When I opened the gold-painted door to Hot Nude Yogas Chelsea studio, a shirtless muscle-bound black man named Hollis already had his massive arms outstretched. Hi, sweetie! he boomed, beckoning me toward him. I gave him a hug. Next to him stood Aaron Star, the founder of Hot Nude Yoga. A distinctly Chelsea guru, he is tall and good-looking, with closely cropped hair, and he looks younger than his 35 years.
Wed first met at a divey diner in Chelsea called the Eros Caf. Star had just come from a clothed yoga class. He ordered hot chocolate with whipped cream and something called the Eros Special Sandwich. It looked suspiciously like a chicken sandwich with marinara sauce. His laugh is reminiscent of a sustained goose honk, and he laughs often, particularly at his own jokes or at awkward questions. He began to tell me the story of how Hot Nude Yoga was born.
Like a ratty shoelace or a childhood memory, the story of Hot Nude Yoga has split and frayed into a handful of threads. In the most prominent telling it begins in 2001 with an exodus. That year, Aaron Star spent four days and four nights on a train from Wenatchee, Wash., to New York Citys Penn Station. By the time he arrived, he was a rank, foul mess. The man he had met online a few weeks earlier, and with whom he had developed a relationship, took one look at him, called him a car service, and disappeared. Aaron Star was left off at a friends place in Staten Island with his suitcases and a dream. A dream to teach. A dream to teach yoga. A dream to teach yoga to nude gay men.
The vision had first come to Star while he was still a student in Alberta, Canada. I went to a very outdoor-oriented all-boys boarding school, he told me. We used to give each other back rubs and massages and we had a real sense of community. A year later, as a 19-year-old living in Vancouver, Canada, Star ventured deep into the towns close-knit gay scene. I started going to gay bars and was caught up in the whole pickup scene, waiting until last call, he said. It reminded him of boarding school, but with slightly less benign intentions. I knew something could be more healthy than this. In my 19-year-old mind I was thinking, Wouldn't it be really cool to get a bunch of men naked together? Star's dream came true, and at around 6:30 on a recent Sunday night, I was living it.
The yogis giggled, their scrota bouncing gaily in the rotating chiaroscuro. I had never seen so many exposed balls, penises, and butts together in one room.
According to Star, the average age of a Hot Nude yogi is 40 (participants used to submit photographs on registration, but Star has dropped that particular requirement). Of the 10 men around me, one was hot (turns out he was a teacher), one was Hollis (also a teacher, also hot), two were twinks in their 20s, one was French, one made hats, one was Asian, and a couple looked like my dad (older, white, friendly, not incredibly in shape but not too far out of it either). The room was warm but not Bikram-hot. Turns out hot is supposed to refer to the men. The 11 of us stood naked at the base of our yoga mats. Two oscillating heat lamps cast moving shadows across us and the floor. Some sort of Enya-type music was playing in the background. I heard finger cymbals and chimes.
I'm glad you all could come, said Star, lingering salaciously on the last word. The yogis giggled, their scrota bouncing gaily in the rotating chiaroscuro. I had never seen so many exposed balls, penises, and butts together in one room. When I was little, the old guys at the Jewish community center would lounge naked, but their big bellies hung over their crotches like chaste curtains. The 10 other students at Hot Nude Yoga, on the other hand, were reasonably fit. I don't want to deal with someone who hasn't walked to the end of their driveway in a year, he told me. I didn't mention to him that as New Yorkers, none of us likely had a driveway to walk down. He bade us hold hands. We stood in a circle chanting om. I knew I should be dedicating to my practice, but I couldn't help thinking what the neighbors whose windows looked directly into the studio were thinking: Honey, the naked boys are singing again!
