A Road Within
The paths up the spiritual mountain are numerous. One could say we’re always on the path and that various paths may intersect or overlap as one spiritual tradition informs another. The path, inherently though is an individual one, a unique one-of-a-kind pilgrimage that is meant for only our feet to travel. The path is inevitably full of sharp turns, surprising twists, epic cliffhangers and brief periods of sublime sunlight filled road. An unusual twist up my own mountain revealed itself spontaneously one spring afternoon in 2007.
I was scheduled to teach a vinyasa yoga class that evening in Chelsea. I showered, toweled myself down and padded out to the living room of my midtown Manhattan apartment to get in a practice before I taught that evening. On a whim, I skipped putting on my standard yoga uniform of stretchy streamlining pants and a fitted ‘Namaste’ tank. Instead, I began my practice dressed the same as I came into the world, naked.
This sort of thing wasn’t entirely without precedent. In my early twenties, I apprenticed with a Celtic priestess and many of ye olde Pagan ritual gatherings were practiced skyclad, that is, naked for a spiritual purpose. At the same time, though, I never considered myself to be a nudist. I was not one who had to be naked in my home. I never had the impulse to seek out clothing optional events or to frequent a nude beach. Actually, I rather enjoyed clothes.
Why then did I suddenly feel drawn to the yoga mat sans clothes on that particular day? I didn’t stop to consider the question at the time. The body knew what the body wanted, the intuition knew what it wanted, and the intellect was content to let them have their way. I was alone, the blinds were drawn, and the mat and my practice awaited me.
I sat, closed my eyes and stilled my thoughts. My universe coalesced with my mat, my breath, my body and all her imperfections. An impulse for movement soon arose, leading me into a simple cat-and-cow warm-up on my hands and knees, arching and flexing my spine with each inhale and exhale, eyes still closed. I stretched my way back into downward-facing dog, opened my eyes and witnessed as my first thought arose. ‘So that’s why we wear spandex.’ My breasts hung like the udders of a cow in this pose and my belly sagged.
I put aside the implications and underpinnings of my inner critic and gave my full attention to my breathing and to the possibility of opening to a practice of loving kindness towards my body. I mean come on, if I could avoid eating meat as an effort towards the first yogic principle of ahimsa (non-violence), I could at least avoid violent thoughts towards my body for the next hour.
I began a simple sun salute, moving through familiar poses on my mat. As I breathed in each asana, time seemed to slow and my awareness seemed to deepen. There were no superficial layers keeping me separate at this point. Nothing with which to hide or conceal, fragment or compartmentalize. There was nothing to keep me from myself. This practice became a rigorous examination of self-study which ironically took me more and more out of my mind and deeper and deeper into my body.
My cultural conditioning began to unweave itself from the complex inner networkings of my brain and I began to move from a place of inner judgment to inner wonder. Parts of my body I had kept covered for years or had certain mental restrictions on were finding one-ness.
On this day, naked in my living room on my mat, my mind slowly began to free itself from fear and hostility towards this delicately balanced, acutely aware and deeply intelligent body. I began to observe my body in ways my cultural conditioning had never allowed me to previously. I watched parts of my body that I had judged harshly come alive and integrate as my inner critic was silenced. As I witnessed my body, naked in each pose, her stories and the judgments I held towards her, unraveled around me. I saw the thighs I had always covered, even to the extent of refusing to wear shorts for twenty years. I saw the breasts I had tried to enhance with underwires because I thought they were too wide-set and lacked proper clevage. I saw my belly round. I saw cellulite. I didn’t see the critic that said you have cellulite and said that’s bad. I simply saw what was, and I loved it. I loved it whole-y.
Naked and unified in each asana, I went deeper into my practice, knowing for the first time that there was nothing to judge or to reject in this body. My hands brushed past my nipples in Warrior One, and I realized I had nipples for the first time in my practice, not just a pressed down ‘uniboob’ in a sports bra. Wonder roused as I began to even smell my body for the first time – gentle soft smells of vanilla and earth.. Had I ever been aware of that scent before? Going deeper, I engaged in the wonder and explorations of physical discovery. This body was uncharted land, and I a first-time explorer.
I started to see how my body moved, the symbiosis of bones and muscles, the steady beat of my heart, the tides of blood and breath, the simple miracle of being in a human body. I then began to see my body through the eyes of love – preciousness and holiness, like a mother cradling her new born baby. An infinite sensitivity and tenderness arose in the practice. The experience was both transcendental and embodied, both sacred and secular.
I continued my practice.
During this, a curious realization came to me. I was experiencing, for the first time, real yoga. I had been practicing yoga regularly for five years at this point and had recently completed my yoga teacher training so the sudden insight that this unplanned happenstance was the first time I truly experienced yoga seemed absurd to me and a bit of a blow to the ego. What the hell had I been practicing for five years? Calisthenics? Absurdity, however, didn’t lessen its truth. The moment it happened, I knew. Everything I had previously thought to be yoga was now off the table. It was a moment that I can only describe as being like a very complicated lock that had been stuck for many years suddenly cracking open to reveal a secret portal to oneness.
Before that moment, I can say my yoga practice had been consistent but somewhat superficial. I had had specific goals: longer headstands, mastering complicated sequences, a practice of vegetarianism, attending classes three times a week, learning Sanskrit. Now, the door had swung open and everything that had fragmented my practice was revealed. It was like releasing the top of a pressure cooker. Shame, self-loathing, pride and judgment all rose to the surface and dissipated like hot steam. An opening and a healing occurred, a state of grace awakened, my spirit transformed and rested fully in her temple. For the next hour on my mat I was yoga.
