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The (r)Evolution: A Short History of Naked Yoga

“The goals and demography of contemporary naked yoga bear little resemblance to its Jain origins in deeply religious, celibate asceticism; nevertheless, it is useful to remember that nudity and yoga are intricately linked historically and that the very nakedness which draws sensational attention to the material body now originally signified a renunciation of material and sexual desires.”--Sarah Schrank, “Naked Yoga and the Sexualization of the Asana”

On any given day in New York City, yoga enthusiasts can dabble in any yoga hybrid activity they can dream up. Boxing Yoga, Hip Hop yogaMetal yoga, and Salty Yoga

Naked Yoga, however, isn’t a fad or marketing ploy. Performing yoga nude has deep roots in spiritual practices where nudity was a vehicle for shedding material concerns and breaking unhealthy attachments. Today’s naked yoga classes are shaped by a modern context and differing goals, yet unlike some other alternative yoga classes, our approach is derived from ancient traditions.

Historical Roots of Naked Yoga

Naked yoga, or Nagna yoga, can be traced back to the Naga Babas, or Naga Sadhus, an ancient Indian sect that practice yoga (understood in its broader historical context as a group of physical and mental practices) as a form of Bhakti, a Hindu monastic tradition. Today, the reclusive Naga Sadhus emerge during the Peshwai Procession of the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage to bathe in multiple sacred Indian rivers.    

Even earlier, the Bhagavata Puraṇa, one of 18 puranas produced sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries, gave instruction for sannyasis. Nudity or near nudity was encouraged:

“A person in the renounced order of life may try to avoid even a dress to cover himself. If he wears anything at all, it should be only a loincloth…”

Spiritual nudity is still common today among ascetic followers of dharmic religions, which include Digambara, one of the two major schools of Jainism. Fun fact: Diagambara Jains excluded women from their naked yoga practice. Women were forbidden from walking around naked for many reasons, including the fact that their presence would sexually excite men and inhibit their path to enlightenment. In order to achieve moksha, or liberation, they had to first reincarnate into a man to experience this sacred nudity.

In the late 19th century, derivative forms of the original Jain and Hindu principles emerged in movements founded in the West. These groups espoused nudity as a natural condition and considered it to be a cure for a host of modern ills. Lebensreform and Gymnosophy were two of the major movements in this period, influencing late 20th century counterculture movements—most notably the hippie movement— and making way for the broader naturism movement that lives on today.

Nudists Adopt Yoga

Born out of the 19th century Transcendentalist movement, the Lebensreform and Gymnosophy movements saw nudity as one practice among many others that emphasized a return to nature for the betterment of the individual physically and mentally.

In Sarah Schrank’s excellent essay “Naked Yoga and the Sexualization of Asana,” she offers a snapshot of social nudity in the United States and the embrace of yoga within nudist (or naturist) communities. While retreats and colonies had been established and popularized in the late 19th-early 20th century, by the 1950s, fitness and health concerns were emphasized in popular media. Schrank notes that nudist magazines introduced yoga to many of their health-conscious adherents: it was a natural (so to speak) fit.

By the 1970s, Schrank writes, “yoga and nudity became more intrinsically entwined with sex…when yoga became an integral part of the Human Potential Movement….” Influential institutions like the Esalen Institute (depicted memorably in the season finale of Mad Men) had been holding naked yoga classes since the 1960s. As new age movements evolved into the following decades, yoga was cemented as a core practice of so-called personal growth.

 

Naked Yoga for the Agnostic Intersectional Feminist

On the real: You don’t need to be at all spiritual or be a nudist to do naked yoga and love naked yoga. We are not monks or ascetics. We promote healthy sexuality and want students in our classes to feel confident—a term too often used interchangeably with sexy. But Naked in Motion’s philosophy clearly centers nudity in a non-sexual context.*

Our goal is to provide inclusive, safe spaces where people can take a collective internal journey, improving the way people feel about themselves so that they can more peacefully coexist with others. While modeled after a deep yogic tradition, our naked yoga practice isn’t about detaching from the self; it’s about connecting with the self and learning to love oneself. Additionally, we incorporate the values of the nudists who wanted to create an environment where the naked body wasn’t necessarily sexualized, who saw yoga and nudity as a path towards greater mental and emotional health, and who aimed to create social change through countercultural physical practices.

Join us as we repeat (and reinvent) history: Sign up for a Naked! class.

*(Check out next week’s “Ask Willow” post for more of how we understand connections between sexuality and nudity in yoga.) Follow us to stay up to date: