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Authors: Benjamin Lorr

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BOOK: Hell-Bent
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“It’s hard to communicate. I look at the champions today and I think, he looks too skinny, that guy doesn’t have the muscle. … But the energy they are carrying around is not visible; it is not in the muscle.”

In many ways, Esak feels like a shining example of the promise of yoga. He rarely sleeps, yet he never seems tired. His body simultaneously brings to mind metaphors involving chlorophyll and robotics. When faced with a problem, his reasoning always begins with the communal. During discussions, he will take long, socially awkward seconds to pause and digest questions before answering them. He does not appear to give compliments. His insistence on rigor can feel assaultive, his casual honesty like an unexpected jab.

When I ask him about Bikram and Richard Nixon, he looks at me and smirks.

“Look at yourself here backbending and ask whether it matters. Will it help your Standing Head to Knee posture? Look, I want the stories to be true. I do. But ultimately, I don’t think it matters at all.”

Esak embodies the cultural stereotypes of a yogi as well. He fasts on Mondays. Invites us to meditate with him every morning. His diet is primarily raw and green. Bikram—who advocates eating whatever you feel like, especially fast food—calls him a goat and teases him by
-ing when they eat together.

He is also ambitious. Esak is a free market, Julian Simon yogi. It may be his most Bikram-like characteristic. He hears an idea he likes, and you can actually feel the neural gears shifting as he figures out how to actualize it. He is a believer that spreading two goods—yoga and his own interests—must necessarily intersect. He collects sponsorship and endorsement deals.

Three days ago, a woman at Backbending revealed, in addition to a day job, she owned a business selling bottled oxygen to Target and Walmart. The oxygen comes in little canisters with a padded face mask. Right now, the oxygen is primarily marketed to the elderly in high-altitude regions. But the idea is to take it mainstream: anytime you feel like a breath of pure air, you can snuff a hit.

When Esak listens to her describe it, his face tightens in full-throttle excitement. The ironies—of breath-obsessed yogis leading the commodification of the commons, of packaging thin air—never occur to him or are quickly dismissed. Instead he is entranced. “Fantastic.” He turns to the group. “What a lesson in the abundance around us.”

That night as we wall-walk, Esak convinces her to bring out her samples. As we bend, we huff oxygen. Passing the little canisters from person to person, he is giddy as kid.

Later, when he finds out I have a friend who is a movie producer, he immediately floats the idea of a Backbending Club reality TV show:
Last Yogi Standing.
Cameras in the Backbending nest. Women in yoga shorts walking around, chewing carrot sticks. Each night there would be a mini-competition; the loser gets kicked off their mat. At first I think he is joking. But the level of detail and thrice-repeated suggestion that I get my friend to come down for a visit indicate otherwise.

When we backbend, Esak sometimes videoconferences with his wife, Chaukei. She is a legitimate yoga champion in her own right. Beautiful and enthusiastic, just like Rajashree, Bikram’s wife. Chaukei used to come
to Backbendings in person, but now stays at home to take care of their one-year-old boy, Osiris. In her absence, Esak sets up his laptop in the center of the room, and Chaukei appears on a little panel, coming in and out of view as she bends along with us at home.

When he is not in the center of a group, when he is not leading a seminar, coaching a Backbending, or scheming out an idea, Esak’s intensity can vanish. Then we have the yogi as prankster, daredevil, and show-off. This Esak gets mischievous grins. He is fixated on
Star Wars
mythology and routinely refers to Backbending as Jedi training for the mind. He is the Esak who saw the movie
five times and who, after leading a seminar in Las Vegas, convinces a friend to videotape him in a delicate one-legged balancing posture on a tiny so-slim-it’s-not-really-a-median slice in the center of a highway. Cars whizz by. Esak goes into the posture with a dark mask of concentration. After holding it in unbearable stillness, he emerges with a gigantic grin, yelling at the camera: “That’s hatha yoga … pure concentration … spun-steel tiger meat!” A cop arrives on the scene to issue a ticket, and Esak’s grin only grows wider.

