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Topless Woman Insists On Topless Yoga in NYC to Promote Equality

in Ethics, Public Display of Yoga, YD News

Lady loses her top to prove her point. Yogis lose their patience. Who comes out on top on the topless issue?

Topless activist Moira Johnston can be seen strolling the streets of the East Village or perusing the veggies at Union Square’s Green Market completely topless. No it is not a crime. In fact, it is completely legal in NYC (since the 1992 ruling) for a woman to bare her breasts. Still, Moira has been (incorrectly) arrested as have others, and she’s taking her activism to places where men can show nips and ladies can’t, like yoga class.

You see, Moira wants to emphasize the point: if guys can go topless in yoga class, why can’t the ladies? And you thought you had a hard time focusing on your mat.

The hubboob all started in January when Johnston decided she wanted to practice yoga topless, at Jivamukti (who, incidentally, got nude for PETA).

Side note: You all remember that totally random “no shirt, no yoga” policy Jiva’s Sharon and David announced, which seemed a little harsh and somewhat bewildering at the time? The new rule stated that “people must wear tops in class and that see-through or overly revealing clothing was discouraged.” Little did we know the topless activist had made a just prior appearance!

Needless to say, Johnston was denied permission to bare her chest and when she went for it anyway, she was booted without a re-entry stamp.

Since then, Johnston’s filed 13 complaints with New York State Division of Human Rights against yoga studios and, according to W+G who interviewed her topless yogi self at the Times Square Solstice event (see above photo), not Bikram Lower East Side nor New York Yoga nor Pure Yoga would let her mammaries breathe freely, to name a few.  But those studios count as privately owned institutions and can therefore make their own ruling on toplessness a la Jivamukti. However, Johnston claims “yoga studios should know it’s a civil rights violation.”

“The most ironic thing is that this is the yoga community, and we’re supposed to be transcending gender and celebrating equality,” says Johnston. “I would have thought that this community would embrace it even if it wasn’t legal.”

Ah yes, because, naturally, yogis these days are so progressive and fancy free they’d prefer no top at all to the suppressive sweatwicking wizardry of stretchy boob masking. The 29-year-old activist, who is on the relatively small-medium chest side, it shall be noted (large-breasted women of yoga know why that’s relevant), says that she’s supporting a woman’s choice to go topless and thinks that “every woman should do it on her own terms.”

While we applaud Johnston’s efforts to prove a valid point  – that we, as a society and culture, see breasts mostly as sexual or commercial objects (see: public breastfeeding issue, the few female action heroes, every lingerie ad, hip hop video, etc.) – and though topless yoga would certainly surpass skin-tight apparel in the list of reasons men might be suddenly interested in yoga, can we blame yoga studios for asking her to keep her top on? At least for now, boobs are still a distraction and for all intents and purposes a downright discomfort in some compromising positions. Though the march is definitely on and in an ideal world everyone who so chooses could feel the breeze all around our frontal thorax. Salamba breastasana, anyone?

What do you think? 

[Daily Beast]



45 comments… add one
  • Kew

    Some people just need to make an issue. Is she trying to make mountains out of her mole hills! I need coverage, my boobs would get in the way otherwise.

  • I requested Moira not join one of our classes at Occupy Yoga when she was topless, mostly because my form of yoga (Kundalini Yoga) has a history of modesty… But it’s also a bit distracting for the class and the teacher if the class is outwardly appearing as a vehicle for a (perhaps not-entirely-related) political statement. I would probably ask a protestor to put their sign down during a class, and as such, I asked Moira to cover herself. Nonetheless, I still have mixed feelings about asking her not to join, and it has made me think personally about what to say if Moira joined our class again. I personally certainly do support her and her message, and thank her for helping me learn something about myself! More power to you.

    • YD

      Thank you, Fateh, for sharing your personal experience and post-class thoughts.

    • Matilda Kerwin

      Would you or have you asked a bare chested male to wear a top. If men and women are required, well, OK – but if only women are required to wear a top …

      • That’s a good question and I don’t have an easy answer. It has to do something with modesty in the style of the yoga, but there’s also subtle and specific yogic energies to be considered, which no one else has mentioned to this point. It is understood in the yogic practice of Kundalini yoga that women also have an secondary arc-line that men do not have, which runs between their nipples (the primary arc-line runs across the forehead from ear to ear – relating to the projection of the 3rd eye). Therefore, there is an additional projection which a woman has in the front area of the chest, which a man does not have. It is sacred. It is also considered for women to be the place where a woman holds the psychic impressions of men she has engaged sexually with through her life. Whether you believe this or not, or experience it or not, these are all subtle and sacred teachings, which one might have to consider in this case — perhaps something to be acknowledged in the case of any women whose choice it is how to display such sacred areas.

