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

Benjamin Lorr

St. Martin's Press

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 body will scream in hammer-on-thumb-kick-the-nearest-object-across-the-room rage. Although my ribs are solidly in place, my spinal column feels like someone is driving a knife into it, like it’s wrapped in barbed wire. There are precise points that feel black and blue, other places that feel disembodied and almost silly. My fingers are numb. But I find myself backbending easily anyway. Buoyed by my incongruous elation, I find that if I focus on the pain, I can interface with it. It doesn’t mean that it stops hurting; it means that the pain shifts and begins to feels like a medium I am moving through. It feels like a melting. When I have melted through, there is another side where I can just breathe.
After the set of wall-walks, we run through postural routines. This is specific training for the Asana Competition. We are drilling seven of the most difficult postures. This is less overtly painful, more just exhausting. Each posture demands muscle contraction, concentration, and then an extended moment of stillness where you inhabit it. In many ways, the routines, with their exacting movements and wild contortions, look like break dance slowed down to a freeze-frame pace.
Esak runs us through them with a stopwatch. At his direction, we repeat the seven postures again and again and again. He pushes us. Then he lies to us. The refrain “this is our last set” begins to signify that maaaaybe it is the fifth or sixth from last. Then he chastises us. Finally without warning, there is an actual last set. Esak announces this by telling us to work on any postures we didn’t get to. The room responds by lying still and breathing.
Then he reminds us to finish our chores.
The chores are one of the ways the community gives back to David for hosting us. All the yoga teachers have to donate a class or two to David’s studio. That is their chore, so they wipe themselves off the floor and hit the showers early. Those of us who are not yoga teachers have more specific chores. Laundry. Carpet cleaning. Stocking the studio refrigerator. My job is spraying down and wiping the mirrors. The sweat from the day has aerosolized and made them filmy. As everyone else leaves the yoga room, I spray each of the fourteen floor-to-ceiling-length mirrored panels and make circular motions to wipe them clean. It is surprisingly painful work. Karate Kid references dance in my brain. For the last few panels, I notice that my left arm is so tired that I have to physically support it with my right one. It feels like a puppy dog arm. Finally, well after midnight, we clamber into cars and drive back to David’s house to sleep on his floor.
How I Got to Here: The Journey of a Skeptic Addict
In 2008, I arrived at Bikram Yoga Brooklyn Heights fat. Fat fat. About six months prior, I separated a rib in one of those ill-advised drinking moments that I used to specialize in. After somewhere between five and twelve vodka sodas at a good-bye party for a friend, I found myself on the iced-over campus of Columbia University, sizing up the relative merits of the campus hedges. And the merits of a hedge after five to twelve vodka sodas refers exclusively to the amount of potential cushion and elasticity it will provide. That I found myself in this scenario was neither an accident nor a drunken inspiration—the good-bye party was for one of my premier drinking buddies, a freshman-year hallmate, and we had returned to our alma mater expressly to engage in a freshman year tradition: bushjumping.
Bushjumping! Just writing it makes my heart leap (and my ribs quiver). The basic idea is self-evident enough: a long running start, a leap, a landing in the hedge. If it went Olympic, points would be allocated for form, difficulty, and volume of scream. But points are beside the point. Lying drunk in a bush, laughing about a new hole in your shirt, and discovering a new zippering scratch the next morning are what really matter.
From an outsider’s perspective, all this may seem debatably idiotic for an eighteen-year-old young man, fresh with the taste of freedom from moving out of his parents’ house. But the sad fact is that as I stared down this particular bush, on this particularly magic wintry night, I was twenty-nine years old. I had just broken up with my live-in girlfriend. A girl so wonderful and loving that she tolerated almost all my ugly failings so well that I found her intolerable and gradually chased her out of my life. My childhood friend was constantly asleep and living on my couch. I had a meaningful job that I was good at and couldn’t stand. Nothing in my life was correct. Anyway, it might make a better story if I separated my rib on that bushjump. But I didn’t. My jump that night was a reasonably fine backflip. I landed safely. My friend crashed next to me. We lounged in the hedges and laughed. Then I got up and ran straight ahead into the darkness and dove face-first against the icy ground. I think the idea was something along the lines of a Slip ’n Slide. But it was the dead of winter; there was no water, or ice, or anything except pavement. And so I crashed against the ground belly first, heard an audible crunch, and felt enormous pain before a uniformed officer came over with a flashlight and told me to get lost.
