Mirror, Mirror On The Wall – Using Mirrors in Yoga

Lately, I’ve been out and about with the Christmas and New Years Festivities, catching up with friends, reflecting on the old days, planning, hoping, dreaming for the days ahead.

One thing that would undoubtedly come up in the conversation is yoga. “How’s yoga going?”, is a popular question. “Do you teach hot yoga?”, is another popular question. When I emphatically answer no, I would almost always get the follow up question, “What do you think about it?”. Those who’ve heard my stance on hot yoga would even introduce me to a friend, “Meet Lisa, she does a lot of hot yoga.”, “Meet Nikki, she hates hot yoga.”

Um… nice to meet you? (There’s no better way to start a relationship on the right foot than for someone to be told that you “hate” what they spend a lot of time doing.)

Last night at a New Year’s Eve party, I found myself in a conversation with a friend’s fiancée and another friend’s girlfriend about hot yoga, and specifically the use of mirrors. Talking to a friend’s Significant Other whom you do not know very well is actually not that different from being on a first date. You don’t want to talk about anything too confrontational unless you want to make the conversation really short and create some bad blood.

Clearly, I did not observe this rule. Lucky for me, they offered me different perspectives but were also open-minded and nice enough to hear me out on mine, because they both did Tae Kwon Do and could have easily taken me out, and no amount of advanced Pranayama training could have saved me. 🙂

(As a note of clarity I’m using Hot Yoga and Bikram Yoga interchangeably but always referring to the Bikram style hot yoga where the mirror is in the front of the class.)

A Mirror is A Pneumatic Tool

I’ll start by regurgitating something of a mantra at Taj Yoga, where I study with teacher Theresa Elliott and teach intro to yoga. From the About Us page of the Taj Yoga site:

“Yoga is a pneumatic tool”, states yoga master BKS Iyengar. “It can be used for good, it can be used to harm.” The benefits of yoga for people of all walks of life are innumerable. However, as yoga has proliferated, yoga-related injuries have risen at an alarming rate.

And mister Iyengar said in his book, Light on Yoga:

“Pneumatic tools can cut through the hardest rock. In Pranayama the yogi uses his lungs as pneumatic tools. If they are not used properly, they destroy both the tool and the person using it.”

A mirror is such a pneumatic tool.

The Eye of the Beholder

“What’s wrong with mirrors?”, my new girl friends asked quizzically. It is not that there’s anything “wrong” with mirrors. From my experience, here’s what I’ve seen with mirrors (cheap jokes are the only kinds I’ve got :)):

A mirror can be used to adjust for alignment. This is a Good Thing for practicing yoga asana. The mirror is a powerful tool to give us feedback on our postures. However, we can very easily slip into self-criticism mode and use the mirror to find flaws, real or imagined ones. In an image-driven and competitive world like ours, it’s a lucky person who has managed to avoid any and all insecurity stemmed from messages of popular culture.

If we were to use the mirror for alignment, that would assume that we know what to check for, which a long-time practitioner would be qualified to do. However, a person brand spankin’ new to yoga does not have the luxury of knowing where the arms and legs go. In this case, the only thing they can do is to imitate others in class and do things that may or may not be appropriate for their body at that specific time.

In addition, experienced practitioners over time will cultivate a certain sense of proprioception and bodysense so that their practice brings them *in* their bodies, and the need to continuously stare in a mirror for the whole duration of the practice would diminish, similar to dancing. A dancer may practice in front of a mirror, but does not need, or use one when the piece is learned.

Naked as We Come – On Self Acceptance

In a hot yoga class, most people are not wearing very much clothes (and the guys are going, woohoo!). You could say that this is the first step towards self acceptance, to see ourselves as exactly who we are without any covering (this is what practitioners of Naked Yoga are motivated by). I am totally open to the possibility that someone somewhere out there is so rock solidly sure of themselves that they could stare at themselves for 90 minutes in the mirror in their bikinis, embracing every inch of their body and all their imperfections.

It is also just as likely that seeing their own body, and then other, perhaps skinnier, younger, more limber bodies in that same mirror will push someone to an even less healthy relationship with themselves. I’ve lost count of the amount of times in a Bikram yoga class that I sized up the class to see who was better or worse than me. I could not wait until my favorite poses were called, so I could show everyone how “good” I was. Of course, I may have looked impressive, but I was merely creating potential injuries in the weak parts of my body.

I can’t remember during the times I did hot yoga (and it was a loong time) if I ever came to any kind of self-acceptance and peace of mind, but I definitely did have more of an urge to be the best, rather than becoming one with anything or anybody.

The Softer Side of Sears… I Mean, Mirrors

Having said all that, I will point out that I’m only speaking from my own personal experience, and my opinion is inevitably flawed and skewed and biased. I will stress this again and again and again. I believe that there’s always a time and a place for everything in life. There is not one prescription, no matter how potent.

Mirrors are just mirrors, it is what we choose to see that can serve us or harm us. They can be an awesome tool for alignment work. But to see, to really see into ourselves, like, in the Avatar movie sense of *see*, to me, they have every bit of potential to hinder as much as they help.

In the spirit of the New Year, here’s to more “I See You”, Avatar style. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a greeting that acknowledges more than just our face and outer appearance. It’s a greeting to something bigger and deeper inside, perhaps not unlike Namaste.