When Jeff Vilensky was on the hunt for wellness spaces and yoga studios, he would often ask himself a simple question: “Where the f*ck are the men?!”
Every space offering those services in New York City seemed to be dominated by women. As a gay man, Vilensky was looking for a place where he could find community… with other men!
He opened Male Massage Exchange (MMX) in 2010, and hasn’t looked back. Today, MMX is a private massage, yoga and wellness center with over 6,000 members, featuring physical locations in NYC and Fire Island.
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MMX’s guiding principle is centered around the importance of touch, which studies show activate core hormones, such as oxytocin and adrenaline.
At MMX, members are encouraged to embrace one another–literally. The studio’s yoga practice is entirely nude.
There’s a method behind the exhibitionism.
“A lot of yoga programs, you’re in your own space, your own mat. God forbid your pinky finger touches someone. Our classes, we want your hand to brush someone. It’s OK,” said Jeff. “You can meet people. They don’t want to just come take the class and leave.”
The community is so tightly knit, Jeff says some members have even found their romantic partners through the practice.
“People have met significant others in our classes, they’ve met friends,” he says. “That’s what makes me super happy: people come to our classes and they end up telling me, ‘We’re dating now!’ That’s amazing, that’s great.”
MMX Yoga boasts a robust social media presence, with regular photo shoots taking place throughout the year. They create beautiful images that wouldn’t feel out of place in any Tom of Finland-inspired exhibit.
Queerty recently caught up with Jeff and two of his top yogis: Seneca and Phillip Pettiford, the current director. The conversation was centered around naked yoga, and all of its liberating benefits. Here’s what they had to say…
QUEERTY: Why nude yoga?
JEFF: It used to be very hard for me to take my clothes off in front of other men. So much fear. Now, it’s like a natural practice. I have no problem walking into any room with any group and taking my clothes off. … A lot of people come, and find such freedom once they get over that.
SENECA: Yoga is an ancient practice started in Hindu and Buddhist temples, where men practiced with each other to warm up for meditation. So it makes a great deal of sense. Secondly, it allows for students to also see what proper form should look like. It’s a lot easier to see how to execute a pose when you can see someone doing that without the obfuscation of clothes. Thirdly, there are no good clothes for yoga, to be honest. Your shirt is falling down, you’re often in inversions. It removes a distraction layer that shouldn’t be there. And honestly, it brings people closer to together. There’s a level of honesty and truth that comes when that barrier is removed.
What’s the biggest misconception about nude yoga?
SENECA: That you have to be really fit and flexible to attend and participate. When anyone experiences the class, they realize that’s not the case. Yoga meets you where you’re at.
PHILLIP: The question we get most often is, “What would happen if I get a [you know what]?” But the truth is, you’re working super hard in a yoga class, and the blood is probably going to flow to other places. People underestimate how much in your experience you are, and how nourishing that is. The fear quickly dissipates, because you’re in a pool of your own sweat.
How do you ensure the space stays inclusive?
PHILLIP: It has to do with how we structure our classes, using inclusive language. We encourage our facilitators to hold and create a space that feels supportive and nurturing and loving. As people come in, we start with an ice breaker and introduction to help people feel comfortable in the room. And most of us teach strong practices, so any embarrassment you’re having you wind up forgetting about as you get into the yoga. When we come up and stand and are ready to interact with each other, I feel like all of that dries away, and we’re ready to dive in.
What’s the science behind the benefits of touch?
PHILLIP: Touch activates so many of the core hormones and chemical reactions that are healthy for human growth. They make you alive, they make you feel loved. They refocus your brain, from oxytocin to adrenaline. All of that is related to touch. When we’re young, we’re touched a great deal. As one matures, one is unfortunately touched less and less. That shows how singular and isolating contemporary life can be. To actively try and reverse that practice, and acknowledge that touch is a central part of life, is part of our philosophy.
JEFF: As someone who’s sore all the time, I just love massage!
What are the sexual benefits to a regular yoga practice?
JEFF: In addition to blood moving and stretching, there’s been studies about doing yoga for sexual performances, such as lasting longer and getting out of your head. We don’t offer tantric yoga, but we offer tantric experiences, which is being able to balance your sexual energy. It’s all related. We do a lot of bringing energy up to your root chakra, and crown chakra, moving that around.
PHILLIP: A big thing that yoga does is strengthen your mula bandha, and the pelvic floor, which is a muscle we use when we’re having sex. It increases stamina. You start to build that muscle up over time. It also makes you a little more flexible.
What are the sexiest yoga poses?
SENECA: Downward dog, when you are assisted by somebody else, is an incredible pose. Just the openness of the back is really extraordinary. That would be my vote.
PHILLIP: Mine would definitely have to be frog, mostly because it showcases the butt in such a certain way.
JEFF: My favorite pose for men is pigeon. It’s not really sexy, but it’s a great hip opener. It’s an excellent pose.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.