*   *   *
I spent the next six months milking that injury for all it was worth. By milking, I mean using it as an enormous excuse not to do anything physical. These were days spent sitting on my couch reading. Weekends spent at my friend’s house sucking up order-in lo mein. The closest I came to athletics was trudging up the stairs to my apartment and collapsing on the couch. Conveniently, this was one of those marshy New York springs. The rain fell; I watched it from indoors. Soon I started ordering Diet Cokes and substituting Sweet’N Low for sugar in my coffee.
It’s pretty hard to totally destroy your body with genes like mine. I’m naturally lean. Not muscular-athletic, mind you, but tight-waisted, small-chested, and prototypically pencil-necked. Up to this point, I had led a moderately athletic American life: soccer through high school, occasional jogs to make up for occasional binges, and the standard intermittent commitments to local gyms. This meant the weight, when it came, didn’t come on easily or evenly. It took effort and follow-through: imagine a boa constrictor swallowing a sheep, imagine an R. Crumb woman as a man: weird areas of slender breaking into weird areas of sloth.
But determination eventually prevailed, and by month six or so, I was completely transformed. My face looked swollen, my gut smoothed and rotund. Startling things like my socks (!) had stopped fitting, while my new oversized T-shirts simultaneously stretched loose over my stomach yet clung tight to my nipples. Most disturbingly, my ankles started to swell and pulse when I stayed standing too long.
One evening at a party, I overheard a good friend say, “It looks a lot like Ben ate Ben.”
I tried glorying in my new physique, especially the belly. I would rub it in mixed company. Use it as a ledge for the remote control on the couch or as a kettledrum when standing above the toilet to pee. On the beach, I became that pregnant-looking fellow, thrusting my stomach forward with a huge grin. But no amount of faux pride could carry me forever. One day I realized I had lost sight of my penis completely.
Yoga wasn’t my first choice for getting back in shape. As with everyone who’s ever been horrendously out of shape, I spent considerable time fantasizing about the different methods and programs I would use to become fit again. I knew I wanted to change. I knew diet alone wasn’t going to be enough. And I knew I needed something low impact. To daydream of jogging was to daydream of stress fractures. Swimming seemed like a strong fit—my well-insulated body was just like a seal’s! But the prospect of endless laps bored me before I began. Then there were the martial arts. The Internet certainly offered lots of commentary on the different styles. Unfortunately, the one class I attended spent most of the time going over techniques for eye-gouging. This felt a bit too pervy for someone close to thirty years old. Finally, there was yoga. I was definitely intrigued; yoga felt like one of those unambiguously good things, right up there with eating more fruit and being kind. But in Brooklyn, where I was living, every third human seemed to walk around with a rolled yoga mat strapped to their back. This type of elvish/archerish behavior didn’t inspire.
Probably not unexpectedly, I allowed laziness to make the decision for me. Using Google Maps, I simply made a list of all the exercise studios within fifteen minutes of my house and planned on sampling each of them until I found the proper fit.
The second place on that list—after my brief foray into eye-gouging kung fu—was Bikram Yoga Brooklyn Heights.
*   *   *
I found myself standing in a hot room amid lots of flesh and lots of mirrors.
The men around me were either half-naked (topless with shorts) or upsettingly close to naked (a strap of spandex) while the women, more demure, tended toward sports bras and leggings. I was wearing a baggy oversized blue T-shirt—even though I was warned it was going to be hot—mostly because I wasn’t ready to bare my fiercely conical man-breasts to the world. I’m not typically self-conscious, but being around all this radiant flesh reduced my faux-belly-pride to rubble.
Following orders, I stood on my mat and clasped my hands underneath my chin. The thermostat on the wall read 108 degrees.
This was ten thirty on a Saturday morning, and both my brain and mouth felt a little fuzzy from drinking the night before. I had arrived almost a half hour early, one of those measures a hungover man takes to ensure he comes at all. This was my first time inside any yoga studio, but it hit all the clichés I had assembled: rows of shoes by the door, burning sticks of incense in the locker room, scattered chalices and figurines, nothing but the softest colors on the walls.
The studio itself was small, little more than a glorified hallway. When I walked in, a group of chirping skinny women were lounging around the reception area, sipping from stainless steel water bottles. Everyone looked like they had been awake and functional for hours.
In the center of this group, I approached the gorgeous little midget of a woman who was going to be my instructor. She stood just below my breastbone in a colorful unitard, signing students in and handing out rental mats. Nothing in my description so far makes her sound attractive, so I will reiterate: This was a gorgeous little midget of a woman. I don’t believe in auras, parapsychology, or even the efficacy of most teeth whiteners, but I do believe this woman seemed to shine.
