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Covet Not Thy Neighbor's Asana

(Check out this post in it's published form on Elephant Journal!)

Naked yoga classes piss me off. Well, not the nudity so much as the sales pitch. I've done yoga naked in the privacy of my backyard plenty, but because I liked the feeling of sun on my bum, not because I was trying to overcome body-consciousness or vulnerability.

As women, we are bombarded by a host of body issues every time that we leave the house, or turn on our computers (the guys are too, I know). And I think it's safe to say, it's been proven time and time again that taking off our clothes with strangers doesn't make us feel better about ourselves. I think that doing the work involved in a focused yoga practice and finding good teachers who understand the things that come up as we peel back the layers of our experience are far more effective ways to confront our reflection than just getting naked. For many, throwing yourself into an overly vulnerable situation too early can even make things worse. As my teacher Shannon says, "sometimes you have to move slow to move fast." Sometimes the best way to make big progress is to take lots of little steps.

I've taken LOTS of little steps since my first "real" yoga class in October of 2009. I showed up in baggy pants and a t shirt and remember being super nervous that I wouldn't know what to do and very concerned that if I stuck with this whole yoga thing, I would have to wear spandex. The horror. I may as well get naked. Fortunately, the teacher reminded us throughout the practice that the only thing that mattered was what was happening on our mats. Not the one next to us or the one in front of us, the one we were on. Everything else, she said, was pretty much none of our business. So all I had to worry about was a two by six foot rectangle. Seemed doable.

Eventually, I got some leggings so that my teachers could see my alignment, but that first time felt a lot like being naked. And I definitely pulled on sweats before I walked out the door. I was nowhere close to sports-bra-and-short-shorts land (I'm still not), but I was more focused on the work to be done and less worried about what I looked like doing it. A step.

Moving back to Boulder for teacher training was a game changer. Boulder yogis are experienced, strong and really attractive. And everyone had mala beads. I was like WHOA when I walked in to my first class at om time, but tried to remember what my teachers in Raleigh had said, "none of your business." As we moved through our first practice as a group, I realized that I was the only one who couldn't lower into or lift out of chaturanga without looking like I was doing the worm. I got adjusted 5 times but just couldn't do it. Talk about feeling exposed! I felt like a phony. Who was I to think that 18 months into my practice I could cut it in Boulder? I dropped to my knees in chaturanga. A step back for my ego, but a step forward for my practice. Move slow to move fast.

I've been lucky to have very good teachers - men and women who understand the evolution that we are presented with in a regular yoga practice and who have the skills to coach us through it. In a new studio, I look for teachers who present the form as a guideline, something against which we can measure our progress, but which also moves with us, always changing depending on what we've brought to the mat. Alignment is a crucial part of the practice but takes time to refine. The function of asana, however, is always accessible, ready for us to ask, how does it feel? And we learn to compare ourselves only to ourselves. Where am I today relative to where I was yesterday? What's that about? What can I do in this moment to learn from this experience? Small steps toward a bigger goal. I wrote and practiced and wrote and practiced and yoga became my personal forum where I could explore what I was capable of, both on and off the mat. And I began to see and feel a difference.

My physical strength grew, as did my mental and emotional stamina as I confronted some very difficult times in my personal life. The yoga was coming at me hard and fast and it was a lot to take, but I practiced in a safe space and I stayed conscious of my edges and moving at a pace that felt comfortable to me. Even despite my deliberate progress, I had my moments. One night, I looked over at the guy next to me, effortlessly floating from down dog into a pike into a handstand into a forward fold. I felt like a do-do bird just trying to get off the ground. I tried to stay in my body and think of how far I'd come, but I was at a loss. I'll never get there. I just need to accept it - I'll always just look like a baby giraffe on ice skates. 

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As if on cue, Shannon announced, "stay focused on your work."  She said, "do not covet thy neighbors asana!" We laughed and I thought about it. She was right - both about wishing you had a nicer ass and wishing you could do whatever it is Susie-feet-behind-her-head is doing two mats over. When it came time to sit cross-legged, the flying man's knees were up around his ears. Mine were flat on the floor. And while I secretly hoped he was wondering how my hips are so open while I'm envying his ability to stand on his hands, the takeaway is that we all have our places of strength and our places of flexibility and none of us comes to the mat with the same work to do. Our biography becomes our biology and there's no going back - we are a perfect combination of our successes and failures, our loves and losses, our wins and missteps. We can be only who we are, and do our best to see that person, to get honest with that person.

Yoga, for me, has been a way to develop and respect my strength, a place to confront my past and bring the best parts of myself forward, acknowledging how I got here no matter how uncomfortable that can be. This practice has required that I stay with the movement, not trying to get to the next thing but respecting the transitions, even when that process is painfully slow, and sharing those experiences with others even when it was scarier than if I had just taken off my clothes.

So when I came across an article (read it) on a studio that offers naked yoga classes with the claim that "practicing yoga naked frees you from negative feelings about your body and allows [you] to be more accepting and deeper connected with yourself and the world around you,’  (non-sexually, of course) I got all kinds of hot and bothered.

From my experience, I don't see how doing yoga naked with a bunch of other naked people is going to free us from shit, except maybe worrying that we bought the see-through lulus. And getting naked, arbitrarily I might argue, with people we don't know, won't make us feel better about our bodies. Doing the work, on our mats and in our hearts, is going to make us feel better about our bodies. Learning to value our strength is going to get us past those negative feelings. Finding the edges within our practice, pushing them, exploring the space we create, retreating from them and delighting in the ease that we find - that will allow us to be more accepting and deeply connected with ourselves and the world around us.

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But if we go into a room full of strangers and take off all our clothes, and expect for anything to happen other than maybe we get desensitized to nudity, we might be fooling ourselves. To the girl who claimed "when we're naked, it's like we're all the same" - listen sister, this isn't Everybody Poops. This isn't a kids book showing different body types where all the people are shaped like fruit. While the photos in the article show people who are all relatively fit and attractive, I can't think of anything more different than a bunch of naked people standing around, each with our own patchwork of  scars and wounds and experiences.

So if you're thinking about trying naked yoga, maybe ask yourself: How does looking at other people naked make me feel better about me? I know that If I'm worked up about someone in class who has nicer yoga pants than I do, I probably won't be to get past the chick with an ass like Giselle's on the mat next to me either. Those issues are still there - clothes or no. My practice is largely about kindness - toward myself and toward others - and moving at my own pace. I don't push myself into poses I'm not ready for and I don't share parts of myself I'm not ready for the world to see.  And while I understand that seeing other people's imperfections might make some people less concerned with their own, I don't think that going to yoga naked will make me feel less vulnerable. I greatly value the process of doing the work, from the inside out.

While I have no intention of baring my asana, I've had some seriously vulnerable moments in yoga, and I've been able to expose things that are far more private than my backside because I felt safe. I wasn't worried if someone was looking at my boobs. I wasn't wondering if my Britney was going to stick to my mat. I was practicing in a way that made sense to me, with teachers who were willing to help me confront the mess that yoga sometimes makes of our lives, and as a part of a community that I knew would catch me if I ever fell. THAT is how yoga helped me get over my body issues. THAT is how I learned to love myself, to respect my strength and cherish this bod that's carried me around through thick and thin. THAT is how I did the work, everyday.

And so to the studio owner who says that practicing naked is "about being comfortable in your own skin and the amazing confidence that comes with it" - that's earned; it's a process. And for those of you thinking about trying it, please remember that yoga will help you find freedom, but it will take time and come from baring your soul, not your skin. Anyone who says differently is probably selling something.