Ask Willow: Is there anything sexual about naked yoga?

Me pondering naked yoga. This is the face it usually brings up.

Hi, I'm Willow! I'm the owner and founder or Naked in Motion. People ask me all kinds of questions, so once a month, I'll address in detail one frequently asked question about naked yoga for our "Ask Willow" segment. This month's question:

Is there anything sexual about naked yoga?


Not necessarily, but also yes. Sound complicated? It is. But I promise, it’s okay. Let’s explore this tricky topic.

When I say, “not necessarily,” I mean that you can turn the focus of any situation away from sexuality by changing the context or goals. Yes, our naked bodies sometimes have sex, but not all the time, and the Naked in Motion Community Rules set the stage for a non-sexual environment (in that we don’t allow sexual activity or cruising). Like with all things, context matters. For instance, most of my experience eating dessert is that of a laid back, everyday activity. But given the right context, right people, and right goals, hand-feeding your lover cake or fruit could easily turn into a sexual experience. There’s a time and a place for everything, and as I’ll explain further, there’s a benefit to purposefully experiencing nudity in a non-sexual environment.

Now, when I say, “...but also yes,” I mean that we can’t entirely divorce sexuality from nudity. We’re wired to be aroused by whatever we’ve learned to be sexually relevant, and sometimes the sight of certain naked bodies pique that response. It would be inaccurate to say “there’s never anything sexual about social nudity” because some people may experience desire and/or arousal in nude spaces. I feel that those who do try to make that claim in nudist environments are trying to conceal the potential element of sex that people so desperately fear, only perpetuating our society’s collective anxiety and shame surrounding sex. Pretending something doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away, and feeling shameful about desire will only make matters worse (we have enough of that already). Here’s a wild idea: maybe there’s nothing wrong with finding naked bodies attractive or feeling desire at nudist events. I can enforce all the rules for behavior that I want, but it’s entirely impossible to try to police people’s minds. Doing so would, again, feed this idea that sexuality is bad and scary.

People often ask me how I weed out participants who are coming to class for the “wrong reasons.” What are these wrong reasons? I think they mean students who are just coming to look at naked people. But if you really just wanted to look at naked people, you could stay home and look online, or go to any other kink or play party. Anyone who comes to my class for any reason must take my asana or Pilates class (which ain’t a walk in the park). But even if viewing others naked is exciting to a student, is there anything wrong with that? I’m very protective of my students and have a (basically) single-sanction cruising policy, so if the “wrong reasons” involve someone trying to get a date, they won’t last long. But I have no qualms with the person who peacefully and respectfully attends a naked yoga class without making anyone uncomfortable or violating anyone’s consent, but who also enjoys the sight of the naked people around them, even if that sparks some mental desire or physical arousal.

Yesterday, I ran into an old friend on the train. After telling him about Naked in Motion, he recoiled and asked me nervously, “How do you stop people from just touching each other all the time?”

...What!? When does that ever even happen? And why would that happen just because people are naked? It’s not a rave, it’s a yoga class! Is that even what happens at raves? I don’t know. But the answer to his question is that we have to have standards of behavior. There are rules, and I trust my Naked in Motion community to respect each other. In a year and a half of teaching naked yoga 1-4 times per week, we’ve had only 6 cruising violations (which we dealt with swiftly). I’ve never had to ask anyone to stop staring at anyone, and no breaches of consent have been reported to me. I have female students who tell me they feel more objectified and disrespected at work than they do in my naked yoga classes, and that they're relieved to have a place where they don't feel like a sexual object. This is my experience as well. And yet when I tell people what I do, the first thing they do is flinch with disgust and ask me questions with subtexts that scream sex.

Trump flickr photo by Isaszas shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

Silly face flickr photo by Lottie's pets & stuff shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

^^These are the faces people usually make when I tell them I teach naked yoga. 

So, why do people ask about sexuality and naked yoga so much?

I truly believe that most of what people feel about nudity and their naked body has a lot to do with how they feel about sexuality and themselves as sexual beings. Puritanical blood runs deep in American veins, and our society feeds us these lies that our naked bodies are shameful because that’s when they have sex, and sex is bad and dirty. So it’s no wonder that anything that has an association with sex would elicit a reaction of disgust.

I was really moved by Sarah Schrank’s essay in the anthology Yoga, the Body, and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis. In it, she both celebrates naked yoga as a potentially healing activity and offers an intersectional feminist critique of its marketing. Historically, the practice of asana (the postures, or “yoga” as we think of it today) was a method through which one could eliminate attachment to corporeal needs of the ego and reach enlightenment (read all about naked yoga history in our recent blog article here). Its goals have evolved, but yoga is overall thought to be an immensely healing and therapeutic method of self-examination, awareness, and community building. Unfortunately, in the West, we’ve adopted this “fitness” model of yoga, and we use asana to “lose weight” or “tone up.”

Yoga has become sexualized because of the ways in which we use it to fetishize the body. Case in point: a Google image search for “yoga” reveals pictures of mostly skinny, flexible, white people (to address the elephant in the room, I realize that I am a skinny, mostly flexible, white person). Google “naked yoga” and you’ll see a variety of pornographic images that purposely display women in poses that show both their genitals and overly made-up faces, clearly communicating a sexual vibe. In both of these cases, it seems the goal is to use asana to make the body look appealing or arousing, particularly for the cisgender, straight, male viewer. And in the former scenario, we see yoga as endorsed by what society collectively views as the “ideal body,” the body that everyone is supposed to strive to achieve.