        • Mahangun Kaur

          I have read these comments, and was having very mixed feelings. I am a Kundalini Yoga teacher also, and my gut reaction was that this type of behavior was entirely without grace and dignity. So I decided to refamiliarize myself with Yogi Bhajan’s words regarding serving the consciousness of the student. He said, “You are not a teacher if you discriminate for any reason. Just stand by your right teaching, and allow the student to stand by his wrong, and communicate.”. certainly making me think with that neutral mind.

          • Excellent inquiry from two thoughtful Kundalini teachers. Thank you.

          • This is a shameless plug, and only tangentially on topic, but if you go to Occupy Yoga’s Facebook page and scan the cover photo, you can see Moira in one of our free classes from this Spring. We welcome all, but whew!! Teaching classes in public in Union Square Park is never without its distractions… adding a topless woman to the mix there would be like throwing hot sauce on a jalapeno soup.

            >> https://www.facebook.com/occupyyoga <<

  • Lotus

    If a group or individual decides that a certain behavior is disruptive, distracting, or provocative of discomfort, this is a subjective judgment. If that individual’s actions do not objectively interfere with another person’s desires and choices, then attempting to prohibit that individual’s choices is a violation of that individual’s right to control their body. In other words, it’s not Ms. Johnston’s breasts that distract the other participants, it is the other participants’ values regarding Ms. Johnston’s breasts that distract them.

    On the surface, this may seem like a minor issue, but consider that by telling Ms. Johnston what she must wear, an organization claims the right to make decisions about Ms. Johnston’s body. The objectification and commodification of women’s bodies is a big issue in our culture. And in my view, Ms. Johnston’s protest begins to address the issue of women reclaiming ownership of their bodies from an angle that no one else seems to have thought of.

    I will concede, of course, that a yogi has the right to make decisions regarding their own studio. But by choosing the comfort of some over the rights of others, such a yogi would deny those uncomfortable people the option to confront their stigmas and become a little more enlightened.

  • annmarie

    Where I teach we do not allow the men to take off their shirts because it is not practicing modesty and it would be distracting plus a t-shirt would absorb sweat rather than share it with a yogi neighbor— same reason for woman. Here it is not an equal opportunity issue. It is the same for all genders.

    • lilyogi

      please let me know what city, state and the name of your studio is so if i am ever there, i will not step into that studio. i am going to guess it is not hot vinyasa or bikram but some hatha type for beginners. shirts come off for men in our studio in birmingham, mi – one of the best btw 🙂 …it’s the heavier set men that have an issue with showing their man boobs.

      • annmarie

        Hi teach at a community college

      • Randy

        One of the best, if you may say so yourself? Modesty is clearly not an issue with you. I don’t think I’ll ever be in Birmingham, MI so there’s absolutely no chance I would have to worry about stumbling across your little gym.

  • Michael

    I’m all for bare breasts, but just as a restaurant or nightclub can dictate a dress code for patrons, so can a yoga studio. No one’s rights are being violated here. Find a studio with a lax dress code and go there.

  • Twisted Yoga Sister

    No thanks! I don’t need someone advocating for my right to go bra less at yoga. The “Girls” don’t feel the need to show themselves at yoga class.

  • Does she also wear them see-through yoga pants the LuLu’s fovour?

  • Steve

    I’ve seen a plenty that’s more questionable in yoga classes and those folks were wearing clothes.

  • LA

    I am glad that this video was posted, because once seeing her speak, I really get what she is saying and I commend her for it. I am a breastfeeding mom and I remember my breasts going through a bit of an “identity crisis” when my baby was first born and my boobs went from “fun” to “function”. It really dawned on me then, that society had really shaped my relationship with my breasts. Even I (who had always considered myself a strong, grounded, feminist female)- had always thought of my own breasts in more of a sexual light than anything else.

    I think it’s great to challenge people’s way of thinking. If I saw Moira in a yoga class topless, I’ll be honest I’d probably question her motives. There are lots of hipsters showing up in sheer tops and no bras these days- which also is ok, to each their own- but it seems more of a style choice than a political statement. But if I found out WHY she is going topless, I would truly support her. (No pun intended!)

