hell-being: competitive and hot yoga

I recently read “Hell-Bent: obsession, pain and the search for something like transcendence in competitive yoga”. Not only does this book follow  the writers personal yoga journey from fat and unhealthy to fit and flexible, but provides it within the context of the world of competitive yoga and Bikram yoga.


Bikram yoga is a 26-pose sequence undertaken in a 105-degree heated room for 90 minutes. Same poses, same carpet, mirrors and same Bikram-script, every time. The author touts this type of yoga is suited to alpha-types looking for self-transformation, with a degree of machoism. He also provides a solid list of  people who overcame adversity (drugs, abuse, injury, illness) with Bikram’s style of yoga.

… but, wait a second. Did it also say competitive yoga? That seems to go against all yoga notions… or does it? During competitive yoga, or Yoga Asana (posture) Championships, competitors are required to perform five compulsory poses, including a standing head-to-knee pose and a bow pose, plus two other poses of their choice, within three minutes. They’re then marked on their strength, balance and flexibility.

Bikram and his wife Rajashree Choudhury hold these competitions where the ultimate goal is to join with similar organizations in other countries to form an international yoga federation and to qualify Yoga Asana as an Olympic sport. This ask questions around how does the spiritual side exists on a competitive level? Can we have both?

Yoga Asana Competition (yogainmyschool.com)

I also really liked how the novel presented data from scientists on the dangers and benefits of heat.

Dr. Yeargin (Indiana State University) discusses physiological mechanisms that trigger heat stroke among athletes. When exercising in extreme heat, your body is battling head produced by your muscles (inside the body) as well as from the outside world. If your core temperature rises too high, your brain and organs begin to shut down. Exercising in heat feels harder because the muscles are starved for energy and the brain isn’t receiving enough blood… leading to hallucinations, fainting and seizures. However, the body is smart and can adapt (acclimatization effect), which is great but doesn’t eliminate the risks.

Dr. Santiago Lorenzo (University of Oregon) described the fitness benefits of heat acclimatization in the novel. His work shows training in a hot environment increases athletic performance (longer, harder, faster) and physiology (blood plasma, cardiac output, power output). The heat stresses the cardiovascular system, and his speculates training in head could give cardiovascular benefits to patients who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get them (i.e. injury, paralysis). But of course, he mentions that you need to be aware of the risk and take caution.


The story of Bikram, his charisma, pain, sweat and narcissism is in contrast to other insightful stories from yoga champions and past-Bikram stars. In the end, the writer comes to the conclusion that there is another way to do yoga; it’s almost a call-to-arms for more mindful, body-aligned and aware practice.

… this book provided me with inspiration to reflect on my own practice… as well as some funny laugh-out-loud moments where I found myself saying “that can’t be true!”

Happy Reading! much love.


10 thoughts on “hell-being: competitive and hot yoga

    • Ha! I started yoga doing hot yoga (Moksha Yoga!) and fell in love. When I moved to a city without a Moksha studio, I did Bikram for a year. It really does help develop focus and dedication to practice. I think it helped my practice evolve… But competitive yoga? Not for me!!

      • as someone who breaks into a sweat from thinking about sunshine I am afraid that although I have no doubt that hot yoga could assist me in finding my extra bendyness and honing in on my inner pretzel shape, alas hot and competitive not only go against my inner tortoise (I haven’t got a shell to cool down when the going gets hot) but I agree competitive yoga – Not for me…

  1. I first heard of Asana competitions in a documentary I watched a few years back… My gut reaction was to just chuckle at it, but I guess if it helps provide focus it isn’t necessarily terrible…you just hope those folks have something else to ground their Practice. The picture of the Asana competition you posted reminded me of all the yogis and yoginis sharing on SocialMedia and how Instagram has made Asana into performance art in many cases…there seems to be a strong compulsion (for Good and for Bad) to achieve particular postures, to be the bendiest, the strongest, etc… I’m always reassured to see the occaisonal picture of a quiet, seated meditation! One thing is for sure- Change. 😉

    • “Asana as performance art” … what an interesting sentiment! It really focused on the external practice, whereas the internal is the juiciest part and where the real benefits lie!

  2. Pingback: Epilepsy Research Is Getting Cool Your Brain Isn’t Smoki’n! | epilepsy me and neurology

  3. Thanks Kate! Sounds like a well balanced take on this subject
    I know that I have had to learn to reign in the often-too-high expectations I tend to impose on myself in order to engage in a safe and respectful practice. Humbling and rewarding results 🙂

  4. Great review of this book – thinking about the competitions related to spirituality reminds me that martial artists compete and perform. A friend described how important her spiritual focus was to her ability to “perform” her art. I think maybe all kinds of athletes draw upon spiritual strengths to develop mastery. But — the whole idea of “showing off” is problematic … p.s. thanks for reading and ‘liking’ my posts!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s