I circled the words in my conference program and flagged them with three question marks. Should I go? What would it be like? Was it a ploy for exhibitionism at the conference I was attending – intended for “sex connoisseurs and sex professionals”?
I Googled to learn more, and the top results were pornographic websites. I tried instead “naked yoga New York” and that search brought up studios that offer the practice (thanks, Brooklyn). It’s a niche market, to be sure, but naked yogis point out that unlike other western fads (eg goat yoga), the practice originated centuries ago from Hatha Yoga and Tantric Buddhism.
As a sociologist, I had spent the past four years studying debates over internet pornography and I was attending the annual Sex Down South conference to learn how progressive activists, educators and sex workers talked about porn. I wanted to learn about the general culture that surrounds what I describe as the “porn positive” movement – a broad effort to promote the rights and wellbeing of porn performers, embrace sexual expression and oppose censorship.
Sex Down South offered a reprieve from the usual social paradigm where white men occupy the center and are surrounded by others on the margins. Instead, this event was led by queer-identified people of color, and white people like me were the definite minority. It seemed that naked yoga fell in line with the other sessions at the conference, like meditation and Reiki, that merged ancient religious traditions with a broad understanding of sexual health and wellbeing.
Sitting in my hotel room the night before, I tried to imagine myself in a bare-all downward dog and blushed at the thought. I had been attending yoga classes regularly since my early 20s – but never naked.
Still, I was comfortable with my naked body. In my mid-30s, I had overcome the body issues that plagued my younger self. I had years of practice baring my chest in public as I openly breastfed my two babies. I was no swimsuit model – my then three-year-old called my post-partum belly “squashy” with much affection – but was afforded an ease in my skin thanks to my relative proximity to idealized beauty standards (I am white, cisgender, relatively thin, and able-bodied).
For years, I practiced yoga as my preferred form of exercise because it was the only time I could fully leave behind what Buddhists call the “monkey mind”, and let my body take over. I preferred heated classes and often left the studio drenched in sweat, feeling like I felt after a long, hard cry. After both, my body and mind felt tired and calm.
Off the mat, I understood and agreed with critiques of the American yoga industry, which profits from a religious tradition and culture that is not its own. But on the mat, I let that go, along with my to-do list and worries. Would I be able to do the same unclothed?
The room was lit with twinkle lights, a pleasant reprieve from the harsh overhead fluorescents of other conference sessions. As the room filled with other participants, it immediately felt like a different kind of space than both my yoga studio at home and the rest of the conference. There were no tank tops with the Lululemon logo or “spiritual gangster” written on the front, and there were also no sexy jumpsuits or stiletto heels like at the conference’s evening reception the night before.
Not knowing anyone else at the conference, I sat cross-legged and silent. Even though the room was cold, the air conditioning not yet tempered by the room full of bodies, I found myself sweating. I was nervous. Am I really going to take my clothes off in front of these people?
Coming of age as a woman in the United States, I was instilled with very specific messages about my naked body and who should see it. I learned that, post-puberty, my body was inherently sexual, an object that enticed. Indeed, this is the premise (and feminist critique) of much mainstream pornography: in porn, naked women’s bodies are on display for the pleasure of others, not themselves. Outside pornography is no better, though, as women have little power over when and how their bodies are sexualized. In my own life, I opted for some semblance of control by distancing myself from heterosexuality. I stopped dating cisgender men around the same time I took up a yoga practice.
The instructor introduced herself a few minutes after the session was scheduled to begin. She was a robust white woman in her 50s with long grey hair and a soothing cadence to her voice, wearing a sage green linen top and loose matching pants. She explained that to practice yoga naked meant to remove the constraints we impose on our bodies to better access the divine within us. She told us that today’s class would be a yin practice, meaning gentle movements, and that we could move through the postures in whatever state of dress or undress that we felt like.
