Flesh Is the Great Equalizer

BY RACHEL BREITMAN | While Bikram and “hot yoga” trends involve performing ancient meditative poses in rooms heated above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, Aaron Star is confident his yoga studio's classes will prove to be even hotter. But it's not the temperature in the room, which peaks at a balmy but comfortable 80 degrees, that's drawing participants to his studio.

Instead, Star has continued to entice devotees to his West 23rd Street classes by asking them to drop their drawers before they drop to the floor for downward facing dog. His studio's name, Hot Nude Yoga, says it all.

Nude yoga disciples drop more than inhibitions.

Star moved to New York from the West Coast in 2001, bent on helping New York's most flexible, sexy, gay men find a place to get naked and get a great workout all at once.

“I had been teaching yoga classes privately, but I needed an edge to capture the gay market,” said Star, 35. “I thought, 'What about nude yoga?' When I taught my first class, I figured I was really onto something.”

Star said that by lowering their inhibitions about nudity, practitioners of hot nude yoga can achieve a higher level of learning.

“When you come into the room and you are naked, it is the great equalizer, which is what yoga is all about,” he added.

Star's daily classes are open to both gay and straight men alike, including Star's own father, who has taken his classes. Sessions range from one to two-and-a-half hours in length, with chances to strike a naked pose morning, lunchtime, or evening. Anywhere from three to 30 people take Star's classes, with prices reaching as high as $45 per session, depending on the length of the workout.

However, by buying a class set of 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 or 14, frequent visitors can find themselves in a naked plank pose for less than $15 a session.

The studio's gigantic windows face 23rd Street, and are covered with plastic-wrap for extra insulation and a modicum of privacy. Colorful modern artworks adorn the walls, saturated with primarily colors painted in broad brush strokes to brighten the mirror-less room's organic earth-tones. Unlike most yoga studios, the walls are free of mirrors so participants will focus less on their appearance and more on their postures. With no receptionist, the teachers, who also wear nothing more than their birthday suit, check people in before class.

While students work intimately with partners to help them develop flexibility and trust, kissing or touching genitals is strictly verboten.

“We are so conditioned not to touch other people who are naked because we think we are making sexual advance,” said Star. “When people feel nude and sensual, our natural tendency is to grab someone's genitals and start making out. Here it is about finding new aspects of expressing sexuality through the yoga postures.”

Star has seen a boom in interest, with demand for classes and seasonal yoga retreats at vacation destinations like Costa Rica and Hawaii, and his four-DVD box set, “Hot Nude Yoga For Gay Men” retails for $75.

But he is no longer the only naked yoga act in town.

Kevin Kortan also teaches a two-hour naked Tantric yoga class for men in Chelsea from time to time. Dividing his time between classes in Minneapolis and New York, he offers both one-on-one naked yoga workshops for $150, and group sessions for $25 per person.

After a yoga warm-up, his classes may include individual poses or partner work.

“I use partners to assist yoga balance by supporting each other's weight and pushing them to stretch more,” says Kortan. “Plus, there is also more intimate partnering, involving touching, holding, breathing, and eye-gazing.”

Meanwhile, women who want to try a cobra pose with nothing between them and their yoga mats need not feel left out. Isis Phoenix started teaching co-ed classes in Chelsea this past August at a West 26th Street studio. While that location was temporary, she plans to open a new Midtown studio in January, offering private and group classes Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday.

Phoenix, 26, offers a discount on her $25 class for people who bring a friend or partner, in order to create a gender balance, but she also teaches an all-girl “Goddess” class once a week, for yogis who prefer a single-sex environment for their lunging warrior poses and splayed-leg boat poses. Unlike at Nude Yoga, practitioners at her studio start class clothed, and after chanting, ceremonially disrobe.

“Just because it is a mixed-gender class, it didn't need to be sexual,” said Phoenix. “I do get questions from men all the time about, 'What if something comes up?' and I remind them that it is a flow of energy that waxes and wanes, a basic bodily function.”

Women also express concerns about embarrassing noises as their flesh hits the mats, but Phoenix says that as well is natural, adding to the class's “sacred wisdom” and “body awareness.”

Since January 2006, Britt McMurray has taught weekly co-ed classes at a Union Square studio, which has recently moved crosstown to a Chelsea space. She has noted that compared to clothed classes, the bonds between naked yogis is far tighter.

“There's an automatic sense of togetherness and community, so it is very different from a regular yoga class,” said McMurray, 34. “A lot of the barriers that we are setting up are taken down.”

In December, a weekly Wednesday class focused on Beating the Holiday Blues, with naked deep breathing and visualization activities to combat seasonal depression.

While the co-ed classes tend to include slightly more men than women, they rarely serve as a meat-market environment, since most practitioners tend to keep their thoughts on their own deep stretches, rather than eyeball each other's stretch marks.

To keep voyeuristic eyes out of the studio, both Phoenix and McMurray do not post their studio's address on their Website, and ask instead that students contact them via email to get the address so that the teachers are able to reach students who are looking to become more flexible, not just catch a cheap eyeful.

Similarly, the coed classes do not ask students to work in partners.

“Our class is definitely a solo journey,” said Phoenix. “We are not very touch-oriented, since there can still be triggers that make people uncomfortable when they touch another naked person, and we want people to feel like they can be safe and explore with freedom.”

Hot Nude Yoga has, however, been the sight of some romances, as couples occasionally form after class or on long retreats.

But far from being a simple gimmick to attract singles, even guys looking for quick hook-ups, teachers see the idea of nudity as central to their concept of yoga.

“Yoga is about dropping all pretenses or barriers,” said David Pasteelnick, 42, who has taught for two years at Hot Nude Yoga.

“There is nothing you can conceal – scars, moles, unsightly hairs,” admitted the wire-framed bearded teacher. “By the end of partnering, there's this trust. It opens you up to acceptance of others.”

Andrew Lee concurs.

“Since I have started taking the class, I find myself being a lot calmer and more patient and less judgmental,” recalled the 39-year-old fashion designer who had never taken a yoga class before starting at Hot Nude Yoga three years ago.

But are any of the traditional yoga moves unsafe to do without the support of underwear or a sports bra?

“Occasionally we may warn practitioners to adjust themselves so nothing gets in the way during a twist or headstand,” said Pasteelnick. “But there's nothing you can do in yoga that you can't do naked.”

For more information: Aaron Star, Hot Nude Yoga at hotnudeyoga.com; Isis Phoenix, Naked Yoga NYC at nakedyoganyc.com or sensualshaman.com; Britt McMurray, Naked Yoga at swaporamarama.org/schedule.htm; Kevin Kortan, Evolutionary Yoga at evolutionaryyoga.com or 917-671-6412.