his studio, carefully cramming ourselves into the back of the room so as to disturb his regular students as little as possible. In between classes, we practice further. Then we take class again. Then we continue to practice, often not returning to his home until after midnight.
In this respect, Backbending is the antithesis of those glossy lavender-scented Yoga Journal retreats. We eat; we do yoga. There are no catered meals, no spacious rooms, no hammock time, no sandy beaches. No refined sugar, no alcohol, no processed foods. No coherent schedule, no personal space, no sarcasm, and no coffee. There are also no fees. Participants pay what they can, when they can.
Right now, surrounded by those hallucinatory red and blue dots, we are wall-walking. For the uninitiated, this means standing with your back to a wall, reaching upward to the ceiling, dropping your head back like a Pez dispenser, and slowly curling your spine backwards. I imagine peeling a banana. To guide yourself as you peel, you walk your hands down the wall. First your head goes past your neck, then your hips, then your knees. Finally, your face ends up on a flat plane with your feet, and your chest is pressed against the wall. It is not a yoga pose. It is an exercise Backbenders practice to increase the range of motion in the spine. By leveraging the pressure of the floor and gravity, each wall-walk pushes the spine into a deeper and deeper backbend.
Michael Jackson is paused. The room goes suddenly silent except for our breathing.
“Everyone look at Karlita.”
Twenty-two heads turn. It takes me a second to find her because my internal gyroscope is spinning a lot faster than the room, which it turns out isn’t actually spinning. Finally, in the far corner, I find Karla González—a twelve-year-old who flew in from Mexico City. Karla, looking a bit like an insect, is in the logical conclusion of a wall-walk: on her chest, ankles on each side of her ears, feet flat on the floor. She has a sweaty agonized look on her face I usually associate with women giving birth. She does not look like she wants us to be looking at her.
“Now come up slowly. Finish with your arms last.”
Keeping her ankles in one place, Karla pushes up from her chest and uncurls to a standing position like a slow-motion pea shoot sprouting from the soil. Suddenly, she is a twelve-year-old girl again. Her face flushes as the entire room applauds. I have the distinct urge to tell her that I love her. Instead, I inhale and try to stabilize the internal gyroscope so as not to puke.
*   *   *
The voice instructing Karla belongs to Esak Garcia. At thirty-four, Esak is a legitimate Bikram Yoga celebrity, the guru’s favorite son. His body ripples like a snake when he moves, his torso the keeper of a thousand muscles I have never seen before. Esak attended Bikram’s very first teacher training as a teenager—just before heading off to college at Yale—and returns to training every year, twice a year, to, in his words, refresh from the source. More to the point, Esak is also an authentic yoga champion, the first male to have won the international competition, having bent his way to the top in 2005. He is one of the very few Bikramites authorized by the guru to run seminars and is constantly flying around the world giving lectures, demonstrating postures, and gently guiding the spines of the middle-age practitioners willing to pony up his speaking fees.
Backbending Club is a different space. Unlike his seminars, it is an invitation into his personal practice. It is the yoga community he hopes to build. The work here is a refinement of the program he used when training for the championship in 2005. That is the reason for the do-it-yourself mentality, Byzantine dietary restrictions, and the donation-only payment plan. Esak is here to practice; he invites like-minded members of the community to support him.
While we wall-walk, Esak bends along with us but out of time. We go down the wall, he stays up watching, giving corrections. When we come up, we see only his stomach and pelvis arching outward. His eyes have a peripheral vision that brings to mind a frog’s tongue zipping out to catch flies. He can be across the room, holding down a conversation, scrutinizing a posture, when suddenly he will yell out a correction in response to your first, tiniest mismovement. A slippage from exhaustion, a momentary cheat. A week into the training, these staccato barks are really the only one-on-one interaction I have had with him.
As we wind down tonight’s set of wall-walks, Esak puts Michael on pause once again.
“I know you all are in pain. I know because I can see it in your faces; I know because I am there too. But remember, this is why we are here. Each of us needs to find the painful place and go through it. Do not try to avoid it.” He pauses. “The pain is temporary. It is a phantom. But if you avoid it, you will never move past it.”
As he speaks, I look around the room. At least three of the women bending on the wall next to me have little blue X’s of surgical tape peeking out from below their sport bras. The surgical tape was put there by a chiropractor earlier in the day. The women are doing backbends so severe their ribs are popping out of place. The chiropractor pops them back in and the women return for more backbends. I know this because as one of the only people with a car, I drive them to and from the studio when it happens.
When I drive the women to the chiropractor, I worry about Esak’s pain rhetoric. It feels like the worst type of adolescent masochism, Nietzsche filtered through David Blaine. But at the moment, smiley and vibrating with joy, I know exactly what he is talking about. I know because if I let my concentration slip for a second, my whole bo...

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ISBN 10:  031267290X ISBN 13:  9780312672904
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 2012
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Book Description St. Martin s Griffin, United States, 2014. Paperback. Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Author Benjamin Lorr wandered into a yoga studio--and fell down a rabbit hole Hell-Bent explores a fascinating, often surreal world at the extremes of American yoga. Benjamin Lorr walked into his first yoga studio on a whim, overweight and curious, and quickly found the yoga reinventing his life. He was studying Bikram Yoga (or hot yoga ) when a run-in with a master and competitive yoga champion led him into an obsessive subculture--a group of yogis for whom eight hours of practice a day in 110- degree heat was just the beginning. So begins a journey. Populated by athletic prodigies, wide-eyed celebrities, legitimate medical miracles, and predatory hucksters, it s a nation-spanning trip--from the jam-packed studios of New York to the athletic performance labs of the University of Oregon to the stage at the National Yoga Asana Championship, where Lorr competes for glory. The culmination of two years of research, and featuring hundreds of interviews with yogis, scientists, doctors, and scholars, Hell-Bent is a wild exploration. A look at the science behind a controversial practice, a story of greed, narcissism, and corruption, and a mind-bending tale of personal transformation, it is a book that will not only challenge your conception of yoga, but will change the way you view the fragile, inspirational limits of the human body itself. Seller Inventory # AAS9781250042781

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