March 5, 2012

A Midwinter Tale: Naked Yoga in Paradise. {nudity}

(Photo: Nerissa Sparkman)

Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.
And though you seek in garments the freedom of privacy you may find in them a harness and a chain.
Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment,
For the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind.

~ Khalil Gibran

I am sitting cross-legged on my yoga mat facing my class.

As I survey the expectant faces before me, I realize, “Holy shit, they’re all men.”

The type of class I prefer teaching is chock-full of yin poses, free-flowing and graceful, emphasizing flexibility over strength. I’m pretty sure these men don’t want to spend an entire hour flowing like water, moving like wind, or meditating on their emerald green heart chakras. I suspect they’d prefer multiple chaturangas (push ups) and trikonasanas (triangle pose), some warriors, maybe a headstand or two, before dropping, loose-limbed, into a well-earned savasana.

My concern immediately shifts to the dilemma at hand: how to introduce a few more yang poses into my pre-planned class without throwing off my neophyte teaching self’s rhythm and messing up my sequencing. 

The following doesn’t affect me at all as I ponder, refashioning my class on the fly: 

“All of the men facing me are naked. And so am I.”

What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful that the garment with which it is clothed?

~ Michelangelo

Welcome to the 24th annual Midwinter Naturist Festival, a six-day celebration of all things naturist, new age, alternative, and sustainable, hosted annually by Sunsport Gardens Family Naturist Resort in Loxahatchee, Florida.

An overwhelming variety of workshops are offered—this year, over 270—ranging from yoga and other healing/energy work, to relationships, to naturist activism, to creative arts, to ecology and sustainability, to health and wellness, to myriad childrens’ activities, and more; all set in a tropical paradise where nature rules.

In between workshops, the hot tub, sauna, and comfortably warm pool beckon those who wish to relax and socialize; for the more actively inclined, there’s tennis, volleyball, pentaque, kayaking, and nature trails. Vendors line the central open space, massage tables at the ready (believe me, there’s nothing quite like being massaged undraped and in the elements with the sun melting oil into your skin); or offering treats such as body painting and decorations, health supplements, or never-knew-you-needed necessities such as waistbands with flaps fore and aft, one to sit on and one to hold one’s wallet.

As bright sunlit days give way to inky moonlit nights, the air fills with the sounds of twangy fiddler tunings marking the raucous start of square dancing, with longtime owner Morley Schloss calling, followed by the compelling rhythm of an ecstatic drum circle held ‘round a bright blazing bonfire. Concerts, a talent show, and the traditional (warning: very cold!) pudding toss round out the events each year.

Sunsport itself is a testament to green and healthy living, working diligently to maintain a light footprint on the planet. Its website proudly lists the ecological measures taken at the resort and the on-site restaurant offers vegetarian meals and uses no styrofoam plates or cups.

My yoga friends, in particular, would love this place’s philosophy of deeply honoring Mother Earth if they didn’t have to get naked.

If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred,

And the glory and sweet of a man is the token of manhood untainted,

And in man or woman a clean, strong, firm-fibred body, is beautiful as the most beautiful face.

~ Walt Whitman

Earlier in the day, as I crossed the dividing line between Royal Palm Beach and Loxahatchee, I sensed I was entering a time warp. Enormous church warehouses, plant nurseries, farms, and a surprising amount of weed-overrun open space dotted the landscape, which moments before had been filled with strip shopping centers and walled compounds. 

Already beginning to feel my shoulders melt, I turned right onto a chalky white, bumpy dirt road scattered with Japanese slash pines and native Sabal palms. Joshua Bell’s sumptuous rendition of “Ave Maria” streamed from my stereo, his lusciously romantic tones mingling with a soaring boys’ choir. I listened, bemused, feeling regaled by angels as I left the clothed world behind.

“Angelic” would not be the first word to come to most peoples’ minds if they knew my destination. For many, the opposite word would hold true, for our society is saturated with negatively-charged images of the naked body as a source of titillation, something private to be viewed only by a sexual partner; or something public to be flaunted by hedonists, uninhibited sexual teases, and crass attention-seekers.

Following that logic, many believe that naturism is all about sex: that naturists must be having sex or be thinking about sex or are luring others into sex all the time.

They could not be more wrong. 

Man is the sole animal whose nudity offends his own companions, and the only one who, in his natural actions, withdraws and hides himself from his own kind.

 ~ Montaigne

There are family-values naturists, party-wild naturists, heterosexual naturists, homosexual naturists, right-wing and left-wing, religious and atheist, monogamous and polyamorous; and everything in between, as becomes clearly evident in the festival’s workshop offerings: a little something for everyone.

It’s the same big melting pot as in any society, except in this particular society, the body itself is not concealed from view.

A mutual love for clothes-free freedom is the lure that draws these people together, races, creeds, orientations, and philosophies set aside for the promise of sun warm on bare skin, and opportunities to connect, to grow and to play.

As far as the public face of naturism is concerned, there is no other agenda. Personal agendas, of course, are a far different story, so it’s important to be relaxed, but careful. Just as in any society, one has to be self-responsible and self-aware in an open public setting, clothed or not.