  • I’m not thinking of this in terms of legalities. I see her as pushing back against what she sees as an unfair cultural norm. And I admire her for taking it to the streets for what she believes in. I can also feel for the studio who is being put on the spot and possibly is feeling coerced into joining Moira’s movement.

    No doubt many will think she oughtn’t be taken seriously, but gender bias is of course a serious issue. And I can’t for the life of me find any offense in what she is doing. So, why the prohibition, seems to me to be a fair question. She is raising an issue that is not just about wearing her shirt. And I appreciate having my attention directed to my own samskaras.

  • I think it is good to be passionate about a cause. I might chose hunger, AIDS, or something else. Going bare chested is not something I see as a relevant social issue. To each, their own.

    • Karen Mills

      Really gender equality is not as relevant!
      Ok Aids is not as relevant cause hey don’t sleep around like hoe!
      Ok Hunger is not relevant, cause you should not reward lazy people – go get a job!

      Plus hungry and aids is nature balancing diversity!
      Too many humans many for environmental catastrophy wich will end billions at some point if unchecked. So Bare Breasts is good cause then your causes!

      To each their own:)

  • more power to her

    As long as she is staying safe, I admire her strength and courage in challenging the status quo and male privilege.

  • Whatever…tops or no top. Businesses (because that what yoga studios are) have the right to set their policies as they like. Patrons can choose whether or not to go to them. I prefer not to bring my causes, my politics, my issues, etc. into a studio and onto my mat. If someone was that hot and warm they felt like they must take off their shirt or that they would really uncomfortable, then I could see the point. If someone is just doing it to raise a point, issue, etc., then I wonder where the intention lies. I want to practice yoga at a yoga studio and don’t need or want an agenda when I do so. I couldn’t possibly practice topless–not necessarily because of modesty–but because of the discomfort. Alas! They would get in the way of most postures. I love a good supportive top that wicks away the sweat. I also don’t like a mat sticking to my back. I would prefer the topless issue be pushed elsewhere–breastfeeding in public, for one being topless on a beach.

  • Well, that was rife with typos! Sorry! 🙂

  • I can completely agree with what she is doing. I see what she is going for. Especially if it isnt illegal. I do think there are things about women that are not applied to men. We tend to have more stigma on our body parts for example getting kicked off the floor speaking for saying “vagina”.

    On the other hand, I do agree with what someone said up top. About how clubs and restaurants having a dress code, yoga studios have the right as well. Certain things may not be found productive to their work environment.

    I’m glad she feels comfortable with herself and encouraged other women to be so. This however is America. And we do not have the same openess as countries across seas about the body. Which is not exactly a good thing, just the way it is. Perhaps there will be some change in later years. All in all, both sides are correct in my opinion.

  • A while back my sister finally gave yoga a try. One student wore a kilt a la natural. Well, that is all she has talked about for the last 5 years as far as yoga goes! Now this student apparently needed to express themself in a class regardless of what others thought. I have purposefully left the sex of the kilt wearer out of this story as it really does not matter.

    There are nude yoga classes in California so there must be in NYC.

  • Boodiba

    I think it’s really great that she’s making a statement on inequality. Any studio that denies her the right to go topless ought to deny the right to men as well. I’ve practiced at Pure West, for one, and I can say the men take their shirts off freely.

  • I think we’re taking yoga out of its traditional cultural context here. If you practise in India in for example the Sivananda lineage you will be asked to wear a loose fitting long pant and a shirt that covers your arms and doesn’t have your boobs falling out. The point is to get beyond the idea of physical attraction and to focus on using asanas as a tool to work with the mind. And guys let’s be honest – if there’s a top less woman in class we can’t help looking and here we go, our thoughts are elsewhere. Isn’t it the same with meditation and pranayama? You create the space that allows you to completely focus on your practice?

    • John I

      Two things:

      I don’t need nudity to be distracted by females in the class
      As far as taking yoga out of its traditional cultural context, that ship has sailed.

  • kat

    I wonder what the media coverage and reactions would be if she was 30 years older.

  • Chris

    I’m all for throwing out contemporary social constructs, but is this really the way to do it?

    I guess I’m wondering why some people do things like this. Act in a way that you know you will be judged for, only to judge others for judging you (and try and change their minds)? It almost seems like there is an egotistical aspect to doing things like this.

