10 Thoughts About Moira Johnston, Her Breasts, and the Yoga Studios Who Fear Them

The statements below represent a snapshot of the Babarazzi collective mind, and are not intended to represent the entire scope of our feelings on the matter. We offer these only as simple talking points. The truth is, if you must know, we don’t care what people decide to wear when they practice yoga, so long as it does not interfere with the physical and audible space of fellow practitioners. Here, however, are some other ideas to consider:

1. Cultural norms are defined by the culture within which they appear. They are always in a state of flux.
There are few, if any, universal sets of normative behaviors that can be found throughout the various societies of the world. Whether it be burping, farting, kissing, hand-holding, justice, friendship, or beliefs in what makes a person “sexy,” all cultures have their own unique ways of interpreting social customs and behavior. This extends down subcultures within a dominant culture, as well.

2. The concept of “modesty” is an ever-shifting intersection of varying cultural norms within a society.
Modesty is one of the many areas in which a culture may define and, ultimately, differentiate itself from the cultures beyond it. So, while the showing of a young woman’s skin may be acceptable in the US, it is typically not so in, especially, rural areas of India. That said, while it is deemed gross or even inappropriate for an elderly woman to display large portions of her skin openly in the US, in other cultures doing so is considered very much accepted.

3. Discrimination has no place in the practice of yoga.
A good yoga teacher will be able to make accessible the practice and teachings of any one single tradition to anyone who desires to be taught and shows a determination to be so. Other good teachers will admit when they are unable to do so.

4. A baby kitten is born without its whiskers every time legal channels are pursued in a yogic debate when good ol’ fashion shunning was a viable option.
We believe it to be a societal failure when legal channels are needed to mediate civil issues that could have been dealt with otherwise.

5. Shunning and boycotts place power in the hands of common people, a reaffirmation of where power resided all along.
When a yoga studio goes against the agreement communities have made with the State defining the rights of “its citizens” to, say, live a topless lifestyle, the people of that community have a right, if not a duty, to challenge and/or reject the offending studio.

6. Yoga studio owners should not assume that, if given the option, all women will immediately begin to practice yoga publicly topless. The State has provided women with this option since 1992.
We know what you’re thinking, yoga studio owner. You’re thinking that if the State makes it mandatory for you to allow women to practice yoga topless in your studio, that you will be inundated with topless train wrecks bulging from the seams. Don’t worry. Read #7.

7. Anatomy and varying levels of comfort, both physical and emotional, will be the determining factors in whether or not a person decides to practice yoga topless. This goes for women, men, and all genders and non-genders in-between and beyond.
Not every person who practices yoga is dying to do so without a top on. For some it’s a too-much-sweat issue. For others it’s a not-enough-sweat issue. For others it’s a my-boobs-are-bruising-my-face-and-stomach issue. For others it’s a back-acne issue. This list goes on and on and on.

8. Yoga studios requiring practitioners to wear shirts during practice in response to women not wanting to do so, is lazy and, on some level, probably an example of unchecked sexism.
When a yoga studio such as Jivamukti decides to create a new enforce a previous rule making shirts a requirement for all practitioners only after a women attempts to do otherwise, it’s hard to see this as anything other than lame and subconsciously sexist. A woman exercising her right to bare her breasts is not by definition immodest. Defining it as such sounds more like lingering cultural baggage that needs to be aired out.

9. Since it appears that most people with a serious yoga practice seem to care little about whether or not a woman chooses to practice yoga topless, perhaps the debate has more to do with yoga studio owners and their own financial interests, than it does with people who actually practice.
Most practitioners we have talked to could care less about this issue. We feel that in that is the real answer to this debate.

10. A yoga practitioner will benefit most fruitfully by focusing on his/her own yoga practice and not on the practice of others.
Practice yoga. Listen to your teacher. Get on with life. This is our best advice, and we offer it to students, as well as teachers.


  1. Yoga Dude

    I am sure there is a contingent of men who fear they will never be able to perform Shalabasana comfortably if they practice in the presence of exposed female breasts.

    Oh, and #10 for the win…

    • wondering

      How come no one wants the freedom/right to go bottomless? that would be Juicy!!!! I would imagine men would fear that asana even more if the men went bottomless

  2. I suppose if a center had a no-shirt-OK policy for men and then changed it after a woman challenged it then yes that would be lame. However, as a common courtesy, most centers have a no shirt policy regardless of gender.

