March 24, 2013

Spiritual Expression: Yoginis & Their Tattoos.

photo by Jill Shropshire

The yoga mat is many things: a sacred space, a familiar friend, a sticky lifesaver, or a shamefully old standby that’s shedding all over the studio floor.

It can be the place where you find divinity and the place where you bust your derriere, sometimes within only seconds of each other. When taken to a studio, it can be the ultimate runway. The place where, after the office clothes come off, we feel we can work it. Sashay. Shantea. Namaste.

When I started practicing, I was surrounded by women in flowing, wide-legged harem pants that moved with ease. Though lovely, these pants also required that the practitioner feel at ease with exposing her ass to the class. They rode down in down dog, and spilled onto our faces in shoulder stand. Even the word harem made some of us uncomfortable—made us feel like we were wearing, essentially, ho pants.

This gave way to tighter, more form fitting cotton/lycra pants. For those of us on the front row, this was a huge relief because our backsides remained covered. Those on the rows behind us also felt this relief, as they’d become far too intimate with us every Monday and Wednesday evening.

Now it’s leggings. This is a fad I simply can’t take part in. I assume they’re comfortable, but they are also—in a lot of cases—totally transparent. I’ve seen them worn with underwear and I’ve seen them worn without. In both cases, it’s not the right look for me. I’d rather wear culottes or overalls or get a perm. To me, these are far more flattering options than leggings.

You might call this yogini couture anti-yogic, merely Western window dressing for materialistic souls.

You could say that this narcissistic need to define ourselves with our possessions prevents us from eradicating our own egos. Spending hundreds of dollars on spiritual garbs isn’t, perhaps, what the ancient yogis had in mind. I don’t remember Pantajali saying anything about moisture wicking organic cotton fair trade om edition tank tops. Maybe I read the abridged version.

There is something, though, so magnificent about the parade of personality in a yoga class. So often, you’ll find yourself surrounded by those who—if not on the fringes—are at least flirting with the edge. These are people who wake up at the crack of dawn, feed the kids, walk the dog, grade the stack of papers, return the e-mails, spend nine long hours at work, and do not go home and pass out on the sofa. These are people who are driven past weariness and endless tasks to a search for stillness.

More often than not, these people are women. Yes, you’ll see lots of men in yoga classes, but they will often be accompanied by wives, girlfriends or sisters. Women are the driving force of Western yoga. A tradition that was started for men, by men, has been co-opted by groups of rowdy, health-conscious, spiritually adventurous women. The Shakti Mamas. The Jolly Green Goddesses.

Recent surveys show that out of the 14 million Americans practicing yoga, 72 percent are female, the majority of whom are white women in their 30s.

This cold set of numbers is very much a living reality in any yoga studio. The reasons for this, as given by a host of articles and essays, is that women in their 30s—especially those that are childless—have more disposable income and a rapidly changing biology. At the very same time when we’re past intern age and get to earn a real living, our bodies begin to slow down. Our metabolisms shift and we gain weight. So what do we do? We take our new money and our strange new bodies to a 6:30 vinyasa class. That’s what we do.

These percentages reveal a lot about class, gender and race. What they don’t necessarily show is the explosion of feminine rage, longing, passion, compassion, and self-expression that’s happening at that 6:30 vinyasa class. To say that these women resemble one another in a variety of ways is true, but these aren’t the types of women that you can’t tell apart; each woman brings her own unique style of practice and persona into that room.

The changing styles in pants and fabrics is only a small part of the way that this tribe of women express themselves. If you look around the studio during a class, you’ll see a gallery of body art. You’ll tattoos of every color and size and spiritual persuasion. There’s the Om symbol on the foot, the koi fish on the thigh, the pinup girl on the ribcage. Sun salutation has become a moving, breathing museum.

I remember one woman in particular. She was new to the class, an elementary school teacher who admitted that she’d come because her job was driving her crazy. She was in her mid-30s, and rather suburban looking in her running shoes and YMCA t-shirt. I made my assumptions about her quickly.

Those assumptions lasted all of five minutes. When we began to practice, I noticed a grim reaper tattoo peaking out of her capri pants. The poor fellow was faded, indicating a decision this schoolteacher had made when she was still a schoolgirl. When this woman walked in the door, I assumed I had her all figured out. The grim reaper on her calf killed those assumptions. I spent the rest of the class wondering who this woman really was. A metalhead? An ex-con? She surprised and delighted me.

I’m seeing this more and more in classes, and one reason is that women—particularly women in their 30s—are getting more tattoos. The growth in female yoga practitioners in the last decade dramatically parallels the rise in the percentage of women getting tattoos. A Reuters article recently reported that women are now the most tattooed gender. One study said women are 59 percent of the tattooed population. Once again, what began as an art form intended for men has been overtaken by women.

Lirbai Mataji

Yoga and tattoos are both ancient forms of spiritual expression.

Scientists found actual tattoos on a 5,200-year-old mummy. Yoga, or some variation of it, is said to have begun around the same time. The inward search for divinity seems to be directly linked to an outward expression of joy and identity.

For so long, women were denied a place in religion. We were barred from temples and carted off to tents for one week of every month. We were covered in shrouds and barred from view. Our bodies were treated as harbingers of sin, not vehicles for self-expression.

I spent my childhood as a Christian—a doubting one. The Bible gave me Mary and Sarah and Eve and “Lot’s Wife.” These were women who gave birth without the benefit of ever having had an orgasm, or women who were cursed and thus couldn’t give birth. These women didn’t fight the system so much as they fought their God-owned ovaries. And poor “Lot’s Wife” didn’t even get a name, though she’s one of the most memorable women in the Bible. Even if you do something amazing, like turn into a pillar of salt, you’re still just a Mrs.

I wanted to see a woman who didn’t get banished or add a dash of taste to a bland soup. Enter: yoga. Men may have been the driving force behind the codification and spread of yoga, but they at least had the good sense to include images of strong women—goddesses who wielded swords and rode atop lions and alligators. I saw, through yoga, the passionate creativity of Saraswati and the empowered fury of Kali. I could, for the first time, worship women. To know that my feminine heritage was one of strength and beauty was absolutely transformative.

It’s a huge part of why I remain a yogini. In a culture dominated by unachievable beauty standards and toxic self-improvement diets, I need these goddesses to fight for me, to remind me of my birthright as a woman.

I think so many modern women do, and this is why we are filling up studios and adorning ourselves with tattoos. We are the new tribe and we’re taking back what was ours all along.

The percentages and surveys reveal only a fraction of the truth. They tell us what marketers are tracking, what the fads and trends are, and the research shows that yoga is a predominately upper-middle class white thing to do.

There is, however, a revolution going on all around us—in literature, film, law, finance—hell, even the Christian church—that numbers cannot capture. It’s a feminine revolution, across all classes and races. The marketers are tracking how we spend our money, how we spend our time, but there are no charts or graphs to show how we connect with our goddess nature, how we connect with ourselves.

There is a Hindu goddess by the name of Lirbai who is depicted as being covered in tattoos—full sleeves, actually. She has female worshippers who adorn their bodies with tattoos in tribute to her. When I see this Goddess, I’m so relieved to see myself staring back. To look back and not turn into a pillar of salt, but find evidence of my own divinity. I can see it in you too, sisters. 


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Ed: Brianna Bemel

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