As we began, she asked us to consider how our clothing felt on our bodies and I became forcefully aware of the discomfort of my jeans. She invited us to remove a top layer of clothing and I peeled them off. The sensation of air meeting my thighs was delicious. After more poses and invitations to remove clothing, I stopped fretting about my state of undress and started tuning into the instructor’s prompts to bring awareness to both breath and body.
Eventually I peeked beyond my mat and was surprised that everyone around me was naked or nearly so. I hadn’t noticed people taking their clothes off. When we entered tree pose, I was able to fully take in the room. These were not the bodies we see in commercial porn, on magazine covers, or in TV and movies. These were ordinary bodies, of various ages, shades, shapes and sizes. We were beautiful there in that room, all of us awkwardly balancing on our mats.
Amid my research on battles over pornography and my own early experiences showing my naked body to others, it felt powerful – almost cleansing – to be naked in a room full of these strangers, with no sexual charge. Where any pretense was stripped away along with our clothes.
After the conference ended a few days later, I returned to my regular life a thousand miles away with a notebook full of handwritten observations relevant to my research. These were important data for the book I would eventually write, but what preoccupied my thoughts as I typed up my field notes were those 45 minutes of naked yoga. It had shifted how I understood what I was doing at the conference in the first place, and broke apart my own assumptions and stereotypes I carried with me, however unintentionally, into my research.
I started studying pornography debates after being brought up in a Christian church and developing my career researching conservative evangelicals and sexuality. Religion was the route to this project, and it was everywhere in the anti-porn movement. But I thought I left religion behind when I entered porn positive spaces. Even though, as a sociologist of religion, I knew that the religious left has been advocating for progressive sexual politics for decades, I was still allowing evangelical leaders and politicians to take up all the space when it came to moral claims about pornography.
There were some good reasons for these stereotypes. The people I interviewed who were politically conservative and devoutly Christian opposed porn. The people who were politically liberal and not religious tended to be more sympathetic to it. The messaging at events similarly toed the party line. The anti-porn conferences I attended were led by religious conservatives (even non-religious events had evangelical sponsors and spokespersons). Porn positive events were secular and often anti-religious, explicitly condemning the mission of conservative Christian politicians and leaders attempting to regulate sexuality.
But this doesn’t mean that the porn positive movement is absent moral and spiritual principles. The sex workers, activists and educators I interviewed produced porn outside commercial studios and advocated for the creation and consumption of what some called “ethical porn”. A common saying was “sex work is work”, meaning that sex workers deserve fair labor practices.
But while virtually everyone I interviewed on the porn positive side would agree with this sentiment, so too did they agree that sex work was a special kind of work. Adjectives varied; some called it a service, some called it art, some called it political resistance. And many, explicitly or implicitly, described it as sacred: a kind of work that offers something profound, contemplative, even divine. As one activist, who identifies as Black and Buddhist, told me, the potential of independent pornography is that it can promote the message that “all bodies are worthy of love. I am worthy of love. I am worthy of care. I am worthy of healing.”
Stripped down to its core, the porn positive movement I studied bore little resemblance to the glossy, airbrushed images of commercial porn. What I found instead was a profound respect for the body and the work it does: for pleasure, healing, for life itself. Of course, in the world of pornography, this is complicated by the industry’s dark side: the potential for abuse and coercion and the overwhelming presence of harmful stereotypes of women, especially women of color, and other minoritized groups. But it’s not so different from any industry in the business of bodies, yoga included. All must reckon with the influence of capitalism, the priority of profits, and the normalization and idealization of the bodies of some over others.
In today’s political debates, we often fall into dichotomies, mutually exclusive and opposite categories of the right versus the left. Pundits describe one side as guided by religion and faith, and the other by science and reason. But these are false dichotomies.
Naked yoga is but one example of how both sides in debates over sexual politics see their position as a sacred calling. For me, it was a “religious experience” as much as I have ever known. Our nakedness was a reminder of what we have in common as we navigate how best to live and relate to one another in our shared social world.
Kelsy Burke is the author of the forthcoming The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession