In the West, nearly every yoga practitioner has heard of naked yoga (the Western version), also sometimes called nude yoga, and not carrying with us any insecurities, fears, pretence or self-consciousness as we step onto our yoga mat.
And so, to be able to join in on the conversation I decided to try the 'Western' version – naked yoga in a private group, a mixed group.
What's that like you ask?
Geez, it's mortifying! Until you start to sweat and lose your grip, that is…
I'll spare you the details of what it felt like walking naked (with only my mat under my arm) to my designated spot before the start of the class. I tried to look serious (and cool!) but that big grin on my face surely gave it away. A dishevelled Sadhu look-alike yogi was staring at me (and not only with his third eye!). I rolled out my mat and swiftly sat down. We were outdoors on a rocky 'plateau' overlooking the Mediterranean. Quick check of my surroundings and fellow yoga practitioners: majority female attendance – phew! All toned arms and flat abs. Advanced practitioners evidently. All staring at each other, silently inspecting each other's bodies. (I've never seen so many unusual tattoos in so many unusual places before!)
Dishevelled yogi turned out to be our yoga instructor. Class started. 10 minutes silent sitting ("however you normally sit") followed by pranayama ("however you normally breathe"). Cool! So far so good. I was (still) sitting. All going well. We then moved on to asana practice. I had to stand up. And this is where things got a bit out of control for me.
20 minutes into an advanced dynamic yoga practice my hands and feet started to slide out from under me as each and every asana followed by a vinyasa got more and more challenging – or shall I say, slippery. I was so self-conscious about my body. I was perspiring like coming out of a sauna. The early morning air felt hot although it wasn't. My ujjayi felt laboured as I muscled through the series of postures. The posture sequence was not difficult for me – I have been practicing it for years – yet, every part of my body seemed to somehow bolt, shake, or slide from where I thought it was or should be. I didn't recognize myself. I was getting more and more annoyed and frustrated with myself. Navigating in surprisingly unfamiliar territory, my concentration started to wane, everything became blurred, and all I could think about was to get dressed and go home.
Unexpectedly, Paul Simon's lyrics came to mind: "…slip slidin' away … the nearer your destination the more you're slip sliding away…"
What on earth (sorry: mat) was I doing here?
It didn't take long to realize that I was not only losing my grip on myself but also on my perception of reality. Then came a moment of painful inner silence. Then that big grin (again!). I couldn't help laughing. And from there, no recovery. Before my mind realized what was happening I welcomed insanity in naked downward-facing dog!
Shedding your clothes in front of your man is one thing, but shedding them in front of a bunch of smiling yogis (yes, grinning comes with the practice!) who twist their naked bodies into bizarre pretzel shapes is quite another. There's something disturbingly unique and beautiful about it. If you are not familiar with this style of yoga practice, naked yoga can be a quite an intense and challenging yet immensely rewarding learning experience.
First, it's about challenging yourself and expanding your limits. Without doubt, you'll learn something new about your inner self (your 'conditioned' self) and its expression in your behaviour, like for example mental or physical obstructions that may point to a necessary inner or outer realignment in order to restore balance and well-being to get you back on track or keep you from falling – or slippin' (on your mat).
Second, it gets you out of your familiar yoga practice environment by inviting you to surrender habitual ways of moving on your mat – and habitual ways of 'being' and reacting (or acting!). You'll learn to let go of what you think you know about a posture or how you think you should practice it, and are encouraged to explore alternative options. If your hand slides down your sweaty lower leg, perhaps you should explore if moving it a few inches higher up onto your sweaty knee is more comfortable. If it feels right to you, let go of the expectation of others. And with 'others' I not only mean your bullying ego that tries to push you way beyond your edge but I also mean the svelte, bendy woman on the yoga mat next to you who makes everything look so easy and effortless, which of course it isn't. Find your edge and stay there. Discover your inner guru and just BE. Make the practice 'your own'.
And third, it encourages you to contemplate the right balance between stability (sthira) and ease (sukha) on a physically level as well as a mental level.
The latter you might think is one of the keys of yoga anyway but still, it becomes even more palpable and observable when you're moving in unfamiliar territory … naked … having to renounce not only your attachment to objects, emotions, and desires (not to mention ambition, pride, and fear) but also your aversion to discomfort and habitual pain-avoiding behaviour ("I want to go home"). And much more.
These conditioned reflexes, reactions and beliefs become non-negotiable all of a sudden. You either have to face them and let go of them, or continue to ignore and stay trapped inside them. If you accept and manage to let go of them, the path becomes easy. If you ignore them, you tumble and fall – or, using the yoga analogy, you slide off your sweaty lower leg, plop down onto your mat, and have to start at the beginning. Repeat cycle.
All these challenges are meant to help break the attachment and identification they have with you. All areas of your being are affected: physical (the way you move and feel or sense), mental (the way you think and react), and emotional (the way your imprinted condition creates spontaneous and seemingly uncontrollable inner states).
Naked yoga is a powerful reminder of the crux of the challenge every serious yoga practitioner, and especially yoga teachers, will need to face one day, namely that just practicing or teaching yoga doesn't mean one is a yogi. A true yogi is one who has shed not only his outer layers (symbolically I mean) but also all inner coverings, his attachment to and identification with all aspects of human conditioning and division, and who embraces and resides in his real, infinite, divine nature.
Sadhus believe that all answers can be found within ourselves, in our divine nature. For them, it's just a matter of facing the obstacles and unobstructing the path. They certainly have taken up the challenge by creating indispensable catalysts to reach the ultimate goal of yoga:
yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind-field
(Patanjali, Yoga Sutra 1.2)
The body is their instrument. The mind their ultimate object to train upon.
Now it's your turn to grin. Did you ever try naked yoga? It's a slippery slope. It's challenging. But it's got grip.