Schrank notes the conflict with naked yoga in its ideal form and naked yoga in the marketplace, claiming that body fetishization coupled with the denial of any explicit sexualization are deeply embedded into the physical asana practice. I see this duality, sexuality and denial thereof, in nudist events and meeting places all the time, desperately championing a family-friendly atmosphere without a trace of anything sexual. For the purposes of naked yoga, Schrank believes this duality exists in an attempt to maintain the authenticity and spirituality of yoga, as if it could somehow eclipse our collective “profound and paradoxical anxieties about sex.” According to her:

Eco Yoga flickr photo by Gopaliasram shared with no copyright restrictions using Creative Commons Public Domain Mark (PDM)
“Naked yoga has the potential to address this tension by shedding the worst elements of our competitive body culture and encourage healthy intimacy; however, its overt corporeality sexualizes the space in which participants practice and clouds yogic interpretations of physicality and community.”

Hmm. She may be onto something.

But why would shedding our clothes automatically sexualize a space?

I believe our society has a “scarcity mindset” about sex. When something is abundant, we are generous. For example, if there’s plenty of food at the table, we relax, eat slowly, offer portions to others, even say, “no, thank you,” when more is offered. We’re full, because there is enough. But when something is scarce, we become desperate. Not enough food? We steal, scrap, and fight to get our fair share. It’s not accurate to compare sex to hunger, because sex isn’t actually a drive like hunger. Contrary to how you might feel during those dry spells, you won’t actually die without sex (Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski is a fantastic read for more on this). However, this is a useful comparison to illustrate how one sometimes feels when something one really wants is low in supply.

Many people (but not all) are sexual beings who crave some amount of sexual satisfaction. I’m a really strong believer in a healthy relationship with sexuality and a cheerleader for a fulfilling sex life. Unfortunately, sex is something many governments and cultures put in the closet. We’re told only certain people should have sex: straight, cisgender, monogamous, married people over the age of 18. Sex becomes this scarce thing that we have a hard time accessing, so anytime it has potential to be had, we jump for it. I sense this every time I walk into a bar crawling with people desperate to find more than just drinks.

Then when we go to naked yoga, the fear is that we’ll see naked bodies, and our brains will think, “SEX! OMG NAKED BODIES! SEX!” The anxiety that floods the space in a naked yoga class is a product of our starved sexuality’s need to feed coupled with our uncertainty of what behavior is appropriate, plus, of course, the SHAME with which all these thoughts drip. What’s more, in our sex-negative/scarce culture, we see this whole scenario as a bad thing. The fact that there could be anything inherently sexual about naked yoga is a source of criticism, the very thing that drives people away from it.

So, how do we move forward? Can we ever experience naked yoga without an overtly sexual vibe?

Yes! But with this space comes the need for a calm acceptance of the sexual thoughts that may occur and a plan of action for how to deal with them. In essence, we have to acknowledge sexuality, we have to talk about it, and we have to chill out about it.

Schrank argues that “there is confusion within the current practice of naked yoga as to where the liberated body ends and the sexualized body begins, reflecting broader societal hang-ups about nudity and sex that yoga alone cannot remedy.”

I agree. Doing yoga naked cannot alone unearth our deeply-ingrained Puritanical attitudes about the body and sex. That’s why we have to create carefully chosen contexts in which to practice this ancient tradition that both show a decided effort to eliminate sexual advances and confront sexuality’s omnipresence with peaceful acceptance. Naked yoga, when practiced in a space that thoughtfully addresses the status quo, can be a beautiful stop on a long internal journey towards confronting and unpacking these sexual hangups.

My Naked! Yoga & Pilates class

My Naked! Yoga & Pilates class

How does Naked in Motion tackle this? We have a set of clearly outlined Community Rules. Participants can see them all over our website, on every event page and description, and we talk about the rules before every single class. We have a strict no-cruising policy and enforce a strong consent culture to ensure (as best we can) safe and consensual interactions of all kinds. Erections are actually pretty rare, but we ask people to ignore erections during the movement class and cover them during social time (whether they’re sexually inspired or not, they tend to sexualize a space). Our students get the message that nudity is not an invitation to unsolicited touch or commentary. Even something as simple as, “I think you’re really beautiful” sexually charges interactions among strangers (and women need a break from these phrases they hear constantly walking down the street). We make all these efforts to avoid unwanted interactions in the hopes of providing the most comfortable environment for all people, especially those new to social nude activities.

To reiterate, we don’t make the effort to de-sexualize our space because we think sex and sexual thoughts are bad. Again, we champion a healthy sexuality, and we can only heal from our sexual shame if we accept our sexual feelings as totally normal, healthy, and even wonderful! Our goal is to address the behaviors, not feelings or thoughts, that perpetuate sexual objectification and oppression, which include unwanted attention, nonconsensual touch, and sexual intimidation (often directed towards women).

What’s the point, though? Why go to all this trouble to do something so controversial? Because in a society where sex seems to have no boundaries and people feel free to shout out their desires to you on the street, it’s so nice to go to a place where everyone has agreed to refrain from goal-oriented sexual behavior and treat each other with respect. And in a culture with such collective sexual anxiety, it’s so healing to experience an environment where we can shed the clothes, the baggage, and the remnants of our consumer-driven culture and just exist together, naked, without worrying about sex.

Don’t believe me? Come to class, and see for yourself.