Authors: Benjamin Lorr
As I plunge deeper into the house, the wreckage only grows. Water bottles stuffed with cut limes line bookshelves with no books. Drying sports bras and athletic pants drape over door handles. A coffee table is littered with value-sized bottles of electrolyte replacements. Everywhere clothes, bedding, and salad greens.
By the living room, I have found the yogis. I introduce myself, asking for David, our host, or Esak, the organizer. It is quickly apparent that nobody knows anything. The yogis, about twenty or so, are milling, typing on laptops, chatting about studios, exuding the same vulnerable feeling of freshman orientation. Which makes me feel a lot better. Esak hasn’t arrived yet, and as I make my way around the house, everyone tells me, “David’s around,” but nobody seems to particularly care where.
When I find him, now close to 1 A.M., David is making an avocado sandwich in the kitchen. He is tanned and trimmed and bearing a bright white band of teeth that wouldn’t look out of place on daytime TV. We shake hands, and I thank him profusely for giving up his house for the next two weeks. He looks slightly surprised by this expression of gratitude, like no one would think twice about letting a small community of complete strangers camp in their living room. Then he whips out a bottle of spray butter and dusts it over his avocado. So maybe David and I approach the world differently on multiple levels.
When I ask him about sleeping arrangements, he looks surprised again.
“Anywhere! Just poke around. I think most of the good spots have been taken. Maybe some carpeted floor upstairs.”
I scrounge and make introductions. By 2 A.M., I am spread out in a sleeping bag on a small uncarpeted section of the main hallway. I fall asleep with the lights on, giggling conversation down the hall still constant.
• • •
I wake up the next morning before my alarm goes off. Approximately twenty-five times. First there are the feet stepping over me. Then there are the coffee grinders being used to puree various nuts, spices, and supplements. Then the collisions at the bathroom—the frantic result of a house filled with individuals hell-bent on maximizing their hydration—the eruptions of the teakettle, the laughter, and the crotchety grumblings of freakishly athletic yogis complaining about their sore backs.
Somehow, however, by the time I actually scrape myself off the floor, the house is empty.
The wreckage from last night has been pulled into little pods. What once looked like a weird vegan tent city has been raked into order. Bedding materials are neatly folded, backpacks bulging but zipped, and those loose rolling veggies lassoed together and placed into their appropriate Whole Foods bags.
I triple-check my watch to make sure I’m not late. We still have an hour to get to a yoga studio located about five minutes away. But perhaps the schedule changed. I still haven’t seen Esak. Regardless, I decide I need food, and so closing the front door behind me with no way of locking it, I pick up a protein shake from a gas station and head to the studio.
At 10 A.M., we take our first class of the day. From that point on, we never really stop practicing for the next two weeks. The delirium of a single class becomes compounded by repetition until the entire experience expands into one long waking dream.
I learn that puking can feel euphoric when I disgorge the protein shake into the studio toilet around noon.
I learn a tiny blond woman covered in upbeat cheerful tattoos—a tiny rainbow, the outline of a star—can effortlessly balance her entire weight on one arm.
I learn that Esak goes into full-body convulsions on occasion when he backbends. And that Kara, a financier from Chicago, goes into full-body convulsions
she attempts her first backbend of the day.
I learn that the only reason either of them care about those seizures is that they can be slightly embarrassing and off-putting to strangers.
I listen when Brett, a lanky yoga instructor from Kansas, declares he doesn’t have the strength to eat the single thumb-sized nub of carrot he is holding. I learn he is being sincere when he drops the carrot and curls into the ground to go to sleep.
I learn the phrase “the beatings will continue until morale improves” has a completely nonsarcastic application.
I learn that even Esak can be unenthusiastic about training. But even more quickly I learn that it marks a difference between us. Where I start excited but grow tired from our endless sets, his energy increases the more we do. After a vicious set of lunges, promised as our last before lunch, I catch him looking around eagerly, desperate to squeeze something more in.
I learn that the face of someone crying is completely indistinguishable from the customary ruddy agony produced by backbending, but that the refusal to pause or make eye contact is a dead giveaway.