Our eyes met. She smiled. Then she handed me a waiver of liability to sign. “You’ll want a water too. Unless you brought one?”
I stared blankly. I hadn’t said a word yet.
“And towels. You’ll need at least two towels.”
“Just tell me what to do, I’m new.”
“Of course.” And she laughed.
At this point, gorgeous omniscient yogis were new to me. But if there was Bikram-brand Kool-Aid, I was ready to gulp. More immediately, if there were towels and water bottles to be bought, I was ready to pay. With a credit card swipe, I scampered off to the locker room, excited to learn the secrets this women had clearly mastered.
Ten minutes later, standing in front of the mirror, hands clasped underneath my chin, I eyed myself more suspiciously. Where was I exactly?
I was already sweating and class hadn’t begun.
Standing next to me, there was a rail-thin dude in a Speedo smiling manically at himself in the mirror.
And thinking back, signing a medical waiver didn’t really jibe with the incense.
Then the beautiful midget opened her mouth and began to speak.
*   *   *
In general, I don’t remember much about the first class. I remember at one point thinking, This is tough but by no means impossible. I also remember thinking a little later, Please please please let this end. All I want to do is leave.
I remember finding it hard not to stare at the woman in front of me.
I remember wanting to make her disappear.
I remember lying on my back feeling like a plump roasting turkey.
I remember bright spots of pain as I stretched things that hadn’t been stretched in a very long time.
Lastly and very specifically, I remember the force of my blood.
At first, this was more of a curiosity, a refrain in the running monologue going through my head during the class. A certain posture might cause me to lower my head below my waist, and I would feel gravity pull the blood into my face and forehead. The internal monologue would in turn note that this was a novel sensation. But as the class went further, with the poses piling on top of one another and the heat collapsing around me, something fundamental changed. My focus shrank. All that remained was a terrifying awareness of my blood flow. At this point, my heart rate had gone way up and my frame of vision shuddered with each beat. Then suddenly, as a class, we were told to rest. Lying on my stomach, staring at nothing, I could hear the blood gulping through my heart as I recovered; it made an almost squeaky noise as the valves struggled to keep up.
Then the postures continued.
*   *   *
When it was over, I looked up at the mirror in the locker room. The person looking back had clearly just been swimming in his clothes. I was a bit dizzy, so I sat down on a bench for a long while. I didn’t feel like I was shining. I felt vaguely wrung out. I was also thirsty. When I started drinking from my water bottle, it locked to my lips like a magnet. I finished the whole thing and refilled it and finished that.
The rest of the locker room was moving at double speed. An old man was singing Sinatra. The rail-thin guy was back at the mirror, shaving. The entire place was flush with the swampy humidity of a steam room, the floor covered with drippings. Pulling dry clothes over wet ones, I hobbled out.
At the door, the beautiful midget instructor stopped me: “You did really well. You must not lead a very toxic lifestyle.”
I think I smiled and nodded. So much for all that yogic wisdom I had been attributing to her. Then I stumbled home.
Without changing out of either set of sweaty clothes, I fell asleep on my couch.
I woke up almost ten hours later in the middle of the night. I knew I had to go back to that studio as soon as possible. I felt brand new.
My life had changed.
*   *   *
For the first three months, I thought I had discovered magic. I slept less but felt more energized. I ate constantly but couldn’t stop losing weight. My skin glowed. My brain glowed. Muscles started appearing in places I didn’t know muscles existed. (Muscles on the ribs? Muscles on the muscles on the thigh?) One day, my pants started fitting again; the next week, I needed to buy a belt to keep them from slipping off. The changes were radical and positive and continuous.
In all, I lost forty-five pounds in those three months, went from being unable to touch my feet at all (my fingers just stretched pathetically about my ankles) to being able to place my palms flat on the floor. I moved from being able to do zero pull-ups to being able to do sets of ten at a time. I realize none of this is strongman-type stuff, but for a nonathlete it felt miraculous. My body had awakened.
This is not to say the changes came easily. If the yoga was magic, it was the snarky kind, the type that comes with an unexpected trade-off from a maybe-whimsical, maybe-cruel sorcerer. Each class itself was grueling. Stupidly painful, stupidly boiling. However much my brain glowed, my body ached more. At one point, my hamstrings turned black and blue from being overstretched. When I walked down a flight of stairs, I threw myself on the banister for support. At work, I would sneak off to a quiet hallway and do back stretches on the floor to relieve the enormous cramps that built up during the day.
One time a coworker, no doubt herself sneaking off for something, found me stretching. “Uh, you all right down there?”
