Thursday, January 15, 2015

Book Review: Hell-Bent by Benjamin Lorr

From Goodreads:
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.
While Lorr is certainly a skilled reporter and has clearly done his research, I had a few issues with the way the book is written.  I appreciated that the author was attempting to examine every aspect of Bikram yoga, but I found that he chased rabbit trails with such frequency that the book lacked an overall cohesion.  I would find myself intrigued in the author's story of finding yoga only to be derailed be several pages on the social and medical nature of pain.  Or I'd be ready to find out exactly what secrets Bikram was hiding behind his celebrity status only to find myself immersed in a side story about a friend of the author's.  It needed to be narrowed and focused.  All of the information was reliable and interesting, but it didn't fit together in an altogether logical way.

Entertainment Value
First of all, I have to start by saying that Bikram yoga and competitive yoga are so far from being my thing that they are not even in the same realm.  I love yoga (the yoga I practice, that is) because I don't get too hot and sweaty, I don't have to compete with anyone around me, and it's all self-focused and not about achievements but about stretching yourself.  That said, I totally respect that there are other types of yoga and other preferences and I am fascinated by the idea of Bikram and competitive yoga.

I loved the expose portions of the book and getting an inside look at the man who created Bikram yoga and is credited with starting the yoga craze in the United States.  I also enjoyed hearing the author's personal experiences with training and the intensity of living a Bikram lifestyle.  I was distracted to some degree by the rabbit trails, especially those I found less relevant to the theme of the book.

I think if you're into yoga, you'll probably enjoy the read.  It's always fun to read about something you love and aspects of it that are vastly different from your own experience.  I don't, however, think it's going to have much of an appeal to those who aren't interested in yoga as a whole.  I had hoped that there would be more about the author's transition from being overweight and merely curious to being competitive, but that's not really the focus of the book at all.  I'm hoping to read more from a beginner's perspective in Stretch: The Unlikely Making of A Yoga Dude - my next yoga read.

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