In another retelling Aaron Star casts himself as a courageous explorer. In this version, the story of Hot Nude Yoga is the story of the Odyssey, the hottest gay nightclub in Vancouver. For three years, before he became a man of twists and turns, Aaron Star worked there, first as a busboy and later as a waiter. I was a celebrity in my own right; I had a lot of fun, he said with a laugh, adding, I had a lot of sex. Since Star lived with his parents in what he describes as a mansion, he had ample time and money. He spent his days as a scuba instructor, practicing yoga on the side. He spent his nights in the bars, waiting for last call and men. But the fury of action, sex, and scuba instruction couldn't fill the emptiness inside him. "I wanted to get away and discover myself," he told me. "I thought I needed to push out of the nest, so I went to live in the Bahamas for two years." There, like Master Po, he turned his focus inward. "I took the opportunity to really develop my yoga practice," he said, sipping the melting iceberg of whipped cream floating in his hot chocolate. "I realized my passion to teach."
Tanned from his hours in the sun, with the mental clarity of a practicing yogi, and full of passion to teach gay men yoga, naked, Star picked up an atlas, flipped to a page at random, and plunked his finger down. Beneath it was a dot labeled New York City.
We were 30 minutes into Hot Nude Yoga. We were done with handholding and had moved into the partnering part of the class. Thierry V., a very tall 49-year-old Frenchman, was hanging off my shoulders. His partner of 18 years, John, a milliner from County Cork, was across the room. Another man was hanging off Johns shoulders. Next to me, the small Asian man was hanging off the shoulders of someone else. For the hanger, this is supposed to release the back. Its very sensual, explained Star.
Thierry's butt was rubbing against my thighs. His big smiling head hovered above the floor. We had made the beast with two stomachs, not two backs. I was trying to find, as Star puts it, my inner resplendence (It's sometimes hard to find, he added reassuringly), but I was distracted by the 170-pound Gaul hanging off my shoulders. This might hurt your, um..what are these things? asked Star, pointing to his clavicles. Clavicles, someone said. I was practically bent in half in an attempt to keep Thierry aloft. His butt hair and the hair on my thighs were like hot, sweaty Velcro. There must be some level of the inferno like this, I thought. Was it simonists or sorcerers? I couldn't remember.
Soon it was our turn to switch. I kicked up into a handstand, after which Thierry snatched my ankles and threw them over his shoulders. Hollis assisted us. He stood in front of me, his dick hanging inches above my nose. My dick was inverted too and probably as confused as I was about it. Upside down, I surveyed the studio. On one wall was primitive artwork by a B artist, according to Star. From my vantage point, inverted primitive pregnant women stood in line on wooden pallets, like Venuses of Willendorf waiting to check out at the supermarket. I looked out the window toward the New York Sports Club, where a bank of unused elliptical training machines lined the windows along Sixth Avenue. I was happy that no one was running on them. On our windowsill was a little porcelain figure of two men in coitus. The Enya lady was still singing. Thierry bent over, I curled upward. I was sitting on his shoulders. My junk dug into the back of his neck. He gingerly bent all the way down and placed my feet on the floor. I thought about Roald Dahl's BFG placing little Sophie back on the ground. We hugged.
When I walked into Hot Nude Yoga, my reservations were twofold. One constellation of fear related to others, and the other to myself. For me, as a straight man, the notion of being naked with 10 similarly denuded gay men was, in a word, challenging. And it was more than just hanging out naked. According to Star, Hot Nude Yoga, for many gay men, is a great alternative to going to the bathhouse all the time. Hookups are common, if not always expected. In fact, Star even has a speech he gives at the end of class that he dubs the hookup speech. Its short and to the point: Right now your heart is very open, and because of that you want to express yourself sexually, so my suggestion is just to embody that energy and go home.
In the days leading up to the class, I imagined the hot nude men who populated HNYs website frolicking and groping each otherand me. I wasnt registered, so I could only imagine the members explicit stories in the forum section: He was in downward-facing dog. I was standing in tree above him Star had mentioned that there would be a great deal of partnering and something called acroyogaa mixture of acrobatics and yoga. Still, the scenes in my head were less pornographic, more a tragicomedy of manners. I didnt dread the contact, which doesnt bother me, but the almost certain awkwardness that would ensue. A man would cop a feel, I would cop to being straight, he would be pissed, and wed both feel rejected.
