Diary of a Yogini: Bikram Yoga and Tattoos

by Barbora Simek

Tattoos have served as rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, sexual lures and marks of fertility, pledges of love, punishment, amulets and talismans, protection, and as the marks of outcasts, slaves and convicts. Wikipedia on Tattoos

It always strikes me how yoga unites people from different walks of life. How the front row of a class can have a Rastafarian DJ, next to a CEO, next to a housewife, next to a graphic designer, next to a social worker, all working, sweating, breathing together.

But if there is one other thing that unites us in the yoga room it is the presence of body art.

Whether it is a small zodiac sign on an ankle, a traditional Celtic armband or an elaborate back piece, it seems that tattoos are the one uniting attribute of Bikram Yogis.

As lover of art and type, the idea of using skin as a canvas has always fascinated me, though I have always had profound reservations against getting a tattoo.

At the age of 17 my older brother walked into the kitchen and sat down at the kitchen table. As he turned his head a small beam light reflected off of his new nose ring. My mother fell apart, sobbed violently, screamed, shook. You might as well pack your bags and move under a bridge, she wailed. No one will ever give you a job.

A fiercely obedient 12 year-old, I sat on spying on the steps shaking my head at my brothers foolishness. I swore a silent oath that I would not repeat his mistakes, I would not get into this kind of trouble when I was a teenager. Thus, body art remained out of the question for years.

Until I started yoga.

In hot yoga rooms I saw stars spilled on shoulders, family crests fill spaces between scapula, trees extend branches across shoulders and words circle wrists.

Then came teacher training.

My appreciation for body art grew with the animals that marched across thighs and pin-up girls that stretched in half-moon.

Then came Bikrams lectures.

He ranted that the body was not ours, the body is a temple.

The way I understood his argument was this: the body is the house of our spirit. Because our spirit is everlasting, and the body is only temporary, the spirit is borrowing to body for this lifetime. Since the body is borrowed by the spirit, it is not ours to decorate or deface, it is ours to honor, cherish and maintain.

I understood, and understand, his position. But tattooing has been around for centuries, for many cultures tattooing is spiritual rite of passage. From Ancient Egyptians, to Celts, Queen Charlotte Indians tattoos were the marks of warriors, told stories, served magical purposes and were badges of honor. For thousands of cultures, the tattoo has served a purpose more spiritual than aesthetic.

For myself, I can say this:

Between sweaty towels, aching poses and cathartic releases, I have experienced moments of feeling infinite, spiritual, profoundly connected to myself and people surrounding me. Slowly, I have assembled a piecemeal spirituality. While I am still unable to define my thoughts and beliefs on the matter, while I still feel like I am searching, I can also confidently say that because of my yoga, I am a spiritual being.

As a result of that, I feel like there is a spiritual value to the tissues, synopses, and cells that make up my body. I do feel that my body is a temple. Not being an Ancient Egyptian, a Celt or Queen Charlotte Indian, I dont feel I can claim that there is something profoundly spiritual and magic about choosing to colour my skin.

Photo credit: The Tattoologist Blog

So the question then remains: am I ready to decorate , or deface, my temple?

The answer: I dont know.

For the first time in my life I have found a design, a decoration that I feel is worthy of etching on my skin. A coming of age symbol that summarizes both the place that I have come to as a woman and the direction I would like to see for myself in the future.  And so I find myself poring through articles, reviewing the opinions of the tattooed and un-tattooed and trying to assemble an opinion of what I think is right.

If the body is our temple, then shouldnt it be ours to celebrate and decorate? said Dana Moore, a tattooed yogini and studio owner during our conversation on the matter. And I agree with her.

To me, tattoos should be rites of passage, decorative milestones, celebrations of our bodies, experiences and stories.

The decision I made as a little girl was made out of fear of other peoples opinions: my mothers, my peers, my teachers. As I grow into my own I realize more and more that their opinions are not so scary, and while they are important to me, their ideas of what my body should look like are not the ones I need take to heart.

I am not sure yet whether I chose to wear ink will permanently mark my skin, but I do know that the little girl who sat on the steps at 11 years old and swore to never mark her skin has changed her mind. Or, rather, has opened her mind to new possibilities.

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