Women & Trans-Friendly Naked Yoga with Willow Merveille

As a New York yoga enthusiast, I was shocked and surprised when I found out there was naked yoga being offered on West 29th Street. What was naked yoga? I thought, people actually do that? My reaction was not out of judgement but out of the sheer amazement that others were courageous enough to undress in front of a room full of strangers and be cool with it. This was the real testament to one’s own vulnerability.

So I set out on a mission. I needed to talk to the woman in charge of the New York and Boston based yoga studio, Naked in Motion. After a little digging and a couple emails, I got a hold of Willow Merveille, a lovely, open-hearted woman, who grew up in small, conservative town in the Appalachian Mountains. She introduced,“I grew up in a religious, sex-negative, and body-shaming environment. I definitely didn’t know about nudism until I was much older.”

 Matt Blum Photography

 

Early on, Willow gained a passion for ballet since there were no yoga studios in her town. The closest experience to yoga she had was one time in middle school a yoga teacher made her and her classmates do Downward Dog in the cafeteria. After that, she didn’t touch a yoga mat until college in NYC.

Interestingly, she resented how yoga mirrored her dance training/career in the way that they hold values towards performativity. Willow discusses, “This doesn’t apply to all yoga studios, but in general, I saw a culture of “no pain, no gain,” and a fetishization of flexibility. Just like in dance, yoga seemed to be all about how big your backbend was or how close you could get your leg to your face. At least with dance, we all knew that’s what we wanted. Broadly speaking, yoga culture seems to share these values but also pretend not to.”

She would often hear conflicting commands and praises throughout her time as a yoga student. At times, instructors would say “do what I say and don’t hold the class back,” but also, “listen to your body!” She felt there was a culture that gave high praise to students whom the movement came more easily, while others who struggled took the the background.

Now, as an instructor, Willow offers up a more wholesome and compassionate yoga practice where “more is not better, it’s just more”. Willow shares, “I always invite and encourage my students to do less, which could mean lowering a knee for support or skipping your Wheel and doing Bridge sometimes. In a culture of “more,” doing less is about finding the most comfortable (and anatomically sound) version of posture for your body in that moment, one where you can breathe and feel stable. Otherwise, it’s not really asana. I think people tend to force their bodies beyond what is healthy and sustainable in an effort to achieve an external image of a pose. I’d rather see someone put their elbow on their thigh in Extended Side Angle than watch them wince and gasp just for the sake of getting their bottom hand to the floor.”

What radiates from Willow’s practice is that she encourages her students to challenge themselves but feel comfortable in their own limits. She creates a space that allows her students to be comfortable with what they’ve already got—who they walked in the room as. Willow pointed out that it is ironic that naked yoga has become a source of body-positivity since in its historical context, nagna yoga (naked yoga), means to distance the practitioner from the self and body, paving the way to enlightenment. You can read more about the history on her blog.

Willow adds, “I think it’s important to understand naked yoga in a broader historical context. It’s not just the newest fad, like goat yoga, if that’s still a thing. I’m definitely taking a different approach to something that already has roots. I think naked yoga in particular can help you develop a better relationship with your body simply because you can’t hide or avoid your body in a naked yoga class. We avoid what we fear and hide what we’re ashamed of. I think people are terrified of their own bodies, of the things they perceive to be “flaws,” and of certain other people’s bodies.”

Were Willow’s students just super courageous individuals who felt comfortable enough in their skin to get into Downward Dog without any shame? Of course not. As Willow explains, naked yoga is about tackling fear and that is what she is most interested in. “In this space, you have the opportunity to really see your body, the subject of one’s fear, anger, disappointment, and shame, and allow those feelings to be observed while you literally move through them. I believe that a willingness to feel anxious often leads to outcomes where fear is actually lessened, even dissipated. In essence, naked yoga lends itself to body-positivity because it involves a radical act of trust and a willingness to let your body be seen and take up space. It’s not a magic trick: your insecurities aren’t all going to disappear after one class. The challenge lies in the willingness to just show up. Acceptance comes with time, repetition, and patience.”

Willow and her company stand on a feminist foundation, offering an inclusive practice for marginalized individuals to learn and grow with their bodies in a safe environment. Because we live in a society that continues to try to keep people who don’t follow prescribed cultural norms in the closet, her mission seems to ring louder than ever. Willow states, “Certain marginalized groups have gained more recognition over time, but broadly speaking, this is a society that tends to pamper white/straight/cisgender men, exclude people of color, ignore the experience of trans people (binary and non-binary alike), silence sexuality, objectify women, berate fat people, and erase people with disabilities (just to name a few things). A country where a sexual predator can be elected President says a lot about where the majority of opinions lie on a lot of issues. So, do we position ourselves in accordance with societal values? Hell no. We’re joining the many growing movements to oppose all those forces by creating spaces where anyone can feel welcome, respected, safe, and empowered.”

For those who may not feel comfortable attending her all-gender naked yoga class, Willow offers a $10 Women & Trans class. This practice began as an initiative to help accommodate the uncomfortability that trans,cis women, and other binary and non-binary trans folks had with performing in front of cis men. Willow clarifies, “ ‘Women’includes all trans and cis women (of course) and “Trans” in the title is a call to welcome other binary and non-binary trans folks, particularly those who were assigned female at birth.”

I was still curious, how would Willow and her company address the specific issues that Trans and binary and non-binary individuals face when it comes to nudity. Willow assured me that as a cis woman, she could not speak on behalf of the Trans+ community but from what she has learned from her students women and other gender minorities face frequent sexual objectification and an infuriating statistical risk of experiencing violence, sexual and otherwise. Trans people may experience gender dysphoria, or distress about their sex assigned at birth, which could be especially triggering in a naked context.

In order to combat these feelings and offer an enriching naked yoga experience, her company allows trans and cis women, and anyone who was assigned female at birth, the option to wear bottoms for any reason. Willow adds, “We also welcome people to wear anything that affirms and supports their gender, such as binders, chest pieces, packers, or even stylized bras and undies, whether or not they wear these outside the studio.”

In retrospect, after hearing about Willow’s company and her practice, being naked and doing yoga didn’t seem terribly scary anymore. Actually, it sounded refreshing. To be apart of a class that is inherently inclusive, open-minded, and is filled generous compassion, seems to be what we all need in our lives.

We left off with an idea from Willow’s favorite yogi, Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati who talks about yoga as a practice where nothing is missing. If you are missing nothing, there is nothing to take. For Willow this summarizes her company and practice—“I am enough.”

 

Note: Students with an active student I.D. get $5 off tickets to our regular, all-gender classes in both NYC and Boston. Email [email protected] for the sign-up procedure to get the codes. The codes can be used on both our $15 Sliding Scale tickets and our $25 General Admission tickets.

*Check out the new Naked! Women’s Workshop featuring Blissful Embodiment workshop hosted by Instructor Sophia, September 30th from 1:00pm-3:00pm. Sign up here.