Forget not that modesty is for a shield against the eye of the unclean.
And when the unclean shall be no more, what were modesty but a fetter and a fouling of the mind?
And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.

~ Khalil Gibran

Once I’m checked in at the front trailer, I’m directed to my class at the Orchid Lawn—a soft, flat, grassy patch overlooking the pond. A grand and stately live oak, its low-slung branches bedecked with orchids in every shape and color, shades our space; dappled sun peeking through and speckling the grass with pinpoints of light.

I place my mat facing away from the pond, preferring to give my students the calming view of sunlight playing on the water.  I sit cross-legged on my mat and close my eyes.

And I breathe. And I wait.

Students trickle in, one by one, following my cue and lining up their mats to face me.  I’m teaching at the very end of the festival, and workshop-weary attendees have slowed down their hungry, try-everything pace.

When it’s time to begin the class, I only have six students. After waiting a few moments for last-minute stragglers, I switch on the music, take a deep cleansing breath, untie my sarong—allowing it fall to the ground gracefully—and turn to face the class in full frontal nakedness.

Fortunately, modesty has never been my strong suit. I find the human form beautiful in all its incarnations, the only notable exception being the overly-artificially manipulated form. And within the confines of Sunsport, human forms in all shapes and sizes abound. 

It calls to mind observations from a friend who worked at Hippie Hollow, a naturist resort in Texas:

Sunlight bathes the drooping breasts, the sagging butt,

the belly striped with surgery scars, chest flat,

battleship hips, bald crown, the spheroid gut,

the hourglass, stick, and pear, the rolling fat,

the women topless with mastectomies,

the one-in-twenty body, others worse

for wrinkles or disease, and amputees—

corporately, nudists bearing Adam’s curse.


But haloed in compassion sweet and blind

they bare all where all bear no shame nor fear,

as love-bright angels toward the throne inclined

to supernature naturally draw near.

While fully-clothed voyeurs scowl at their starkness,

as demons gnash their teeth in the outer darkness.

~ Mark N. Taylor

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but once class began, it flowed organically, just like any other class I’d ever taught. 

(Photo: David Baum)

During my preparation, I’d already decided not to adjust my basic sequence too much, so the class was filled with pranayama (breathing), surya namaskara (sun salutations), forward bends, backbends, balances, and lots of stretching.

Since I’m still pretty new at this yoga instruction business, I tend to teach from my mat and not walk around making adjustments, so there was no issue of seeing more—perhaps—of a stranger’s body than I wanted to see or touching a body part I didn’t plan to touch.

But, hey, I’ve accidentally groped and been groped in clothed yoga classes. So even if it happened, there’d be no difference in this setting except there’d be skin-on-skin contact.

And it might have made for an even more interesting experience if I’d pushed past my beginning yoga teacher’s head and walked around a bit.

I’ll admit to experiencing a bout of awkwardness as I performed my standard final relaxation ritual: a mini foot and head rub for each student as they relaxed in savasana to the pure and lovely strains of Snatam Kaur’s Ra Ma Da Sa. I felt most vulnerable at this point because, in order to massage each scalp properly, I had to park my crotch inches away from my student’s head. 

I’d been sweating. 

Okay, yes, I admit it, I was emanating. 

So, you know, I couldn’t help but wonder: Do I smell?  More importantly: Can YOU smell me?

But this is the beauty of naturism: we are all in this together, raw and open, bound by our boldnesses and our shynesses; our bravery and our insecurities; our full-on exposure despite our perceived flaws. No one twitched or shuddered in disgust as I ministered to them; as far as I know, my insecurities were mine alone to own or to release.  

As the class ended, I realized it had felt no different from any other class I’ve ever taught: refreshing, renewing, spiritual. The lack of clothing didn’t detract or distract; if anything, feeling free and truly connected to nature enhanced our practice’s sacredness. 

And that, at its core, is the lesson I learned: naked or clothed, the power of yoga stands alone…honest, true, and absolute. Trappings are meaningless.

I chatted with the class as I packed up and not one man mentioned a horrible odor; five even allowed me to snap a photograph.

After I stowed my gear, I lingered, treating myself to a leisurely stroll around the grounds, followed by a long loll in the sauna and an even longer soak in the hot tub. 

I eventually wound down the day by having talented artist  Kymberlee Thew-Brogan create a gorgeous henna tattoo on my left hand while her  equally talented friend, Blue Evans, read my right palm with eerily accurate precision: a perfect yin-yang symmetry to end the day’s naturist experience.

(Photo: Kymberlee Thew-Brogan)

I returned to my car so relaxed and uninhibited that slightly subversive thoughts silently crept in. I looked at the clothing I’d shed in my car, reminders of the world I’d left behind for a day. I decided: To hell with it.  And I left my clothing crumpled in the seat, strapping myself in, draped only in my sarong and my smile; and cranking up Joshua Bell defiantly to accompany me on the long ride back to my clothed reality.

Perhaps indeed he or she to whom the free exhilarating ecstasy of nakedness in Nature has never been eligible (and how many thousands there are!) has not really known what purity is—nor what faith or art or health really is.

~Walt Whitman

[Photo credits: Nerissa Sparkman / Sunshine Henna]


Editor: Andrea B.

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