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?
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.