Question: I enjoyed your Frank Answer About Yoga for Men. You mentioned men’s naked yoga classes, but apart from an opportunity for social nudity all the other benefits you mentioned, like greater freedom in movement and flexibility, could be received by leaving one’s pants on. I know that naked yoga classes have been springing up. Is this just a fad or a solid development? Does it primarily appeal to gays? And sorry for asking, but what happens if you take your pants off for class and get a boner?
Answer: In answering these questions I will first survey the kinds of naked yoga classes that have been “springing up” recently, then look at yoga’s historical tradition of nakedness, then try to reconstruct the emergence of naked yoga in the West in the 20th and early 21st centuries, and finally address the questions of the relationship of gay men to naked yoga and male anxieties about getting an erection in a group situation.
First, it is evident that naked yoga classes are “springing up” in cities across the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, and down under in Sydney and Brisbane, Australia and Auckland, NZ. Compared to the sheer number of clothing-required yoga studios, it is a small “underground” movement. I say “underground” because admittance to naked yoga classes is cautiously regulated to keep out voyeurs. I will provide here a sampling of the kind of naked yoga classes that have emerged in recent years.
The photo I placed above this post is of Dan Carter leading a men’s naked yoga class in Washington, D.C. What started out for him with a few naked yogis just a few years ago has expanded into “Danimal.” He has several classes each week with 25 men in each one.
Danimal’s classes are primarily attended by gays and bi-sexuals, although I don’t think he would prohibit straight men who wanted to try naked yoga from coming to his classes. Naked yoga classes usually advertise that all bodies of any age, shape, or sexual orientation are welcome and that the practice is non-judgmental. Nevertheless, at the end I will say something about the relationship between gay men and the male body as it impacts naked yoga.
While most naked yoga classes are for men, some women’s classes have found willing students. The class pictured below has recently started in Brisbane, Australia. Called FEMPOWERMENT, it is a women’s only naked yoga class begun by Jessa O’Brien.
There is also a new mixed sex naked yoga group in New York and Boston called Naked in Motion taught by Willow Merveille and others, which emphasizes accepting one’s body as it is without shame or self-criticism. Women and trans persons are given the option to wear bottoms in the interests of menstrual positivity and equity.
One other sample I will mention is the Austin Men’s Naked Yoga group.
This group has been around for a while and has become known for their annual outdoor yoga camp in which outdoor physical activities are combined with yoga practice. This kind of camping experience attracts those who are into naturism. Similar outdoor retreats are offered by other men’s naked yoga groups.
So here are four reasons naked yoga groups get started. They give gay men a chance to meet one another in a non-sexual context. Women’s classes can be about women’s empowerment. All naked yoga classes are about developing a positive attitude toward one’s body. And a lot of naturists or nudists enjoy opportunities for nude activities. But these groups are taping into a long tradition in the history of yoga that offer a spiritual reason for nakedness. For that history we go back to ancient India
The earliest Western encounter with Indian yogis was in the 4th century BC, when the army of Alexander the Great advanced into India. Alexander met men whom the Greeks called gymnosophists (“naked philosphers”).
One of Alexander’s companions, Onesicritus, is quoted in Strabo’s Geography, Book 15, Sections 63-65, as saying that these yogins (Mandanis ) practiced aloofness and “different postures – standing or sitting or lying naked – and motionless.”
There is also a reference to nakedness in Yoga scriptures. The Bhagavata Purana says: ”A person in the renounced order of life may try to avoid even a dress to cover himself. If he wears anything at all, it should be only a loincloth, and when there is no necessity, a sannyāsī should not even accept a danda [walking stick]. A sannyāsī should avoid carrying anything but a daṇḍa and kamandalu [oblong water pot].”
The naga sadhus (naked holy men) in India today trace their lineage back to this renunciate tradition. The reason for being naked is to renounce the world and focus on practices that transcend it. This is not a renunciation of nature, since the sadhus lived very much in tune with the natural world, but rather a renunciation of the world of human society and culture which impedes spiritual enlightenment with social restrictions and focus on material things. Spiritual enlightenment comes when one is free of social conventions.
As for the yogi’s relationship with the natural world, the Jains in particular have such a reverence for life in all its forms that they carry whisk brooms to sweep insects from off their path to avoid harming them. Unlike Hindu sadhus they don’t even carry a bowl for begging food, only a water pot.
The naga sadhus were not only renunciates; they were warriors in the service of medieval Indian kings. Their most recent warfare was against the British troops who supported the takeover of India in the 18th century by the British East India Company. Gatherings of naga sadhus often include jousting matches in remembrance of their warrior past.
Knowing this history might remind us that modern Hatha yoga warrior poses have an actual warrior lineage in the yoga tradition. One of yoga’s greatest scriptures, Bhagavad Gita, spins out its philosophy in the context of an impending epic battle.