“Yeah, just threw out my back doing yoga.”
“Doing yoga?”
“Yeah. Weird yoga,” I said, lying on my back in our hallway with my knees tucked to my chest.
“Maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.”
But when I asked my favorite instructor about it, she just smiled. One of those damned yogic smiles: “It’s just your body opening up. Be patient. That pain is almost like a rite of passage. Almost every serious yogi goes through it.”
And what I heard: Me? A serious yogi?! And what I saw: New muscles flexing back in the mirror.
So I continued.
*   *   *
I settled into this comfortable dichotomy—a practice that was simultaneously refreshing and crippling me—for another year. Pain would come (say in the shoulder), life would change (no elbows above my ears for a few weeks), my body would “open” and eventually the pain would disappear. Then a new pain would awake, perhaps this time in the soles of my feet, and the process would continue.
Each sequence of pain taught me something new about my body. When our bodies are completely pain free, it’s difficult to learn from them. We spring down the steps, letting the muscles and ligaments take care of themselves. Our focus is elsewhere. Pain pulled my inner workings to the forefront. All of a sudden, I could feel the bands of muscle working together or opposing. I could find my edge and learn the consequences of going over it.
The structure of the yoga nurtured these observations. Bikram classes are remarkably static. The same twenty-six posture sequence every time: the same heat, the same humidity, the same drumming instructions coming from the teacher’s mouth. Ideally, the studio becomes almost an abstract space, a condition-controlled chamber where you face an identical experience every time you enter. Bending within this repetition feels like a cross between a full-body version of a pianist practicing the scales and an inverted assembly line: you stand still while a procession of postures works on your body and then you do it again and again and again.
It turns out that a body and mind that feel reliably similar day-to-day will react wildly different to the same conditions. Even after months of practice, expectations of performance were not just counterproductive but impossible. I’d walk in eager and strong only to be leveled: dropped like a boxer to one knee after only four postures. The very next day, I’d limp to the studio promising to take it easy and leave elated. My body was dynamic and mysterious. It exceeded anything I thought possible and still managed to abandon me with no notice or rationale. To accept these rhythms—to release from expectations—was to develop compassion: first for the overweight newbie sucking wind next to me, much later for myself.
Beyond this general awakening, however, two important things happened to me during this year. The first is that I met Sarah Baughn.
Back then, Sarah Baughn was a beautiful twenty-one-year-old yoga champion: an all-American yoga queen, part pep squad, part earnest whole-grain intensity, to the point that I immediately had trouble taking her seriously. She was touring the country, giving posture demonstrations to benefit people with chronic disease. And at some point during her tour, she stopped by Bikram Yoga Brooklyn Heights.
Watching her bend, I began to understand one small idea in the yoga universe. Her demonstration began directly after class, the entire studio still crouched over our mats, catching our collective breath, dripping. Most of the postures she chose to perform were from the advanced series, extreme extensions of the regular postures I had been learning. These were backbends so deep her spine looked like it was going to snap; alien forms, part grotesque, part Cirque du Soleil. I had never seen anything like it and I was amazed. Seeing a person with their chest on the floor and their heels on the top of their head challenges your notions of the species. But the more I watched, the more I realized it wasn’t the extremity of the postures that was affecting me.
Sarah might do something as simple as sit on her mat, lean forward, and touch her toes—a hammy stretch from soccer practice—but somehow make it totally consuming. She had a concentration that expanded into her entire body. In many ways, it felt like I was watching a waterfall: the same roaring power, the same glassy beauty, with my brain achieving the same hum in its presence. It wasn’t difficulty or aesthetics. Most of her postures were the stuff B-list ice skaters would scorn on those terms. It was as if I were watching Sarah perfect herself. Or I was watching a more perfect Sarah. As she poured herself from posture to posture, this woman, standing on a towel on a mat in a slightly stinky room, took on a dimension I had previously associated only with natural phenomena, the stuff of Sierra Club calendars: rock walls and ice chasms, somehow distilled into the body of a twenty-one-year-old.
After watching Sarah Baughn, I knew that I needed to do more with this yoga than just define my abs. I felt a call. I desperately wanted to do what she just did.
And so a few classes later, I nervously asked my favorite instructor, “What should I do to take my yoga to the next level?”
Again she answered without hesitation: “Enter the tournament. Don’t be afraid. I’ve been watching you.”
Nothing about that answer was expected. The tournament? A competition? Watching me? If I thought about it, of course I knew you couldn’t have a yoga champion like Sarah Baughn without some championship event to coronate her. But at the same time, competitions didn’t jibe with my understanding of yoga at all.
