Soma Be spent a lot of the 1980s and ’90s heavily medicated.
Soma had been chronically depressed since the time he’d graduated from Bethel College in the late 1970s. The next couple decades he recalls “not doing much.”
By 1990, he’d been prescribed “tons and tons of medication” for anxiety and depression, leaving him in a drugged haze. At night he couldn’t sleep, and aimlessly wandered the streets of the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. One night he got mugged. Another time he found a murdered woman’s body.
Then one day Soma passed out on the floor of his apartment, lying unconscious for hours. A neurologist determined he was suffering from something called “serotonin syndrome,” brought on by taking several times the normal dose of Prozac, among other drugs.
Soma had to wean off this dependence without giving in to depression. A therapist suggested yoga.
At the end of his first session, the teacher guided the class into the “Savasana” pose: flat on their backs, eyes closed, palms facing up, breathing deeply, mind clear. “I thought, ‘Holy shit, I feel so sweet, and so good now.’ I began to realize this was a whole other way of looking at things.” He’d discovered his life’s passion.
This new interest intersected with an old one: nudity. As a kid growing up in western New York, Soma loved to wander the woods, alone and naked. As an adult, he modeled for art classes, and joined the Minnesota Naturists, a collective that organizes “activities in the buff” for a few hundred members.
Soma learned of a nude yoga class held at a home in Minneapolis. He was instantly hooked. After a few years, the teacher informed her class that other obligations meant she’d have to stop.
Soma answered the call, enrolling in a 235-hour training course at Devanadi Yoga Studio, and inheriting the nude class as he worked toward certification.
Each week, small groups—as few as two people, often as many as 10—arrived at the home in south Minneapolis. Naked yoga comes with the same etiquette as other nude activity: Look people in the eyes, don’t gawk. Erections happen, and should be covered with a towel. “Scopers” whose leering makes people uncomfortable won’t be invited back.
Yoga presents its own challenges. The class forms a circle facing inward, toward the teacher, instead of rows. Why? “When you’re doing downward-facing dog,” Soma explains, “you could gaze up and be looking right up someone’s butt.” For poses that involve spreading legs apart, the class faces outward. Soma doesn’t touch anyone to help them find the position.
“He approaches us as equals,” says Tom Roark, 68, a retired house-weatherizing expert who’s attended nude yoga for years. “And the spiritual aspect of yoga is very important to him, more than the physical discipline. The ideas of acceptance, and mindfulness, are a really big deal to him.”
In 2015, Koreen Valdovinos, who took up yoga after years spent in corporate marketing, started Open Minds Fusion Studio in a busy section of Lyn-Lake. She reached out to Soma; he quickly agreed to co-teach nude yoga there in the summer of 2015.
“No expensive yoga pants required!” joked the online listing for “SomaSuna,” a class title that combined their yogi names.
A year went by without incident. But the following summer, Minneapolis’ licenses and consumer services department sent a letter, accusing the studio of “operating as an adult entertainment center by offering classes with nudity.” The letter defined “adult entertainment” as any indoor venue that charges admission, and where customers may encounter “any portion of the female breast below the top of the areola, or any portion of the male or female pubic hair, anus, cleft of the buttocks, vulva, or genitals.”
Minneapolis zoning laws restrict adult entertainment to downtown and nearby neighborhoods; the city demanded the nude classes end immediately.
Soma and Valdovinos were taken aback. No inspector had visited the studio or observed the class; the letter was based on looking them up online. They thought they were teaching people about balance and mindfulness. If those people wanted to get turned on, they had easier options. Still, they decided not to fight.
They probably could have. “I’m not a yoga person,” says lawyer Marshall Tanick, “but it sounds like the city is stretching into contortions of its own.” Tanick says the case recalls one where he represented musicians whose recording studio jam sessions were accused of being “entertainment,” and in violation of zoning.
Tanick’s clients argued they were working, and the small audience who sometimes joined them were part of the recordings. Eventually, they reached an agreement with the city that kept them playing, though restricted their hours. By comparison, Tanick says nude yoga “may be entertaining, but it doesn’t really sound like entertainment.”
For now, Soma, who also teaches several clothed yoga classes, is happy to continue in the “cozy” atmosphere of the private home. To be on the safe side, he’s switched his “charge” to a suggested “donation” in the $10-$15 range.
Soma blames the studio shutdown on America’s inability to see nudity as anything but sexual. He remembers the time a few years ago, when officials in a Twin Cities suburb learned of (and quickly shut down) a regular private nudist bowling event. What could possibly be less sexy than bowling?
To be naked around others, including strangers, is “transgressive” and “radical,” Soma says, and that’s part of the appeal.
But it’s also “empowering” and “wonderful,” and fits his passion. “Yoga is about rising up from our beautiful bodies, while going deeper, and getting higher vibrations and energies of self-realization.”
These days, he sleeps better than ever.
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