Getting a quarter sleeve completed in just three weeks time can seem rather daunting. Especially when the sleeve contains lots of complicated shading and intricate geometrical patterns. Even more so when, prior to this, there wasn’t so much as a tiny prick of ink embedded in your skin.
Personally, I think of yoga as preparation. For loss, for love, for times of hardship and times of joy. I use my practice a way to prepare myself physically and mentally so that no matter what twists and turns show up in life, I’m ready.
This was definitely on my mind as I walked into the tattoo parlor for the first time. I’d heard so many opinions at this point about the pain that comes with inking yourself up - everything from an intensity greater than giving birth, to a buzzing that’s barely even noticeable. I was anxious to feel it for myself, wondering if I would be able to handle sitting in a chair for four hours or more whilst enduring some level of pain, hoping I would be able to sit at least long enough to finish in the small time frame I had to get it done. I prepared myself with music, podcasts, videos, anything I could think of to use as a distraction, just in case. Of course, the most important tool I would need I already had with me and I always will, just as every other human has from the moment they are born, till the moment they die.
When we hear the word yoga, the first thing that often comes to mind is postures. Downward Facing Dog, Upward Facing Dog… you know, all the dogs. While physical postures (called Hatha Yoga) are an important aspect to the practice of yoga, they are but a tiny fraction of the overall picture.
Think about it - many people claim yoga has changed their lives for the better. It’s changed the way they communicate with themselves and others, given them more mental clarity, relieved stress, strengthened their connection between mind and body… The list goes on and on.
All that from Warrior B and some stretching?
Although it’s not often viewed this way, meditation is another major part of yoga. Called Raja Yoga, there are many different ways to meditate that have evolved over the years. Some schools of thought require visualization, reciting of chants or mantras, or even certain positions and movements.
Perhaps the one that requires the least amount of prior knowledge, and most ancient of all meditation practices is called Vipassana, which means “insight,” or “clear seeing.”
The practice of Vipassana teaches us to see things yathabutha, or in other words to see things as they actually are.
It sounds simple, and in essence it certainly is, but in our modern world full of complicated emotions and sensations, seeing things clearly has become increasingly difficult. Want to give it a shot? Sit down with your spine upright, your hands in your lap and close your eyes. Start by focusing on your breathing, but eventually even let that go and simply observe what rises up. When you feel the urge to fidget, to scratch an itch or fix your shirt, don’t react. Simply observe. When your back starts to ache and your knees are screaming at you, don’t move a muscle. Just observe.
Meditation is hard. It can be painful. No one, not even monks, or that person in yoga class who always seems to be able to sit still longer than you, ever truly gets “good,” at it. It’s one of those things that is a constant practice, a constant battle between the present moment and our wandering minds.
Pain isn’t always a bad thing. It’s a sensation just like bliss. A signal from our body trying to tell us about what is going on in our environment and how it’s affecting our body and mind. Pain naturally brings up the urge to avoid, push away, and diminish. But what about when you CAN’T make it go away? What about when things are hard, and you can’t just run away from suffering?
Getting a tattoo wasn’t the most painful thing I’d experienced in my life, but it certainly wasn’t comfortable. There were times and places on my body that were very intense, and times when I could barely feel sensation. During the worst of it, I first tried listening to podcasts, or YpuTube videos and found myself gritting my teeth and struggling to get through.
Remembering the lessons I’ve learned on my mat, I eventually wound up with some of my favorite music to drown out the buzzing, and my breath. That’s it. When sensations rose, I focused intensely on the space below my nose and above my lip. When they continued to rise, and even grow stronger, I kept my focus there. In, out. In, out. In, out. The pain didn’t go away. I wasn’t mentally transported to an island or “happy place,” but I was deeply engrossed in the present moment for 3, 4, even 5 hours at a time. When my mind would wander, sensation would quickly pull it back.
After each session I was tired, hungry, and yet in a strangely tranquil state. Almost like the feeling after a seriously long yoga and meditation session (but not quite as nice).
Sensation can be one of our greatest teachers, if we allow ourselves to just feel. In a culture where numbing is the norm, and distractions constantly pull us away from how we really feel, choosing to experience a wide range of motion and emotion is difficult, but incredibly rewarding. You may never desire to get a tattoo yourself, but chances are, at some point in your life, you may be very grateful for having developed the ability to be still amidst great discomfort through the practice of yoga.
P.S. Completing an intricately designed tattoo in a short amount of time is a daunting task for a tattoo artist too. Props to Matthew Peters from Gypsie Soul in downtown Salt Lake City for doing such an amazing job.