This month the Smithsonian is showing yogic art through the centuries. But then, so is your yoga teacher. From vibrant renderings of Ganesha to Vedic mantras, it’s almost as common to spot yogis adorned in tattoos inspired by their practice as in a pair of Lululemons.
What is it about doing yoga that inspires so much body art devoted to it? Yoga agent and founder of YAMA Talent Ava Taylor, who represents big names in the yoga world like Sadie Nardini and Dana Flynn, says, “I don’t see it as trendy; it’s an affirmation of what they’ve committed their life to. What’s more permanent than a tattoo?”
We asked inked instructors from Los Angeles to London to share the meanings behind their very special yoga-inspired pieces. Check them out now… —Randi Eichenbaum
Photo: Cat Alip-Douglas
Each of the tattoos on the longtime owner of the hip Bikram Lower East Side studio marks a personally significant moment in the instructor’s life, from announcing her sexuality, to moving to New York, to her daily practice. “The cherry blossom on my under-arm that smiles when I bring my arms above my head signifies the woman I moved to New York for and also how happy I am when I practice yoga,” says Donegan.
The Los Angeles-based author, yoga instructor, and creator of Equinox’s Flow Play estimates that at least one-third of his body is covered in tattoos. “Since I was a teenager I’ve loved body art and the idea that you can create a gallery of your body,” Beres says. “The most labor intensive took 35 hours. My entire back is Natraj, Shiva in dancer’s form. It’s connected by a series of flames that goes over my right shoulder and turns into Ganesha, which covers a portion of my chest. I’ve always been drawn to this iconography from my years of studying yoga, so I decided this would be my major work.”
“All I can say is that my first tattoo experience will be a valuable ‘don’t do what Mommy did’ story for my daughter,” says the former Kula instructor, who got her first tattoo—a Superman “S” encircled in flames—at the age of 19. The New Yorker hasn’t given up on body art though. She’s just gotten better at choosing tattoos that are deeply important to her. “With the birth of my daughter, I’ve realized that my yoga practice is my life,” she says. “My tattoos represent specific aspects of my life, so in that way they do signify my practice.”
Photo: Rachel Elkind
“Life’s too short and tattoos are too expensive for them not to be meaningful!” says the Jivumukti instructor. Having gotten her first tattoo at 17, Stickler’s arms and chest are now beautifully adorned in ink, a process that’s both deeply personal and one of connection, she says. “I love the friendships and connections I’ve built with the various artists who worked on me. There’s nothing like spending hours alone in a room together to get to know someone.” Stickler’s most recent tattoo—her right-arm sleeve—is being done by a tattoo artist in Oakland, California. “It starts with spring, and then evolves through all the seasons,” she says of its meaning. “At the end of winter, there’s a little tiny bud. Change and growth, and pain and new growth.”
Photo: J.P. Boucicaut
The popular instructor has five tattoos that mark the progression of his career. His first—the Vedic mantra “OM Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya” around his wrist—marks the closing of his former life as a punk rocker. He got it on his last tour with his band at the age of 22. The most recent tattoo of this father of four is reflective of the spirituality he brings to his yoga instruction. “A few years ago in Aachen, Germany, a fan of my old band offered me a gift of a tattoo, so I received my last and much cherished Harmonium on my bicep,” he says. “Underneath it says ‘Harmony’ which is my prayer when I sing.”
Ask the Chicagoan about any one of her magnificent tattoos and she has a deep, memorializing story for each. Corso, who studied with Seane Corn and can be found leading classes at a number of studios, including CorePower, Tula, Zen Yoga Garage, has butterflies for her deceased grandparents to a Ganesha on her shoulder (see inset). And her first tattoo—a Sanskrit scripture that translates to “may all beings in the world be happy and free”—represents her commitment to being a vegan.
“I am a lover of the book Hidden Messages in Water. I believe that anybody who even considers getting a tattoo MUST read this book,” says Lawrence of the tome by Masaru Emoto that greatly influenced her body art. The yoga instructor to athletes on the Yankees, Knicks, and New York Giants, and more has 11 tattoos in total, including a ribbon on her right arm. It carries an important lesson she learned from yoga: “to remember to stay present and that life is a precious gift.”
“All of my tattoos were done at New York Adorned, most of them by Tom Yak. I loved having him do my art,” says the Brooklynite. “He’s a musician like me and used to be a Hare Krishna, so he totally understood the energies behind images of Kali (on my left arm) and Shiva (on my right arm),” says Pickering, who teaches at Park Slope Yoga. “For a long time a friend of mine would visit during the sessions. We were having a bit of a competitive tattoo race. He’s definitely surpassed me at this point.”
“The process of getting a tattoo is a ritual,” says Exhale’s national yoga director, whose ink includes Sanskrit phrases and symbolic motifs, and many of which she gets done by Virginia Elwood at Saved Tattoo in Brooklyn. “Get an idea, share it with the artist, breathe through the discomfort, realize pain is temporary, and end up with something beautiful that will be with you forever. In this way, the ritual becomes a healing process.”
Photo: Robert Sturman
“I suppose that tattoos are defined in respective cultural circles as spiritual and having deep meaning. But on a personal level, I think the process of getting tattooed has offered me greater insight than I could have ever imagined—similar to my yoga practice,” says the New Yorker now living in London and teaching at Jivumukti Yoga Centre. Alip-Douglas has some of the most intricate set of “sleeves” around. “Sometimes strangers ask me, ‘don’t you think you’ll change your mind and regret it?’ To which I respond, ‘guaranteed’, due to the nature of impermanence, the mind will be subject to change,” she says. Will she consider getting more?, we asked. “More than likely, but that could also change!”
From lotuses, to a flying mystic, peacock feathers, a lucky horseshoe, and more, the Laughing Lotus co-founder and director’s body is an art gallery of images that have personal and spiritual meaning while playfully grabbing public attention. “My latest one is an image of the old 45 record adapter,” she says. “Old-schoolers ask me if I am a DJ, and young kids ask me if it’s a chakra. It’s a symbol of how long I have LOVED music—that long!
The NYU grad’s first tattoo was song lyrics from a hardcore band, which she got on St. Marks Place, and she hasn’t stopped since. Now a yoga instructor in Philadelphia (Dhyana, Yoga Garden, Sweat Fitness), O’Neill’s latest acquisition is Ganesha, by Brooklyn artist Timothy Hoyer, “a rib piece” that celebrates the completion of her teaching training. “I had to overcome some pretty heavy obstacles to get through it,” she says. “And the experience was life-changing in the most literal sense.”