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Fitness, Not Foreplay: An Interview With Nude Yoga Instructor Per Erez

By Tony Peregrin in Miscellaneous on Apr 13, 2010 6:20PM

Despite their initial reservations, men in Chicago are turning the other cheek and joining all-male nude yoga classes, an exercise the Associated Press calls “a form of sensualized yoga practiced nude.” Per (pronounced “Pear”) Erez, who teaches the classes in his private Rogers Park studio, limits the number of men who attend the sessions in order to “establish clarity of intention” and to provide a more “individualized approach to teaching.” Erez, 43, a well-established yoga instructor who has taught traditional “clothed” yoga for over 20 years (Oprah Winfrey is a former client), believes practicing nude yoga offers men a chance to be less concerned about “how they show up physically on their mat,” and gradually reduces “their own inner critical voice about what the male form should look like in others.”

Chicagoist: What is the number one question you get asked by beginners?

Per Erez: Oddly enough, it is probably not what most people would think. When I first began teaching these classes, I got much of what I called the “Big E” question from men who were concerned about bodily responses during classes. You will find frank discussions of erections commonly labored over on almost all the nude yoga Web sites across the country—including mine. The most common question I get these days, however, revolves around men who want to join, but who happen to hold positions of authority or esteem in their local communities. On several occasions, rabbis, pastors, teachers, doctors, and even a few politicians have asked what happens if a patient, congregant, student, etc. comes to the same session they plan on attending.

C: And how do you calm these fears, Per?

PE: I don't, in particular, have one answer, because I think students concerns about disclosure and revelation of nude yoga practice don't all come from the same place. Some realize they won't have to worry about losing their jobs for example, but social ostracism is more the issue. Some prospective students are more concerned with how co-workers or friends might think them unconventional or downright silly for even considering yoga like this.

Ultimately, I encourage members not to share anything more about themselves than their first name (or a name they would like to use) if they are uncomfortable; like all transformations, at some point, one has to be willing to step to the edge of current self-knowledge in order to explore the unknown self on the other side. Practicing this way is about taking that first step with lots of support and safety.

C: What were your initial concerns related to teaching an all-male nude yoga class?

PE: My concerns were initially about the intentions behind teaching yoga this way, and the ethical complications seemed to far out-weigh the benefits, in my mind. It was not until I began deeply questioning my own unexamined assumptions about gay male sexuality, and my own body-negative biases, that I could honestly see that nude yoga made a lot of sense. My primary concerns were about the safety and health of those who would be my students in such an atmosphere. I thought, ‘if I am going to do this, it needs to have the right relationship to traditional yoga.’

My approach is somewhat different than other models that have developed around the country. I require that participants go through a short, but formal, phone interview prior to attending a session. In my experience, other [similar] programs have lots of room for body biases to enter the selection process. I purposely do not ask my members about their age, hair color, and ethnicity and other personal information; I do not require photos of my students prior to meeting them. In my impression, Yoga does not care about these details, and neither should I as the instructor. I do ask about both the physical and psychological health of my students as a means of helping them select which of my sessions is the most appropriate for them to attend. I also ask specifically about their comfort levels working in the nude and about non-sexual contact with other men.

C: Male-only nude yoga classes have become a mini-phenomenon in the gay community. Why do you think men, particularly gay men, seem to be called to practice yoga in this type of setting?

PE: My sessions definitely emphasize male-only communal work, but they are not exclusive to gay men. My impression is that men seem to be more in the forefront in establishing nude yoga, but this has more to do with the way we engender social community groups in our society. In terms of the gay emphasis, while my sessions are not exclusive [to gay men], it does not seem unusual to me that gay men are more willing to venture into the socially taboo realm, because they often are at the vanguard of social change in general. I do think it is important, though, to be mindful that gay men did not create nude yoga. It is not an innovative American expression—naked sadhus of India have been letting their nudity speak for them (in terms of how they identify with spirit first) for a very long time. In fact, in Jainist traditions of yoga, there is even a term for this idea, “sky-clad,” now often re-appropriated by modern nude yoga enthusiasts.

C: What is the biggest misconception about the class?

PE: That tantric yoga equates to sexual activity, and that the nude human body is intrinsically sexual. The bulk of my sessions are primarily traditional yoga, and the few tantric practices that are a part of this are rooted more in an understanding that the whole world is inherently a place of power to be joyfully experienced fully through all our senses, rather than the narrow scope of sexual tantric practices.

I categorically refuse to force people to decide that they can be sensual but not be aware of sexual feelings in my class, because it is not my choice to make. What I can do is encourage men to look at what each of these terms really means, and in the context of my sessions avoid creating an atmosphere that fosters sex acts between my students. Similarly, the idea that physical fitness and intimacy are not the same thing from a yogic standpoint is a misperception of a deeper truth. If students cultivate physical fitness, it means they are developing a deeper level of intimacy—with themselves, others, and the world around them.

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