Tales of an Engineer, Cubicle Nerd, and Sometimes Yogi Adventurer, Who Found Himself Naked in the Desert
Author’s note: It was not ever my ambition to be photographed nude on a desolate stretch of playa in the Black Rock desert.
If someone had suggested when I woke up that I would be doing so by sunset, I would have relegated the notion to the province of frivolous absurdity. I am not found au natural in public, ever. This experience came to pass by chance. I didn’t hire a photographer, nor did I decide to head out to desolate nowhere with a friend where I would unceremoniously strip naked and take some vanity shots.
The story of how this unlikely experience came to pass is an interesting tell, and one which, for me, required some fortitude to share.
In retrospect, I am very proud of these photos. I am not proud because they look cool or showcase a freakish aptitude for asana; I am proud of them because they required strength, courage, trust, mastery, focus, and presence in an environment where I felt most vulnerable. The significance was lost on me at the time, but I’ve come to understand this experience was a metaphor for how I want to live my life.
The photos were taken by a team led by San Francisco based fine art photgrapher Felix Tian for a portfolio called Utopia. Participating as the subject of this shoot happened by pure chance and here is how it happened…
As the clichè would have it, naked desert stories do often begin with a trip to Burning Man, and so it went: I was attending the festival for the first time at the invitation of a yoga instructor friend. At the festival, an elaborate wooden temple is built each year to be burned on the last night.
Traditionally, the temple is a pensive and quiet place treated with reverence by festival goers. Several days in the morning, I would take my personal yoga practice out to the east side of the temple where I could recenter as the sun would rise.
Artist and photographer, Felix Tian, and his team also so happened to be shooting at the temple that morning. They seemed to take notice of my practice and snapped some impromptu photos, which if I recall made me slightly uneasy, since I’m not normally an anonymous subject of someone’s photography.
When I finished practice, Felix approached, paid some generous compliments about my asana, and told me about his Utopia project. He had always wanted to work with a yogi on the Black Rock playa, but had never found the right person. (Oh, and a small detail, the subjects in his project are all nudes.)
Not knowing Felix or having familiarity with his work, you might say I was first concerned that the proposition could be fodder for a salacious, rather than artistic, purpose. I think Felix picked up on my somewhat incredulous reaction, but he went on to describe his process and professional history. He uses antique cameras with top-facing viewports, rare infrared film, and hand-develops photos, old school, in a dark room. “Hm,” I thought, “This could be legitimate, but no way can I get buff in front of these dudes!”
Though I was still apprehensive, Felix left an open invitation to meet later in the day. They would be photographing a woman with a cello regardless on the deep playa, and I would be great addition to his work if I wanted to join, no pressure. “Hm, a woman with a cello; that doesn’t sound lewd to me… Antique cameras, a project for a San Francisco gallery; it sounds intriguing and I certainly wouldn’t be the only naked person at Burning Man.”
No doubt, the ubiquity of bare bodies at Burning Man had softened my more traditional notions of personal decency.
I will now digress and lay bare how I feel about myself and my body. I am a professional software architect. I work in an office with cubicles and a water cooler. I had never been a live-free hippie. I aced organic chemistry. In college, while frat brothers were consorting, I was hard at work in the library. In my matriculated years, I made love to one woman who later became my wife. In many respects, I can be called a nerd. I have frustrating social anxiety. I cover up in the locker room when I change. I would never wash in an open shower room. I avoid urinals, especially ones without dividers, because I generally feel awkward relieving in presence of others. I can’t explain why. I don’t have an anatomical reason to feel self-conscious, and feel confident being unclad in intimacy. Maybe it’s a general lack of self-confidence, especially among men, from the absence of my father and bullying I endured in school? Maybe it’s that I just don’t care to be judged by anonymous others in either a positive or negative way? Whatever the reason, I’m not comfortable being naked in public.
So why then did I follow Felix and his team out to an isolated stretch of desert to disrobe, bare all my goods, and contort my body into asana?
I did it because I was terrified.
I did it because the festival creates a container for people to explore without shame. I did it to see whether I could challenge myself to find strength, and presence in an environment where I would feel most awkward and vulnerable.
When we reached our spot in the desert, I rolled out my mat. “Now what? Should I just take off my clothes? This is awkward.” Felix had brought a couple pieces of sheer cloth that I could cover up with between asana shots. “Alright, that’s not so bad.” Still feeling self conscious, I wrapped myself in the cloth and took off the rest of my clothes while the team set up cameras. There was a slight asian woman, named Rococo, who would be a subject with me along with her cello.
