By Joshua Stein
When I opened the gold-painted door to Hot Nude Yoga's 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.
We'd 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 City's 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 friend's 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 town's 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.
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.