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I'm sitting on my yoga mat, sandwiched between two middle-aged men in business suits. The room glows softly with the haze of low fluorescent lighting, and the couple behind me is chatting animatedly about their workweek. I swallow and try to distract myself with a warm-up. You have to look totally unbothered, I tell myself. It's worse if people notice that you're nervous. What I'm trying so hard to forget is that in a matter of minutes, I'm going to see these people naked. Every single one of them.
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How I ended up in a naked yoga class on a Wednesday night is evidence that I'm a pro at signing up for things I might later regret. When I reveal my evening plans to my roommate, her response is immediate. “I would have a panic attack,” she says. But from the moment I discovered Naked in Motion, the business that hosts these classes, I knew I had to try it. The idea of doing downward dog in the nude, all in service of some kind of broader mission, felt like the perfect combination of hilarious and bizarre.
The company's website calls naked yoga a social movement. It's all about body positivity and helping students shed feelings of inadequacy and shame. “We offer you the opportunity to shed your clothing, and along with it, judgments about your appearance, limiting personal beliefs, and self-talk,” reads the description. “We maintain that all people deserve love and care.” One $15 deposit later, and I'm on the list.
As I start getting ready for class, reality begins to sink in. Maybe I was overeager. Maybe this is an absolutely terrible idea. What do I even wear to a naked yoga class? I choose what I consider to be a sensible ensemble: black leggings and a denim jacket. For some reason, my clothing choices feel more important since I know they're about to be completely unnecessary.
I make my way to an apartment building in Chelsea, and the girl in the elevator with me hits the button for the same floor. To my immense relief, she looks ordinary and not the least bit concerned about our impending communal nakedness. I feel better already. “Are you here for yoga too?” she asks. “Yes. It's my first time,” I respond cheerfully, trying to look equally nonchalant. I'm the queen of composure right now.
In the studio, a small rented room on the eleventh floor, Willow Merveille greets me with enthusiasm. She's the founder of Naked in Motion, and her delicate features and black pixie cut remind me of a woodland fairy.
But panic sets in when I round the corner and notice at least four older men wearing button-downs and khakis. Of course they're still in khakis. It's not like they need workout clothes when everyone is getting naked in a matter of minutes, I think. Willow smiles at me expectantly and says, “Feel free to put your stuff down and get settled! Front or back row?” I shrug. “Wherever is fine!” My voice comes out at least several pitches higher than usual.
I take a seat, seemingly the only one concerned with the current state of affairs. The class has around 20 students, mostly male, ranging in age from the mid-20s to early 60s. Many appear to be regular attendees. Willow calls our attention as she sits down to recite the community rules.
“Rule No. 1: Nudity is mandatory.” I'm in too deep at this point, I think. The only legitimate escape route would require me to sprint out of this room in front of everyone. Willow goes on to list the basic expectations, which boil down to “stay in your own space” and “don't be creepy.”
In an effort to cultivate a safe space for everyone, women and transgender students are allowed to wear bottoms if they so choose. There's also no “cruising,” which means that students cannot ask each other to hang out outside of class. The goal is to facilitate a friendly space without allowing room for anyone to feel threatened.
To my great distress, there's even a rule about erections. I hadn't considered this possibility until now. Apparently, the best thing to do in most cases is take a child's pose, or simply ignore it until the moment passes. I'm glad she addressed this, truly I am. But also, ohmygodwhatamidoinghere?
Willow finishes her speech with a simple, “OK, let's begin,” and with that, everyone in the room starts stripping down.
It's happening. I close my eyes and take off my clothes, ignoring my fight-or-flight instinct. When I finally look around the room, I try hard to avoid direct eye contact. Unfortunately, I still catch glimpses of body parts I'd rather not be seeing.
I quickly decide my best plan of action is to pretend I'm the only person here. I can follow instructions while staring directly at the wall, so I listen to Willow's voice as she guides us through the first few sequences. She'll often stop to say, “Try to focus your eyes on something that's not a human being.” This feels like it goes without saying, but it's a relief to hear it out loud.
Before coming to class, I'd wondered whether our instructor would keep our poses pretty tame, given that we would be all… well, naked. The answer is nope: In class, we move from warrior two to tree pose to a version of standing splits. Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, is hidden from view.
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Toward the middle of class, I have this strange moment where I realize I don't feel self-conscious anymore. There's something kind of beautiful about being surrounded by people in their most vulnerable and human state of being. People are people, and bodies are bodies, and it's rare to find a safe space where we can all exist in our truest forms. Of course, at the same time, I really, really, really want to put my pants back on.
We end the practice in savasana, and people begin to pack up their things. Some take their time getting dressed again, even standing in the nude to chat about their families or weekend plans. I, for one, throw every single layer back on my body as soon as I'm given the go-ahead.
“Is this your first naked event?” a young guy asks me (thankfully, he and I are both fully clothed at this point). He says this as nonchalantly as if he were asking about my favorite breakfast cereal. “Yeah! I was honestly a little nervous,” I say, as if I had no reason to be nervous whatsoever. He tells me this is his first time getting into yoga and he's been coming for a few months now. The community here has been really amazing. I tell him I don't usually come to things like this and I'm still feeling out of my element. Then I concentrate really hard on tying my shoelaces.
At Panera Bread, after class is over, Willow tells me more about her personal mission. She started Naked in Motion as a way to help others feel more confident, and she wants to facilitate positive conversations about sexuality and emotional health. “There's something very powerful about coming into a space and saying, 'I'm going to allow myself to be vulnerable,'” she says. “I get to decide what I think about my body. I get to decide how I expect others to treat me. I get to decide the way I'm going to treat myself.”
And I have to say, I really understand this perspective. As women, we often feel like we do not have ownership over what is ours. It's unusual to find a space where we can exist without fear of being sexualized. Strangely, I didn't feel threatened in class in the slightest, and most of my apprehension came from the preexisting fears I brought with me through the door.
I'm not the only one who feels this way. Myhanh, who's been coming regularly for the past year, says that Willow's class has radically changed her self-image. “I always feel very safe,” she says. “I feel empowered to stay and enforce my boundaries.” She grew up feeling ashamed of her body, surrounded by women conventionally considered more beautiful. This practice has taught her to appreciate what her body can do. “Doing this is a way to normalize how I view my body and how I view bodies in general. After a while, you even forget that you're naked.”
For another student, Naked in Motion represents a shift in how we talk about the human figure. “We have the most cognitive dissonance about how we treat bodies,” he says. “We want to put them in posters and draw attention to how beautiful they are, but once we actually focus in on one, it's obscene and shameful.” Naked yoga gives people a safe environment just to move, exactly as they are.
I appreciate what Willow is doing, and it's clear she's challenging a lot of social norms. At the same time, I'm going to keep doing child's pose with clothes on, at least for now-but I'm coming away from this experience with a renewed confidence in myself (and the knowledge that a yoga mat feels really strange against your bare… stomach).