Credit: Jesse Grant/VH1

The first thing you notice when you peer tentatively into a serene botanic garden is a pair of wedding crashers doing cartwheels in the buff. “I heard there was a naked wedding,” one of them tells a guest, “and I was like, ‘I’m going to be there.’” Funny, you thought the same thing when VH1 announced that Dating Naked—the only show on TV that features love-seeking singles (and/or one-night grandstanders) throwing caution and clothing to the wind—would film the nude nuptials of two contestants. You read that right: a brave couple were going to exchange vows with their privates swinging in the Southern California breeze while cameras filmed the whole thing for a televised special to air Sept. 18 at 9 p.m. It sounded like the Bachelor wedding special, but watchable.

Here at Hartley Botanica in Somis, Calif., about 20 people—ex-contestants and a few friends of the betrothed—are cavorting around a body-painting mixer, wearing nothing but leis, color splatters, and smiles. (Your somewhat successful strategy: Give into curiosity right away and power-stare at the naked parade, get it out of your system, and then resume your journalistic duties.) Conversation ranges from eco-friendly (“Save the planet, shower together!”) to practical (“My ass is burning, so I’m gonna go in the shade”). Limbered up from yesterday’s activity of naked yoga, several guests compete in human wheelbarrow races. Someone paints a phallus on a canvas. But there’s white wine, so it’s classy.

You slip away from the art bizarre to meet the nude-lyweds, who are being total prudes right now by wearing a towel. After hooking up two months prior on a naked surfing date (on the Aug. 21 episode), 27-year-old artist Ashley and 36-year-old yoga instructor/”sexual healer” Alika began a long-distance relationship. Ashley then broached the idea of getting hitched without britches to Alika, and they approached the producers, who asked if they could turn the ceremony into a full-on, clothes-off televised event. But there is a stakes-lowering catch here: This is not a legally binding wedding; it’s more like a commitment ceremony. (Also, she is still living in Colorado and deciding whether to relocate to California to be with him.) “It’s a ceremony of love,” says Ashley. “I don’t think you need a document that is issued by the state to say that you care for someone. If you love someone, you’ll be there and that’s how it is.” Alika backs up his quasi-bride-to-be: “Love is not tied down to a binding. Love gives freedom, and without freedom there is no love.” Okay, but this is at least a lifetime commitment to each other, right? “I feel we will have a lifetime connection through supporting each other being our best selves—I could say that,” says Alika. Adds Ashley: “I would say this is the experience of a lifetime.” If being a reality star doesn’t work out, these two may have a future in politics.

Next, you ask them if they invited their parents to witness their wardrobe-resistant vows. “I didn’t tell them,” confesses Alika. “My mom’s really Christian. She’ll be like, ‘You’re going to go hell! You need to pray to Jesus tonight!’ He laughs. “But she’s sweet.” Ashley—who notes that her parents, who are used to her bold spontaneity, sent a text of support this morning—was actually hoping that one of her older relatives could be here. “I really wanted my grandmother to come—she’s 76—but the activities we were doing, she would not have wanted to partake in those situations,” she says. “She’s not flexible in yoga.”

You strain your neck to peek at the grassy area for the ceremony, where guests are to sit on pillows arranged in a circle, with percussive instruments in front of each pillow. An important question springs to mind: Will there be, like, you know, towels to put on the pillows? “If they didn’t care about riding an ATV through the jungle, they’re not going to care about sitting on a pillow without a towel,” says the show’s totally clothed host Amy Paffrath (who, by the way, tells you that the worst injury that a contestant suffered during the season 1 shoot in Panama was an ant bite on the scrotum). Though no creatures are currently menacing this botanical garden, there might be a challenge in bringing together our enlightened couple and some of the show’s more boisterous (and slightly inebriated) contestants. “Whereas they’re here to have a good time, [Ashley and Alika] want to keep it really spiritual,” says Paffrath. “There’s a lot of strong personalities in this group, but I expect it to be an emotional experience. That dynamic is going to be really interesting to watch, because they might get annoyed with everyone else taking it so lightly, and they’re taking it very seriously.”

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

After rinsing off the layer of paint and adding another layer of sunscreen (the importance of this cannot be understated), the guests take their seats. Er, pillows. One guy stealthily curls his pillow to shield his junk. It’s a solid move, but an unnecessary one, given that all naughty bits are blurred in post-production. (Well, not all, according to claims of one former contestant.) “Don’t be scared if it gets a little weird,” announces a shaman named Regal, who could probably pass for a goateed Josh Malina, “because that’s what’s supposed to happen.” Ashley and Alika enter the circle. She removes her Gaga-approved dress, and Alika unbuttons his dark blue shirt and grey slacks, jokingly turning it into a strip tease. It’s like Magic Mike, but with more chakra points. The three-part ceremony—body, mind, soul—is steeped in New Age-speak like “What does the divine master represent to you?” At one point, Regal’s sunny co-shaman, Naia, tells everyone, “If there are any sounds you are inspired to release, let yourself.” A few people giggle; no one knows how seriously to take this ritual. (One guest is actually so zenned out, he dozes off for a minute during the ceremony.) The couple, though, are thoroughly and emotionally invested: Ashley even sweetly tears up while they exchange achingly enlightened vows before their left hands are bound together (Wait! I thought you said love wasn’t tied down to a bind—oh, never mind… This is lovely).

