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 brother’s 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 Bikram’s 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 shouldn’t 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 people’s 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.



Filed under Diary of a Yogi

13 responses to “Diary of a Yogini: Bikram Yoga and Tattoos

  1. During my teacher training, I took out my belly button piercing I got when I was 17, during training I was 26, it felt good to remove it…freeing. I believe that we are constantly evolving beings, and as such it is hard to stay attached to any one thing or image for this entire lifetime.

    That being said, I am a tattooed Bikram yogi. I got my one and only tattoo during a difficult time in my life, and while I don’t regret it, and I am pleased with the image that I wear, I may have chosen differently had I been more conscious at the time…

  2. SO great to see you guys back in action! What a cool post, too. I think that yoga is an opening of the mind… as the connection between the mind and spirit grows stronger, we can’t help but be more open to new ideas. And the opinions of our family and friends that you talk about start to carry less weight. But in a good way 🙂

    “Piecemeal spirituality”–that’s just lovely.

  3. waylon

    I gotta go with the boss on this one – don’t do it! 🙂

    The tats I see in class don’t look like rites of passage or marks of status or rank but rather like drunken mistakes of youth and bad judgement to me. Occasionally the body and the tat will match and it is cool – but that is pretty rare. IMHO thx!

  4. richard b

    I’m going to have to agree with everything here, including the comments. FOR ME, though, nothing is more important when getting a tattoo than figuring out that it must look good for a long time. Meaning is secondary. So FOR ME finding classic images that can be tattooed in classic styles are most important. As a bonus, these classics cover themes and symbolise meanings that cover the variety of human experience. But, to repeat, I think the aesthetic of the tattoo itself can be sufficient reason without it necessarily symbolising anything.

  5. I think that to judge how a tattoo fits on a body is not open to freedom of mind the way yoga promotes. Instead it is judging someone based on what you perceive of them. Does tribal art of the Maori all over their face’s, neck’s and back’s seem more fitting simply because they are Indigenous; whereas a tattoo of stars doesn’t fit a young girl because it isn’t ‘symbolic’ to an outsider’s eyes? Somehow a person’s physical appearance must ‘match’ with a tattoo?

    Tattoos are as individual as the bodies we see practicing yoga everyday. To assume that majority of tattoos are bad judgments or drunken mistakes is assuming you know more about a person than they do about themselves.

    Just as two bodies are not the same, so are two minds never the same.

    This is the beauty of keeping an open mind to all walks of life, instead of condemning people to follow the path already chosen.

    Just some words for thought, from a different perspective. Great article though!

  6. Lara Kirkpatrick

    You can always try henna tattooing (mehndi). It’s only semi-permanent (1-3 weeks, depending on where it’s drawn, etc.). That way you can test-run what you want without the life-time commitment! I did that before I got a permanent tattoo and was glad I did – my first-choice for placement would’ve been one I regretted later. Or you can just always stick with the henna and change your tats as your life changes you.

  7. Betsarama

    Interesting to hear Bikram’s take on tatoos. I once asked my therapist about why people get them, and he said it was a form of self-mutilation, and that self-mutiliation is a defense against feeling pain. So a tatoo is like wearing your heart on your sleeve, but permanently.

    • tattooedyogi

      have you ever heard the saying that “plumbers pipes leak”? A similar concept is true for many therapists.

      • Yes, I understand the concept; same as, “shoemakers children have no shoes,” but it doesn’t exactly apply, as he was simply providing a motive for wanting a tatoo.

  8. Gloria

    I love tattoos, but it turns all your lymphnodes black!!!!!!!!! Is this any way to improve your health that you are so diligently working on?? I have seen lymph nodes taken out of patients, and if there is any tattoo’s, they are black. I have one, and deeply regret it based on what I have now seen with my own eyes. Do not let anyone you love get a tattoo!

  9. Tattoos are for people who have to manufacture life experiences.

  10. Linette

    This body is mine because if it weren’t it would not feel so right. I feed it what I feel it needs, fruits, vegetables, knowledge, love and challenges. I can’t see what could be wrong with extending what you feel on the inside and expressing it on the outside and for some people this is what a tattoo is. It can be a drunk stupid night you will never forget or something that you have put lots of thought into and are proud to carry either way it tells the story of your life and the decisions you make. To judge someone else’s life is against the principles of what we seek when practicing Yoga. Express yourself with beauty not judgments. Positive Mental Attitude Always!

  11. Being a Kiwi, I understand the desire for tattoos – especially for those of Maori and Polynesian descent. For them it expresses lineage, connections with ancestors and past events. If tattoos have meaning for the individual concerned then why not? Personally they are not for me, my tattoos are on the inside. Thou shalt not judge, right?

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