    Having said that, #3 is incorrect. I agree that it is the job of a teacher to make practice accessible and admit when they are lacking this skill. But discrimination has always had a place in yoga (in the understanding rather than prejudicial sense of course.) The entirety of yoga philosophy is based on a form of discrimination. Yoga Sutras 2.26-2.29 is often referred to as: “The 8 rungs of Yoga are for Discrimination.” Perhaps I’m parsing semantics here but its worth mentioning given that this entire post seems to me an exercise in “recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another”, aka discrimination.

    • I agree with yr point about #3 completely. The word “discrimination” is perhaps poorly chosen on our part. How might you reword it? Let’s see if we can come up with something. Consider this a rough draft.

      As for the shirt policy, yes, we were speaking specifically of the switch made by Jivamukti, and not the policy in general.

      • Simon Maxwell Apter

        In the interests of accuracy and fact-checking: Jivamukti has maintained a shirts-must-be-worn policy since at least 2008, when I started practicing there. Though I’ve never seen it enforced, and while a wonderful epistemological debate can be had over whether an unenforced rule is, in fact, a rule, the Jivamukti policy is, strictly speaking, an old rule.

        • Thanks for the correction. Got a link/reference?

        • Simon Maxwell Apter

          I remember having read the rule when I first practiced there in ’08, and it was a rule explicitly taught to us at Jivamukti Teacher Training. Also, please let me be clear that I’m commenting for the sake of accuracy, not to support, defend, or provide commentary on the no-shirts/shirts policy of Jivamukti (or any yoga center/studio). This is a necessary and fascinating debate!

          There is a “Yogi Manners Says…” link at the top of this page (direct link is not available): http://www.jivamuktiyoga.com/fms/class_fm.html

          • Thanks, Simon! If you find something in writing, we’ll be happy to update the post to reflect that. Which will be easy enough to do.

            Thanks for taking a look at our lil’ site.

  3. I find it quaint that in an environment where many people decorate their skin within inches of free space (but please don’t stare) a pair of breasts is going to divert their gaze more than a tiny piece of lycra covering a coveted pair. Just because a behavior causes you discomfort is not enough reason to pound a rule on a wall. If that were the case, my daughter and my parents would never be allowed to have sex.

  4. Bobcat

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’ve tried doing Mayurasana naked (at home). It simply did not work (sweaty arms and hanging boobs = failure launching). Fabric gives the arms some traction and a bra keeps the breasts in place. But I feel women should be able to safely go about her day topless wherever men can. Norms also depend on situations. You would feel awkward being clothed at Esalen or Habin hot springs.

    Cultures that repress women into being excessively clothed so, the men are not distracted are oppressive in all ways. When breasts are not seen to be sexual but another organ like an arm or a leg there will be less breast implants and female abuse. I see it to be super backward, inconvenience and degrading for women to have to cover up while breastfeeding. Girls in some part of the world right now are being beaten and called whores often by their own mother just because they show their arms and legs.

    Bravo to Moira for standing up for herself and women all over the world. If she wants to practice yog topless, more power to her.

  5. Yogi145

    Carlos Menjivar, Director at Jivamukti, told Johnston that the rule was for everyone to wear shirts for the past 14 years.
    However, they have openly allowed men to practice without a shirt, including Jivamukti-certified instructors such as Jai Sugrim and Will Lao at the Jivamukti Tribe gathering in January of 2012, led by founders Sharon Gannon and David Life.
    For more examples, see “Jivamukti Yoga School”, their main promotional video on Youtube, posted in 2007, which exhibits two male students in their NYC studio practicing without a shirt in this 6-minute segment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_B9lluBF4sU
    See (1:42) and (3:41)
    Any teacher or student at the school could have seen this as a regular occurence.

  6. Yogi145

    Any privilege [to go without a shirt without reprove] granted on the basis of sex, in a business such as Jivamukti, is against the law. It is a civil rights violation.

  7. carnyx

    Come on!
    I liked your blog very much and agree with you about the commercialization of Yoga!
    But the topless thing is not a real problem in the Yogic world and
    The practice of Yoga and of Meditation is meant to quiet the senses and the mind ,in order to do that a atmosphere of modesty and interiorazition is needed! Now,being surrounded by naked people is not really conducive for that,it s just obvious and please don t see these as a sexist discrimination or something.

