Getting inked with one of these designs may have personal meaning, but are they divorced from the broader cultural significance that makes these symbols so powerful and enduring?
Picture this: You leave your yoga class sweaty and satisfied, pleased you pushed your practice a little further than the day before. You have a hectic day ahead and want to hang on to the post-Savasana peace—even through all your meetings, errands, and fighting rush hour traffic. Fortunately, you got a little Hamsa symbol tattooed on your wrist last year, a permanent reminder of your own capacity for calm.
Whether it’s a tiny mudra somewhere private or a big Buddha sleeve on a bicep, yoga tattoos have grown in popularity as visual reminders of the lessons to be found in yoga and meditation practices. Yet a celebration of self-compassion for one person might come across very differently for someone of Asian, Buddhist, or Hindu background. After all, different cultures have diverging opinions regarding whether or not tattooing religious imagery is appropriate, says Buddhist monk Soin Satoshi Fujio.
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For example, he notes that in Japan (where Mahayana Buddhism is popular) small tattoos might be considered nothing more than a fashion statement, but bigger tattoos are still widely associated with mafia groups like the Yakuza. Meanwhile, countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar (where Hinayana Buddhism is more common) many people have a very personal, private approach to religion that Fujio-san describes as “exclusive” and “closed.” Prominent public, individualist depictions of revered religious symbols or figures might baffle or offend.
Zen Buddhist Reverend Jin Sakai of Kanagawa, Japan, says that although Buddhist teachings don’t outright prohibit spiritual depictions (like that of the Buddha) on things such as T-shirts or as tattoos, such imagery can be seen as cavalier or irreverent. “Buddhist imagery symbolizes something noble and spiritual,” he says. So seeing Buddhist symbols in tattoos, bumper stickers, leggings, and the like “can intimidate people who are sensitive [to tradition].”
In other words, there are many nuances to the Buddhist faith and cultures where Buddhism is common that you might not pick up on in your weekly hot yoga class or meditation circle. It’s important to remember that Western attitudes about tattoos don’t always align with how practicing Buddhists in different counties and denominations view such public displays of faith, or how they’ll receive seeing such displays on people who appear to come from outside that culture or religious denomination.
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Yoga Tattoos and Cultural Appropriation
Not only that, yoga-inspired tattoos can stir up a lot of feelings about cultural appropriation and even erasure. Essentially, cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture borrows elements of a minority culture. That might not sound like a big deal—after all, isn’t it a good thing to celebrate diversity and other cultures? The problem is when the dominant culture benefits from or gives itself credit for “discovering” or perfecting, say, chicken vindaloo or Bollywood movies, without fully acknowledging or understanding the cultural context that produced those trends.
It can be frustrating and hurtful for people of color or other religions to see a few elements of their religion and culture adopted by white westerners while they still continue to face discrimination or are pressured to conform to the dominant culture in most aspects of their daily lives. If you were teased as a child, for example, for bringing curry to school in your lunchbox, it might not sit well to see a non-Indian pop star sporting bindis or wearing a sari outside the settings or occasions when someone of an Indian background would.
As Roopa Cheema, an anti-racism educator in Toronto, Canada, explains cultural appropriation: “When white folks get yoga tattoos and are considered ‘cool’ because of it but my South Asian mother gets told to go back to her own country when she wears henna, that’s a big problem.”
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Los Angeles tattoo artist Emily Effler echoes Cheema’s concerns. The popularity of yoga-themed tattoos often outpaces education about the rich traditions, languages, and beliefs behind the symbols. “A lot of people come in asking for a commonly used image, and they don’t even know the full history or cultural significance of what it is that they’re getting,” says Effler. “It kind of blows my mind how little people actually care about the origin of their tattoo and where it comes from.”
Effler says she’s had more than one client come in requesting a tattoo design that’s rooted in Hinduism, Buddhism, or yoga. Those design inquiries have ranged from a huge portrait of the Hindu god Ganesh to a small, simple triangle that a potential client asked for after seeing something similar in passing. When asked why the triangle appealed to her, the client said it seemed kind of “Buddhist or something.” Effler said that in instances like these, the clients didn’t have a strong background in either the Hindu or Buddhist faiths. “They want something that’s pre-approved culturally or by their peer group,” she theorized.
Mindfulness Around Tattoo Symbolism
So what’s a yogi to do? The answer actually lies in the same mindfulness we learn in our yoga practice. Check in with yourself about what’s motivating you to get yoga-inspired ink. Learn as much as possible about the symbols you feel drawn to, where they come from, and what they mean to members of that faith or culture. Ask yourself how someone from that faith or cultural background might feel seeing your tattoo—especially if you travel or have a strong social media presence. A little reflection and self-honesty can help you choose a piece of body art you’ll be proud to sport for decades to come, and that won’t hurt anyone else along the way.
Keep scrolling to see some of the most popular yoga tattoos right now. Then, tell us: What do you think?
Popular Yoga Tattoos
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About the Author
Meghan O’Dea is a writer, world traveler, and life-long learner who grew up in the foothills of Appalachia. College led to summer stints in England and Slovenia, grad school to a sojourn Hong Kong, and curiosity to everywhere in between. She has written for the Washington Post, Fortune Magazine, Chowhound, Eater Magazine, and Uproxx amongst others. Meghan hopes to visit all seven continents with pen and paper in tow.