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Vancouver yoga instructor Ron Stewart encourages his students to relax and let it all hang out, quite literally.

Stewart, 45, teaches naked yoga, a workout that incorporates all the poses, stretches and meditation exercises of conventional hatha yoga, but, as the name suggests, is done in the nude.

"In a yoga context, when you consider that we are all naked under the fabrics, under the clothes and the designer labels, it makes complete sense to remove them and get back to something more basic," Stewart says. "When you get a room full of people naked, there's no status. I feel like I can genuinely say there's less ego."

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Naked yoga classes have been offered for years in major American cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle. It was only a matter of time before it hit yoga-loving Vancouver, even if it is the home of Lululemon.

Stewart, who is also a professional dancer, began teaching naked classes a little more than a year ago at a Gastown studio; in April, he moved to a larger space at the Scotiabank Dance Centre downtown. The all-male naked yoga classes, offered twice a week by his Skyclad Yoga company, are regularly full, drawing about 30 students to each.

Attendees are typically aged 30 and older, and include all body types and levels of expertise. Many have never tried yoga before, Stewart says. "For a lot of them, it's comforting to have only men in the room."

It's the same philosophy behind women-only gyms. But although women are active in naked yoga groups in the United States, so far, they have not embraced the trend in Vancouver. Stewart says a female associate tried offering naked classes for women last year and received little response.

Naked yoga for men is also budding in Montreal: David Flewelling, who operates the city's Mudraforce Yoga, says he has enough students to offer three men's classes a week (N.B.: Bring your own mat).

"I was pleasantly surprised to find out there was a niche in Montreal for that," he says.

Most participants are gay, both Flewelling and Stewart acknowledge. But Stewart emphasizes that the sessions are not about sex. Rather, the aim is to provide a non-judgmental environment where men can practise a physical and spiritual activity. He likens the experience to skinny-dipping.

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Before class starts, Stewart pulls down the blinds and turns on soft-hued studio lamps to replace unflattering overhead lighting.

Then, he and his students roll out their mats, strip down and begin.

Since everyone is focused on his own breathing and postures, any feelings of insecurity and shyness dissolve within minutes, Stewart says.

"[Being naked]becomes the wallpaper, the background. What becomes the foreground is the physical experience."

Bring your own mat

Skyclad Yoga

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Scotiabank Dance Centre, 677 Davie St., Vancouver,

604-988-1422,

http://www.skycladyoga.com.

Mudraforce Yoga

402-404 St. Pierre, Montreal, 514-499-2935,

http://www.freewebs.com/mudraforce/nakedyoga.htm.

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