It had been awhile. I flinched when he first touched me with the tip, his gloved hands softly cupping the surrounding flesh. The gun turned on. The needle hummed sound into my skin and bones as I reminded myself to inhale, two, three, four, five. Exhale, two, three, four, five. It took two sessions, 10 hours, to replace the starry scrawl of adolescence on my back with a huge, hundred-petaled lotus flower. While ink homed into the body’s pores, thoughts came and went like passing cars; the mind is a vehicle to drive us away from the present. And getting into that car where memory’s delusions cloud the dashboard and drive along story-lined streets, thinking of sex and rotisserie chicken for six hours was tempting, but I abstained. Here, the space of the tattoo parlor, the act of the tattoo, was a moment of true yoga — union of mind and body within the present moment, going beyond all paradoxical notions of the self. It was the place of painful and painless, klista and aklista the needle notching down, then backing off, bearing down, lifting off. Right there amongst the tattoo gun, Skrillex, and a faux-leather chair, pillow clenched between my chest and a stool, yogas citta vritti nirodhah (yoga is the restraint of the mental modifications) became the chains of my own self-control.
We cover up tattoos for many reasons: a faded regret; a boyfriend long gone; an irrelevant ice cream cone. We see our past selves as something to cloak with more ink or dissolve with a laser. We see our future selves as bright and attainable, (hand)standing before us in the middle of the room. But since we are constantly in-process, existing only briefly in one moment before the next arrives, the art of covering-up is this: we truly aren’t veiling anything at all. It remains a part of us, the gunk of our past like the murk from which the lotus blossoms. It’s the practice of yoga to observe memories as vrittis (modifications of the mind) that can control us, shuttle us towards worrying and fantasizing about the road ahead, or send us clutching for past’s gears, hereby distracting us from the present moment of just revving the engine in neutral. And so, while it seemed the tattoo session was momentarily the palpable intersection of my past and future self, that too was a cover-up.
What I was left with in this moment was the unattended self. With each swipe of the paper towel, the smear of A&D, I fettered myself to discomfort, “relaxed into the fundamental uneasiness” as Pema Chodron calls it, of being human. While I sought to equate self with a tangible symbol, it was within this experience that I found myself truly practicing yoga. I never changed— as evident by the stars still very much knotted, shining, under the lotus’s petals— but rather my perceptions and identifications became altered through my practice. Swami Satchidananda explains, “By correcting our vision, we correct things outside… That’s why Yoga is based on self-reformation, self-control and self-adjustment” (9). More importantly, my perception on acceptance of myself changed. I carry the lotus flower not as an identification of who I am— because everyone who knows me will assert that some days I am far from sattvic (pure)— but as reminder to sit beautifully like the lotus through the obstacles, through undulations between being a tamasic (dark, lethargic, lazy) sloth or a rajasic (fiery, passionate) ram or even a fuckin’ unicorn. It’s within these constant changes that the stars remain beneath the wallpaper of my back, that adolescent who simply happened, rebelled against parents, nipped at nature, always true to the mission of unmasking oneself. And how could that art ever be covered up?