From time to time I speak to folks who are reluctant to try a form of yoga that uses mirrors. Sometimes people assert that a class in which one is required to use a mirror sets up an environment that promotes aspects of vanity and encourages judgment, and that students should learn to feel whether their alignment is correct or not, without the alleged dangers one’s reflection may present. Yoga comes in many styles and forms these days, they all offer many benefits to the practitioner, and each and every one of these methods has its place.
As a lifelong dancer, teacher, and all-around movement person, I’ve had a great deal of experience and logged many hours in studios of various types, and I can’t help but feel that mirror usage and the reasons for it can be highly misunderstood. If you’ll allow me, I’m going to share my thoughts with you on this topic. Although I am writing with the Bikram yoga enthusiast in mind, the same information could certainly be applied to any class situation in which mirrors are typically used. I’m going to focus on the actual process of learning to use the mirror as a tool, and less upon the ego, vanity, and judgement angles of the issue, which while certainly related, is a huge topic that is well beyond the scope of this article.
Achieving the highly detailed level of structural body alignment that a Bikram class can give requires the visual feedback that a mirror provides, and that feedback needs to be ongoing. It’s just not realistic to feel like you are in perfect alignment (whatever you’re doing) and actually BE in correct alignment all the time without visual confirmation. Have you ever been on a bodywork table and have the practitioner straighten you out when you thought you were aligned? Ever had a coach or teacher tell you that a part of your body you can’t see is doing one thing while you feel it doing something else? (You: “But my back leg was straight!” Teacher: “No it wasn’t!”) Yikes!
If you train as a yogi, dancer, athlete, or what-have-you, your body awareness and spatial sense gets much, much better, and it can become incredibly reliable over time. This skill, however, takes constant, ongoing practice to develop and maintain. As a beginning student –in any discipline requiring precise placement–one internalizes the cognitive command chain that trains a person in visual/internal self-evaluation: You look in the mirror, assess what you see, make the corrections necessary, turn the focus inward and try to memorize the feeling of what spatial relationships in the body create the desired result, verify the result visually, and then start over. It’s a constant subconscious, split-second “look, assess, correct, verify, start over” cycle. If there is a teacher or demonstrator, there is an additional “compare-and-contrast” segment to the cycle. Of course you get better at it, but as your skill level advances, the fine tuning necessary gets progressively finer as well. After your class, off you go into the world where life happens, your body responds and adapts to it, and all sorts of crazy, misaligned things feel “straight.” Later, you return to yoga, dance, bodywork, (or whatever alignment-focused method you choose) and work on coaxing things back into a neutral, aligned state again. It seems as if it’s a “three steps forward, two steps back” process, and it is, but one does improve over time.
This is why dancers and other “body folks” who may have trained for decades still spend hours in the studio refining, feeling, adjusting, and refining some more.
If this repeating cognitive cycle sounds like a lot of focus, it is, and that is also why it can serve as a tool for your meditation. This is the reason why losing oneself in a task for a length of time with no distractions can be so relaxing and enjoyable … because it’s actually a meditative state.
It’s true that for some people the mirror can become a crutch, they are unable to function without it. It is certainly possible to become more alienated from your body or your practice, and so therefore it’s your responsibility to be conscious of how this feedback process works and fine-tune your personal version of it, getting the most from this valuable asset. Periodically, you can deliberately not look in the mirror for a second or two, take a sensory snapshot from the inside, and then play the game of “let’s see if this looks the way it feels.” Another technique is to maintain your gaze enough for balance, but unfocus the eyes just a tad so that the awareness can be turned inward for short periods of time.
We frequently hear the teacher say at the beginning of class a phrase something to the effect of “look into the eyes of your own best teacher.” A tool this powerful should be approached with an attitude of great responsibility. In the end, it’s up to you, completely.