I started Topless in 2014. At its core, Topless is an event about shedding layers in order to see and celebrate what is true about ourselves. In the simple act of taking our tops off during an hour of yoga, movement, and breathwork in a safe space, we can explore more deeply what it means to let ourselves be seen. Topless is not about going shirtless in the bare-breasted sense, although that can be very powerful in the right space. Rather, Topless is a pathway towards forming a personal practice of brave, vulnerable, and radical self-acceptance.
Personally, I have participated in many yoga classes with a desire to accept myself… my body, my identity, whatever needed accepting at that moment. Yet, I always wrestled with fearful, deprecating questions: “Who am I to take my shirt off and expose my stomach? Who am I to express my feelings publicly? Who am I to say that I accept myself, or that I am struggling?”
For a long time, my answers to these questions led me to assume that it would be easier, safer, and less stressful – to never show my body, to never share my struggles, hold back my feelings, to keep myself hidden.
But is it really easier, safer, or less stressful to hide in this way?
No. In fact, studies have shown that hiding ourselves – lacking vulnerability, feeling ashamed – is deeply harmful to our mental and physical health, increasing our stress, rather than lessening it. In 2009, Tom Hellenstein and Sera De Rubeis and their team at Queen’s University found that those who struggled to share their feelings were more likely to have symptoms of depression. And in 2010, Dr. Thomas A. Fergus and his team at Baylor confirmed a strong connection between feelings of shame and generalized anxiety. Furthermore, when we experience ongoing feelings of shame, of hiddenness, the fear-center of our brains, the amygdala, sends signals that activate our sympathetic nervous system – our “fight” or “flight” response – ultimately raising our heart rate and increasing our cortisol levels. Unless we employ a countermeasure, this can keep our bodies and brains in a constant state of stress.
I learned this the hard way. How many years have I spent agonizing over how to present myself, fearfully about how people perceived me? How many times did I keep on my swimsuit cover-up or my yoga top (despite discomfort and heat) because I was ashamed of taking up space, or because I thought I needed to “protect” other people? After decades of evading myself and experiencing this constant stress, I felt very deeply that it was time to change – to create a new practice of deeper health and peace – of radical self-acceptance. Topless was the result.
On the surface level, Topless may simply look like people doing yoga without their shirts. But deep beneath that appearance, these people are also in a state of deep listening to their emotions. It takes a lot of practice to silence the noise of our stressed-out brains. What do I look like in this pose? Did my pants roll down under my belly? Am I taking up too much space? What will people think if I celebrate myself? What will people think of me if I cry?
The concept behind Topless is effective because taking your shirt off is an inherently provocative and vulnerable physical act; how we respond to that vulnerability is the key to building new habits of healing self-acceptance.
Because we are conditioned to feel scared or threatened when we’re vulnerable, allowing your body to be seen publicly, in motion, will activate your sympathetic nervous system’s stress response. But precisely by moving, breathing, and interacting through that stress, we can unlearn the conditioning, and learn patterns of feeling safe and loved while being seen. We can learn radical self-acceptance. To counter the sympathetic nervous system’s stress response, Topless works to engage your parasympathetic nervous system – your body’s “rest” response using these techniques:
Mental Calming: Deep abdominal breathing, verbal focus, visualization of tranquil scenes, repetitive prayer, stillness, and silence, which can quiet the fear-centers of the brain.
Physical activity. Movement therapies such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong combine fluid movements with deep breathing, which can counter the stress signals in the body.
Social support: the Buffering theory holds that people who enjoy close relationships with family and friends receive emotional support that indirectly helps to sustain them through chronic stress and crisis. Topless offers a communal environment and social atmosphere specifically designed to celebrate peace, acceptance, vulnerability, and authenticity.
By practicing “topless,” we’re telling our brains and bodies that it’s safe to be vulnerable, that our bodies and brains are worth celebrating. The practice challenges our culturally conditioned patterns of self-shaming. By practicing Topless, we unlearn those patterns and can bravely move into a mindset and community of radical self-acceptance and love. The event is a safe container where you’re invited to move and feel and express yourself authentically, apart from false standards, and redefine your self-worth while in motion.
But the practice doesn’t stop when the Topless event is over. Radical self-acceptance is an everyday choice. We’re confronted with a constant stream of unrealistic images with which to compare ourselves, and we live in a culture where public vulnerability is still considered “revolutionary.” But when you show your true self to the world, breathe deeply through the feelings of discomfort, and move your body – you become living proof that your unhidden uniqueness is what makes the world vibrant, exciting, and beautiful.
I’ve presented Topless in 4 countries, at New York Fashion Week in 2015, on cruise ships, and to tens of thousands of strong, brave, and topless men and women. I look forward to presenting Topless again when it’s safe to return to in-person events.
For my charitable work with students and student athletes, see Giving Back.