The backlash against Bikram yoga has been going on for some time now, but a new book, Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, by writer Benjamin Lorr casts a more extensive critical eye on Bikram and the world of competitive yoga. While I think it’s important to have a dialogue about Bikram and yoga as a practice in general, I think it’s also important to take Lorr and his experience with a grain of (pink, organic and Himalayan) salt.
Apparently, Lorr starts off the book as a total convert (he loses a lot of weight when he starts his yoga practice) but the books ends up with him basically denouncing Bikram yoga (commonly called “hot yoga,” yet they’re not always the same thing).
He held three jobs to pay for a nine-week course, costing roughly $17,500. He began withdrawing from family and friends to participate in yoga competitions, and he encountered various physical complaints: pain, blackouts, hallucinations and even temporary paralysis in one of his shoulders.
Sad to hear, but not a typical experience, even taking into consideration the increasingly-publicized (and controversial) possible negative affects of yoga practice. It’s unfortunate that Lorr became sucked into the rhetoric of the Bikram world and that his life changed for the worse because of it. But what troubles me is that people who are unfamiliar with yoga may make assumptions about the yoga world at large, based on his experience. Tara Stiles, one of the more famous yoga teachers in the US, had a similar reaction to William J. Broad‘s New York Times article about how yoga can “wreck your body:”
It just scares more people away from yoga, and convinces them that they’re going to kill themselves. Of course people get injured in yoga classes, but I think the problem is not paying attention and not moving slowly enough–not the practice itself. Injury happens when you approach it from the outside (teachers pushing you, egos, trying to force yourself into a pose), which is not really yoga.
Lorr admits he was “addicted” to yoga and exposes a dark side to Bikram, including teachers that urged practitioners to “open up to pain,” saying that if there wasn’t pain, they weren’t practicing correctly. I’ve been to a lot of yoga classes in my life (including Bikram ones) and I’ve never heard anything even close to that. On the contrary, most mainstream yoga practices urge students to practice only to their own comfort level, to listen to their own bodies and their own inner voices.
I don’t disagree with Lorr that the Bikram practice (and a lot of cult-y stuff associated with it) can be very damaging to people, physically, emotionally and psychologically. His story is an important one, and I’m glad he’s telling it. But his experience in the yoga world is also very extreme, not even close to the norm. Most people around the world, even ones that are serious practitioners, don’t have the desire or the ability to become as involved as he did.
Granted, I haven’t read his book and so I don’t presume to know everything he discusses in it, but I think this presentation of a narrow experience is more valuable in terms of stirring up controversy, rather than providing a true window into the yoga world.