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There’s no judgment (or Lululemon) in Durham’s naked yoga class

As you walk into the studio, you spot a couple of people sitting on their mats and your eyes dart away instinctively. You debate which row to claim with your mat — the front, where everyone will see you; the back, where you’ll see everyone; or in the middle, where, well, all of the above. You opt for the front. The arrangement is a little tight, and the back of your mat grazes the one behind you.

In an ordinary yoga class, this might not be such a big deal. But here, everyone is naked.

Twenty-five bare bodies, evenly spaced in three rows, twist and stretch as Electric Light Orchestra’s “Strange Magic” flows through the room. A muscled couple in the front row lie on their backs and spread their legs confidently. They’ve been here before. A man in the back row sways back and forth in a deep squat. Nipple piercings and rainbow tattoos dance asynchronously to the song’s fitting refrain. A mirror on the front wall doubles the already dazzling sight.

The room only looks like this once a month. This is Margot Schein’s nude yoga class, hosted by Durham’s Threehouse Studios since June 2021. The class costs $20, and it is all-gender, all (adult) ages, and completely naked (except during COVID, when participants wore nothing but masks). There’s always a waitlist.

I made it into two classes recently and got the full experience. Turns out, nude yoga attracts a very wide range of characters. And, it’s not as uncomfortable as you might think.

* * * 

It starts like this: You enter the cozy lobby and are greeted by a smiling Schein, who offers optional hugs and, often, details about her latest adventure in baking. You put your shoes and phone in a small cubby before entering the main room to undress. Brick walls and gray floors glow in the natural light, but the windows are too high and thick for anyone to see inside. Each spot is marked by a pair of yoga blocks that Schein carefully laid out before your arrival.

Instructor Margot Schein brings an eclectic playlist and plenty of jokes to every class. Photo by Sofie Buckminster – The 9th Street Journal

After agonizing over where to put your mat, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. You pause. You’re stalling, trying to delay the inevitable moment you’ve been fearing a little longer.  But you can’t think of a good excuse, so you undress.

Shirt or pants off first? They’ll both take you to the same stark destination, but the decision still feels important. You choose shirt, then pants, then underwear, holding eye contact with yourself in the mirror and trying to appear casual. One layer at a time.

You put your clothes in an awkward jumble at the front of your mat. Maybe you should fold them? But when you look around to assess other people’s strategies, your line of sight is interrupted by a butt cheek here and a bare breast there. You look down. The jumble will have to do. 

You are now entirely naked. 

Seeing your bare body in the mirror feels surprisingly familiar — like the moment right before you step into the shower — and it evokes that same feeling of deep privacy. You blink, trying to reconcile the solitude with the sea of bodies surrounding you. You feel both alone and excruciatingly seen.

Everyone experiences this moment differently. For Ruth Metz, a 27-year old massage therapist and regular attendee of Schein’s class, it was natural. Her parents are European, and would regularly walk around the house without clothes on when she was growing up. “I’ve never really had that idea that nudity is a bad thing,” she says.

 For Dan (who asked that his last name not be used), it was a bigger leap. He was always shy, and naked yoga was — he hoped — a step on his path to becoming more confident. He swam competitively growing up, and was consistently made fun of for his pale skin. “I’ve always had this feeling like I need to cover my body to be comfortable in a space,” he says. After undressing at his first class, he started shaking — part nervousness, part chilliness. Now, he chats casually with the woman next to him.

* * *

The class is led by Schein, 33, a seasoned instructor who also works full time in public and mental health. She fills her life with joy and good cooking: She married her partner in a Harry Potter-themed wedding at Costco and she populates her Instagram feed with decorated baked goods. She started practicing yoga in graduate school to relieve stress, and got her teacher certification in 2020. 

Her approach to yoga is just as fun-loving as her approach to everything else. Even her clothed classes are unusual compared to the solemn voices and soothing music found in most studios. She creates playlists for every class (breakup songs, animals, 90s pop)  and challenges everyone to guess the theme, offering a high-five as a reward. Everyone is encouraged to sing along. Her anticapitalist rants punctuate her pose offerings, and the whole thing feels a bit more like a community gathering than a workout class.

“There’s a lot of corporate yoga out there,” Schein says. “When you start teaching yoga, you sort of mimic a bunch of other people, which means you don’t have your own style. But when I teach now, I tell jokes,” she continues. “I’ve become much more who I am as a normal person.”

People respond to her authenticity. She keeps a folder on her phone full of screenshots of messages from students, articulating how her yoga classes have helped them in their larger lives. She calls it her “Nice Things” folder.

Three years in, she is well-versed in the broad range of reactions to nudity. Once, a mother sobbed in her arms in the lobby outside the class, too anxious about the prospect of revealing her post-birth body to go in. She’s texted with people who were curious about her class for over a year to help them find the courage to come.

If people are nervous, she likes to offer them an analogy. “I so enjoy bungee jumping,” she starts. “When you get near the edge, your body kicks in and says, ‘No, no, don’t do this.’ It’s just beautiful. Your body is protecting you… I’m not going to die, but my body doesn’t know that yet.’” She compares this to the moment after you’ve rolled out your mat, when self-exposure is imminent. 

