Carlos’ Comments on HELL-BENT

“Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.” Joseph Campbell

Narcissus was mesmerized by his image in a clear pool of water, and his fixation on himself proved to be his undoing. Similarly, yoga teacher Bikram Choudhury uses mirrors to reflect his conceit, and he harms himself and others in the process. Benjamin Lorr examines Bikram Yoga and its controversial founder in his book Hell-Bent. In reading Lorr’s account of his journey deep into the hot yoga universe, I found myself reviewing my own history as a hatha yoga student and teacher. I began to wonder about my motivation for repeatedly getting on my mat, and the role of pain and discomfort in my posture practice.

Bikram Yoga utilizes extreme heat, tension and stress in order to bring about physical rejuvenation. Lorr writes: “When our bodies are completely pain free, it is difficult to learn from them.” Although pain might be a great teacher for Lorr and others, I do not feel like I have to be in pain to gain benefits from a yoga class. Maybe I have a different reason, a different purpose, for stretching. And maybe my reluctance to seek out a painful experience in yoga indicates a different attitude toward discipline. Punishing the body and mind might serve to inspire an individual to achieve a result or reach a particular goal. And yet for some Bikram Yoga practitioners, repetitiously seeking pain and the post-class rush of pleasure might indicate a form of sadomasochism.

Bikram’s strenuous series of poses may appeal most to those who feel that the greatest bliss is wedded to the greatest suffering. Some may feel that they need to seek affirmation or approval through a struggle, and some may even feel that welcoming painful experiences is a way to manage feelings of unworthiness. Similar inner battles can work their way into our academic and professional lives as well. Competition and comparison, both on and off the mat, may provide a sort of pseudo-erotic satisfaction: pleasure is derived by dominating someone else or by merely surviving a brutal challenge. Bikram Yoga is about power: power over one’s body and one’s mind, the power of the teacher over the students, and the feeling of power when one is superior to another. In Bikram’s style of posture practice, comparison and competition may just be a way to satisfy the ego’s need to feel recognized.

Lao Tzu wrote: “The stiff and unbending is the disciple of death. The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.” Bikram Choudhury’s yoga offers students a paradox: a posture practice that employs extreme flexibility of body, yet extreme rigidity of mind. Bikram’s method is formulaic, strict to the point of cruelty, mentally inflexible and fiercely dogmatic. His often abusive treatment of students has been well documented, by Lorr and others, and he is currently under investigation for sexually harassing several women. His behavior might be seen as simply narcissism run amok. Or maybe he has created his agitated emotional state through years of mistreating himself and others. After reading Lorr’s account of the competitive circus that is so much a part of the Bikram Yoga community, I find myself wondering if this style of hatha yoga does more harm than good.

A yoga practice can manifest in infinite ways. The student of yoga can be motivated by pleasure, pain, competition, comparison or some notion of “self-improvement” (whatever that means). Or yoga’s value may be its ability heal the whole person, and the cure might be gentle like a soothing balm or violent like invasive surgery. But my guess is that the true beauty of yoga is found in vibrant growth without self-abuse. In posture practice, we draw nourishment from our teachers and classmates. We cultivate strong roots and sturdy branches, and maybe, with care, our practice flowers and bears fruit. Hatha yoga, in all of its styles, consists of a series of choices particular to each individual. We need not choose suffering in order to grow. Despite the success of Bikram Yoga worldwide, Bikram Choudhury’s violent persona shows the dangers of “feeling the burn” with incendiary heat. Gentle warmth and joy can best inspire us to thrive in hatha yoga – struggle and strain are always optional.

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