More Ass, Less Asana
Attending an Austin Naked Yoga class means going all out and being prepared to see more than your share of naked man-flesh. But there's more.
Gluttony and sloth are so 2013. The holidays left their mark on my wallet and waistline. Thankfully, the new year offers a chance to strip off last year's excesses… and a few other things. This is how I ended up at Austin Naked Yoga.
Well, sort of. I had heard about the all-male class through a nudist buddy of mine who thought I'd enjoy it. How he thought I, the epicenter of uptightness, would enjoy unclothed calisthenics in the presence of other bare-skinned men was a mystery. It's not that I minded watching: The male form is a many-splendored thing. I did, however, mind being watched.
My first concern involved being more-than-figuratively exposed; my second was – let's just spell it out – being judged by the size of my penis. (I'm a grower, not a show-er!) What if they looked and laughed? What if I looked and liked what I saw? Worse: What if that interest showed, you know, literally?
"That's just your body's natural energy flow," said Todd, co-manager and head instructor. "There's not anything wrong with it. We don't encourage an erection by being overtly sexual, but for some people, that energy may come up in class, and it's okay. We're fine with it. Be glad you've got one! Your body's working right."
Fair enough. I entered the South Austin studio – a cavernous space with dimmed lighting, hardwood floors, and ballet barres along the walls – with my yoga mat in tow. The room was filled with other unclad exercise enthusiasts – 19 of them – in an array of shapes and sizes, so I shed my clothes, hoping my self-consciousness would follow suit.
A confession: I've been to naked yoga before. But my interest was part of a long-distance relationship. When the relationship ended, so too did my enthusiasm.
This new class marked the beginning of my new start and began with introductory words from Todd, whose speech was amplified by his sole article of clothing: a wireless headset. His soothing tenor permeated the room as soft notes rose from an acoustic guitar. His eclectic iPod playlist featured a well-curated selection of new age, world, and Top-40 music. Each selection perfectly suited to the tone of the tasks before us.
"Press your feet firmly into the earth. Feel the connection between your feet and the earth. That'll help ground you in your practice. And we'll inhale with the arms up. And we'll exhale and bring the arms down…"
Nudity can be very enlightening. Had I not decided to write about Austin Naked Yoga, I would never have known its founder was none other than Gary, the nudist buddy I'd mentioned earlier. He attended a class during a trip to Fort Lauderdale and after grousing about the absence of one in Austin, decided to organize a class of his own via Yahoo! Groups. There online, he found other like-minded nudists and yoga enthusiasts who helped him make the leap from concept to karma. The first class took place soon after, in October, 2004, with 21 students.
"I thought you knew," Gary replied. "Besides, Todd is the one that really built it up. Managing it, marketing it, and all that — it's like a full-time job. And I already have a full-time job, so it was really not something I had time to do."
Todd joined the group about a year after its inception – first as a student and Pilates instructor, then as one of its three co-managers. (The class also inspired him to become certified as a registered yoga instructor in the state of Texas.) One member bowed out, leaving he and business partner Bo to run the program, which has grown from its initial class to sessions on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday.
As the class progressed, I found myself less concerned about being ogled and more concerned with properly sticking the poses. I looked around at my fellow classmates to see how they were faring. Some were moving with enviable grace, some struggled valiantly; the rest of us managed some combination of the two. So many men, so many swinging schlongs, and mine was one of them. And it didn't matter.
"Okay, feet are flexed, toes up to the sky. Simply drape the torso over your legs. Nothing too intense here. We just want to gently stretch the body..."
Then came the partner work, which is pretty much what it sounds like: You pair up and work with a partner, who helps you loosen up tightness you can't get at by yourself. Those of you with adolescent tendencies will catch the entendre; I used to laugh, too, when I had a partner. In the absence of the old one, I turned to my friend and classmate, Gary. Isn't that what friends are for: helping you work through your uptightness?
We were assigned three stretches, all designed to open up the hips, thighs, and calves. Partners stabilize us, allowing the luxury of focusing on our breathing. Feeling sufficiently slackened, we would swap places and return the favor. I was first, and the first thing I did was squirm: I'm ticklish. But as I laid on my back with Gary's hands on my right leg and left pelvic girdle, I thought about my breathing. Then I thought about the shocked faces of my friends, who would be convinced I has gone mental. As I did, I felt my body relax and smiled. It was Gary's turn.
The deeper significance of the class washed over me as I looked around the room. A space where gay men (straight men are welcome, as well) can contribute to their own spiritual growth and contribute to that of others is a very rare thing indeed, especially in a world where our queer bodies are repeatedly sexualized, commodified, and brutalized. Cliché would have us believe it takes drugs or alcohol to enjoy the company of a roomful of naked gay men, but recent experience has taught me otherwise. The insight arrived in time for the cool down, where duets go back to playing solo.
"Now focus on your breath. Take some slow, easy deep breaths… For the next few minutes, just be."
There, amidst the scattered bodies and new age orchestration, I began to feel the kinship of community, which was what Gary likely had in mind when he suggested the class. He had known of my waning enchantment with bar culture; of my issues with nudity (the result of childhood sexual trauma); and of my yen for yoga. My nudist buddy may have concealed his role as the founding father of Austin Naked Yoga, but we all have faults. Modesty was his.
"Start bringing our awareness back to the room..."
Todd crooned with the patience of a mother waking a child. I groaned with my classmates as we plied ourselves from nirvana. Laying there on our mats, we looked like kids after nursery school nap time. In keeping with his maternal tendencies, Todd had cups of chai and hibiscus tea ready for us.
"You're welcome to sit back and relax. If you happen to not know the name of the person beside you, feel free to introduce yourself."
And so I did. "I love Naked Yoga. I love being free," said Hector, a friendly, dark-haired 40-something man with a medium build who was there with his younger partner. "When you strip away all of the clothing and all of the trappings of everyday society, you're just left to deal with yourself."
Others with whom I spoke expressed similar sentiments – of the camaraderie, the lack of judgement, of not being bound by clothing, and of course, a desire for fitness.
"I think that's part of what we're trying to do in naked yoga is to get people to accept themselves for who they are, where they are, right now," Todd said the following day during our interview. "And if your body isn't ready for the cover of GQ Magazine, who cares?"
Speaking of GQ, the all-male class has gotten flack from those interested in mixed-gender classes. "We have tried coed classes, and we held coed classes for five years, to very lukewarm attendance," he replied. "We just couldn't get that group to grow… Eventually, it wound down, and we just didn't do it anymore." The problem: finding a female teacher to strike the right balance between the sexes proved difficult – mostly due to the men, many of whom were uncomfortable around women.
Gender preference aside, the group does value diversity. "We don't want all 20-year-old skinny guys who can wrap themselves up into a knot. It's great to have a couple of those, but we like to have guys that are middle-aged, 50/60-something, that want to stay fit in their senior years. And we think the two should be able to coexist." Though I was the only black person in the previous evening's class, I was not the only person of color. Straight men – confident ones – are also welcome.
"Once you do it naked without clothes on," he said, "you realize yoga is one of those things that is so much better naked. Not only does it feel natural, it is natural. You just sweat, towel off when you're done, put your clothes back on, and you're out of there."
I don't know that I'm ready to be a full-time nudist, but I am looking forward to going back for more yoga. Conquering my fear of overexposure is apparently just what I need to keep my head out of my ass. Having firmer thighs wouldn't hurt, either.
Austin Naked Yoga single classes cost $12, with discount packages bringing class prices to as low as $8.