According to Him . . .
At New York City's Bold & Naked Yoga, I'm confronted with a row of sensible shoes—clogs and Mephistos—next to which I place my Nikes. In the small waiting room, the lights are low. Decorative, intertwined branches spring from urns. A middle-aged man who looks like my internist sits on a bench with a woman who resembles an aged version of the cover model for The Joy of Sex. They're dressed. But they won't be for long.
Others trickle in. Each of us has signed up online, but first-timers are also screened in person. It's not quite a meeting with the Department of Homeland Security, but there's ample time between registration and class for a staffer to, say, check your name against the National Sex Offender Registry. "Why naked yoga?" co-owner Monika Werner, 41, asks me. "Why not?" I answer, feigning a philosophical stance. That works. What doesn't is arriving unannounced. One man, with the face and leather outerwear of a Tom of Finland drawing, is sent away for breaking the rules.
My internist's double shakes hands and introduces himself, as if the courtesy of exchanging names makes disrobing with strangers ordinary; maybe he thinks he's fostering intimacy. The vibe is more spiritual than carnal, and the room is filled with the sort of people who brew their own kombucha and habitually let others go first.
"No clothes inside the studio," Werner says, summoning us to undress. I peel off my T-shirt, pants, and boxers, stash them in a cubby (in a place that demands trust, there are no lockers), and step into the sunlit studio. I wonder where to set my mat, which I bought on the way over, fearful of the rentals available. Naked, a state I've long been comfortable in (my brother calls me Mr. Locker Room), I pay no mind to my body; I'm busy pondering logistical questions: Will the first row be too close to the instructor's vagina? If someone sets up next to me, am I allowed to evaluate their proximity and, if I deem it necessary, move my mat a few inches in the opposite direction?
Werner is German and has, at times, the commanding lilt of a dominatrix—although one who understands selective Sanskrit. Her auburn hair is cropped; her asanas, sublime. Along with her business partner, Joschi Schwarz, Werner believes she's promoting openness and honesty in a society that sorely needs to reflect on and internalize those things. "There's a group of yogis in India who have practiced naked for millennia," she says and claims her methods can relieve body-image issues, enhance confidence, and bring people a feeling of self-validation. Some instructors fail to see the connection: "I think being naked has little to do with it," says Mandy Ingber, Jennifer Aniston's longtime teacher. "In yoga, the point is to look inward and focus on the self."
Investors sense potential, though—since going coed in January, Werner and Schwarz have turned down offers to franchise in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Sweden, and Norway, instead concentrating on their studio and a forthcoming book. Momentum seems to be building beyond New York; a quick search shows coed nude yoga classes exist in at least half a dozen other cities, including Chicago, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.
Looking over my stubbly shoulders and through my legs, I count nine other students. Adhering to the studio's nonsexual standards, I ogle no one—but that doesn't mean I don't notice objects in my sight line. The man to my right has balls the size of kiwis. The man to my left, a tattoo on his ass quoting Alfred E. Neuman: what, me worry? One woman's breasts hang like amphorae; another's pubic hair is so dark and thick it hovers over her groin like a storm cloud. How might my own anatomy play back in simile or metaphor? That occurs to me for a moment (garden slug? semicolon?), before I become wobbly on my mat.
The script for naked yoga follows that of a standard session. Werner, whose teaching style slides along a continuum from challenging to empathetic, calls for downward dog, not naked downward dog. If she decides a student can benefit from an adjustment—no touching without consent—Werner will provide one, as she does for me, her hand on my tailbone, as I sink into an enhanced child's pose. Phony as it might sound, it doesn't occur to me that I, a naked man, am being touched by her, a naked woman.
I did, however, fear shavasana, the meditative final exercise, worried it might trigger a hard-on. My eyes would be closed; my imagination, free to reshape those around me into far more orgiastic forms (though students are told that erections are natural and, if they happen, to let them pass). But no, even then the room contains as much sexual charge as the supplements aisle at Whole Foods. When class ends, people chat, but I feel no need to engage. "Hope to see you in class again soon," Werner says. "Why not?" I respond once more. It sounds a lot less like bullshit than it did an hour before.