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Gymnosophist is a term the ancient Greeks used to describe the “naked wise men” or the “naked philosophers” of India. Suffice to say, spiritual nudity has had a long tradition in India, as well as in yogic practice. In Sanskrit, the practice of nude yoga is called Nagna Yoga or Vivastra Yoga.
As a matter of fact, the Bhagavata Purana, one of the sacred Hindu texts, encourages nudity. It says: "A person in the renounced order of life may try to avoid even a dress to cover himself. If he wears anything at all, it should be only a loincloth…”
Many devotees in Dharmic religions including the Digambara Jain, Aghori, and sadhus all practice spiritual nudity. Generally speaking among these sects, nudity is viewed as a way to reject materialism, and/or to reduce shame.
Celibacy is also another important aspect of their devotion. As such, yoga is employed by these men to “tame their desires, identify with their physical bodies, and to break attachment with everything physical, sensual, and material.”
Naked Yoga in the West
Naked Yoga has slowly been on the rise in the West over the past century. It was first practiced in Germany and Switzerland by followers of the Lebensreform (life reform) movement. Lebensreform, much like Dharmic religions that predated it, encouraged austerity.
This included organic and raw foods, nudity, sexual liberation, alternative medicine, religious reform, abstention from alcohol, tobacco, and vaccines. Adherers to this lifestyle yearned to return to nature as they feared that the increasingly modern world was detrimental to the mind, body, and spirit. They were also valid practitioners of nude yoga.
As the decades progressed, Lebensreform branched off in two majors ways. In the 60s it became a foundational belief among the hippies, but in the 30s it also became integral in the Nazi party, their belief of an ancient ideal Aryan—sans the nude yoga, of course.
Naked Yoga in the 21st Century
In early in the 21st century in NYC, a Canadian yoga teacher named Aaron Star began to teach a Hot Nude Yoga class in the Chelsea area. His classes were exclusive to gay men, but other teachers soon followed suit and started offering co-ed classes. Over time, the movement spread to other big cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston.
Unsurprisingly, the classes—especially Star’s—have been criticized for sexualizing yoga. This isn’t necessarily an unfair or knee-jerk critique. His classes included lots of partner work for asanas that are generally done alone. Why? Well, according to Star, “A lot of people, especially living in New York, don’t get the opportunity to connect with people in an intimate way."
To his credit, Star didn’t shy away from the controversial claims. The practice itself is described as tantric and sensual. There is even a class for beginners called "Hot Nude Yoga Virgin."
So what's to make of modern nude yoga? Is it merely a natural derivation from the ancient form? Or has it been perverted into something vaguely resembling an orgy? The answer to both of these questions is yes and no.
If the goal of Vivastra yoga traditionally was to remove shame, well, then its modern counterpart could be credited for doing just that. American culture is known for being stiflingly puritanical, so stretching in a room full of strangers could do wonders in terms of removing social taboos. However, modern practitioners must remember that attaining wisdom was also the main goal of the yoga practice. And as a yogi, that's something that they would be wise to adhere to—whether their clothes are on or off.