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Authors: Benjamin Lorr

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“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.

The Man in the Mirror
1

Sometimes I think I hallucinated Bikram Choudhury. He’s too perfect for us, too quick every time I think I have him pinned down. His official
biography reads like a character from a Rushdie novel.
By the tender age of three
, when most of us were waddling around, occasionally still crapping in our diapers, his parents pulled him in from the dusty streets of Calcutta and began a rigorous course of yogic training. This preschool bending involved meditation, strict dietary controls, and four to six hours of physical practice every day. To motivate the young master, Bikram was promised a penny every time he managed to bite his toes without bending his knees. The guru claims he was never paid.

By five, Bikram was packed off and apprenticed to one of the most famous yogis in all of India, Bishnu Ghosh.
A guru himself so powerful
that he would routinely put on demonstrations where he would stop his own pulse, allow an elephant to walk across his chest, or bend a bar of iron with his throat.
Ghosh demanded total obedience from his disciples
, refusing to train those who didn’t follow his dictates exactly, and subjecting those who did to screaming fits and Brahmanical tantrums until their hair was blown back and their cheeks covered with spittle.
The easily distracted Bikram
was a frequent target of this discipline: when Bikram lost focus, Ghosh burned the preteen with incense.

Under Ghosh’s tutelage, Bikram’s powers increased dramatically. By thirteen, the young, handsome, and mighty Bikram bent his way to the top: he became the youngest-ever contestant to win the Indian National Yoga Competition. Bikram held this crown, undefeated, for three years. Fame quickly followed. Bikram and his guru took to the road, demonstrating their feats of strength to adoring crowds: part traveling circus, part medicinal road show, part evangelical church for the holy temple that is the human body. Following the direction of his guru, Bikram refused all forms of payment and lived without material possessions.

After his third title, and
at the request of head judge
and future yoga legend B. K. S. Iyengar, the fifteen-year-old Bikram retired from the national competition to give other contestants a chance. Iyengar suggested that instead of competing, Bikram demonstrate the physical powers he had cultivated. Bikram took him up on it.
He ran marathons with no training
.
He became a competitive weight lifter
and broke records. He continued public exhibitions, drawing larger and larger crowds: stretching out over a
bed of nails, dragging automobiles up and down Calcutta’s streets, and
slowing his heart rate until he could be buried alive
.

Around this time, Bikram learned he didn’t need to sleep
.

From here things get weird. At age seventeen, during a routine training session,
Bikram slipped and dropped a 380-pound weight on his knee
, crushing his patella like a seashell. Doctors who were rushed to the side of the young celebrity declared he’d never walk again. Bikram knew better. He turned to yoga, to his guru, and together they designed an especially powerful posture sequence that healed Bikram fit as a sitar in just under six months. He not only walked, he returned stronger. Following a directive from Ghosh, Bikram moved to Mumbai to open shop as a healer and share his training. With the miracle knee proof of his yoga’s efficacy, his fame exploded; soon he was known as the Yogiraj, Guru of Mumbai.

Then, at the height of his fame in India, at what turned out to be his guru’s dying request—for yes, at just about this time, Bishnu Charan Ghosh, leading light of early twentieth-century physiculture, one of the few universally acclaimed masters in the yogic world, decided to take leave of his mortal coil and induce a heart attack in himself at the age of sixty-nine (he had previously declared that a heart attack was the least painful way to go)—at this crucial juncture,
Ghosh made Bikram swear an oath
:

My guru took my hand and told me something, in English, which he never spoke. “Promise me you will complete my incomplete job,” he said. He meant bringing yoga to the rest of the world, to the West and America. And I replied, “Yes, I promise. I will.”

And thus, at age twenty-four, Bikram left India to bring yoga to the world.

(A man given to few regrets, Bikram does have one regarding this particular sequence in his life: “Looking back, I can’t help feeling sad, mostly because I miss him every second of every day with every ounce of my heart. But I’m also sad because I forgot to ask him how long I am supposed to continue teaching hatha yoga to fulfill my karma yoga! Do I have to keep doing this for my entire life?”)

