The Power Of an Om Tattoo

Tattooing the Om symbol on her arm taught Sue White a lot about yoga, although not in the way she imagined.

Given that I’m the last person to believe yoga has much at all to do with your outfit, it’s ironic that in recent years my practice has taken a surprising turn that has everything to do with the way I dress.

In winter, my yoga remains a private matter—whether I’m snuggled up under a blanket in Savasana or tackling the yama (ethic) of aparigraha (non-greed) in my local shopping centre. It’s just my body, mind and spirit doing their best to move me towards peace.

The universal mantra Om also chips in to help me through the colder months, just as it has since I first began yoga many years ago. Regardless of how distracted my mind is, or how warbly my attempt at the three-part vibration, when I’m sitting among other like-minded students, surrounded by this healing sound, I feel that somehow everything will be OK.

In the warmer months my connection to yoga suddenly becomes far more public, as my summer wardrobe (a large collection of singlets) reveals to all the delicate Om symbol tattooed onto my right upper arm. The result is an inadvertent ritual that has now become as much a part of my practice as Trikonasana: explaining Om to the world. But unlike classes, which are predictably timetabled into my week, this aspect of yoga comes at the strangest times.

In the warmer months my connection to yoga suddenly becomes far more public, as my summer wardrobe reveals to all the delicate Om symbol tattooed onto my right upper arm.

Intrigued novices appear while I’m waiting at a pedestrian crossing or in line for a smoothie, politely enquiring what my tattoo means. To those looking confused when I answer “Om”, I clarify in the simplest way I know how, by drawing thumb and index finger together and saying: “You know, oh-mmm. It’s the universal sound.” Somewhat surprisingly, there’s been a noticeable lack of strangers backing away slowly, looking at me like I’m an alien invader. When it’s put this simply, most people appear quite relaxed to learn that the planet has its own sound.

There are also more pass/fail oriented enquiries. These tend to come from those who know that the meaning of the cosmic vibration chanted in most yoga classes goes far beyond a nice-looking shape inked onto my shoulder. “Ah, you have Om,” comments my Hindu taxi driver, or the Indian student working in my local supermarket. “What does it mean to you?” Here, I’m tempted to fall back on an explanation from Sharon Gannon and David Life, who state in Jivamukti Yoga (Ballantine Books, 2002): “When we chant Om, we are dedicating our practice to God in the most primal, abstract form.”

Regardless of who is asking, the significance of Om is far more complex than the one-line answer a stranger is likely to be seeking. Still, I do my best. I might say it means God, or the source of all existence, or the universal sound; for me, all are correct.

Of course, I questioned myself too, as I prepared for my permanent (and painful) commitment to Om. Why did I want this tattoo? I realised I wanted a reminder of the connectedness I’m seeking through yoga; the deep knowing that whatever we are doing—and for that matter, whatever we are wearing—we are all ultimately the same.

While I didn’t realise that my inking of Om would so physically connect me to those passers-by who would otherwise remain strangers, I’m eternally grateful that it did. Om.

Sue White is a Sydney-based freelance writer and long-time practitioner of hatha yoga.