“What’s going to happen?” she’ll ask a nervous student, “What are the consequences?” After a few rounds of, “I’ll feel insecure,” and “I’ll be embarrassed,” usually the student will say, “Well, nothing.”

“Our shame doesn’t come from sin,” Schein explains. “You’re not born as a baby feeling ashamed of your thighs. Or of your body hair, or of your cesarean scar. You’re told to be ashamed.” And by confronting that shame, she believes, we can teach our bodies that nudity is nothing to fear.

She believes her duty as a yoga teacher extends far beyond pure movement. “There’s a lot of emotion involved in yoga,” she explained. As you move your body, you move through feelings. Her job is to guide you through both.

She takes the job seriously, despite her unserious demeanor. She remembers the first class she ever taught. She began by telling everyone to lift their arms into the air, and they complied. “I was just like, ‘Holy shit,’” she said. “Like, you don’t know why I said that! And you did it!” 

“If you ever encounter a yoga teacher who doesn’t recognize the weight of the responsibility they have,” she said, “that’s terrifying.” 

And when everybody is naked, the stakes are much higher.

There’s no screening process for new participants – Schein wants the experience to be open to everyone – but before each class, she sends an email with logistics and community agreements. It covers everything from the tight parking spaces to the importance of not flirting with or objectifying people in the class. “A safe space can never be guaranteed,” the email concludes, “but this will be a brave space with every effort geared toward safety.”

And when people show up, she pays attention to her instincts. When a friendly old man approached her after a session and said something inappropriate, she asked him not to return.     

To ease the shock of the first few naked moments at the start of each class, Schein relies on her sense of humor. She runs in, still fully clothed, and races to get undressed before too much awkwardness settles in. She starts off with her go-to line: “This is nude yoga. If you’re in the wrong place, I’m so sorry. You’re a real sport for getting naked.” Even the regulars laugh.

* * *

One of Schein’s themed playlists — this time, songs about magic — plays in the background as she begins the class. You cycle through some cat-cows, grimacing at yourself in the mirror every time you arch your back and imagine the view for the guy behind you. 

“I felt so energized,” said one participant. “I climbed this little mountain, this little mental barrier.”  Photo by Sofie Buckminster – The 9th Street Journal

The physical logistics of yoga while naked aren’t too different. Body parts hang and swing in a way you expect, but don’t necessarily love to see. Without fabric masking your form, you realize that your downward dog isn’t quite as sharp as you imagined it. Sweat becomes a factor — some people remain dry, but most people glisten. With each sun salutation, they look harder for remaining dry patches on their mat to plant their hands and feet.

Within a few minutes, though, the yoga begins to overtake the nudity. You’re so focused that you start to forget. 

This is where things started to get easier for Dan. “As we got through familiar poses, things really did start to soften,” he says. “The physicality of the yoga becomes a distraction.”

 Metz agrees. “It’s not so serious,” she says. 

She’s right. After sun salutations, Schein offers a challenging pose for people to try. This class, it’s an eight-angle pose. You pull your left leg over your forearm like a lazily carried backpack, bring your hands to the mat, and attempt to lift up into something of a sideways handstand.

You fall down. Everybody does. Little conversations break out, and people shout with excitement when they get close and laugh when they collapse in a heap of flesh. Schein offers advice, and giggles with everyone else. Something about it reminds you of class in high school on a day when the teacher was in an especially good mood. You don’t even come close to executing the pose, but you feel a little looser.

For the amount of anticipation that plagued you before the class, it has flown by. Soon, you’re lying on your back with your eyes closed, closing out the class with a shavasana pose. Gentle music floats through the room. For the first time since class started, nobody can see you. It truly does not matter that you are naked.

For the first time since class started, you are still. The experience begins to sink in.

Later, Dan reflected on the air of communal trust in the room. He’s been to 10 nude yoga classes now, and is a regular at group therapy. He sees parallels between the two. “One’s more physical, one’s more emotional,” he said, “but that shared vulnerability is key and present in both.

“What I love about group therapy,” he said, “is the encouragement to identify what you’re hiding.” And in nude yoga, what you hide habitually is fully exposed.

“That rewarding cycle of challenging yourself to do something that is atypical and new for you,” Dan added, “actually enriches your life over time.”

As the music fades out, you sit up. Class is over. You can put your clothes back on.

But, you almost don’t want to. It just became easy! You stand up and take a few smug steps, staying naked just a little bit longer.

“I felt so energized,” Dan remembered. “I climbed this little mountain, this little mental barrier.” 

At this point, Schein gives a much-anticipated announcement: what she baked for this week. Freshly baked macaroons sit on a tray in the lobby. A reward for your work.

You get dressed — finally — and you try not to smile too proudly as you roll up your mat.

Photo at top: Margot Schein leads the class in a Warrior 2 pose. Photo of Sofie Buckminster – The 9th Street Journal