Ever seen a yoga teacher - or a yogi - with alienlooking, orangey-brown stains on hands/feet/ankles? What's that all about? On closer look, the 'stains' look to be actual designs! Deliberately drawn! Well, if you have ever wondered what those strange designs are all about, here's a little info.
The designs are called 'henna.' Henna (Lawsonia inermis) is a flowering plant grown in arid, hot countries typically Arabic, North Africa, Indian and Pakistani areas. The leaves are used to prepare a dye with which to stain parts of the body to celebrate passages of life, for healing purposes and for purely cosmetic purposes. The art of 'henna' or 'mehndi' as it is sometimes called has been used since antiquity to dye skin, hair and fingernails, as well as fabrics including silk, wool and leather.
The art itself is said to have originated in Egypt some 6,000 years ago, and then migrated to other parts through the trade route as it expanded to open up to other parts of the world.
It's interesting - and important to note - that henna is NOT black, athough it is purported to be 'henna' and sometimes seen to be offered in tropical tourist areas, and local trade shows. This black dye can contain many toxic chemicals which may cause extreme allergic reaction, and should be avoided at all cost.
Since it is difficult to form intricate patterns from coarse crushed leaves, henna is commonly traded as a powder which has been dried, milled, ground and sifted. To prepare for the artwork, the pulverized flour-like substance is then mixed with an acidic liquid such as lemon juice, perhaps have a wee bit of sugar added to encourage the paste-like substance that appears, and then left to 'sit' for anywhere from 1 - 48 hours. Some artists add an essential oil to the mixture which gives it an aromatic essence. Lavender works well here!
In order for the resulting paste to be applied to skin, the mixture is put into a cone-shape, pliable container which is then 'drawn' onto the skin in intricate design. A lot of practice is required before one can be called a 'henna artist.' (I'm still practicing! It'll be a long while….!)
The paste dries on the skin - 20 minutes or so - and then begins to fall away. If the paste can be kept on the skin for longer, the resulting stain will be deeper. Henna stains are orange when the paste is first removed, but darken over the following three days to a deep reddish-brown. Soles and palms have the thickest layer of skin and so take up the most dye, and take it to the greatest depth, so that hands and feet will have the darkest and most long-lasting stains. Some also believe that steaming or warming the henna pattern will darken the stain, either during the time the paste is still on the skin, or after the paste has been removed. It is debatable whether this adds to the color of the end result as well. After the stain reaches its peak color, it holds for a few days, then gradually wears off by way of exfoliation.
Henna has been used to adorn young women's bodies as part of social and holiday celebrations since the late Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean. The earliest text mentioning henna in context of marriage and fertility celebrations comes from the Bible in the legenc of of Baal and Anath which has references to women marking themselves with henna in preparation to meet their husbands, and Anath adorning herself with henna to celebrate a victory over the enemies of Baal. Wall paintings excavated at Akrotiri in the island of Santorini (dating prior to the eruption of Thera in 1680 BCE) show women with markings consistent with henna on their nails, palms and soles, in a tableau consistent with the henna bridal description from earlier text. Many statuettes of young women dating between 1500 and 500 BCE along the Mediterranean coastline have raised hands with markings consistent with henna. This early connection between young, fertile women and henna seems to be the origin of the Night of the Henna, which is now celebrated worldwide. The
Night of the Henna was celebrated by most groups in the areas where henna grew naturally: Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and Zoroastrians, among others, all celebrated marriages and weddings by adorning the bride, and often the groom, with henna.
Most saints' days were celebrated with some henna. Favorite horses, donkeys, and salukis had their hooves, paws, and tails hennaed. Battle victories, births, circumcision, birthdays, as well as weddings, usually included some henna as part of the celebration. When there was joy, there was henna, as long as henna was available!
Henna was regarded as having Barakah ("blessings")and was applied for luck as well as joy and beauty.Brides typically had the most henna, and the most complex patterns, to support their greatest joy, and wishes for luck. Some bridal traditions were very complex, such as those in Yemen, where the Jewish bridal henna process took four or five days to complete, with multiple applications and resist work.
The fashion of “ Bridal Mehndi" in Pakistan, Northern Libya and in North Indian diasporas is currently growing in complexity and elaboration, with new innovations in glitter, gilding, and fine-line work. Recent technological innovations in grinding, sifting, temperature control, and packaging henna, as well as government encouragement for henna cultivation, have improved dye content and artistic potential for henna.
Though traditional henna artists were Nai caste in India, and barbering castes in other countries (lower social classes), talented contemporary henna artists can command high fees for their work. Women in countries where women are discouraged from working outside the home can find socially acceptable, lucrative work doing henna. Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Suan as well as Indian, and many other countries have thriving women's henna businesses. These businesses are often open all night for Eid, Diwali and other religious festivals. Many women may work together during a large wedding, wherein hundreds of guests have henna applied to their body parts. This particular event at a marriage is known as the Mehndi Celebration or Mehndi Night[ and is mainly held for the bride and groom.
Is it not wonderful to think of traditions from the early days - such as yoga and henna - among others - that are still alive and thriving even today? It is somehow calming and grounding and most reassuring - especially as our lives seem to be getting faster and faster - to find constancy and steadfastness in our oh-so-busy lives.