On the basis that facing your fear and trying new things keeps you young, Janey Hedge of High50 takes herself to a south London yoga studio on a Monday morning to try naked yoga for the first time. Yoga is about seeing yourself clearly, after all...
Approaching the venue in south London, I berated myself. Why on earth had I volunteered to strip off my clothes in front of people I'd never met before? In broad, pitiless daylight?
Granted, I've always been up for to taking myself out of my comfort zone, particularly as middle age traditionally has a tendency towards conservatism. I've never wanted to be that typical mumsy type who plays things safe as life rushes by. But this was surely a step too far.
It wasn't too late to pull out with some feasible-sounding excuse, even at the last minute. I could blame a late-running train, a cold that'd knocked me sideways, even that moody teenager of mine having another of her domestic crises. She surely required my urgent attention at home.
With faltering steps, I persuaded myself to continue, although doubts continued to raise their ugly heads. Why hadn't I persuaded a girlfriend to come along for moral support?
So Why Won't You Come To Naked Yoga With Me?
Every female friend to whom I'd mentioned my experiment had recoiled in horror while coming up with a list of random and contradictory preconceptions: they'll all be super slim and gorgeous; obviously you don't do yoga naked unless you're an exhibitionist; all the men will either be leering sex maniacs; it'll be a hardcore gay thing.
And what about hair? You'll have to get waxed 'down there'. Imagine doing the 'downward facing dog' position behind somebody with a hairy bum! In other words, my girlfriends thought I was stark raving mad and wouldn't have joined me even if I'd begged.
The walk had been five minutes of hell, but I'd somehow ended up at the venue. As I waited for the teacher to turn up, other participants arrived. To my relief, the four men looked completely normal. Not a rubber-clad gimp or dirty mac between them.
Nevertheless, I prayed for a woman to make an appearance. At the prospect of four men and me, all nude, I couldn't help but feel slightly vulnerable.
Personal safety hadn't been something that had occurred to me, but what if, despite their seeming normalcy, the guys suddenly had a rush of blood to the groin and lunged at me, the lone female?
The Naked Yoga Teacher
The arrival of our teacher, Annette, quickly put my mind at rest. She was so pleasant and calm, so obviously not weird, that I felt churlish for having had doubts. It began to dawn on me that it's a peculiarly British trait to both fear and mock nudity.
In the downstairs shower room, I took off my clothes and wrapped myself in a sarong. Annette had suggested I bring some if that made me feel more comfortable. They'd also be needed to cover the yoga mat I was borrowing.
Pushing aside squeamish thoughts about hygiene (would anybody leak, break wind, or fanny fart?) I made my way up the stairs to the studio.
Four naked men lay on mats with their eyes closed. Scrunching up my own eyes, because I didn't want to seem to be gawping at their willies, I hurried to a spot by Annette. Lying down while gripping my sarong close, I stared at the beamed ceiling and attempted to relax.
Indian music was playing gently, subtle-smelling incense was burning, and a fan heater blew warmth into the room. It was 10am on a Monday morning and I was being invited to chill out - bliss.
'Spread Your Legs Hip-Width Apart'
Annette's quiet voice instructed us in our practice. "Keep your eyes closed," she calmly reminded us as we did positions that involved bringing up our legs with knees bent and parted to hip width. I tugged my sarong so it safely covered my exposed groin. "You're ok, you can do this," I reassured myself.
We glided through a series of poses until the fateful moment came -- it was time to rise from prone to standing. Taking a deep breath, I dropped my sarong to the floor and stood in full, naked glory.
Nothing happened. Nobody rudely stared at my soft belly and no longer pert breasts. Thoughts ran through my mind as my confidence bloomed: I'm 50-plus, I've given birth to two children. I am strong and invincible. I am woman!
I hadn't even realized there was another female in the room, apart from our teacher and me. It was reassuring to see that her body wasn't perfect either, and nor was Annette's. We were just people: stripped of our outer trappings, bare as babies and kind of beautiful as a result.
By the time the class drew to a close, I can honestly report that I felt happier in my skin. I'd sneakily peeked at strangers' nudity and hadn't been aroused, repelled or shocked. It's clothes that accentuate sexiness, I thought, because the nude body itself is downright normal, even wholesome.
My fellow yogis agreed. Once we'd got dressed again, I chatted to a couple of them. Colin, 56, told me, "We're so prudish in this country and regard the human body as indecent or demeaning. But this is a very respectful space where nakedness is an everyday part of life."
Stephen, 59, said, "You don't notice anyone else while doing the class; you're just at one with yourself and looking inwards, not outwards."
Women's Body Confidence
Tina, 41, had a different take. "I was glad you were here too, because I didn't want to be the only woman," she said. "I think we're shyer as a gender, less body confident. Did you notice, for example, how none of the men covered themselves while you, Annette and I all did at the start and end of the class?"
"Perhaps there's more societal pressure on women to have a perfect shape while men are happy to let it all hang out?" I suggested.
"Maybe," she replied. "But when all's said and done, the naked body is actually completely banal."
We all agreed that naked yoga wasn't something we'd have done as young people, when we had more hang-ups and cared too much what other people thought. "The older you get, the more comfortable you become with who you are," said Tina.
I went home feeling quietly proud of myself, having faced the challenge and found it exhilarating. I'd even discovered a secret liking for being naked with strangers. What beckons next -- pole dancing?!
As to sex, which my friends insisted naked yoga was all about? My husband had hoped it would do wonders for us, but my classmates warned me otherwise.
"You feel on a high immediately afterwards, but that doesn't necessarily translate into better action in the bedroom," went the general consensus.
Annette begged to differ, saying, "It puts you in tune with your body, makes you more spontaneous and accepting. In that way, it benefits your sex life, as well as other parts of your life."
So there's only one thing for it: practice makes perfect.
(Janey went to a class at Naked Yoga London)