How many yoga tattoos do you spy at your local yoga studio? Obviously there’s the obligatory Om symbol. The lotus flower. And a host of other possibilities, some highlighted in a New York Times photo essay, which noted, “for some yoga practitioners, the body presents a blank movable canvas for images that inspire and inform their practice.”
I wholeheartedly agree. I have three of them, all black—like little symbolic sketches intended to encourage me to keep going. One hitch, however, is that one of these looks like a coffee stain. How does that inform my yoga practice?
At the deepest level, it is a simple reminder for me to embrace imperfection. When I got the tattoo I was 18 years old and attending art school in Chicago. I really wanted to be bold and confident. But I was just awkward and anxious. The coffee stain didn’t change that, but Buddhism, in a roundabout way, did. It didn’t alter how I felt, but it showed me how to accept it.
My coffee stain came about when I began to explore Buddhist art; I became enamored with the horticultural art of both bonsai and ikebana. I realized that in spite of any asymmetry or obvious imperfection I noticed, I still experienced the inherent beauty.
I wanted to remember that feeling every day. So I picked up a painting of an irregular, misshapen enso, or circle, and had it tattooed on my forearm. Is it a coffee stain? Is it a Zen tattoo? I don’t care. It’s beautiful to me either way.
We don't all look a certain way. Why do we expect our practice to always look or feel a certain way?
Of course, I haven't always applied this “embracing imperfection” to my asana practice. Sometimes, I pushed myself beyond my own limits and ended up injured rather than inspired. But what would happen if I focused more on accepting who I am? “That’s key,” says yoga teacher Kat Heagberg, co-founder of the Anahata Co-Op, in Portland, Oregon. “We don’t all look a certain way. Why do we expect our practice to always look or feel a certain way?”
According to Sharon Gannon, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga in New York, changing these habits and attitudes can begin before we even step onto the mat. “What you think about when you practice yoga will determine the result of your practice,” she says.
Want additional wisdom for your practice on the mat? Try these other tips on for size:
Recognize What Makes You Unique
Because not everyone can or should have an identical asana practice. Sometimes, it’s merely because of differences in anatomy. “If I’m sitting in dandasana, there’s no way I’m gonna get my hands flat to the floor,” says Heagberg with a laugh, “Because my arms just aren’t that long.”
And adding a bind to a pose is “nearly impossible,” she says. On those rare occasions when she can bind safely, “It does not look very pretty. But that’s ok. My body doesn’t have to look pretty.”
Use Your Breath to Experiment
You’ve probably heard a yoga teacher tell you to breathe into a pose. How does this help you know your limits? “If you’re in a pose, and you literally can’t breathe or you’re holding it involuntarily,” says Heagberg, “then that’s probably a good sign that you’ve gone too far in one direction and you just need to soften.”
Practicing compassion towards yourself has some unexpected benefits: according to a recent study, simple acts of self-kindness promote better mental health, and can help us more quickly reach our goals.
So repeat after me. Imperfection is beautiful, and so are you.