    Now in the case of a more Tantric practice it can be absolutly beautifull because the modality are also different!
    You can see nakedeness as a way to express your freedom but you can also see that a naked body can be a little disturbing and offensive for others.

    Also don t tell me that the society is forcing women to wear more and more clothes for some weird reasons,that s the opposite!
    The market wants you more sexy and more naked because sex sells…Sexyness is the corner stone of business…It s all over you on Tv,on Papers,on Billboards….What do you see then? Women totally covered in a old fashion way?

  8. MeridianWoman

    One member of Jivamukti Yoga got scolded for taking off her shirt on a very hot day.
    More Moira talks about why it’s her right to walk around TOPLESS in NYC. Kudos to Moira!

  9. another thing to think about in the shirts on/shirts off debate is safety of adjustments. it’s not safe to adjust someone directly on their slippery, sweaty bare skin. as a teacher, i’ve experienced this first hand. even a sweaty wet shirt has a better grip than a better skin. want adjustments? put your shirt on.

  10. jorge

    mostly i would fall in to the category of “who cares” in regards to someone’s desire to wear a shirt or not. but my main problem really would be with her coming in to the studio and doing this not as a long time member of our community, but using our space as a stage to prove something or as an act of protest. as far as i could tell from the article anyway she only came to the studio once. there’s something that just feels inherently not respectful about that to me. i feel like im walking a thin line by saying that, as i i definitely see the value in protest and at the bottom of this particular issue i’m actually with her on this, but in my mind wrong time- wrong place. maybe she could have talked with the studio owners about it beforehand, ya never know, maybe a conversation about why this was so important to her and a bit of sincere dialogue and things would have gone differently? when you go to someone else’s house to eat, you bring a bottle of wine and say thank you for the invite, you don’t start critiquing the drapes and furniture.

  11. jorge

    this also got me thinking….. where i work we deal with a lot of people all in one room together in what is ideally and generally a very quiet environment of people sleeping(no it’s not an opium den!). general rule of thumb when someone is either snoring/stinking/being too fidgetycoughing/hooked up to an oxygen tank/doing all the other things we humans may do and that can be a bit disturbing to the next person over is,”hey sorry, i hear ya, but this is community its the way it goes when you’re in a group environment. we can’t make special exceptions for your needs and wants right now as an individual in the group. next time maybe bring ear plugs…or try and find a chair farther away from other people if you’re a light napper. etc”. But there is a line that gets crossed in my mind(can be a very grey line indeed) where the individual is disturbing the group to a degree that is either within their control and becomes disrespectful or not necessarily in their control, but reaches a level of disturbance where the whole room is clearly very affected by it. cell phone ringing and even answering! someone with sleep apnea so loud you can hear it outside of the closed door and down the hall, rolling over on one cheek, farting loudly and sighing, unnecessarily coughing up goops of phlegm and spitting them in to a cup, talking to your neighbor when signs clearly ask for whispers and quietness, etc. i think when the affect of a single individual clearly disturbs the rest of the people in the room to a degree that no longer allows for the normal flow and intention of the space, then that is when the line gets drawn for me. again, i also understand these lines have to be crossed at times for the greater good of justice, but im just not feeling her intention in this case or the way she went about it.

  12. Donna Grabow

    Seems like all this justification about why Moira should NOT be topfree on a hot day, is just getting around the issue.
    The point is…. on hot days ALL men must keep their shirts on from now on, no exceptions.
    Otherwise, the yoga studios are liable for gender discrimination.
    Women are not indecent, just as men’s bare chests are not indecent. In New York, topless is legal.

  13. Peggy

    My experience is that yoga studios are highly controlled environments, obviously the owners and patrons don’t want anything “unyogic” to happen, that’s why they pay their 20 bucks. Boobs must be unyogic.

  14. gross

    oh peggy. gimme a break. there are accepted customs that are worth arguing, and others that are boring. i don’t want to take a class with mammary glands and sweat flying around me. i just don’t. law or no law. there are plenty of nude yoga classes. just find one of them, your 1 woman protest is BORING and i certainly don’t want to teach a class or take a class w/ a topless woman. men & women are different. pecs and bosom are different. what the eff ever.


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