Tattoos—once reserved for sailors, bikers, and fringe art communities—have become mainstream in big way, and are increasingly prevalent among yogic communities. You’d be hard-pressed to find a yoga studio in which at least one yogi didn’t have some form of body art, from tattoos of traditional Buddhist iconography to temporary body paint. But the practice of treating one’s body as a canvas isn’t just some new fad. The rich history of body adornment dates back over 5,000 years in a colorful array of cultures and lineages across the globe.
Body art is a practice much like yoga. The word “yoga” means union. It is the connection of the bodily self to the divine self, the union of body and mind. Modern yoga is in large part a practice of the body, by which we may attain stillness of the mind. Applying symbols to our bodies is a lot like practicing a series of poses: Our body is our base and our medium. We come to both practices with a willingness to discover through tactile practice something transcendent. Only when we are grounded within our physical form can we hope to see beyond the bounds of ego. Similarly, in applying ink to our bodies, we create a bond between the physical and the metaphysical. We utilize our skin to depict something in the realm of the spiritual; of our inherent union to all things.
But where did it all come from? Why has this form of adornment persisted through the centuries? There are several different types of body adornment, dating back to ancient communities.
Henna is an ancient form of semi-permanent dyeing, said to date back to pre-dynastic Ancient Egypt (approximately 3400 BCE). Powder is derived from the flowery henna plant and made into a paste used to dye clothing, hair, and skin. Applying henna to the feet and hands is called Mehndi: a practice traditionally used in ceremonies and celebrations. Mehndi is practiced in many regions of the world including India, Pakistan, Africa and the Middle East; and the designs are unique to each region.
Designs common in India are delicate and intricate, while Arabic designs tend to be simpler, larger scale floral renderings. Henna is a particularly integral practice in Hindu and Muslim weddings. In traditional Hindu weddings, the bride is painted with Henna to symbolize spiritual awakening, offering, beauty and joy. The application of mehndi on the bride before the festive wedding is a ceremonial ritual in itself, often involving a gathering of the entire family. Designs are intricate, blooming.
Today, the use of henna has spread from its South Asian origins, and continues to grow in popularity as temporary body adornment in the west. Popularized in the 90s by artists including Madonna and Gwen Stefani, this form of adornment is utilized both for spiritual and beautification purposes. Applying henna to the body is much like adorning a temple: It is to consider the body a spiritual vessel. Like the practice of yoga, it takes patience and an immense amount of concentration. Just as the adorning of the bride is a ceremony which brings the family together, the process of applying the henna is more important than the outcome. It is a practice which represents unity, togetherness, and connects us to something larger than ourselves.
Tribal markings originated in African communities. Traditionally, markings would be cut into a newborn child to distinguish them as part of a family. Though this tradition has since largely died out, people have reinterpreted and reintegrated the practice into the modern world, from scarification to body paint. Many people regard body art as a form of healing (today in a more spiritual sense than an endurance of physical pain).
Tribal markings are powerful because they imbue a sense of togetherness and community. It is a sacred art form which, as artist and Wanderlust presenter Amir Magal states, “bridges the modern world with ceremony and ritual.” Body paint in particular has become immensely popular among the modern spiritual practitioner and festival-goer. In contrast to the traditional practice of tribal markings, body paint is temporary: fleeting, like that awesome feeling when you nail a handstand. We return to this practice over and over in a ritualistic fashion, each time becoming stronger, and ever-evolving. We continue to remind ourselves to return to the mat, to return to our inherent strength, our innate tribal nature.
Tattooing has been practiced as a part of many diverse cultures for over 5,000 years. The word tattoo is derived from the Tahitian word “tatau,” meaning to mark something, and the Polynesian word “ta,” which meaning strike something. Tibetans believed that tattooing symbols of the Buddha into their skin would allow them to weave the sentiments of the Buddha into their bodily existence. Many cultures believe that the tattoos ward off harmful energies, and will even include different herbs and tinctures in the ink. The sak yant tradition of tattooing among Buddhist monks in Thailand, for example, is said to bring strength and protection.
The body is a tool, a vessel by way of which we may achieve stillness of the mind. Adorning one’s body with symbols of our spiritual practice is a form of devotion, imbued with personal experience and interpretation. Traditional yogic tattoos can range from an Ohm symbol or lotus flower to a sanskrit verse. Modern yogis are creative, adding their own artistic flare to the symbology. In yoga, the body is regarded as a temple and must retain a state of cleanliness and purity. Does tattooing the body contradict this notion? It may seem paradoxical, but many believe that tattooing the body is a form of personal decoration which honors the vessel which allows us to take the path toward enlightenment.
Adorning one’s body with art is a reminder. A reminder of our strength, our creativity, our individuality and also our inherent community and bond with the earth. Body art is a form of devotion, an expression of union and balance. We accept our impermanence and celebrate the breath through decoration of the skin we reside in on this Earth.
Jillian Billard is a poet, yoga teacher, cellist and avid wanderer. A native New Yorker, she is often caught daydreaming of sprawling green fields and mountains. She trained and received her ashtanga yoga teacher’s certification in Goa, India and works at Laughing Lotus Yoga Center in Brooklyn. You can often find her with her head buried in a book, doused in lavender. Follow her on her (very newly developed) Instagram page for class schedules and updates at @jillboyoga.