I learn that sometimes when given a forty-minute break, the smartest thing to do is just to lie still in your own sweat the entire time.
When it is over, after approximately fourteen hours of yoga-related activity, I find myself at a late-night supermarket. It is just before 1 A.M. My body feels limp and slightly beaten. My brain feels something like pavement right after a rainstorm. Thinking about repeating the process tomorrow is unimaginable, so I make a rule that I won’t. The trip to the supermarket is a necessity after the white protein shake I expelled earlier; and when I announced my intention, a number of other Backbenders enthusiastically jumped in my car at the opportunity.
As the rest of the group disperses into the empty grocery store, I sit down on the floor in the front, my back eased against a stacked display of beer. There is only one register open at this time of night, and the sadlooking man at the far end of the conveyor belt doesn’t even glance at us. I am sure we look utterly banal. But the abundance of food, color, and cold air feels overwhelming and dreamlike to me. I sit for I don’t know how long, taking it in. Eventually, Lauren, the weeper, bounces over to me, giddy. She
is carrying a two-liter of seltzer water, a giant jug of no-sugar-added grapefruit juice, and a single Styrofoam cup. She announces they are ingredients for a magic potion that will get her through the week. Then she sits down next to me and proceeds to mix them in equal parts.
Moments later, Brett walks over with an ice cream sandwich and offers me a bite. I want to cry with gratitude. Not for the ice cream, which I somewhat insanely decline, opting instead for raw bok choy, but because I feel an overwhelming biological sensation of brotherhood. A similar emotion pours out triplefold when Fiona, from Ireland, skips down the aisle holding a can of Coke. She is agonizing over whether or not to buy it.
“Esak would killlll me if he found out,” she says, and then laughs and laughs at her own completely unfunny non-joke. “Wouldn’t he? He would killll me.”
I have no idea what Esak would think, but I am feeling so good and so bad at the same time that it occurs to me his judgment couldn’t possibly matter. It’s so much less complicated, so much less interesting. In fact, surrounded by a woman guzzling grapefruit juice so recklessly the front of her shirt has become a dark bib from the overflow, a grown man eating a contraband piece of ice cream, and can of Coke that is causing existential breakdown-style laughter in a woman who flew halfway across the world for the experience, the moment on the grocery-store floor begins to feel so distended and out of place from my normal existence, I decide that I must be having one last hallucination of the day.
Change Your Mind
Hallucinations are not a trivial part of Backbending. As a purely physical exercise, wall-walking is worthy of inclusion in any fitness routine. I arrived at Backbending both scrawny and muscular, with the oversized thighs and undersized chest that I am beginning to recognize as a body by Bikram. After just a few days of wall-walking however, I can already see new musculature rising up against my skin, almost like lost continents
surfacing from the ocean. But the physical aspect of wall-walking is not where the real effort lies. Backbending is training for the mind: both the deep primitive areas governing pain and the more socially important limbic channels responsible for emotions and fear. Hallucinations, waves of tears, anger, and pulsing headaches are just a few of the many releases that occur as you work.
Esak instills this idea in us on the second day. After a class, he pulls us into a circle. “The first rule about Backbending is we don’t talk about Backbending. It’s just like Fight Club. If someone asks, tell them you went away to train for competition. If they ask what you did, tell them to come and find out. Backbending can’t really be told. People need to come and experience it for themselves.” He pauses. “The second rule is we have to stop calling this Backbending Club. It gives people completely the wrong idea.”
The reason it gives people the wrong idea is the words do not do justice to the experience. Backbending is awesome. Not awesome in the teenage sense of the word, awesome in the literal sense: It echoes with grandeur. Your chest blows out, your heart floods with blood, and your brain vibrates. Every human has a half-inch-thick cord of nerves running down the center of his or her vertebrae. These nerves extend down from the brain stem along the entire length of the spine until finally billowing out to the rest of the body. When you radically bend the spine, building and flexing the muscles that line and guide the vertebrae, those nerves are being toyed with: physically moved, rubbed, tweaked, and teased.
