Naked Yoga: Ancient Practice, Modern Controversy
Gymnosophist is a term the ancient Greeks used to describe the “naked wise men” or the “naked philosophers” of India. Suffice it to say, spiritual nudity has had a long tradition in India and in the yogic practice. In Sanskrit, the practice of nude yoga is called Nagna Yoga or Vivastra Yoga.
As a matter of fact, the Bhagavata Purana, one of the sacred Hindu texts, encourages nudity. It says: 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…”
Many devotees in Dharmic religions including the Digambara Jain, Aghori and sadhus all practice spiritual nudity. Generally speaking among the sects, nudity is viewed as a way to reject materialism and/or to reduce shame.
Celibacy is also another important aspect of their devotion. As is such, yoga is employed by these men to “tame their desires, identify with their physical bodies and to break attachment with everything physical, sensual and material.”
Naked Yoga has slowly been on the rise in the West for the past century. It was first practiced in Germany and Switzerland by followers of the Lebensreform (life reform) movement. Lebensreform, much the Dharmic religions that predated it, encouraged austerity. This included organic and raw foods, nudity, sexual liberation, alternative medicine, religious reform, abstention from alcohol, tobacco and vaccines. Adherers to this lifestyle yearned to return to nature as they feared that the increasing modern world was detrimental to the mind, body and spirit.They were also valid practitioners of nude yoga.
As the decades progressed, Lebensreform branched off in two majors ways. In the 1960s it became a foundational belief among the hippies. But in the 1930s, it also became integral in the Nazi party and their belief of an ancient ideal Aryan man; sans the nude yoga, of course.
In early in the 21st century in NYC, a Canadian yoga teacher named Aaron Star began to teach a Hot Nude Yoga class in the Chelsea area. His classes were exclusive to gay men. But other teachers soon followed suit and started offering coed classes. Over time, the movement spread to other big cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston.
Unsurprisingly, the classes , especially Star’s, have been criticized for sexualizing yoga. This isn’t necessarily an unfair or knee-jerk critique. His classes included lots of partner work for asanas that are generally done alone. Why? Well, according to Star “A lot of people, especially living in New York, don’t get the opportunity to connect with people in an intimate way”.
To his credit, Star didn’t shy away from the controversial claims. The practice itself is described as tantric and sensual. There is even a class for beginners called Hot Nude Yoga Virgin.
So, what to make of modern nude yoga? Is it merely a natural derivation from the ancient form? Or has it been perverted into something vaguely resembling an orgy? The answer to both is yes and no.
If the goal of Vivastra yoga traditionally was to remove shame, then it modern counterpart could be credited for doing just that. American culture is known for being stiflingly puritanical. So, stretching in a room full of strangers could do wonders in terms of removing social taboos. But modern practitioners must remember that attaining wisdom was also the main goal of the yoga practice. And as a yogi, this is something that they would be wise to adhere to—whether their clothes are on or off.