Conversely, I was also mortified that I'd get a hard-on. In itself and all things considered, its no big deal. In fact, Star told me, Guys get hard-ons all the time. Gay guys do, but I was straight and, technically, should not be turned on by other men. But my dick is a spiteful, contrary prick. It rarely does what I want when I want it to do it. It would be so like him to get an erection just to spite me and my sexual identity.
Aaron Star and I were staring into each others eyes, his brown, mine darting back and forth uneasily. We were both on my yoga mat, kneeling in front of one another, a few inches separating our knees. OK, he said to the class, one person go into child's pose. He pointed to a spot between his knees. I put my head there. He leaned forward and laid his torso on my back. His hands were on my ass, kneading downward. As he did this, his balls smacked my forehead gently. Killing me softly with his schlong, I sang to myself and stifled a laugh.
What in the name of Shakti did this have to do with yoga? My knees began to ache from the extreme flexion caused by our combined weight. I was distressed about my knees and about the balls on my forehead. I had a hard time focusing on my practice. We switched, and I lay on top of Star, whose face was centimeters from my penis. My face rested centimeters from his ass. I didnt know where to look, so I looked around: at the paintings of fat women, at the other yogis. Some men had their faces buried in the asses of their partners. Some of them, however, had varied the position. Instead of yin-yanging head to crotch, one man had mounted his partner. When everyone returned to their mats, most were at least partially hard. Im sorry, Robert Palmers song entered unbidden into my head. I didnt mean to turn you on. I didnt mean to turn you on-n-n-n.
The real story of Hot Nude Yoga, perhaps, isnt very epic or poetic, but it is universal. Its the story of the hustle. When Aaron Star came to New York City, he had two huge suitcases and no job. He wanted to teach yoga, but the market was tough. By this time, he had been practicing yoga for eight years and had even taught on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. He landed a job teaching at the Reebok Sports Club but was soon fired. (It was very political, he explained.) He wanted to teach at a studio, but most required extensive and expensive training programs. Aaron Star didnt know exactly what to do. He knew he needed an angle. I knew I wanted to teach gay men, but at first I didnt know how I was going to do it, he told me. Then the answer, like a burst of satori under a bodhi tree, came to him: Whats going to get gay men in the door? Well, nudity! And what kind of men do I want? Theyve got to be hot. He placed two ads in the cruisy sex ad section of Next magazine. He set up a Hotmail account. Soon he had his first class at a rented space on the 10th floor of an office building. Men came in droves to stretch and to hook up. It was a beautiful group of men, Star recalled fondly. Were they there to reach Nirvana or to hook up with each other? Look, Star said, men meet on the street, in barswhy not meet at yoga? At least the sex will be better. Stars second class, two weeks later, had 36 students.
That was nearly seven years ago. Today, Star seems to be a happy guru as he sits atop his Hot Nude Yoga empire. He has his own studio. He employs six certified yoga teachers. He stars in his own line of DVDsincluding the Hot Nude Yoga: Hawaii series; Hot Nude Yoga: Virgin; and several other titlesand is building a permanent retreat in Costa Rica. He has plans to franchise his brand worldwide. The day might come soon when gay men across the world can pay $20 per class to strip naked and enter Aaron Stars dream.
I walked out of Hot Nude Yoga trembling and smelling of Thierry V. I was a body in pain. Without my own nudity to distract me, my muscles launched into a chorus of complaint. My hamstrings and shoulder girdle seemed to take it personally that I had stretched them so. My penis, however, despite having been hung upside down and pressed against other men, had remained quiet and obediently limp. I wasnt sure if what I had done was hot or even yoga, but it was nudeand it was even kind of nice. Later, in the shower, I picked one of Thierrys wiry black hairs from my skin and held it in my fingers for a moment before letting it disappear down the drain. And as it went I whispered, Namaste.