The red and blue spots, the wavy rippling room, the uncontrollable weeping, and the occasional seizure are phenomena that result from this manipulation.
Backbenders call it Third-Eye Blowout
. It’s neither desirable nor to be avoided. It just happens. I’ve wall-walked until time slowed down, until I’ve heard a deep roaring white noise all around me, until I’ve felt heat shoot through my arms like I was an X-Man. I’ve heard other stories of backbending blackouts, of practitioners seeing blue sparks shoot from their fingers, and of full-blown narrative-length hallucinations. To be sure, far more often, I’ve felt nothing, broken a mild sweat, and called it a day.
If you’ve never done an extreme backbend, you’ll have to take these reactions on faith. But they’re real—repeatable, predictable, and remarkably consistent between practitioners. If you’d like to try, by all means find the nearest wall. Every back can bend in this manner. Maybe not so deep at first, but whether you’re five or fifty-five, former athlete or former invalid, your vertebral column is more than equipped for both forward and backward bending. It is part of a human’s natural range of motion. No bones chip off, no tendons snap. I’ve seen people with rods in their spine backbend. You can actually see the metal poking up against the skin.
But there is a reason why people from five to fifty-five avoid backbends. They hurt. If you backbend sincerely—peeling yourself into an arch that is just beyond your comfort zone—you will feel pain. And if you do it repeatedly, the pain will grow: hot, unambiguous, and very, very insistent.
Most people stop at the first whisper of the pain. Actually, most people stop at the prewhisper, at some instinctual trigger point ten miles before the sensation has even walked over the horizon. That is their practice: satisfied just to be bending something, oblivious to the pain beyond. On the rare day they get to the whisper, they typically back off, rub their back a lot in the locker room, and talk about pushing their edge.
And that’s sensible
. But that’s not Backbending Club. To really backbend, you have to become intimate with pain, not as an informational entity that raises awareness, not as a warning, but as a phenomenon, a presence you can dialogue with. You have to engage the phenomenon every time it comes up, and ultimately move through it while it screams in your face.
To put this in perspective, before I had ever heard of yoga competitions or Backbending Club, but while I was still quite serious about yoga practice, I used to do exactly three wall-walks a week. These came every Tuesday during the advanced class offered at my home studio. And those three were a feared highlight of the whole three-hour class. Actually, I feared them all week. The minute and a half it took to complete them would grow all out of proportion in my mind. Often, I would stall out in class just before we got to them, lie on my side, watching other people move on toward them. Other times, I would complete one, then lie down dizzy and decide that
this week, I’d save my energy for the postures that came later. One wall-walk was enough.
At Backbending, we never do fewer than sixty a day. Learning to manage, breathe through, and control the sensations that come up is an essential part of the work. It is a combination of managing fear, managing pain, and detaching from sensory perception. As Esak explains: “When you do a posture, you must choose to remain in it. You must choose to ignore the pain, choose to continue to explore your body. The pain is a phantom; ignoring it is a choice. Yoga makes us confront that choice. It makes us free to choose.”
The ultimate extension of this training in choice is learning to control your imagination. At their most extreme, backbends look bizarre, completely improbable. People stare at them with the same weirded curiosity usually reserved for the edges of the animal kingdom: puffed-out marine creatures, the yawning dislocated jaws of snakes. It’s not that backbends are ugly exactly—they’re just anti-human. Staring at a reversible spine is a double-take moment, an instance where the eyes legitimately can’t believe what they see.
To inhabit these postures requires changing your belief system. A middle-aged man walks into a yoga studio convinced he can never touch his toes again. To transform himself into the asana of Standing Bow—a posture where in ultimate extension, he is not just touching his toes, but fully in the standing splits, one arm stretching forward like an arrow, the other stretching upward to grab his extended foot—he must learn to do the impossible. He must enlarge the boundaries of his imagination. He must know that at fifty-one, body banged up by age, brain occluded by expectations, he can choose to embody Standing Bow. The postures are both a metaphor and a means for that process. They are tools for creating a connection between the imagination and the physical world. Realizing this connection—this union between body and mind—could be called yoga.