Book Review – Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga by Benjamin Lorr
I recently finished reading Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga by Benjamin Lorr for a book club discussion and have to admit that it, and the discussion at the book club, stirred up a lot of thoughts for me about yoga practice, healing, herbalism and life.
Even setting aside my complete aversion to heat to the point which hot yoga is as about as welcome a practice to me as a soapy bath is to a cat. I have to admit the book was a bit of bear for me even though there were parts that I found good (such as his way of really getting into the heads of the some practitioners) because there were others that I found almost painful (like his sidestepping the more egregious goings on.) I felt at times that the author was trying too hard to present all sides and often looking a bit too much to rationalize some of the behavior in the beginning of the book.
While he does toward the end of the book begin to look at some of the problematic aspects of Bikram and his style of yoga – he tries a little too hard to sidestep using the word “cult-like” to describe some of the goings on and that is just screaming out even through the filter of the author’s narrative. Let’s face it, what else can you call a man who while leading a teacher training sits on an elevated throne, with a special air conditioner to keep himself cool while overlooking a sea of students sweltering in the heat, as a collection of women massage his body – it’s hard to sugar coat the imagery, and expletives, which something like that invokes.
At times, I try to be generous and assume he’s simply trying to present “both” sides while trying to preserve his access to write the book – as well as letting us draw our own conclusions. At others, I suspect it’s a disturbing blind spot. Still a worthwhile read in trying to understand a world I, for one, would never want to be part of.
The Deeper Stuff:
What’s really interesting to me about all of this is the issues of pain, growth and what is yoga (and healing) in general that this stirred up.
I often look at these people who pursue these extremes of heat and exertion in yoga (and other things) and I tend to wonder if some of them are a bit addicted to the brain chemicals the body releases to help you deal with it pain and stress on the system.
Frankly, when it is hot your body doesn’t want to be terribly active. And if you’re exerting yourself extremely in the heat it can only assume your life is in danger and releases chemicals to suppress pain and cover up the damage and shifts the flow of blood and oxygen to the where it would be most needed until the crisis is over (which means shortages to the rest.)
That’s where it gets interesting to me. Advocates for that sort of thing talk about how you can get deeper into your poses than in normal temperatures. But then I see accounts of people, like in the book, who can’t do the same poses in a normal temperature room that they can in a hot one. So essentially it seems to me to be a prop – but one that some of the advocates aren’t letting go of so they can learn to do the work without the external aid. So at best it can be a illusion of a short cut to what their practice could be like, but actually isn’t. As well as perhaps illustrating a classic Western obsession with achieving a destination, while missing the point that the true wisdom lay in the journey there and not the actual destination.
More importantly, it seems antithetical to what I view yoga as being. Part of yoga is learning to listen and communicate with your body. At its best, it can be a deep communing and learning encompassing both the body’s places of ease and discomforts. When you push into such an extreme position that your body masks its own injuries and pain to keep you going you’ve lost that connection and communication and instead are embracing a lie and false view of self. That is missing the meaning of yoga for me.
What struck me beyond this- is how much it parallels the way it can be sometimes with Western medicine, with herbalism and in life in general as well.
Too often, we seek a drug or an herb to mask a symptom – lose that connection with the body and so avoid the deeper truth of what is going on. Cover up that persistent itch or pain that is a warning and miss dealing with the deeper cause of it because you mask the symptom – avoiding communication and exploration.
Or we do something to mask a symptom of what may be going on with our lives and cover up that discomfort rather then learn from it to see what it is we truly need to change about how we are, and what we do, in our world.
Something to think about, isn’t it?
Just my insane .02 in reaction to the book.