Authors: Benjamin Lorr
A folk song is whats wrong and how to fix it or it could be
whose hungry and where their mouth is or
whose out of work and where the job is or
whose broke and where the money is or
whose carrying a gun and where the peace is.
In many ways, this is the story of a crack-up. It is the year I came to believe that Michael Jackson was a fully realized saint and that fully realized saints walk among us all the time. It is the year I learned that even the most beautiful saint is capable of—maybe even driven toward—the greatest destruction. A year I learned to feel compassion for that arc, not betrayal. It is a crack-up because I felt the narratives that bound my life together—atheist, drunk, methodical saver for a methodical retirement—unbuckle and drift off while, at the same time, I became more certain of the value of each than ever before. It was the year I convinced myself that I could take my spinal cord and bend it so severely that I could touch my forehead to my ass. A year I maintained three jobs while practicing upwards of fourteen hours of yoga a week. Where I started spontaneously wishing for Love (as an abstract concept) when blowing out birthday candles, flicking eyelashes, or performing other obsessive–compulsive cultural rituals of wishing. It is the year I started dating my very close friend’s ex-girlfriend and, not surprisingly, hurt my very close friend’s feelings very badly. A year when I decided to spend one thousand dollars on a stainless steel juicer for
the sole purpose of putting liquid spinach into my diet more regularly. When I met countless well-intentioned, brave liars and got more honest advice from their lies than I could ever hope to repay.
Everyone interviewed in this book knew I was writing a book.
My one goal was to accurately
try to capture my experience. Those who frequent the mystical section of bookstores are familiar with a concept called karma yoga. It is the yoga of the Bhagavad Gita, the yoga of action. To practice your karma yoga is to practice what you were put on this planet to do. There is no doubt in my mind that Bikram Choudhury’s karma yoga is teaching yoga. He has such joy when spreading it. My karma yoga is the practice of writing; just like Bikram, I’m pretty sure I’m going to end up hurting people while I practice.
were to burst into the sky
that would be like
the splendor of the Mighty One. …
—J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER, QUOTING THE BHAGAVAD GITA
AT THE SUCCESSFUL EXPLOSION OF
THE FIRST ATOMIC BOMB
megatons each. Nobody fucks with me.
I am standing at the stage door, peering out through blinding light at blackness. It feels like a high-definition dream. Everyone is here. Assembled in the Grand Ballroom at the Westin Los Angeles in stillness: familiar faces staring straight ahead, this weird collection of antagonism and love, all connected by invisible understandings. The only word that even remotely fits is family. I am shirtless in spandex, staring at them. Above me, a row of klieg lights drops off the ceiling, aimed like compact cannons at the stage. The light shooting from their housing animates the dust in its path; it’s the old visual cliché of movie projectors and morning attics, but watching the dust shimmer, I can’t help but feel it is stripping open the very fabric of the universe.
At least for this moment, in this room.
In the center, on a stage lit white as a sun, a man holds himself in a perfect handstand. The muscles in his forearm ripple in micromovements.
Behind him there are two billboard-sized screens capturing live projections of his every action. I watch the handstand in triplicate. Slowly, the man raises his chest up and drops his feet forward, arching his back until his heels rest on the top of his head. At that moment, there is a circuit that has been completed: an O that travels from the back of his head up his legs and then around back down his spine to his head again. The thousand-plus people in the audience watch this circuit in absolute stillness. The man holds the O of his body aloft on two arms. He smiles. Then the micro-movements in his arms stop. His breathing disappears. There is a moment that stretches just long enough for my internal instincts to doubt its plausibility, for the hairs on my arm to stand on end, for my senses to consider the unconscious question of whether it is the man who is frozen or the universe around him that has stopped. Then there is a whirr from the burst shutter on a high-res camera, a twitch in the man’s forearms, and suddenly we’re back. The man returns from the posture the same way he went in. He stands up and bows; the room explodes in applause.
The MC announces a time of two minutes and forty-nine seconds. The audience begins to move. The announcement is repeated for a video camera live-broadcasting the event to the world. My eyes adjust to the glare.
In the front row, Bikram Choudhury, multimillionaire founder of Bikram Yoga, is snapping his fingers calling for a Coke. He is making noises like he is coaxing a monkey with food, “Tht-tht-tht-tht … Hey, Balwan, come on, come on, Balwan, come!” When no one scurries up to him, he snorts and looks over his shoulder. He leans into the slender woman sitting next to him, as if to caucus with her about his dilemma, but says nothing. Finally he stands, cutting into the spotlights and turns around, asking the entire room to go find Esak for him.
There is a woman crouching, whose face I know well but whose name I can’t remember, who resumes massaging Bikram’s thigh when he sits back down.
There is his wife, Rajashree, exactly eight seats away from him. There is Hector, and there is Afton.
There is eighty-three-year-old Emmy Cleaves walking back to her front-row seat in a positively slinky dress. She sits, hair pinned back, shoulders
in perfect posture, the grand dame of the entire event. There is Sarah Baughn and her daughter crouched in the back playing patty-cake. There is even Courtney Mace somewhere, invisible, just like she wants to be.
This is the National Yoga Asana Championship, semifinal round. In a moment, I will go onstage to perform a three-minute routine I have spent the last three years learning. My goal is to approximate that man in his handstand. His control, his poise: I want to demonstrate my focus to the room. I want to make at least one hair on one arm stand on end. I will be judged just like an Olympic gymnast, according to the physical nature of the postures—or asanas—I perform. Points will be awarded based on the difficulty of the pose in question and the depth and skill with which I demonstrate it.
There will be other things on display as well. Less measurable, but certainly real. The room is cold, but my armpits are leaking wildly. There is an actual stream of sweat dribbling down my sides. It feels very primitive and glandular, like no sweat I have ever experienced before. It is as if someone turned an internal dial to a slow trickle. I consider wiping the sweat from my torso, but decided against it for fear of getting my hands slippery too. I need my grip. Then all of a sudden, way too soon, my name is called. Mary Jarvis is standing next to me exactly where I need her to be. I grab her hand impulsively and kiss it, almost greedily, like I was trying to eat it. I tell myself my only goal is to share how happy I am to be in here. I tell myself that the only thing Courtney Mace thinks about when she demonstrates is love. Mary wriggles her hand back out of my grasp. Then she uses it to sort of push me out there.
As I walk toward the stage, the room collapses. My legs move but my mind goes blank. Stepping up into the glare, skin sweaty, heart clunking wildly in my chest, in quite possibly the most earnest, hopeful moment of my life to date, I realize that if anything in this room has exploded, it’s me.
Karla, age 12, preparing for the 2011 Yoga Asana Championship
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.