We were going to kind of ease into this: the first shots were going to be using the cloth. Without a doubt I was nervous, “What is this woman going to think? What if I get desert shrinkage? Am I going to be aroused? Is she?” I began to think of scenarios to even myself out just in case. Was it going to be Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day? Or should I be conjuring images from the latest Victoria’s Secret catalog?
In the nudity department, I have to say women have it easier because no relevant physical or emotional status can be discerned from the appearance of the genitals. With guys, it’s rather obvious whether we’re wagging or flagging.
I needed to manifest a personality front here. I was feeling uneasy, so analyzing my repertoire of protective facades, I compensated with the “friendly bro”: Using masculine body language and tone that would be appropriate when watching the Super Bowl with your buds…obviously the best choice when you have a group of people staring at you naked in the middle of the desert.
It came time for the first nude asana shots. My mind went to what was happening downstairs; “Heh, it’s going to be… ya know what? I’m not even going to look.” I dropped the cloth and began going through asana sequences. It was difficult to say the least to bring my conscious to presence in such a foreign scenario. There were also dust storms in the area, and there I was, completely divulged, whipped by wind and choked by dust.
A far, far cry from my world of cubicles, water coolers, and business casual.
After about an hour of shooting, the dust storms moved on, anxiety had diminished, and I was warmed up enough to demonstrate more advanced asanas. Then something happened, something I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams.
A caravan of hundreds of topless women on bicycles began riding past.
I jest you not; you can see them on the horizon of the photos. To what bizarre dream world has this software architect nerd ventured, where not only am I being photographed nude in contorted positions, but am now the subject of voyerage by hundreds of naked chicks on bikes. Groups of them break off from the caravan and come by to watch me form art with a naked body.
How do I find presence here?
As I said, I am proud of these photos, because in several, I demonstrate the most challenging asanas I can perform and I did so in an environment where I could scarcely find a shred of presence. In one, I demonstrate a pose is called parsva kukkutasana (side rooster). You come into the asana by first coming into a tripod headstand. Then the feet are one by one placed on the upper thigh into a lotus configuration. The knees are brought down towards the chest, then the torso twists so that one knee is resting high on the tricep. Now that hard part. From there, you take a deep breath in. While you press through the arms you exhale, liberate the head from the ground, move the arms to their fullest extension, leaving your lotus legs floating on your outer tricep. Incidentally, I was never taught parsva kukkutasana in a yoga class.
For me, it was a pose my intuition spoke to me when I was ready.
In retrospect, I had not considered how proud I should be of this experience until recently. This office nerd, this computer scientist, a person who struggles with social anxieties, found grace, strength, presence, and focus to perform one of the most challenging asanas completely exposed, naked, in front of photographing strangers, in choking dust storms, and hordes of beautiful topless women.
I do not credit myself as a person of inordinate courage or ability; I am an ordinary flawed soul who, by the hand of fate, was granted a unique opportunity to shed the confines of shame and reclaim the right to presence, even stripped bare of any worldly protections.
It was a powerful experience.
So what’s the lesson?
Nudity is a metaphorical state of complete honesty and vulnerability. We have been conditioned to be in shame of our vulnerability, that it is a private matter we are to suffer with in silence, that by exposing ourselves, we have somehow become weaker, perhaps even the subject of ridicule. In fact, the opposite is true.
When we expose, fight, and conquer vulnerability, we awaken to new inner strength, grace, and presence and become powerful in our most abject humility.
Courage is not finding strength in humility, but in first exposing vulnerability so we can challenge it in complete honesty to ourselves and those around us. We demonstrate to others that we suffer in the same, common, and human ways, perhaps inspiring them tackle their own weaknesses, creating an environment where we are all allowed to explore and fight vulnerability without shame.
I hope to never again feel ashamed to be naked in a literal or metaphorical sense; I will continue to explore ways to expose and challenge vulnerability, but to manifest presence, fluidity, mastery, and focus, like a yogi nerd rocking naked parsva kukutasana in the desert.
I’d like to express so much gratitude to Felix Tian and his team for making beautiful and inspiring art of the human body, but even more so, for expressing their own creativity in a way that helped me grow in unimaginable ways.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photos: Felix Tian