Tattoos: A Decoration or Desecration?

See more pictures of ‘yoga tattoos’ from the NY Times here.

Tattooing the skin is a practice that has been in existence for nearly 5,000 years. Throughout it’s long history, it has been deemed both acceptable and taboo by cultures around the world.  Today tattoos continue to make their mark on nearly every culture, including the yoga community.

The uses of tattoos are as diverse as the people who wear them.  The people of ancient Greece and even the Nazi party used tattoos as a tool to separate slaves, prisoners, and outcasts from the rest of society.  The Maori’s tattoo the face with intricate designs that tells the story of the individual who wears them.  Gangs around the world mark the skin as a form of group association.  Tattoos are even thought to protect against evil spirits like the sak yant of Southeast Asia.

In the United States many choose to get a tattoo to cosmetically alter the body. The ancient practice has become a way for many individuals to express individuality and creativity.

People throughout the yoga community use tattoos to express themselves and their practice.  Take a look into yoga studios, festivals, and magazines and you can see many yogis/yoginis who pay homage to their practice with tattoos of spiritual imagery and sanskrit.

While tattoos certainly can be pleasing to the eye, they can also risk the health of the body.  The inks used in tattoos are not regulated in the US and are actually the same industrial grade pigments found in printer inks and in the painting of automobiles. Although their toxicity is not yet completely known, it is apparent that tattoos can cause allergic reactions, infection, unwanted build up of scar tissue, and granulomas (bumps caused from the body rejecting the ink when it is perceived as a foreign material).

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras the practice of saucha, or cleanliness, is the first of the 5 niyamasB.K.S Iyengar’s commentary expands on why the yogi practices saucha:

“Although he recognizes that the body is perishable, the sadhaka [practitioner] does not regard it with disgust of distaste, but keeps it clean and pure out of respect for the dweller, purusa [the seer or the soul], within.  To that extent, he respects the body as a temple.”

Swami Saradananda also comments on the practice of saucha, explaining that when one practices cleanliness they achieve not only good health but also mental clarity. He goes on to suggest that when one practices saucha it reinforces a sense of sacredness. A sense of sacredness that is very different, perhaps, from the very reason people chose to tattoo their bodies to begin with.

Do you think piercing the skin with needle and ink is in line with the practice of saucha?  Do tattoos hinder our physical and spiritual growth?

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- who has written 21 posts on Yoga Modern.

Patience Steltzer is the Assistant Editor for the World Affairs Current at Yoga Modern. She spends her time drawing, painting, sewing, writing, and practicing/teaching yoga in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. After a lifetime of having no idea what to do with her creativity and energy, she discovered yoga allowed her to find the beauty and excitement in stillness. Since then, she has dedicated herself to sharing her love of yoga with others to help them find the joy she has.

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