Still, I had to learn more. I knew there was no way I could win a competition. I wasn’t flexible like Sarah Baughn. But then, embodying a rock wall wasn’t about winning. Was it?
*   *   *
The second thing that happened that year was my beloved ultra-devoted, ultra-tanned, ultra-Bikram instructor had a stroke.
In all things yoga, Hector was my mentor. Handsome, gracious, modest, muscular, it seemed like he occupied the very pinnacle of health. In many ways, he also represented the very pinnacle of what a Bikram practitioner could be. Hector owned two successful studios, practiced the yoga six days a week, and quoted Bikram liberally in conversation.
To Hector, Bikram was “my guru.”
To Hector, who began practicing after an unsatisfactory knee surgery and had used the yoga to heal what his doctors had not, there were no excuses for doing the postures half-assed or incorrectly.
To me, Hector was everything I hoped to get out of the yoga.
Whenever possible, I’d alter my schedule to attend Hector’s classes. This was not as easy as it might seem, because the studio had a policy of not revealing when Hector was teaching to prevent overcrowding. In Bikram, all classes are supposed to be identical, and having popular teachers undermines this effect. So I was feeling pretty lucky to find Hector behind the desk checking students in as I bounded into class on this particular day.
“Hector! I was hoping to see you here!”
In response, Hector grimaced back and handed me my usual two towels. For a man who typically walked around with a serene smile, this was unexpected enough to be noteworthy but nothing to dwell on. I grabbed a mat and headed to the locker room; even master yogis were allowed to have off days.
During class, I realized Hector, far from grimacing, was in a great mood: his voice soaring through the posture descriptions, his arms conducting like a maestro. As with all Hector’s classes, I pushed myself harder than normal; his enthusiasm was inspiring, his devotion reassuring.
By the middle of class, as usual, I was practically submerged in my own sweat, feeling great. But coming up to my most difficult posture, Tuladandasana, the Balancing Stick, I noticed Hector dropped one of his usual lines. Tuladandasa is a killer posture. Every muscle in your body is tensed and holding you aloft on one leg while the rest of your frame stretches perfectly flat, parallel to the floor. The combination of muscular exertion with the lowered position of your heart is tremendous. Generally, Hector loved quoting Bikram after we finished it and were recovering: “I give you a mini heart attack now, so you don’t get the big one later.” I’m sure I never would have remembered this absence, except for what he inserted in its place:
“You might notice, I’m having trouble pronouncing the names of several of the postures.”
I hadn’t.
“That’s because I had a stroke recently and lost the use of several muscles in my face.”
Say again?
And then he was on to the next posture. No further comment.
I stayed behind. It wasn’t that I expected my teachers to be immortal or even flu-resistant. But Hector was a young guy, mid-thirties to my eye. And he was healthy! More, there was something about the idea of a stroke. It seemed so … so … Bikram appropriate. If Hector had bounded into class and shared his battle with leukemia, lockjaw, or multiple sclerosis, I don’t think I would have blinked. But a stroke hit me differently. From my very first class, I had wondered about the intensity of the postures: the extreme heat, the pounding in my heart during class, the pain that resulted.
It was easy to write off those aspects if I was making myself healthier. But now I began questioning everything. I had changed a lot from the yoga. But what was the cost? What if the backaches and pulled muscles were warning signs? Had I been so caught up in weight loss and the newly muscled man in the mirror that I was ignoring basic messages my body was sending?
Messages such as, This yoga hurts. It is bad for you.
I spent the rest of class limping through the postures, waiting until I could get out and Google the hell out of stroke and Bikram. Those searches led to more searching, and soon the rabbit hole swallowed me whole. The same stories, testimonials, hysterical warnings, and medical “proofs” were repeated by all manner of experts with no substantiation or evidence. Basic information on the history of the practice or the number of studios operating or the propensity toward atrophied knees was unavailable or hotly contested. The Internet devolved into its clichéd echo chamber, the same arguments spinning around and around like a mad sage chasing his own backbend, like my quick-dry synthetic fabrics at the laundry. It made me dizzy; it made me ill.
At the same time, I couldn’t just give up my practice. I loved it.
It might have been the best thing that ever happened to me.
And so I started the process that would lead to this book. I reached out to Esak about joining a Backbending retreat. I contacted sports physiologist Susan Yeargin about the dangers of heat. And finally, I took a long look at the center of the circling information and found one man staring back.

 
Copyright © 2012 by Benjamin Lorr