Published in YogaCity NYC Nov 2013
Nudity is one of those rarely discussed topics. It remains covered, hidden under the societal blanket of inappropriate expression reserved solely for private experiences. And yet why is it off-putting to some in this progressive twenty-first century?
Even in all-accepting yoga, nudity can cause quite the concern, and yet shouldn’t it be the opposite? Take the recent comments of Lululemon’s founder, Chip Wilson, about women’s bodies “not fitting” the clothes.” Besides being ridiculous, Wilson unknowingly reveals an alternative to striving for the “thigh gap” that enables a person to squeeze themselves into the sausage casings that are yoga pants – take them off.
Naked yoga is not a new concept. It is practiced in India by a spiritual group called the Naga Sadhus who see it as a reflection of their rejection of all material possessions. Still there is a heavy skepticism that surrounds the practice of naked yoga today, and it is often criticized as a means to provide erotic and sexual experiences under the guise of self-expression
Luckily for this inquisitor, clad only in curiosity (writing this in the buff to further advocate the au natural cause), there are a handful of yoga teachers around the city who are upending established social propriety by offering spaces for students to explore their birthday-suit-yoga-practices. More than that, there are practitioners who openly believe strongly in naked yoga’s unique benefits, those that go beyond what can be gained in stretch pants and a tank top.
As Joschi Schwarz a senior teacher at Le Male Yoga, the premier naked yoga studio in Chelsea offering mens-only class, said “Letting go of the clothed self is a metaphor for the more challenging work of removing the intangible costumes of the ego, which conceals the true self.” A student cannot hide behind anything when such exposure occurs. It is a catalyst for really facing whatever it is that is going on in a person’s life, he added.
For Cindee Rifkin, a devout yogi who offers co-ed naked yoga classes to pre-screened students, the impact that the practice can have on a person’s day to day life is worth trying it at least once. In fact, those who are most resistant to the idea often benefit the most. “There are people who attend that are dealing with body issues, shyness, and trauma.”
Isis Phoenix, considered by many to be a foundational and inspirational naked yoga teacher, articulates the connection between naked yoga and self-empowerment in a visually gripping way “Naked yoga reduces the amount of barriers and armoring that we have not only against the world but those barriers and boundaries that we have to our self.”
The word “healing” arose in conversation with many of the teachers in the discussion. Schwarz says, “the experience of trust and community that exists in a group of naked people can be deeply healing.”
Beth Nolan, founder of BNaked Yoga, has had only positive responses from even the most adamantly opposed to the practice. Once she is able to convince students to try it, the response is a positive one. “The feedback is usually why did I wait so long to try this?’”
For Rifkin and Phoenix, the nurturing and healing of their own nude experiences on the mat are what inspired them to dedicate themselves to offering it to others. “I used to have a distorted image of myself and I resented the body I lived in. To reconnect with my body I learned daily practices of self-care revolving around acceptance, self-love, and compassion.” Supported by Phoenix, I came to this practice because I found healing and self acceptance in it. My intention as a teacher is that those who practice it benefit in the same way,” explains Rifkin.
She believes deeply in the remedial effects of the practice, particularly for those dealing with self-consciousness. “In the group setting you realize that everyone has their own issues, and really, no one is staring, nor caring about yours. What a relief that can be! We feel and examine our habitual patterns while in poses, pranayama and meditation. Within one to five minutes [of a class] there is a shift in mind and body…Everyone is fascinated by how differently and how much better they feel.”
There is no doubt that negative body image and unrealistic physical standards have produced an epidemic of self-loathing among women and men, particularly those that participate in the culture of New York City. Perhaps, as Rifkin suggests an antidote to this body distortion already exists, and it lays naked and waiting on a yoga mat.
Despite all the positives of the practice, one concern that surrounds naked yoga is the sexual connotation and the implications of it. Jess Gronholm, co-founder of online yoga resource Dirty Yoga, is skeptical of alternative agendas of those that may be selling sex for profit in the form of yoga. As he notes, “ There do seem to be several naked yoga classes, claiming to help the self-conscious, that are offered at midnight on a Saturday night, and that can’t help but make you wonder.”
Is it possible for a teacher to create an environment for students that is void of sexual implications? For Nolan, the answer is – why would we ever want to? As a teacher, Nolan makes space for sexuality in the tantric yoga classes she offers, aimed to promote sexual healing and self-empowerment. “How can we deny we’re sexual beings?. It’s what makes us human. We as a culture have so much shame and judgment around sexuality. We can sell beer, cigarettes even pharmaceuticals in the name of sex but we can’t educate and teach people about sacred sexuality without judgement.”
Whether or not sexuality is brought into the picture seems to be a personal preference of the teacher. However, all the teachers with whom I spoke agreed that a pre-screening process is an important part of offering classes, particularly in an urban environment.
Another question that arises is whether or not to separate classes by gender. Though Le Male is exclusively for men, some teachers provide co-ed experiences and do not see a need to separate. As Rifkin advocates, “co-ed integration is key in total healing and freedom…there is such strength born of this vulnerability, and you can only know this joy and relief when you choose to experience it.”
When Phoenix wanted to open the doors for women to practice naked yoga, she had to create a class herself, as the classes offered in NYC were male-only. Though she understands that initially opposite sexes can feel trepidation when considering mixed-gendered classes, she spoke from her years of experience about the humbling power of a co-ed experience. “We come to discover that we are simply humans who have bodies male or female and then beyond that we are simply human.”
There exists some dispute as to whether or not yoga teachers require additional training to successfully guide nude classes. Schwarz and Nolan also agree that the asana’s are the same, and so no additional standardized training should be required, only an expected level of sensitivity.
Rifkin however believes there should be standardized training for teachers who wish to offer naked yoga due to the need for teachers to respect students vulnerability, and she is composing her own 50 page manual of curated training tips, advice, guiding principles, and insights.
Phoenix is also a proponent of specialized training, “I hope in the future there can be a naked certification, like one gets certified in prenatal or kids yoga. Some background in counseling or psychotherapy would be useful — not that an instructor becomes a therapist but there is a certain about of space holding that stretched beyond normal yoga classes and yoga teacher responsibilities.”
At the end of it all, whether a skeptic or not, the question becomes why would a student chose to strip down? The answer might simply be, why not? Why not see if the benefits claimed from the mentioned teachers resonate
Take it from me, an admittedly skeptical yogi. In preparation for this piece, I attended a co-ed naked yoga class. Walking into a room filled with 17 men and only two other women was terrifying at first, but my curiosity got the best of me and I stripped down and stayed. And I am very glad I did.
When stripped down to your most vulnerable state, pinching and scrutinizing becomes irrelevant, along with clothing personal stories of inadequacy fall away. Concern with shape gives away to meditative movement and expression. Yoga nurtures the scars created by consistent self-flagellation, spurned on by heckling comparison. I say, give it a try. You have nothing to lose but the discomfort of spandex.