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 real development in yoga practice? 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?
Frank answers: In answering these questions I will first survey the kinds of naked yoga classes that have been “springing up” recently. Then I will look at yoga’s historical tradition of nakedness. Next I will try to reconstruct the emergence of naked yoga in the West in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Then I will address the question of the relationship of gay men to naked yoga. I also want to write something about the spirituality of naked yoga. Finally, I will address male anxieties about getting an erection in a group situation. As usual, I will illustrate this article with images. Given the nature of the topic they will mostly be naked bodies.
Types of Naked Yoga Classes Emerging
It is indeed 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 and protect the privacy of the students. 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.
In many naked yoga classes opportunities for partner yoga may be scheduled, either as a few minutes at the end of a regular class session or as a separate session in itself. This can be intimidating even to some who practice naked yoga. But it provides a safe way to connect with another man who is the mirror image of oneself.
Partner yoga was “invented” by the husband and wife yoga team of Ganga White and Tracey Rich in the late 1977s. White wondered if his “mirror yoga,” as he first called it, might not been seen in some of the poses from Krishnamacharya’s yoga demonstrations at Mysore. There may be some roots of partner yoga in Tantra sexual rituals in which a male and female partner are involved. But this is unlike the postural yoga performed by modern yogis. While White and Rich’s practice was for opposite sex couples, they saw no reason why it could not be done by same-sex couples. As it has emerged in men’s naked yoga it includes not only dual poses but also assisting the partner in the poses.
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 and women’s naked yoga groups.
So here are four reasons naked yoga groups get started. They give gay men a chance to meet one another and connect 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 enjoy opportunities for nude activities. But these groups are tapping into a long tradition in the history of yoga that offers a spiritual reason for nakedness. For that history we go back to ancient India.
History of Naked Yoga
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.
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.
Naked Yoga Goes Western
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. In the later part of the century the Lebensreform (life reform) movement 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 Westphalia, which was the home of Krupp Steelworks. The Lebensreform movement broke into different political ideologies ranging from socialism to 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).
At the Woodstock Music Festival in August 1968 Swami Satchidnanda was 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 by bathing naked in the lake and, apparently, introduced acro yoga to the world.
Robert Rimmer’s 1966 novel, The Harrad Experiment, features students living together in a co-ed college situation (dorm, classes) as an experiment in how they would related to one another. Faculty also taught classes naked, many held outdoors. A nude yoga class was included in the 1973 film version of Rimmer’s novel. 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, along with nude meditation, and nude group therapy sessions.
Hatha and other forms of postural yoga began its triumphant march from the 1960s 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, took 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 Emergence of Naked Yoga Classes in the U.S.
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 Hoagland 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 in the weekly schedule, but as yet 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.
Is Naked Yoga a Gay Thing?
Many straight men think that naked yoga is a gay thing. It obviously isn’t since 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 certainly gay men are attracted to men’s naked yoga classes 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) also 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 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 many gay men live and associate. This has contributed to the numerical growth of urban naked yoga classes.
It’s interesting the Brewer Street Yoga in London’s Soho district offers both men’s naked classes and classes for “Gay men and friends” that are clothed. Undoubtedly most of the men in the naked classes are gay. So why offer classes for gays and friends? When I asked him, the director of Brewer Street Yoga, Matthew Gough, said that gay men are really a marginal group in the yoga world. Most of the yoga classes are predominantly female. Many yoga studios offer men’s classes by appealing to yoga’s masculine qualities. This can draw out a toxic masculinity that reminds gay men of the bullying they might have received in their youth. By advertising classes for gays and friends, gay men know that the studio is a safe place to be gay and that hetero men who attend will be comfortable being with gay guys and accepting of the gay culture.
However, it needs to be emphasized that while naked men’s yoga classes might attract gay men, the classes are not exclusively gay. As I said, us straight men are also welcomed and warmly embraced. And there does tend to be embracing before and after class (but only if one is comfortable with it). It’s a good opportunity for straight men to hug gay men (or other straight men) and overcome homophobia.
Naked Yoga As a Form of Spirituality
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 they seem 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. It is a physical expression of openness and vulnerability that makes one mentally receptive to communication with God who knows the intentions of the heart of his human creatures. Unlike Adam and Eve, we are naked and have nothing to hide (See Frank Answers About Being Naked Before God).
Hatha Yoga, rooted in Tantra, demonstrates that spirituality does not have to be disembodied. Rather than regarding the body only as a source of suffering, as the philosophies of India tended to do, Hatha Yoga sees the body as a source of revelation. It is in Hatha Yoga that asanas and pranayama as bodily disciples developed, not to transcend the body but to still the mind through concentration on bodily disciplines. In the process yoga discerned a subtle body as well as the physical body and in contemporary practice it is quite open to embodied mind theory that sees the mind as more than a disembodied source for thinking thoughts.
Men Get Erections
This brings me, finally, to giving 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. That question continues to be asked about participating in a naked yoga class. Men seem concerned about getting erections in public situations such as locker rooms or on the massage table or in yoga class. When I wrote Frank Answers About Swimming Naked, which focused especially on boys swimming naked in the schools and YMCAs before the 1970s, many commentators who had not had this experience asked about whether boys got erections. They might have, but it was not a big issue, and the cold water of the pool usually took care of it. Likewise, erections are not a big issue in naked yoga classes. Men get erections for various reasons, including anxiety about being naked. Once yoga practice gets going your focus goes to the whole body, not just your penis.
Why are men so concerned about getting erections? It’s 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. Let me assure you that erections are not much of a problem for men doing naked yoga. Yogis are focused on the poses. But the naga sadhu in the photo below 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.
Individual Naked Yoga
I have focused on naked yoga classes. But there is nothing that prevents yogis from practicing naked in private. Yoga teachers encourage home practice along with group practice. Doing naked yoga at home can serve several purposes. It can give one a sense of what it feels like to practice yoga unencumbered by clothes. It can encourage someone to try naked yoga in a class. And it can provide an option where naked yoga classes are not available. I recommend it.
Another option for individual practice is to do naked yoga outdoors in nature. I mentioned above naked yoga outdoor retreats. Doing naked yoga outdoors as an individual requires some boldness. Obviously you would have to find a secluded place (unless you were doing yoga on a clothing optional beach).
These two yogis went up in the mountains where they would get a good view but not too many people would get a view of them.
It seems fitting to end this article on naked yoga with a savasana.
Namaste, Frank Senn
P.S. I was thinking of making a list of links to naked yoga classes. But they have become so plentiful in major cities in the Western world that it would turn into an impossible task to keep up with.