Saturday, May 23, 2009

Naked Yoga: A stripped down exercise

South Florida
I am straight.

I repeat that to myself as I walk into a dance studio, pull off my shirt, and drop my shorts and undies onto the wood floor.

I'm surrounded by 17 other nude men — and mirrors.

In a moment, we'll start practicing yoga.

For 20 years, I've taken yoga classes in sweaty gyms, incense-drenched studios and even in an office conference room. But always with my clothes on.

Tonight will be different for me, but not for most of the men in the room. Ray Whetstone has taught naked yoga for more than 10 years in South Florida. I learned about it by stumbling across his site,

Arco iris is Spanish for rainbow; most of the men here are gay.

"The automatic assumption is that nudity is sex," he says. But not here. He notes that in all his years of teaching, every man's dog has remained downward.

I place my mat in a corner spot, so I'll have one neighbor instead of two. In the minutes before class starts, I stretch out in corpse pose, so I won't have to look. When we stand up to start the class, I tilt my gaze slightly upward, so if I see anything, it's faces and shoulders.

Then I fill my head with yoga-ese.

Yoga is all about letting go of external labels that get in your way, I remind myself. Going within. Testing your focus.

Besides, if anyone's looking to score, it wouldn't be with this 50-year-old.

"We've had straight boys here before," says Whetstone, who in 1998 became the first openly gay elder ordained by the Presbyterian Church. An optometrist, he commutes to Naples four days a week to work. Teaching naked yoga two nights a week is his recreation.

There are certain things in life I just gotta do. Bike 100 miles in a day. Marry a sports fan. Firewalk with Tony Robbins. Now, in the name of journalism, I get to stand naked with 17 other men.

The point is, maybe there might be something a straight boy can learn here.

Such as the central reason behind naked yoga: learning to be comfortable with your body.

"There's so much of what we call body dysmorphia among gays, the idea of just not being good enough," says Whetstone, 50. "People don't think they're hot unless their body fat is in the single digits or they have a six-pack.

"If you can stand in front of a mirror naked 15 minutes a day and deal with the issues, you're going to be a very healthy person."

You also (obviously) see your body alignment better with no clothes, Whetstone says, and there's also a certain spirit of playfulness.

"It's like going skinny-dipping," he says. "After that, swimming with your clothes on just doesn't seem the same."

In regular classes, when someone's cell phone goes off, my blood pressure doesn't rise. I look at it as a focus check. So I figure, well, if I can get past seeing my junk in a mirror while in Warrior One, I can handle anything, even Whetstone's "assisted back stretch."

He circles the room, cracking our backs one by one. It's my turn. We stand back-to-back, cheek-to-cheek, and he hooks his elbows through mine. He bends forward, lifting me up, backward.

Aside from my squeamishness, it's a great stretch. I feel taller. Ready to yoga.

Next comes a traditional yoga series of lunges, twists and bends. There are times when it feels like any other yoga, then there are times when it's just plain uncomfortable. Like in spinal twists, when you cross one leg over the other and turn. I value underwear.

At some point, I realize Whetstone is an outstanding yoga teacher. He directs us clearly from one pose to another, and tells us to center our minds. He touches students to fix their postures and stances, rather than simply getting into his own pose, hoping we pick it up. He stops us in Warrior pose, has three star students demonstrate, then gets us back into it, walking to each one of us and fixing alignment.

He never speaks of us being naked.

After about 70 minutes of stretches that have the sweat flowing, Whetstone announces "It's Miller time." Final relaxation. I lie on the towel over my mat and close my eyes.

I did it. And I didn't freak out.

We pull on our clothes and as I exit, I realize I left my wedding ring on the wood floor, where my clothes were.

"What does that mean?" Whetstone says, just to poke at me. (I now always leave my ring on when I yoga.)

I drive home to my west Broward suburb and curl up in bed next to my groggy wife.

"Did you see enough d----?" she asks. And I start to laugh.

It occurs to me: I spent 90 minutes with 17 other naked men, and I don't remember seeing a one.