One of my favorite yoga teachers once told me that, in yoga, we all become story-tellers.
In class recently, as she strode among our mats, pressing her flat palms against the rise of our backs, pulling at our upturned hips, smoothing the line of our spines, she said, “Thank you for coming and sharing your story with me tonight.”
We rippled, shuffled, a murmur of limbs adjusting, of lungs filling—we weren’t speaking. What story-sharing was she talking about?
“This is the story I know well,” she continued. “The story of your arrival, the story of your work, the story of your yoga.”
It was such a fitting observation, considering I have been thinking of my yoga story a lot lately, largely because I just finished Benjamin Lorr‘s “Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga.” Part-memoir, part-research, and part-expose, “Hell-Bent” tells quite a story about Ben’s personal journey through discovering and practicing yoga, as well as many other stories about Bikram Choudhury, about other yogis (professionals and average practitioners), about Bikram’s teacher training program, about extreme back-bending, about yoga-induced weight loss, about science and physiology and philosophy and the deep, confusing, fascinating history of yoga itself.
Even if you aren’t a yogi, the average reader would likely appreciate the humor, candor, strangeness, and humanity of Ben’s tale and of the yoga world he picks apart and analyzes.
I admit, however, now that I’ve finished it, that I have struggled to pinpoint exactly how I felt about the book. Did I love it (hundreds of pages devoted to my yoga!)? Did I hate it (learning truths about people in my yoga community, truths that I don’t care to know)? Why did I blow through some parts and struggle reading through other parts?
I was impressed at the effort, of course. (Bravo, Ben!) A bit jealous of the byline, the yogi-turned-published-author? Absolutely. Entertained and educated throughout, indeed. Inspired to haul my own knotted body into the hot room? Yes, a thousand times over.
But…what about the story itself?
That has been my struggle. And, I’ve finally found my answer.
Here’s the thing:
We each have our yoga story.
Many of them start the same: We wandered/stumbled/were dragged into a hot room, usually by someone who loves us, someone who knew the yoga would work on our tired bodies, our battered hearts. The first class passed in a haze of sweat, nausea, emotion, frustration, amazement, confusion, terror, humor, maybe even humiliation—largely because we watched, in stunned wonder, as the yoga waged war on our big, old American egos and won. We left swearing we’d never return.
Later, we felt transformed.
Later still, we did return. Whether it took one day or 100 days or even a whole year. We came back, maybe to a different studio, maybe with a different companion, maybe even more tired and more battered than we were the first time around. But, we came back to the yoga. And kept coming back.
And then, our mats became churches, our holy place of communion with our true self. Our practices became our best friends: we are wholly devoted to one another. Our teachers morphed into prophets. We each became willing, eager, dutiful students. The studios shifted into homes, communities, places of refuge.
The yoga takes hold, and we hold it back, and we become obsessed with breaking down, understanding, knowing, memorizing, and honoring every last little detail. It is one of the greatest love stories I’ve heard told over and over and over again.
Throughout the six-plus years of my own practice, I have read countless blogs, books, essays, magazines, and articles about this one subject. It astounds me, even now, that so many people—present self included!—are so eager to talk and write about their yoga, “get” it, analyze it, share its teachings, praise the lessons we’ve learnt from it.
And for what? Why? (Side note: the irony of this question is not lost on me, given I’ve devoted nearly five year’s worth of blog posts to own my yoga practice.)
Especially given yoga is, I think, an incredibly intimate form of therapy, both physical and emotional. A dedicated yoga practice is grueling, messy, difficult, wondrous, and profoundly life-changing. Old injuries resurface, old hurts bruise anew, a past long buried suddenly and completely cracks through the walls we built to protect ourselves from those old wars, those old ways. On our mats, we can’t hide; we face and work through it all. (Although “Hell-Bent” tends to focus more on the physical effects of the yoga, the moments when he touches on the emotional blowbacks of a particularly intense class or workshop are incredibly touching and real.)
Why are we so inclined to share the arduous steps of that journey, that transformation? Why do we ask others to bear witness? Are we seeking validation? Are we seeking praise?
Are we so enamored with our yoga, so enthralled by our practice, that we’re blinded by our adoration, our pride? We are in love—with this yoga, with this new self! And we want all the world to see! Is that it?
“Hell-Bent” is an attempt to answer all sorts of questions, about Bikram yoga, about yoga’s vast history and complex origins, about the author’s own skepticisms, about the actual physiological ramifications of doing 50 back-bends a day or logging 6+ hours in a room heated above 100 degrees. The book also provides a rare inside look into the Bikram Yoga community through copious interviews, research, quotes, and first-hand experiences and, in doing so, validates that this yoga is powerful, yes, but power can lead to corruption, hatred, extreme and unhealthy behaviors. I found these explorations interesting, if not a little overdone. I appreciated Ben’s meticulous research. I liked that he did answer a lot of questions—but also left a lot unanswered, unsaid, open to the reader’s own conclusions. I applaud his honesty. His writing strikes a nice balance between journalistic, comedic, and soulful. And, throughout, his wit and willingness to poke fun at himself and at the yoga community he’s a part of helped buoy a narrative that, like many a yoga-memoir before it, could have started sinking onto the bottom shelf of the self-help aisle.
However, I realized, come the book’s end, that the one question that plagued me—the one question that has, over the last many months, swayed me away from this here blog—is: So, what?
And what I mean by that is:
We each have our yoga story. And no two are alike.
But why are we so compelled to tell them?
In the good moments, I found myself throughly engrossed in “Hell-Bent,” to the point I couldn’t put it down or couldn’t wait to get into the hot room to determine if I saw or felt my practice differently, based on what I’d read.
And, in other moments, it was as though I just left a tough yoga class, and I’m sitting outside the hot room, satisfied and satiated and utterly spent, grinning stupidly, sweat dripping from my ears and my fingertips, my mind empty, my skin tingling, and suddenly I hear people going on and on about how they hated *this* or *that* about the class or thought the room was just too damn hot or didn’t understand WHY they couldn’t talk to each other or couldn’t *believe* the X, Y, and Z of the yoga that I love and that has changed my life. The yoga and the community that has, for the most part, treated me quite well.
It took me a long time (read: a lot of yoga) to understand that type of reaction wasn’t wrong or bad. It was, quite simply, that man or woman’s individual experience. It was, simply, his or her story, and it didn’t matter whether I agreed.
Ben’s story and the various stories he tells in his book are just that: his. And I have mine. And you have yours. And we all tell them differently.
None are right or wrong, better or worse, bigger or smaller, more or less justified at being told in the first place. None are more or less deserving. We can’t expect that every last story will resonate. But, each should be respected.
It all comes back to the yoga, of course. The point isn’t the story we’re telling (or selling). In the same way that the point isn’t how deep you can curl your spine in your backbend or how high you can kick your leg in dancer or how lightly you leap into chaturanga dandasana. The point isn’t how much weight you lose, how cute your clothes are, whether the teacher knows your name, or how wet your mat is by class end.
The point is that you showed up. That you came back, despite fears, against reservations, a pebble of hope caught in your shoes.
The point is that you arrived honestly, that you bared your blackest, bloodiest demons and your best, truest self and didn’t turn either away, that you opened your heart again—so much so, in fact, that you fell in love, over and over.
And who, really, doesn’t want to tell that story to anyone willing to listen?