As I settled into my stretch, both hands over my right foot, I extended my leg further and inhaled, exhaled, inhaled, exhaled, inhaled, exhaled. Calm, composed, collected. I turned to repeat on my left hand side – and caught full sight of a penis.
As Marks & Spencer’s would say, this isn’t just a yoga class, this is a naked yoga class. An hour and a half of yoga wearing nothing at all, in a room with ten strangers. It’s a mode of exercise which is relatively new to London, but if naturists have their way, is soon to take off.
It’s not as gimmicky as it sounds: if you think about it, naturism and yoga go hand in naked hand. Apart from feeling great and being healthy for the body, yoga is, in essence, about a deep acceptance of who you are – so naked yoga furthers this by encouraging acceptance of your naked body.
Nickles, the class instructor, has been a practising naturist for 22 years, and says: ‘From the time that I was a child I was aware basically that people’s bits come in two models, and once you’ve seen both models I really can’t see what the issue is’.
Like many young women who are fed airbrushed images of perfection like geese for the foie gras factory, I’m insecure about my body. The idea of experiencing something which encouraged body acceptance was therefore very appealing to me.
‘Part of what yoga encourages is accepting yourself’, Nickles says. ‘That means accepting you don’t have the kind of body that will get you on to the front page of a fashion magazine. It means accepting who you are and embracing and celebrating who you are both physically and mentally’.
As I stood at the beginning of the class about to take my clothes off, this ‘acceptance’ of my body was about to be put to the test, and my heart was in my mouth. Was I really about to take all my clothes off and spend an hour and a half contorting my body into unflattering stretches? Could I really go through with this?
As the rest of the class stripped off and settled in, I went for it, and for the first ten minutes or so I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone. But as the class went on and I focused on the yoga, I almost forgot I was naked.
It’s the most liberating, invigorating and yes, natural, feeling in the entire world. The feeling of being simultaneously vulnerable and empowered, and of moving your body in the open air is something I’d recommend to anyone – especially those with body confidence issues.
Admittedly, the zen of being at one with my body and mind was somewhat distracted by the overweight Asian gentleman to my right gasping, farting and spluttering his way through the class, but I focused my attention on the poses and stretches.
Although the class was advertised as ‘mixed’, it largely consisted of homosexual men and Nickles is desperate to attract more women and straight men. But, before you ask, despite the potentially homo-erotic scenario of soft lighting, full-frontal nudity and intimate space, no one got ‘excited’ – it really was a completely non-sexual experience. At one point I looked around the room of naked men meditating with their eyes closed and nearly burst out laughing at how bizarre the situation was.
While the hot room was at first a godsend, I soon found myself a bit, er, sweaty, and this is where clothes would have come in handy. Without them, there was a lot of slipping and sliding about on the mat and it did feel slightly unhygienic.
The class consisted mainly of the more relaxed Hatha form of yoga, including key yoga postures, breathing techniques and meditation. Thankfully, the class is set out with two columns of mats facing inwards instead of one behind the other, so there’s little chance of a winking sphincter or any dangling goolies to distract you from your Downward Dog.
We also did a series of ‘partner’ poses, involving balancing and contact postures, and this was the only point I felt slightly out of my depth. While checking afterwards with Nickles that I hadn’t accidently stumbled across the secret foreplay to a subsequent gay orgy, he explained that the partner poses ‘can help you to develop your own sense of balance and trust in your own body, and you see your own body mirrored in theirs’.
Ultimately, naked yoga felt liberating. While it would have been better to experience it with other women – and to experience my lumps and bumps with other women’s in a non-judgemental setting – being free and naked in a non-sexual situation with other human beings was an extraordinary experience.
When I asked Nickles how he became a naturist, he replied: ‘I was working as a feature writer on my local newspaper and spotted a naked swim, which I wrote up as a new experience. I’ve never looked back’.
This post was originally published on Independent.co.uk on 21st February 2013.