I was scared to try naked yoga, but it offered me unexpected liberation
I began practicing yoga after undergoing a minor surgical procedure in 2017; I was feeling disconnected from myself both physically and emotionally during my recovery process. Though I had tried yoga earlier in my life and never really clicked with the practice, I was at such a low that when my psychotherapist recommended it, I immediately signed up for a monthly pass at a studio in my neighborhood.
In the beginning, my body rejected the complicated sequences and slower-paced movements—my limbs would shake profusely, my balance was completely off, and I would, more often than not, fall over. (I even farted a few times.) However, I was desperate to feel better, even if that meant embarrassing myself in front of a group of mostly well-toned strangers. Over time my poses improved little by little, and I watched blissfully as both my body and mind transformed—I grew more confident in myself with each class I took.
When I heard there was such a thing as naked yoga, I was equal parts intrigued and apprehensive. After all, I am no stranger to body dysmorphia and always feel most comfortable when I’m fully clothed. Luckily, yoga has helped me learn how to accept and embrace my body, so I decided—why not try it?
A friend told me about Naked in Motion, an inclusive, feminist studio focused on naked yoga based in New York and Boston, and I soon signed up for a class. Willow Merveille, the studio’s founder, gave me the choice of attending a women- and trans-only class or an all-gender class, and I decided on the former. Being the over-sharer that I am, I excitedly announced to everyone I know that I was set to try naked yoga and would report back on my experiences. Their terrified faces and puzzled responses did not discourage me one bit. I was ready to give naked yoga a go.
In November, I began mentally preparing myself to take a class mid-December. In the weeks leading up to it, I wondered who else would be in the class. Would they be beginners like me? How would I feel fully exposed in poses such as downward-facing dog and my personal favorite, pigeon pose? Would people stare at me? Would I have trouble not staring at other people?
Several other anxious thoughts popped up, mostly surrounding my body hair. What would the other folks think of my long, dark nipple hairs or my very hairy bush? Would my pubic hair fall onto my mat? I hadn’t shaved my armpits, legs, or vagina in a while, and considered shaving ahead of the class. Yet when it came down to it, I realized that shaving just for a naked yoga class was silly. But also, I was feeling lazy. I decided on a compromise with myself that gave me some semblance of comfort and control—I would wear a thick pair of dark underwear, but no bra.
On the day of the class, I put on an oversized sweater, cozy sweatpants, and briefs. I took a Lyft to the address provided, a private apartment building deep in the heart of Brooklyn. I was given explicit instructions not to share the address publicly, and to arrive early because once the class starts and clothes are off, you’re no longer allowed to enter.
Once I arrived at the apartment, Willow invited me and the other two participants to take off our coats and get settled into the yoga room. On the floor there was a cream-colored carpet, and an abstract painting hung on the wall. The heat was blasting, but the room was not too hot. I secured my place next to the window, laid out my black mat on the ground, and sat down with my hands anxiously hiding under my legs.
Next, Willow went over the community rules, a set of 10 points that address the way she and the other instructors expect people to behave in their classes. The rules include mandatory nudity, except for trans and cis women and anyone assigned female at birth, allowing everyone to be an active and willing participant. For those menstruating, bottoms are not required, and any menstrual management tools are welcome, and binders, chest pieces, and packers are allowed, as well as anything else that affirms or supports one’s gender identity. Other rules include: sobriety is mandatory; all physical contact must be consensual; and anonymity must be maintained outside of class.
From there, we were encouraged to share our gender pronouns (though this was not required) and get undressed. Then, Willow began leading us in a slower-paced vinyasa class set to calming music. I appreciated the passive movements, the way my naked body felt as it rubbed up against my soft mat, and my positioning in the room—not too close to anyone else, but near a window where an outside breeze would occasionally filter into the room. I was delighted to find my mind immediately quieted and at ease—all the worries that I had carried with me to the class that day seemed to evaporate and I was shocked to find myself more calm and present than I had been just a few minutes prior.
Surprisingly, I had no trouble maintaining my focus on my own body and experience, though I did notice I was the only one who kept any form of clothing on. I felt safe moving my mostly nude figure in and out of poses alongside the other individuals in the room. I felt no shame or judgment. Just presence and acceptance.
After the class concluded, the four of us got dressed, sat on our mats, and casually spoke about the experience. Willow reassured me that the fear I felt going into the class was not uncommon.
Later, over email, she told me, “During my first class, I had a lot of the same fears that my first-time students describe: I definitely freaked out on my way into the first downward dog, anything with the knees apart (like a Malasana squat) felt super vulnerable, and for the first five minutes I had the internal monologue loop of ‘all the men are staring at my vag!’”
However, after a few minutes passed, she also found herself lost in the movement. “I actually loved the way the poses felt naked; I could feel my skin against other parts of skin, and it felt sensual and comforting.” She realized she could practice much more freely without having to pull up her pants or adjust her bra. Beyond this, she stopped worrying about what other people could see or if they liked her body, calling it a rare experience for a woman to have.
Willow, who was raised in a body- and fat-shaming household, found it hard to watch her family criticize themselves so much. When she grew older and became a dancer, “I was the subject of a ton of body vigilance and ridiculous standards, especially relating to movement,” she told HG.
Plagued with thoughts of not being enough, she discovered a naked yoga class in 2015, and found there was something empowering about practicing while naked and fully vulnerable:
“To be in this class where I couldn't hide my body at all, but where I also felt powerful instead of ashamed, that felt pretty special.
At this point, she was already a yoga instructor, and decided she wanted to find a way to share the experience with other people by launching her own studio.
According to Willow, naked yoga is actually not new, and it’s also far from a passing fad. In fact, it’s been around for thousands of years, and she makes a conscious effort to honor its long history on the Naked in Motion website. However, Willow does see her business model as distinct from other naked yoga practices as it focuses on “body-positivity, inclusivity, and empowerment by establishing physical boundaries,” she explains. It is her hope that Naked in Motion classes will help individuals establish a “positive relationship with their bodies and feel more ownership over them.”
Though she doesn’t want to sell naked yoga as a “magic trick” that will clear someone of all their insecurities after one class, she does believe it can be a tool for unlearning harmful body messages and discovering more helpful ones, particularly for women, trans, and non-binary folks. Additionally, her classes serve to bolster the “enthusiastic consent” movement. “I’ve been cursed, objectified, and harassed in so many situations, including clothed ones, but in my naked classes I feel totally in charge of my experience,” she said.
Moving forward, Willow plans to expand to Seattle, and will continue growing her offerings for different marginalized groups, including classes for people of color specifically. In her mind, she envisions a future where there are Naked in Motion studios in every major city, and it’s not so scandalous to do naked yoga anymore. “If we keep doing this work, I hope that it’ll be like going to hot yoga: no big deal, maybe even financed by your workplace or health insurance, and you don’t feel weird telling your friends and family members,” she said. “So, we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
It’s been over a year since I started my yoga journey, and while I’m still figuring out how to do a correct Chaturanga and synchronize the poses with each breath, I’m feeling stronger and more present in the practice than ever—and I can’t wait to go back to naked yoga again, this time without any underwear on.
Join Naked in Motion’s upcoming workshop on January 13th with yoga teacher and body-image healer Sophia Holly, who will host a special discussion-based, writing, and naked trauma-informed yoga class in honor of the New Year. To find out more about Naked in Motion, visit their website and Patreon page.