    Would it be more effective to act in this way, without speaking out about it? What I mean by that is, what if she went around topless and got thrown out of places and did nothing about it (not filing complaints)? This doesn’t mean stop trying (although I suppose you could run out of places to go), but I think a little civil disobedience goes a long way; As opposed to ‘calling out’ studios and business’ for simply maintaining their establishments standards/ethics.

    @ Fateh – Makes perfect sense. Some traditional values/philosophies in different lineages would obviously outlaw such behavior, as you outlined in your Kundalini example.

    As everyone said, I see the good in her actions, but I also see, I want to say the stupidity, of the argument at the same time. This woman seems to have intentions of disrupting the typical yoga class atmosphere, obviously with beneficial intentions. But, people are going for a certain experience, and it is selfish for someone to come impose on their experience.

    PS – I’m a man, and yes I take my shirt off in studios. I sometimes practice nude, but only in privacy. I don’t see why it would be such a big deal to put some clothes on for an hour if you want to go to a class. If they told me to put my shirt on, I probably would either do it, or go somewhere else. Not filing any complaints!

  • Claire Litton

    Andrea said: “if there’s a top less woman in class we can’t help looking and here we go, our thoughts are elsewhere. Isn’t it the same with meditation and pranayama?”

    Ummm, so how is this different from victim-blaming in cases of sexual assault? Not to get all melodramatic, but this is basically the same as “Well, if you wear a short skirt, it’s your own fault if someone grabs your butt.” NO. We should be teaching people not to grab butts. Similarly, if you are distracted by a topless woman (but NOT a topless man) in a yoga class, maybe that is a good chance to work on YOUR concentration, issues, and emotional states.

    If the toplessness is not deliberately provocative, which hers isn’t (by which I mean, she’s not fondling herself or performing obscene acts, she’s just practicing topless in venues where men are free to practice topless), I honestly don’t see the problem. Either all toplessness should be allowed, or none of it should be.

    (Leaving aside that it will be much easier for you to not pay attention to something unusual if it becomes usual — if you see a topless woman in class all the time, you’ll stop staring at her eventually and it won’t be such a big deal.)

  • Patricia Juarez

    Here is the funny part about this story… In NYC no one even looked twice at her! That’s what I love about NYC.. Nothing is too odd or weird for NYC!
    There is an activist that runs topless in Phoenix in races, 10 K’s etc. She has had a double mastectomy and does this to give focus on breast cancer. FYI, so NYC, we did this before you! Old news. Now go out to the market bottomless, pubes and all!

  • Nancy Douglas de Baca

    When I was young and barely a “B”cup, I wanted equality. I wanted to wear a sports bra-like top in public and go topless indoors wherever it was no issue. Now I am fat, over 50, and my girls are “D” cup. I like a proper bra just to keep them from melting down my body. And I want a T-shirt in class. My studio wears tops and bottoms, men & women both. I don’t want the sweaty style classes or nude yoga because I have seen enough bodies in my life, thank you. Although with my glasses off, I can’t see anything in class anyway.

  • ryan

    At 1:04 in the video, the dude in the background is just relaxing.

  • My husband practices yoga in a studio that doesn’t allow men to take off their shirts (they have a “no nipple policy”) this is hot yoga by the way. I believe that the teachers have this policy out of fairness to the women.

    Sometimes he complains that he would really like to be able to see his torso, so that he can check his alignment. I remind him that there could be women that feel this way as well, but they wouldn’t be allowed to.

    I have found it hard to explain to my young daughter that when we are very hot, the men are allowed to be comfortable and take off their clothes but the woman cannot. And I remember the moment I realized this as a young girl and the feeling it gave me was one of inferiority and imparted a self-consciousness on my body that I didn’t have before that moment. Personally, I think that feeling is one of oppression.

    If a person who only had one limb wanted to take yoga, would you turn them away because they were “distracting”? I think that is not a fair reason to tell a woman to put her shirt on. If more women did it, it would become less distracting.

    I’m sure there are men that are overweight or self-conscious and would not take their shirts off, but does that mean that they should tell other men not to either?

    If you are wondering if something is sexist, just ask yourself, is this something the boys have to deal with? if your answer is no, then it is sexism. simple as that.

  • Elena Brower

    Moira came to my class this week and was super sweet. We had one student who was taken aback and uncomfortable but otherwise biz as usual. Even somewhat refreshing. Agenda or no, I’m cool with it.

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