Of Ashtanga and tattoos

A while back, Steve wrote a post wondering, What’s up with yoga and tattoos?

Yesterday, while my friend, painter, tattoo artist, and fellow Ashtangi Kim Saigh was working her magic on my back in the form of padparascha lotuses, I had plenty of time to think about it.

I can’t really say I got my first tattoo before it was cool, but it was close. I was in grad school in Seattle, in 1990. It was the land of freaks,

My back, courtesy Michelle Haymoz.
My back, courtesy Michelle Haymoz.

tats, piercing, and branding, so it’s not like it was strange when I got one. The second one was with Steve, also in Seattle. As many people with a tattoo habit will tell you, things just kind of went from there. I don’t know that I’ve ever stopped to think about why.

But as Kim and I were chatting about the practice (she’s a student of Confluence assistant, Noah Williams), I began to wonder if there was a philosophical connection between Western yoga practitioners and tattoos. I’m not the first to wonder—The New York Times did a story on it. While it was a dramatic photo essay, it didn’t really tell us much about the connection between yoga and tattoos.

Of course, all I know is Ashtanga. When it comes to that, the easy answer is pain. Tim Miller’s now famous comment that Ashtanga is “the yoga of no” offers a clue. There’s no doubt that Ashtangis can take a lot of pain. It was Ashtanga that taught me to be non-reactive to the chronic pain I was experiencing, so that I could pass through it. When Kim is digging away at my back with a needle full of ink, I have pretty solid control on my fight-or-flight response because of what Ashtanga has taught me.

There is also the great lexicon of gorgeous and meaningful iconography that Hindu thought offers. Those of you who will be coming to the Confluence will see a room full of Sanskrit, Shivas, Hanumans, Durgas, and Ganeshas.

But that, of course, brings up the question of understanding. I know just enough Sanskrit to read my own tattoos, but that doesn’t mean that I understand them. Sanskrit is a beautiful written language, both linear and sinuous, which is definitely appealing. The Sanskrit on my body I consider a reminder, a prompt. And I draw great solace from the Ganesha Nataraj on my back. He is a metaphor of me, and for me. But do I understand the true nature of the sacred meaning of both these things, the language and the deity?

Probably not. I remember when I was traveling in Morocco, explaining a tattoo to Berber goat herders who were on a bus with me. They were fascinated, but also horrified. And my orthodox Jewish friends may admire them, but they would never have a tattoo. I understand that an image of Ganesha is Ganesha, and should be treated as such—which will lead me to keep it covered as we travel in India. There is, in other words, something of the profane in having it. That may be the most revealing aspect of sacred images as tattoos. They are possible because of my position as an outsider on a faith that I am only beginning to realize.

They are also an act of defiance of social order, a punk rock marker. This may not be as true as it used to be, of course; there was a pretty clean break between my generation (the tenth, sometimes called “Gen X”) and the ones before us: Tattoos were working class, and for men. Something happened that allowed college professors and businessmen to have tattoos. But there’s still…hesitation. While walking by a group of prospective students on campus one day last quarter, I heard one of them say, “I just saw a professor with a tattoo!”—as if this were in any way subversive. It may be, but not in the ways it used to be.

I’d argue the defiance is not so much in having them as in getting them—it’s a declaration of (sometimes nostalgic) values, and of endurance. So as such, it’s an act of pride, maybe even exhibitionism.

Which, of course, is a paradox when it comes to yoga. My Ganesha is supposed to represent my surrender to Ganesha, but He also represents my pride in having Him there, just visible over my collar.

In one of His hands, my tattoo Ganesha holds a noose. There He is behind me, forever trying to capture and contain those barriers to my liberation, and forever failing.

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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