At my sister’s home in Santa Cruz, I do a brief yoga practice before breakfast with my niece. In my bedroom, there are large mirrored closet doors. I typically face away from the mirrors. During my last trip, however, I ended up doing Sirsasana (headstand) facing the mirror. A sofa blocked my line of sight, so all I could see were my lower legs, from shins to toes.
Believe it or not, that truncated view was nevertheless informative. I noticed that, while my big toes were joined, my anklebones were too far apart. Was I over-rotating my legs inward? Regardless, I appreciated seeing that cropped shot of my pose from the outside.
In Iyengar yoga, mirrors are not used. We learn by teachers’ corrections and by our own internal proprioceptive awareness. In contrast, in Bikram yoga, the mirror is considered essential: Students are taught to gaze into their own eyes in the mirror. This drishti (focal point) is meant to cultivate concentration and self-acceptance.
Do you think mirrors are useful in yoga practice? A few thoughts:
Improve form and alignment Observing yourself in a mirror gives instant feedback and can be a learning tool–by making you the teacher. In a class setting, the teacher cannot monitor every picky detail, such as anklebones in Sirsasana. A mirror can help you catch little things and take responsibility for your practice. Therefore, while I don’t advocate mirrors in yoga studios, occasionally using mirrors elsewhere (at home, at the gym) can be revealing.
Of course, it’s impossible to view your mirrored reflection from the side or back (and you might tweak your neck trying to do so). Thus I recommend occasionally asking a friend to photograph you in poses. You might be shocked and amazed. Seeing is believing.
Increase alertness When you stand before a mirror, you cannot slouch or roll your eyes. You cannot “hide” in the back row. Here, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Prashant stories:
After listening to him exhort us to pay attention to the breath, pose by pose, moment by moment, I was silently wondering whether I should be trying to control, or only observing, my breath. As if he could read my mind, he said, “If you pass by a mirror and see your reflection, you act differently. You might change your expression or fix your hair. You are affected simply by seeing your reflection. Likewise, if you watch your breath, it will change.”
Prashant was not talking about asana and mirrors, of course. But his point is applicable: we act differently when face to face with ourselves.
Forced self gaze I’ve read that new Bikram yoga students often find the de rigueur “self gaze” very uncomfortable at first. Indeed, eye contact is a powerful act, whether with oneself or with others. I can hardly imagine taking or teaching an entire class facing a mirror.
Mirrors might also exacerbate self-consciousness about physical appearance. While one is on display regardless of any mirrors, seeing one’s body amid others might cause some to criticize their own.
Emphasizing external over internal awareness By their nature, mirrors reflect what the outside world sees of us. Shouldn’t yoga be cultivating our internal awareness? Bikram yogis would argue exactly the opposite: by staring at oneself for 90 minutes, they say, you have no choice but to come to terms with yourself.
Ease balancing poses This could be an advantage for those who struggle with balance poses. For the majority, however, balancing might become too easy and overly reliant on visual cues. When I read Jane Brody’s “Preserving a Fundamental Sense: Balance” back in 2008, it spurred me to practice “blind” balancing, standing on one leg with my eyes closed.