"Imagine everyone in the room is naked!" That's the advice you're given when you're nervous. And in cases of severe nerves, I've been advised to imagine everyone naked on the toilet. I've purposely disregarded this advice, as I can't imagine anything I'd less like to picture. But today, this unappetising image has been made manifest in the flesh, as I'm opposite a naked man, who looks as if he's doing a difficult poo.
I am at a Naked Yoga class in Clapham and we are currently in Chair Pose. As the name suggests, you squat like you're about to sit back on a chair, and this man in my eye-line is struggling, his face distorted as he strains. I feel I've had an unsolicited insight into a private battle he's having with his bowels, and I resolve to always eat enough fibre.
Chair Pose is not the only position unconducive to nudity. With our yoga mats in a circle, there are testicles at every turn. When we lie on our backs with our knees held into our chests, I look up and see the gaping chasm of someone's arsehole. I suddenly understand the phrase, "I could see what they had for breakfast." My Shavasana (the last bit, when you lie on your back to relax) is spent tormented by flashbacks. I am not sure I'll be able to eat turkey this Christmas.
But Naked Yoga was never meant to be this harrowing. Instructor Doria Gani started teaching it so that participants could feel liberated. Originally from Italy, Gani was inspired by an art installation at Burning Man, a festival in the Nevada desert.
I was riding my bike at six in the morning and I found a huge installation of a naked woman doing yoga. It was so beautiful, I started doing yoga completely naked. I felt free — no inhibitions, no restrictions. It was completely pure and I enjoyed it so much that I wanted everybody to experience it.
Back in London, Gani signed up to a site for yoga instructors, ticking the box for "nude yoga." She says, "literally in a matter of minutes, I started to get emails from all over the world!". Having originally trained as a yoga instructor in 2014, Gani started teaching naked one-to-one sessions in early 2016, before launching her group classes at the start of this year.
So who are all these people coming to her to get bendy with their bits out? According to Gani,
70% are naturists, so they're confident with their bodies and really into yoga. For them there's no difference between being naked and being clothed because they're used to it.
And the other 30%?
They're beginners, they've never done naked yoga or anything naked before. They're pushing themselves out of their comfort zone, which is liberating. They might approach me because of the naked thing, but at the end of the class I can guarantee they love yoga!
Gani tells me the ratio of men to women in her Naked Yoga class is 70:30, whereas in her clothed yoga classes, men make up just 15% of participants. She explains, "men are more confident and comfortable with their bodies than women. Women compare themselves to other women — they're scared of their bodies!"
OK, but if men are into yoga, why aren't there more men in clothed classes?
"Ah, well, I don't know."
My friend Anna has a theory about this. Having enjoyed events such as Liquid Love and Skirt Club, she's come to Naked Yoga with an open mind. However, she tells me afterwards, "guys kept looking at me during the class, and three of them tried to talk to me afterwards. No one does that in a normal yoga class. I felt they saw the session as, "yoga with benefits" — and they were looking for benefits more than yoga. I think they felt that just because they'd seen me naked, they had an invitation for further connecting."
I wondered myself if some of the men were paying their £25 — more than your average yoga class — simply to be naked in the same room as naked women.
There's nudity from every angle. At one point Gani stands on one leg, holding her other leg in the air, in a pose called Bird of Paradise. This literally exposes her vulva, and I ask her afterwards if she feels entirely comfortable with that. "In the beginning, I didn't want to teach that position, because I was self-conscious, but I wanted to do it, because that's the point — being scared! Now I do it, and people love it. Everything is in your head. When you’re scared, it's voices in your head going, 'oh my God, they're going to see everything!' But we’re all exactly all the same!"
While Gani is full of genuine warmth and innocent enthusiasm, I can't help wondering if the motives of her male clients are quite as pure. I ask if she ever gets men who are pervy and whether she's had any problems.
Never, they're very respectful. One of my clients said, "Doria, you're very good at dealing with this kind of nakedness." He explained that the biggest fear for a man is being rejected, but because I am professional, and I don't send out messages, guys don't try it on with me.
David Baddiel once joked about going to yoga and getting an erection, saying, "and I call this position The Tripod." According to Gani, all men worry about woodies in Naked Yoga. "The top one question I get from men is, 'oh my God, what if I get an erection?' I tell them it's totally fine!" She explains, "when you do yoga, you move loads of energy in your body and an erection can happen. It doesn't mean it's related to sex or that you're thinking about having sex with someone — it's because of the energy in your body." This is just the reassurance the guys are looking for. "They say, 'thank you, you've been very professional, I feel better now,' they're very sweet!" says Gani. And how often do guys get stiffies? "Not often — it's very rare."
Of course, guys aren't the only ones with misbehaving body parts. I manage about 20 minutes of the class before I'm foiled by the weight of my boobs in forward folds. I am bending over, touching the mat with my hands, and I fear that by the end of the class, my breasts will be joining them. I feel like two sandbags are falling out of my chest, and I pray for the elasticity of my skin, hoping I don't go home with stretch marks.
The women next to me seem oblivious to the wear and tear of exercise on their unsupported breasts, but unable to take it anymore, I risk the wrath of Gani, and run to my bag to put on a yoga bra. I then feel really weird about being the only one with clothing on, especially as my lower half (ie my VAGINA) is still naked. I feel like one of the gents at the Naturist Foundation's Jazz and Real Ale Festival who stood about at the BBQ in jumpers, with their bollocks out.
I ask Gani afterwards if I breached the etiquette of Naked Yoga by putting my bra on, and thankfully she's sympathetic. "When people ask me if they can wear their bikini or underwear, I say no, because they want to do it naked, they're just scared! I want people to feel liberated — that's the point of doing it naked. But you tried to do it naked, then put your bra on because you were uncomfortable — for me, that's OK. If you're wearing your bra because your boobs are moving, it's fine — but if you're wearing a bra because you want to cover your body, you shouldn't cover your body!"
The next day, I am aching. Gani's class is more challenging than the You Tube yoga I do at home (due to being grossed out by people's bare feet in yoga studios). Given this starting point, it's perhaps unsurprising that I've taken to Naked Yoga like a claustrophobia-sufferer crammed in a coffin stuffed with loft insulation. But Anna (who goes to actual yoga classes) agrees that it's a great session. "It's a good, simple, yet full-on class. Doria's knowledgeable and confident with lots of experience — and I loved her playlist!" Anna adds that the nudity means, "we can all see each other in our humanness in a non-sexual context — I felt compassion and connection."
While we've taken our own mats, we both feel squeamish about using the communal yoga blocks ("how can I know that the block I'm using to rest my forehead on doesn't have traces of someone’s naked bum?"). Anna, who's more enlightened than I am, is undeterred by the sounds of very heavy breathing — but she shares my qualms about some of the sights. "I tried not to look at the other participants," she says, "but when I did, the view of hairy dangling dingdongs wasn't the greatest. Maybe I have body acceptance issues but after the fourth Downward Dog, I'd had enough of that view."
Neither Anna nor I plan on doing any more Naked Yoga, but there might just be a case for it. Anna acknowledges that some of the guys there have definitely practiced yoga for some time and believes they're at the class, "for the actual yoga practice, and the experience of freeing themselves from the social norms of being dressed." And Gani tells me that practising Naked Yoga has helped clients with eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia, "they started to appreciate their own bodies and they are now much more confident about themselves."
Considering that I can’t even stand other people's feet, Naked Yoga's not for me. But if you want to try it, in a charming studio with skylights and wooden beams, with a teacher who couldn’t be more welcoming, then get in touch with Gani or find other naked yoga classes here.
With thanks to Manuka Life.
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.