To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.
— Thich Nhat Hanh
In the early 90’s, there was a rather seedy-looking bar near my office in mid-town New York City called “Billy’s Topless.” It was what it was (it’s now a bank), a throwback to a different time and place in our culture. While I did go in once for a colleague’s bachelor party, what I most remember about the place is a joke my work friend at the time would make every time we passed: “I wish Billy would put his shirt back on.”
Which brings me to hot yoga. I’ve been attending lately a studio offering this sweat and stretch experience, and although a mask is required, making breathing in a super-heated room even harder, it’s been wonderful for my joints and more for my pandemic-isolated soul — to be back doing exercise in a community setting.
I am not particularly good at hot yoga, if good means being able to meet and hold the poses in the series. In fact, on that measure, I am quite bad at hot yoga, as I rarely achieve a form befitting what is demonstrated by the teacher and usually revert back to standing with hands by my side or, if on the floor, lying flat before a pose is finished. But I’m told there is really no “good” or “bad” when it comes to hot yoga (or any form of yoga), and that the only real measure of success is that you try your best and that you stay in the room until the final gong.
Which I always do.
I also always wear a shirt in class. Many men don’t, and I’ve often envied them as it certainly is cooler (in the literal sense) and maybe even in the figurative. But I’m inhibited, a bit body conscious in my middle ages, and so I keep my Tee on and perspire through it so much it resembles a used dishrag.
But the other day, entering the yoga room, the heat, to me, was particularly fierce. I spread out my mat, waiting for class to begin, already worrying if I could get through the class. Next to me was another gentleman, about my age. I saw he had his shirt off, and that he looked calm and collected on his mat, as opposed to my panic.
I looked at myself in the front mirror for a moment, glanced at the man next to me again, and with perhaps too much drama, made the move and took off my shirt.
The change in my physical comfort was immediate. And my psyche. I felt brave, free, proud I had let go of fear and insecurity and embraced who I really was.
I was feeling all this even before the first pose. And then another man, much younger, came in and put his mat on my other side. He was also shirtless. And he sported an amazing set of lean muscles and the proverbial “six-pack.” I looked at him and the old negative feelings about my more or less pear-shaped torso came back. I even thought of putting back on my shirt. But I didn’t. And as the class persisted, and we worked through pose after pose, I began to feel less threatened by this young man, and more part of the common struggle to get through the class and endure the heat and the exertion.
By the end, I had regained again all the good I had felt in that moment when I tossed my shirt aside. And as we all left the room, I nodded acknowledgment at the man who had inspired me to mimic him and remove my Tee, and the younger man. It was a shared moment of doing something hard, but worthwhile. A communal moment. An empowering one.
So going back to the start, if Billy wants to go topless, that’s fine. Perhaps, maybe, I’ll even see him one day in yoga class.