Of course, I had many effective yoga practices before. I’d reached ephemeral moments of the transcendent states of Samadhi. The elusive ‘one with all that is’-ness touched me every so often, if only for a few breaths. But this day was different.
There was a sense of coming home and completeness, all the parts of me yoked together.
It was the most profound practice of my life. I arose from savasana with purpose, entirely transformed. I had found my path.
A Road Without
When one has a pivotal experience of a spiritual nature, the inner seeker records every iota of data about the experience and immediately makes plans to create an environment to repeat it. That was certainly my first impulse after my naked yoga epiphany. More please.
Of course, I could repeat the experience for myself whenever I wished needing only my mat and myself, but as a blossoming teacher I had a responsibility to my students and my community. There was a responsibility to serve. I couldn’t hoard my gold! I had just found salvation and it needed to be shared. I wanted to throw open the window to my New York City apartment and scream to anyone who would listen – Hey! Take your clothes off and breath and move! It’s great! I immediately began exploring options of how I could experience naked yoga in a group environment.
Like any good New Age spiritual seeker who has moments of transcendence, I turned to Google in search of a solution. If I could have experiences like this on my mat, how would a group class take me deeper? How could I repeat this experience? Back then, however, all the wise sage Google found me were some all-male classes that appeared to emphasize Tantric practices. Naturally, I felt somewhat excluded from those gatherings. So, as naked yoga had become my practice, the obvious next step was to form my own community. After a fearless yoga studio agreed to support me in my endeavors, I put out an announcement saying I would be offering a weekly class on a trial basis.
The response was instantaneous. I received an outpouring of inquiries including some from the press. Apparently, people were having similar experiences in their own living rooms. After teaching a few classes and doing more research, I soon discovered a small naturist community that was practicing bi-weekly and we merged classes. Our ritual for the practice of naked yoga was simple but profound. We began each class sitting in a circle clothed and sharing our names and our intentions as well as what brought us to this practice. The vulnerability in the group’s opening circle was profound. In each class, we moved from a group of strangers to a group on a pilgrimage for the sacred. The destination and the journey were both of the body and for the body.
Uniting as the practice was, the intentions brought to each class couldn’t have been more varied. Students ranged from those wanting to overcome shame and self-judgment to one-timers who saw a naked yoga class as a way of proving to themselves that they could do anything, and from advanced yogis exploring new techniques to deepen their practice, a core group of long-time naturists and the occasional creepy guy in the back. Often men arrived expecting to see a group of flexy blonde women only to find a group made up almost entirely of men who had the very same expectation. Yet most chose to stay in class, releasing that expectation and uncovering a deeper part of themselves.
The most uniting factor in the classes was the universal healing present for those attended. Naked yoga heals both the body and re-patterns the cultural conditioning the mind body relationship are recovering from.
I don’t have anything close to what society considers a ‘perfect body’. My breasts are small, my legs are large and powerful, my lower belly is round and feminine. However, in a private session, I had a man weep at how beautiful he thought I was. I suspect what he was really perceiving was my unqualified acceptance of both my own body and others. The love and acceptance that underpins a practice of conscious nudity gives others permission to love and accept themselves.
For three years, these classes were the crux of my self-discovery. Every time I thought I had the nudity thing down, a deeper layer would arise to examine. I experienced the challenge of how to honor my body and the practice while menstruating and teaching at the same time. I felt the vulnerability of doing a demo in front of a class with all eyes on me and my body. I felt hidden places of shame that, as I moved naked through the practice, continued to be revealed month after month.
My passion to press on through all these challenges has been continually fueled by the extraordinary experiences my students and fellow yogis allowed me to share. I have witnessed the dissolving of the boundaries that keep people separate or in a state of otherness. I have seen an orthodox Jewish man remove his prayer shawl and head covering before moving into downward facing dog and a Muslim man praying after his practice with the same devotion he offered to disrobing. I have seen women come in shy and leave empowered: a mother-and-daughter duo practicing side-by-side, a woman who somehow hadn’t known ours was a naked yoga class staying to practice with us anyway, and another bursting into tears while she publicly declaring that her right breast had never grown in and was enhanced cosmetically, and that this had been the first time she had ever been naked in front of anyone. I have seen people discover new areas of their bodies that they have never seen before, a freckle, a birthmark, flat feet. I have seen a handful of bodies so physically beautiful that I had to look away to stay present and move through the blush in my system. I have supported a yogi with cerebral palsy whose entire session was dedicated simply to disrobing. I have seen other wonderful teachers who have practiced with me become inspired enough to courageously begin their own naked yoga movements.
I have watched individuals confronting their fears and projections, challenging their sexual biases and prejudices, and questioning what nudity means to them. I have seen fear and trepidation, joy and celebration, unashamed erections, unapologetic tears and the rediscovery of the dignity of the human form. I have seen every body type and held space for all of their stories. I have gazed into the limitless compassion that lies at the heart of yoga.
I have no delusions that naked is the only way to practice yoga. The practice of yoga is, in itself, inherently transformative. For me, however, and for the many people I’ve shared my practice with, the fast track to transformation included nudity. I needed that much raw attention on my body to keep me both present and embodied and to transform the shadow of shame that follows having a body. Being naked brought me out of preconceptions of what yoga was or should be. One does not need to be naked to experience yoga, just as one does not need to practice yoga to reach enlightenment. There are many roads up the mountain.
This is mine and I walk it naked.
This is my practice.
This is my body.
This is my yoga.