So it’s not that I want to
Esak. Not exactly. He has a diffident energy surrounding him. His intensity keeps him apart, despite his best attempts to connect. He lives without the small joy of candy and occasionally says Nietzschean things about individuals controlling the world around them that strike me as dangerously confident or hopelessly detached from true poverty and helplessness. We stare at him a lot when we practice, and he has to bear the weight of those stares. But I do recognize his energy. I do understand that on a fundamental level, his body hums in a different way from mine. And so I want to know what he knows, learn what he’s learned.

My first real lesson comes late one night during the second week. We are backbending to Michael Jackson again,
chests against the wall, heads
between the legs. On the fifteenth bend, Esak notices that I am opening my feet slightly into a V during my backbend, a tiny action that allows me to open my hips and take pressure off my spine. He takes a towel and wraps it under my feet to hold them straight. It is our first one-on-one interaction of the entire two weeks, and I don’t know whether to be embarrassed or flattered.

When I persist in my poor form, inadvertently yanking the towel askew, he lets me know the answer is neither.

He calls me out in front of everyone. “Stop. We talked about this. Never come out of a backbend like that again. Make a commitment to yourself. Never do it again. From this moment forward.”

Change your mind.

And so that is what I do.

A Sprite Intermezzo

In many ways, Esak is the definitional opposite of my aforementioned favorite yoga teacher. Courtney Mace is social grace. She is slapstick funny. She is kind and emotionally intelligent in the way that only professional therapists and kindergarteners tend to be in real life. When the bathroom window broke at my studio, she posted a sign that said,

Do not open window.


(That means no pooping ahahahahaaha!!)

She does not believe in fifty backbends ever. She believes in doing two or three, but making them really deep and really count. She does not believe
in raw spinach either, erring instead toward New Orleans shrimp po’boys. Instead of taking our water away during class, she often talks about fantasizing about having a Sprite while she is teaching. She talks about these Sprites in a way that makes it completely unclear if she is playfully taunting us or just indulging in one really deep personal fantasy. When she leads the advanced class, she makes us sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in a round to serve as the count during several postures. I have seen Courtney sad; I have seen her bitchy; she is not bionic, nor made of chlorophyll; she is 100 percent completely human, in the way that I want to be human: someone who seems comfortable with that status and isn’t hell-bent on transcending it.

She does share two things with Esak. She has a freakish body. Courtney has the height and bouncy blond hair of a shampoo model, but a girth that feels like it could fit into a shampoo bottle. She is skin stretched over muscles. Her legs look like braided nautical ropes. Her stomach is hard, plated, and slightly concave in a way that makes me think of a steel drum.

Her other similarity to Esak is that she was also an international yoga champion. She can do every posture to a startling level of beauty. Her pain tolerance is enormous. When she applies it, her willpower becomes almost a palpable force in the room. Watching her feels a little scary. It is almost as if the particles that make up her eyes firm together into a more solid substance. You keep expecting beams to shoot out of them.

For most of my practice, Courtney was just my favorite teacher. I loved her class, I loved how soft it was, how it held space but still made me push myself. I loved the fact that when a smart aleck asked why they did a certain posture in the middle of class, she responded by telling him that it was so he could finally blow himself. I loved that she seemed invested in her students. But mostly I loved that she never made us do anything she couldn’t do herself.

There is nothing macho in Courtney’s class, nothing excessive either on a physical side or a spiritual side: it just is a class.

I always knew she was strong, but I thought that was just what happened when you were a teacher who walked the walk and practiced what you taught. I knew she competed, but since she never talked about it, I didn’t pay any attention. Then one day, shortly after she recommended I
consider competing, Courtney took second place at the New York regional competition. Then four months later, she won the national competition. Then she came in first place in the international competition.

All of a sudden, my favorite yoga teacher was a yoga superwoman. Nothing about Courtney seemed to change, but everything changed around her. People who had been practicing with her for years started complaining her classes were too hard. That she was pushing them in ways they weren’t ready for. Other people started showing up from out of town to take her class. In Advanced Class, I would sit out half the postures just to stare at hers. The studio started displaying her trophy at the front reception like we were a karate dojo, and soon after, she left town to go on an international tour.