The first brief stop in this process was Japan.
There, in the wealthy Shinjuku district
, Bikram attracted the attention of a group of researchers from the University of Tokyo who were studying tissue regeneration. These scientists applied their clipboards, lab coats, and evidence-based minds to the knee-healing sequence Bikram and Ghosh had developed. Recognizing its promise as a therapy, the scientists agreed to help Bikram prove its benefits if he would let them conduct research on its mechanics. Two noteworthy developments resulted. First, inspired by the saunas the Japanese scientists took on their lunch breaks and worried about new nagging injuries developing in his Japanese students, Bikram started dabbling with external heaters to re-create the heat of Calcutta (average temperature 88.7 degrees F). Second, to help the lazy urbanite mind focus on posture alignments,
mirrors were added
so practitioners could correctly adjust themselves as they practiced. This was an old technique his guru had used when training weight lifters, and Bikram saw no reason why yoga practitioners couldn’t benefit as well.

Unfortunately, before this groundbreaking collaboration could fully realize its potential, fate intervened. Richard Nixon, America’s own dark magician, was touring Southeast Asia publicly checking in on United States military bases, privately scouring the locals for remedies for his chronic phlebitis.

When word reached the president about the young yoga master
and his miracle system, he summoned the guru immediately and demanded a session. Bikram agreed. Clothed in nothing but athletic shorts and jowls, the president bent before him. The experience shattered Nixon’s expectations. His phlebitis was cured! Overjoyed by the results and overwhelmed by the guru’s expertise,
the president issued an open invitation
to Bikram: Come to America, bring your yoga, live in my country!

Not one to reject the ebullience of a sitting president, Bikram flew to America at once. He arrived on a chartered plane—without visa or bank account—and was welcomed on the runway by a phalanx of high-ranking administration officials. After asking around to determine who in his new nation was most in need of his healing yoga, Bikram flew to Beverly Hills to open a studio.

The rest was easy. It turned out that in addition to healing knees, Bikram’s yoga was fairly miraculous at burning fat and toning muscles. Few places on the planet were as well equipped as Beverly Hills to recognize and deal with such an advance. Word spread fast. Students flocked to his classes, and Bikram packed them in until every inch of his small studio’s floor space was lined with bending humans.

What he saw during these classes brought joy to his heart, for it reminded him once again of his guru’s infinite wisdom. America needed his yoga more than any place he could conceive. His students were soft, lazy creatures: giant children, ruined by material riches and corrupted by an abundance of easy choices. Every spine he saw was crooked; every joint he bent was stiff. This was great news!
In India, gurus prescribed individualized posture
sequences for their clients. But that wouldn’t be necessary here. The “Xerox copies” he found in Beverly Hills could do a basic sequence for years and still receive benefits.

Instead of offering altered posture sequences for his American students, Bikram altered his approach to teaching: supplying more detailed descriptions of the postures to guide their bodies, strict discipline to control their minds, and bright pain to humble their egos. “
You all grew up in California on
a king-size water bed, I grew up on a bed of nails,” he’d explain when asked about this approach. “If you feel dizzy, nauseous, you must be happy.”

In this context, the added heat he had discovered in Japan seemed like a second miracle. It operated like a shortcut for the American disaster. Not only did it allow the rigid to deepen their postures—softening cartilage, loosening joints, expanding constricted blood vessels to feed their muscles—but more important, with the thermostat cranked high enough, even the richest, most fabulous client could be melted into a haggard mess.
The more Bikram came to appreciate the miracle
of the heat, the more the thermostat in his studio started sliding up: from 85 degrees F to 95 degrees F one week, to 100 degrees F the next, ultimately climaxing at a scalding 110 degrees F.

With those quick turns of the dial, the deal was sealed. Adding heat meant subtracting clothes. This exposed flesh, combined with the requirement of
staring at full-length mirrors during class, combined with the startling results, combined with jam-packed classes, proved too much for the Beverly Hills mind. Fever broke out. By 1980, classes were filled to capacity. Newspapers were filled with bad puns about the hot new craze. And then the Hollywood elite got in on the act. By age thirty, Bikram was ringleader of a full blown six-ring celebrity circus: The Beatles, Raquel Welch, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Madonna, and Quincy Jones all showed up to suffer at his direction (and then pose patiently for a picture after class).
2

The only limitation was that there was only one Bikram, who, for all his feats of strength, could teach only one class at a time. Complicating this, Bikram’s growing fame in Beverly Hills coincided with a more general yoga upwelling. All manner of shaggy, tubby, druggy seekers were running around town calling themselves yoga teachers. This was trouble. If Bikram was going to deal with the new influx of students, he needed more teachers. But looking around, it wasn’t easy to find instructors he could entrust with the power of his yoga.

BOOK: Hell-Bent
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