Tattoo Symbolism with Kyle Leia Heyesen of Svälja Yoga

On a warm Tuesday evening in late August, I drove down to Duluth’s Bayfront Park, parked my car near the playground, and pulled out my purple yoga mat.  I walked toward the green space near the water where I spotted Kyle setting up for class, her strawberry blonde hair catching rays of sunlight. A week prior, I spoke with Kyle about a new theme for my blog and asked her if she would be willing to share the significance of her tattoos. With the Aerial Lift Bridge in the background, we met briefly as class participants began arriving. She told me she’d written about her tattoos and would share her writing with me.  

Kyle, owner of Svälja Yoga in Duluth, instructs trauma-conscious yoga. The philosophy is based in accessibility of yoga to all, inviting participants into poses and shapes while providing a variety of options. Kyle considers herself a guide, rather than an all-knowing instructor.  She greets all that come to her classes with a kind and open heart.  She began the evening’s practice with, “May you greet yourself with gentleness,” and reminded us that yoga is a way to connect with ourselves on a deeper level.  I thought about tattoos and how they often serve as a conduit of connection, expressing ourselves on the canvas of our skin.

In her own words below, Kyle maps out her life experiences and the significance of her tattoos.

Tattoo Symbolism/Significance

My first tattoos were inspired after the loss of my grandmother Kathleen (Kay) Elden, who passed away at the end of 2011, August 27, 1935 – December 13, 2011. She was a significant person in my life as I was in relative foster care with her and my grandfather, Joe Elden who passed away ten years before her on April 13, 2001, as an adolescent 13-18 (8th grade through my senior year). I have Complex PTSD – I grew up in a chaotic home. Both of my parents struggled with significant substance use disorders – and it wasn’t just alcohol or marijuana, it was heavy stuff including crack/cocaine, meth, heroin, etc. – My mom abandoned us for a number of years between the time I was about 6 to 12 and left us with my dad, who was emotionally and physically abusive. I have since healed my relationship with my parents who have both chosen the path of recovery in their own ways. If you are familiar with the ACEs study, I experienced 9/10 Adverse Childhood Experiences – which can increase your risk for disease and early death – but thankfully I have also been blessed with a lot of protective factors that led to resilience and post-traumatic growth. My paternal grandparents were more like parents to me as they raised me during these significant and formative years. They raised their children on Park Point, my grandfather was also raised on Park Point as was his mother. I was also raised on Park Point, a fourth generation Park Pointer, and have since returned to this beautiful place in the world that feels like home more than anywhere else. My grandma Kay was a lover of gardens and birds. I had thought about tattoos for a long time with nothing sticking as something I’d want permanently until this significant time of transition and grief. I began to explore what would be a meaningful tattoo.

Anchors End Tattoo, Joe Trowbridge (artist)

Swallows (2012) – I chose swallows because I learned that sailors used to get tattoos of swallows to symbolize a safe return to home. Before the days of advanced navigation systems, sailors would only know they were near land once they spotted swallows in the skies. Home to me is Park Point, my grandmother’s house, the safe and supportive relationships we have, and home within, our True Selves. I chose three, the “ancient Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, postulated that the meaning behind numbers was deeply significant. In their eyes the number 3 was considered as the perfect number, the number of harmony, wisdom and understanding.” Three also signifies intergenerational family love to me.

Later, in 2021 Svälja Yoga officially formed and the swallow symbolism followed:

Svälja (pronounced “svehl-yah”) is a Swedish term that translates to the English verb swallow, “to cause or allow something to pass down the throat.” Life presents everyone with challenges that are difficult to swallow. One profound benefit of yoga is a greater ability to absorb, metabolize, and bear what arises in our lives. Svälja Yoga’s mission is to better equip practitioners for navigating life’s joys and sorrows with skill, presence of mind, and grace. Yoga is a pathway to well-being and to the realization of our wholeness. Through movement, which includes mindful stillness, our guides connect you with your innate resources that promote healing, transformation, and growth.

Svälja is also half of the Swedish term for barn swallow, lada svälja. In motion, in flight, the swallow expresses adaptability, responsiveness, maneuverability, and endurance. Swallows teach us about resilience and strength, two elements of post-traumatic growth: through life’s adversities, we persevere. Adapting and enduring, we shed what no longer serves our highest good. Responding with the capacity to heal, we leave behind past suffering and pain, take flight on our own wings—as, symbolically, the swallow represents safe travel and a transformative journey home. As we recover from trauma, we rediscover home, deep within: our true selves. In ancient cultures, the swallow was a symbol of union and passion, of protection and peace, of happiness and connection. In other words, the gift that is the swallow points us to the most awake and joyful expression of our lives.

Anchor 2012

Anchor (2012) – The anchor pays homage to my childhood on Park Point. My dad was a charter captain and I have many fond memories being out on the boat and on water. My dad, late sister Jody, and sister Kacey all have anchors too (mermaids – my most recent tattoo too). It also symbolizes the way in which Lake Superior and Park Point are a sanctuary for me. I feel anchored, whole, and at peace in this place in the world. Although I had a traumatic childhood, I found great comfort, healing, and co-regulation on this sweet little island.

Ink Tattoo, Jill Korhonen aka Jillian Dollars

Lake Superior Mermaid (2021)

  • Mermaid – I have always been inspired by mermaids and when I was a little girl, I used to want to be a mermaid when I grew up. Mermaids embody the sacred feminine: The concept of mermaids was likely influenced by goddesses in Greek Mythology, such as Venus, the goddess of love, and Amphitrite, the goddess of the sea. Mermaids symbolize awareness and insight: Mermaids are seen as wise and uniquely in tune with the world around them.
  • Agate and beach glass – Lake Superior and Park Point treasures
  • Star crown – For my daughter Stella whose name means “star”
  • Peony – eternal love – my husband, those who I’ve lost, dear family and my beloveds (friends)
  • Poppies – For my sister Jody lost to a heroin overdose 09/17/2017. Heroin is made from poppies and they are still beautiful to me even though they create strong medicine that can cause terrible addiction and overdose. I sit in awe with the both/and of life—holding it all with compassion. Red poppy flowers represent consolation, remembrance and death. Likewise, the poppy is a common symbol that has been used to represent everything from peace to death and even simply sleep. Since ancient times, poppies placed on tombstones represent eternal sleep.
  • Mucha inspired Art Nouveau style
Humming Bird and Lily of the Valley 2022

Lily of the Valley & Hummingbird (2022) Tattoo. My husband Jon and I have been together since 2012 and were married in 2014 on November 1st. We went through some difficult experiences that shook our marriage and it nearly ended in 2018.  After much therapy, healing, building trust, and deep work, on January 27, 2022 we ventured up north to a beautiful cabin just beyond Grand Marais, Agua Norte. This was a Christmas present gifted to me by Jon. On that Thursday evening we stayed in and Jon made us a beautiful dinner. He proposed to me anew presenting me with a new ring, a beautiful card, and made a vow renewal tattoo appointment for us to commemorate this new phase in our journey.

  • Lily of the Valley symbolizes new rebirth, humility, new beginnings, and hope.
  • Hummingbird symbolizes healing and strength it takes to rise above trouble and hardship, to overcome difficulty.

Click the link here to learn more about Kyle and Svälja Yoga.