Whatever depth I have in my backbends, I attribute to a sort of athletic extension of the concept of anchoring, developed in behavioral economics. In anchoring, our expectations for the price of goods are set by prices we hear prior, even if they are not at all rational or reasonable. Not knowing any better, Courtney was my concept of a pretty good yogi. For a fat stiff man, this was not rational or reasonable. Instead of pretty good, Courtney was amazing. Literally the best in the world. But I didn’t know that, and thus my efforts to be a merely passable yogi were hopelessly skewed. Believe whatever you will about Esak and competition, but for me, Courtney will always be proof that comparing yourself to others is both an inevitable part of community and a positive one: instead of competition, I’d call it
learning from others.
Meaning we learn from others what is possible and then apply it to our own lives. In the best-case scenario, they, in turn, do same thing with your life. At the very least, it’s the route to a pretty deep backbend.


By the end of the week, Backbending has acquired its own rhythm. I wake every morning to someone’s ankles. Usually the ankles belong to someone carrying on a conversation directly above me about the merits of alkalinalized water, or the perfect ratio of cucumbers to celery when making a
green juice. Soon grogginess is replaced by pain. Then I spend my first conscious minutes awkwardly slathering various spicy balms and liniments along my spine.

When I actually make it off the floor, I inevitably discover that I am the last one to rise. By this point, the Backbenders have striated themselves by morning behavior. The most maniacal have long since silently disappeared to the studio to begin their work on postures. I am occasionally woken as their long bony legs stride over me on the way out the door. Then there is a more tortured group, Backbenders who clearly would like to be working out at the studio, but instead pace around the house, nursing injuries, wondering aloud in the guise of conversation what chiropractic adjustment they should be getting or which herbal supplement they should be swallowing. Then there are the Backbenders I can identify with: Fiona from Ireland, hair wet from a shower, nursing a cup of hot tea. Garland, a studio owner from Virginia, hunched at her computer checking emails. Brett, opening the wrapping on a contraband coconut-covered marshmallow product and eating it for breakfast. Finally there is Afton, the punk rock pixie, a group all her own. Afton is already proving to be one of my favorite humans ever for no other reason than she seems so normal. She executes her flawless postures, rips through Esak’s additional work, and then disappears to hang out with non-yogic friends who have driven into town to visit her. All while I’m still scraping myself off the studio carpet. No alter ego ever hid their superpowers better.

I belong to none of these groups. But that’s because I don’t really belong. My morning routine consists of two parts: a bright yellow pee and a full-body panic. The two are related. First I panic because inevitably, no matter how much I drink, my pee looks like a liquid highlighter. This I take to mean I am dehydrated, so I follow my pee with a run to the kitchen to guzzle water. Only months later does a doctor explain that this supernatural yellow color is actually the result of the excessive quantities of vitamins I am consuming on a daily basis. If ever there was a metaphor for asinine American overindulgence, there I am, every day flushing away enough nutrients to abolish rickets in the third world. My second panic comes after
I have spilled water all over the front of my chest, and I realize our first class of the day is only minutes away and I haven’t eaten yet.

And then it happens to me. After closing our routines early, maybe 10 P.M., I skip my chores. It is an unexpected decision, but suddenly and vehemently, I just don’t feel like it. None of my postures are happening. My body crumples where it should remain firm and refuses to give where I ask it to bend. When I try to drink from my water bottle, it feels too heavy to lift, so I don’t bother. While everyone else is working, I slip into the shower. I let the water drum against my brain. When I go to shampoo, it takes me several minutes to realize the extent to which things have gone wrong.

I put the shampoo in my left hand like normal, but then instead of raising my arm, I tuck my chin to my chest, trying to lower my head as much as possible. I use my right hand to push my left hand up by the elbow. It happens so unconsciously that I don’t even realize the posture is weird until the back of my neck starts hurting from the tuck. I try straightening my head, but my left arm literally won’t reach up to my hair on its own. It seems to have some upper limit. As an experiment, I stop using my right arm as support. My left arm just slides off the top of my head like a slop of rope. It is gone.

BOOK: Hell-Bent
11.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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