During the British Raj (administration) yogis fell on hard times. The British regarded them as dirty and disreputable. Called fakirs, they often resorted to entertainment by showing spectacular feats such as walking on a bed of coals or lying on a bed of nails.
The 1920s was the decade in which T. Krishnamarcha began his project of revitalizing Hatha yoga in the yoga school at the Mysore Palace in the interest of promoting Indian nationalism. This revitalization drew from the Western physical culture movement (which the maharaja had embraced at Mysore), combined with what could be known about Hatha yoga from its scriptures. The entertainment aspect of yoga continued in the yoga demonstrations that the celebrated guru put his students through (the men wearing Western-style pants rather than Indian loin cloths) for Western audiences gathered on palace grounds.
Individual yogis also demonstrated their amazing flexibility to onlookers.
When did “naked yoga” come to the West? Let’s recognize that yoga is about more than asanas or poses. Before the dominance of postural practice in yoga, yoga was about abstinence, diet, health (in alliance with the ancient Indian medical system of ayurveda), and meditation. These practices were attractive to 19th century German naturists, who, in the early part of the century promoted the Physical Culture Movement that had an enormous influence on Western physical education and fitness, and who in the later part of the century spawned the Lebensreform (life reform) movement, which promoted ecology and organic farming, vegetarianism, naturism (freie Körperkultur or FKK – free body culture or nudism), and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco. This movement countered industrialization and urbanization by encouraging people to get out into nature, walking naked through the forests and swimming naked in the lakes, rivers, and the sea. One of the early centers of the free body culture was Essen in Westfalen, which was the home of Krupp Steelworks. The Lebensreform movement broke into different political ideologies ranging from socialism or nationalism. The nationalist wing of the Lebensreform was supported by the Nazis while the socialist free body movement was suppressed.
There was also a great interest in body movement in the free body culture.
A group of Germans who were members of the Lebensreform movement migrated to California in the early 20th century and set up their compound near present day Palm Springs. A few young men grew long hair and beards and lived in primitive cabins. The most famous of them was William Pester, the “Hermit of Palm Springs,” shown in the following photo taken in front of his cabin in 1917 (wearing a towel for the sake of the photograph with a guitar on his lap). They were known as the “California Nature Boys” and have been regarded as a prototype of the later hippies.
This is all prior to the importation of Hatha yoga to the West by Krishnamacharya’s students Indra Devi, Iyengard, Jois, and others. But by the 1950s and 1960s this revitalized Hatha yoga was making an impact in the West. Most famously, in 1967 the Beatles found a guru in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his practice of Transcendental Meditation (which actually dispensed with many practices of yoga). They even followed him to his ashram in India, where the love affair ended because of what they perceived to be the Yogi’s sexual hypocrisies. But the Beatles’ embrace of yoga had an influence on many of the hippies and “flower children” who were discovering chanting and meditation (which are also yoga practices), sometimes meditating in the nude.
At the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 Swami Satchidnanda helicoptered to Yasgur’s farm and sat on the stage on a raised dias in a lotus position flanked by his devotees. Yoga made a big entrance into the hippie culture.
Apart from rock music and yoga philosophy, attendees at the Woodstock Festival introduced public displays of nudity that would also be featured at in the rock musical Hair (also in 1969).
A nude yoga class was included in the 1973 film version of Robert Rimmer’s 1966 novel, The Harrad Experiment, about an experiment at fictional Harrod College in which faculty and students attended classes in a state of nakedness. So at least the idea of naked yoga was being considered during the sexual revolution of the late 1960s. The Esalen Institute, founded in 1962 and regarded as the birthplace of the “human potential” movement, began with the study of Eastern philosophy and meditation and later introduced yoga, holistic medicine, and massage. This “New Age” institute, located in a place of natural beauty with hot springs, allows for nude activities (although nudity is not a requirement for participation). Nude yoga has been practiced there in groups and by individuals.
Hatha and other forms of postural yoga began its triumphant march from that time on, but as the flower children matured they put away their beads and donned respectable attire to hold down respectable jobs. This is not so different from the old naked warrior yogis who became householders, has other employment and raised families. When they were finished with those responsibilities, they could go off into the mountains or forests and practice naked meditation. But the former hippies enabled the establishment of thousands of yoga studios whose students (especially the women — the yoga students patronizing these studios were mostly women) purchased expensive yoga attire (e.g. Lululemons). Not until the beginning of the 21st century was there a bold move to practice yoga naked once again.
The man who is given the most credit for the revival of naked yoga is Aaron Star, a Canadian yoga teacher from Vancouver who studied with leading yoga teachers (Rod Stryker among them) and visited Indian ashrams. He taught yoga in Hawaii and then moved to New York City where he started Hot Nude Yoga in 2001 with an appeal to gay men. Through his writings and travels and training sessions he propagated his brand of naked yoga in other cities.