The union is sealed with a kiss and a request from Ashley for everyone else to do the same. Guests form a drum circle and dance around—alas, there is some naked twerking— before pouring into the reception, which kicks off, like most wedding receptions, with a sage-burning purification ritual. After guests hit the buffet line, you seek out one of the six couples that met through the show, 24-year-old Joe and 37-year-old Wee Wee (I know). Taking a seat on the ground, Joe soon realizes it is not the greatest idea to place a hot plate of food on a bare lap. The two reveal what it was like to strip down for the cameras for the first time. “I wasn’t scared to get naked, to be honest,” says Wee Wee. “I was more nervous [about]: Where was I going to look when I saw him?” Joe, meanwhile, was more worried about showing too much interest. “I thought, ‘What’s going to happen if I get a boner? Should I do something to myself before, so it doesn’t happen?’” (He didn’t, for the record. And the fact that this type of detail came up in your reporting will haunt you for weeks to come.)

Although many of these contestants initially carried concerns about fully showcasing themselves on Dating Naked, they found the experience to be freeing. “When you’re naked, you don’t judge anyone by their clothes,” says Kristen, 43, another contestant who made a love connection. “You have to really get to know the person and that’s why these relationships are working.” Kristen’s other half, Chuck, 33, also sees the benefits of addition by subtraction (of clothes). “I’m a hairy guy, I have a lot of insecurities,” he says, “but after the show, I’m like, ‘Let it go. Don‘t care anymore.’” With a s’all-good smile on his face, Chuck also notes that the alcohol is flowing today like “the salmon of Capistrano.”

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Even a few of the folks who didn’t hook a mate in Panama have found a new look on romance. You spend a few minutes with the endearingly geeky Dan, 26, who describes himself as the boy in school who was scared to change in front of everyone in the locker room (and who revealed in the July 31 episode that he didn’t lose his virginity until age 24): “Since I’ve returned from Panama, I really have built a new level of confidence,” he enthuses. “When I meet women and go on dates—which maybe isn’t many—I have this confidence in my head now like, ‘I’m me, I’m not going to be anyone else. She’s going to like me or she’s not, and if not, I’ll move onto the next person and wish her well.’ That’s the mentality I used to have, but now I believe it.” You want to hug him and tell him it’s going to be okay, but given his (lack of) attire, decide against it.

Later, when you check back in with the happy couple, they seem pleased that their guests weren’t clothes-minded about their mind-expanding ceremony. “It had this kindred family essence to it, a happy-go-lucky type of light energy, which was really nice,” says Alika. “I knew it was going to be powerful, but I didn’t know it was going to be that powerful,” says Ashley. “That’s why I was feeling emotional about it. And to have everyone being open to something that’s different—the majority of our guests had no idea what they were stepping into… I’ve never been connected on a level like that with so many people at once. I didn’t think this group could be that receptive.”

This group should not be underestimated. An overdressed shirtless bartender—he’s wearing pants—is serving up drinks to the guests, who are flirting and flitting about, dripping hot candle wax on each other, and playing Spin the Bottle and Truth or Dare. One former contestant issues the ultimate dare to his girlfriend, asking her to move in with him. Two other contestants share an unexpected kiss and make plans to go on a date. Another couple disappear at one point during the reception, and when they return, they break the news to the group that they are no longer a couple. The re-bachelorized guy wastes little time is sizing up the naked-and-unafraid women here, though. “Bridesmaids are always ripe for the picking at weddings—and they won’t be complaining about their dresses,” he quips. “I’ll tell them I’ve got a ring for them and they just have to look for it.” You laugh while keeping your eyes above his waist.

As the sun begins to dip and the vibe loosens up, you ruminate on the myriad paths we take in search of true love and the different types of masks we wear — physical, emotional, Halloween—to prevent people from seeing our true selves. You also think about how this is the weirdest damn event you’ve ever been to. Toward the end of the evening, Ashley notices a few women chatting up Alika about his sexual-healing gig. “I’m going to remove him from this situation,” she playfully says. “Naked divorce!” shouts someone. And then someone else yells out the wedding reception crowd-pleaser, whether you’re wearing a tux, a T-shirt, or nothing at all: “Shots! We need shots for everybody!”