Yoga has been bastardized around the world by modern interpretations of the sacred practice — and it’s not just the fault of travelers. From yoga with beer or goats to foreigners profiting off of a culture that isn’t theirs, there are many controversial topics that surround the global yoga community. One grey area is tattoos that yogis wear with roots in Hinduism or Buddhist mindfulness. Yoga-inspired tattoos are rapidly growing in popularity and are often worn as reminders of the yogic lessons. I spoke with Asian yogis to find out if the ever-popular tattoo among traveling yogas, that of lotus flowers, is problematic, or not.
To be transparent, I’m a life-long yogi. I’m Latina and have no Asian heritage. I’ve spent 6 months in India and completed my 200-hour yoga teacher training course a year ago in Vietnam at Nomad Yoga Hoi An. I don’t foresee myself teaching for profit anytime soon. I did the course to deepen my practice and be qualified to offer classes to women’s empowerment organizations pro bono as I travel.
To commemorate completing my yoga teacher training last spring I got my 23rd tattoo. I chose to get the popular lotus flower tattoo on my right arm. It’s a symbol I’d been thinking about adding to my sprinkled collection of tattoos for quite some time after spending nearly four years in Asia.
After speaking with my mindfulness and meditation teacher Victoria Nhan of Yoga in Vietnam, who also wears a lotus flower tattoo on her arm, I booked an appointment with her Vietnamese tattoo artist, Fai Foo Ink, who is an expert in fine lines and popular Asian motifs. My lotus is on my right forearm placed so that it aligns with the om symbol on my left forearm which I had done in India. When I have my hands at the heart center, the two symbols are balanced. I’ve only received admiration for these tattoos in Asia, while only Americans have ever told me they see them as cultural appropriation.
I’m far from being the only non-Asian yogi that wears this ink. Around the globe, yoga practitioners adorn their skin with the delicate petals of the lotus flower. In my yoga teacher training, Nhan taught the teachings of Buddhist Zen Master monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The title of one of his beloved books summarizes the meaning of the flower perfectly: No Mud, No Lotus.
Lotuses represent that even beauty grows from dirt. The flowers are a prominent symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism. They represent everything from purity, spiritual awakening, enlightenment, connection with the universe, devotion, and rebirth when they open each morning and close each evening. For yogis, there’s even further meaning. Padmasana is the posture for seated meditation which means lotus pose. Additionally, all of the chakras are displayed in lotus flowers.
Christina Lim is a Korean-American yoga teacher and wellness coach who wears a tattoo of a garden snake writhing in vines and two lotus flowers. She coveted a lotus flower tattoo for its symbolism of purification and rebirth. “It refers to the unchanging self, what we might call the soul. My tattoo is a reminder that there’s an unchanging soul, but that superficial layers can be changed or discarded,” Lim says. As a yoga teacher, the lotus symbol represents purification for her and reminds her of the Om mani padme hum.
Vishal Yadati is an Indian tattoo artist who often designs lotus flowers for his clients, everything from the unalome style to illustrated lotuses. Most of the clients that request the popular lotus flower tattoo are foreign yoga teachers or folks that have done a 10-day vipassana silence and meditation course. “These clients are all spiritual people. I don’t feel anything when people wear a symbol that is not from their culture. We’re all humans. We were born in different places and look different but inside we’re all the same. We’ve progressed so much culturally and want to end racism and inequality, admiring other cultures is the way to progress,” he says.
“In India, the lotus is a very important flower — all the gods sit on it in Hinduism. To me, the lotus is a symbol of enlightenment as well as a symbol of positivity and strength because the lotus is a very beautiful flower. Its shape, color, and the way it floats on the water are magnificent but also it grows in dirty mud and water on the banks and floats on the water. So, the true enlightenment is not only through knowledge but also going through hard times and understanding how things work,” Yadati says.
If you want to be mindful of tattoo symbolism — especially when considering getting inked with a design outside your own culture — Yadati says do your research on proper placement. “The lotus symbolizes enlightenment but if you place it upside down it means the opposite. Religious symbols or portraits of gods shouldn’t be tattooed on feet because it’s a sin in Hinduism. People should just respect that,” he says. Remember, it’s never acceptable to get a tattoo of Buddha.
Do you have a tattoo inspired by your travels? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!