There is another pioneer in the naked yoga movement whom I want to single out. Around 2005 Per Erez, a reputable yoga teacher in Chicago (Oprah Winfrey had been his client), started a naked yoga class for men in his apartment studio. He was interviewed by several newspapers, including the Huffington Post. Almost as a counter to Star’s highly sensualized naked yoga classes, Per Erez said that nude yoga was about “fitness, not foreplay.” In an interview by Tony Peregrin in The Chicagoist on April 13, 2010, he was quoted as saying that nude yoga offers men a chance to be less concerned about “how they show up physically on their mat,” and gradually reduces “their own inner critical voice about what the male form should look like in others.” See the full interview in https://chicagoist.com/2010/04/13/fitness_movement_not_foreplay_an_in.php
[Full disclosure: I’ve had my own interviews and private sessions with Per, but my contacts were after he stopped teaching men’s naked yoga classes. However, I credit him with making me comfortable enough with nudity to give it a try.]
Per gave up teaching men’s naked yoga after ten years of doing so and went on to study and teach other yoga styles and practice somatic bodywork. He continues to evolve. The Windy City Men’s Naked Yoga that he founded was taken on by Lance Haugland and flourishes today with several classes a week, most at full capacity of about 20 male bodies. The men who attend are committed to the practice of yoga. They are mostly but not exclusively gay. Sexual advances in class are not tolerated. In fact, one of the advantages of naked yoga is to disassociate nudity from sex. Lance has tried to include a co-ed (every body naked) class, but so far it has not taken off like the all-men’s classes. He also offers bi-weekly naked partner yoga class, but you must bring your own partner.
Naked yoga is not just a gay thing since there are women’s and co-ed classes. Naked Yoga USA, which has its own studio in Tempe, AZ and has expanded to other cities, offers classes for men, women, co-ed, and private lessons. But gay men are attracted to naked yoga because of their attraction to other male bodies. This is not just a sexual attraction. They enjoy the beauty of the male body. They relish the opportunity to share their homosexuality openly with others. There are sometimes issues about body shame (and shaming) among gay men that need to be overcome. Learning to accept every body and to be non-judgmental in yoga class is a good start. Many gay men want to take care of their own bodies. Many are into fitness and hang out in gyms. Some find their way into yoga classes. Not surprisingly, naked yoga classes “spring up” in urban communities where gay men live and associate. This contributes to the numerically growth of naked yoga classes.
It needs to be emphasized that while naked men’s yoga classes might attract gay men, they are not exclusively gay. As I said above, us straight men are also welcome and warmly embraced. And there does tend to be embracing before and after class (but only if one is comfortable with it).
I’m not enough of a seer to say whether naked yoga is a just a fad. At the moment classes for men and women and both sexes are multiplying in various cities and it seems to be filling a need that exists for a variety of reasons, perhaps not least the need of modern people to return to their bodies, to become comfortable in their skins, and to accept their own body and the bodies of other people. I also dare say that, like the naga sadhus, nakedness can be a powerful spiritual experience. It’s not surprising that Per Erez had rabbis, ministers, and priests in his class, even though some worried that they would be discovered by their congregants. But nakedness in the presence of God is a powerful form of spirituality. See Frank Answers About Being Naked Before God.) Yoga, especially Tantra, demonstrates that spirituality does not have to be disembodied.
Before ending this survey, there’s one more new entrant into the naked fitness genre. A British naturist, Helen Smith, started a nude exercise class in Southampton, UK in 2017. Her first class of ten included mostly men and a few women ages 35-70. The arguments in favor naked yoga work also for nude exercise. While nude exercise may not be able to appeal to ancient Indian tradition, it can appeal to ancient Greece and Rome. The word gymnasium comes from the Greek gymnos, meaning “naked.” A Chicago-based kundalini yoga teacher who has led clothing optional yoga classes is also a personal fitness trainer and is offering his first clothing optional naked exercise class for men in January 2020. See Joel Akins (Akal) at Soma Arts Studio in Chicago.
Finally, l give here a frank answer to the final frank question about “boners.” Per Erez said in The Chicagoist interview that in the early days of his class the question most often asked by would-be participants was about the big E. Men seem concerned about getting erections in situations such as locker rooms or on the massage table or in yoga class. When I wrote Frank Answers About Swimming Naked, particularly in the schools before the 1970s, many commentators who had not had this experience asked about whether the boys got erections.
Why are men so concerned about getting erections? It is a natural response of the male body to physical and mental stimulation. We even get erections in our sleep. It’s a symbol of male vitality — the instrument used in procreation. Well, let me tell you that erections were not a problem for boys swimming naked (cold water takes care of unwanted erections) and it’s not much of a problem for men doing naked yoga (yogis are focused on the poses). But the naga sadhu in the photo below this article shows what summoning prana (energy) can do. He shows off his erection to the public. There’s nothing shameful about erections, even though propriety requires containing this energy and saving it, as best we can, for appropriate occasions and places.