Recently, a yoga student inquired before class why I opt to cover the mirrors in the studio space within a health club in which I teach. I thought it was a great question but was only able to give a short answer in order to begin class on time. Here, I can delve into questions like this with more detail. Care to join me?
As far as I can tell, there are a few key reasons why you won’t find mirrors in most yoga studios (excluding Bikram studios), and, personally, I don’t dig mirrors in yoga classes. As a teacher, who first started teaching yoga in 2000 in health clubs (with mirrors abound), I’ve always covered them when possible. Today, I see this topic as a great segue into important elements of yoga philosophy, such as drishti and the larger concept of pratyhara, the 5th limb of Patanjali’s eightfold path. To explain these aspects of yoga practice, it helps to consider the following questions.
What am I looking at? Yogis who enjoy having mirrors during asana practice contend that reviewing one’s alignment in a mirror can be helpful, and they’re right. Yet, more often than not, a person (yogi or otherwise) in front of a mirror, tends to check themselves out and subtly pass judgment of one form or another on the image reflected. Moreover, I believe it’s more valuable for students to feel proper alignment than to see it.
How am I looking? Drishti is an important aspect of yoga practice. It relates to the direction and energy of our gaze. In many styles of yoga, asanas have specific drishti points, such as looking at one’s upper hand in trikonasana (triangle pose) or at our toes in salamba sarvangasana (shoulder stand). It’s a way of harnessing our energy and channeling it in a specific direction. Certain drishtis even protect us from injury, as is the case with looking at our toes in shoulder stand (looking elsewhere in this pose jeopardizes the cervical spine).
Most importantly, our eyes, along with our other senses, help to curate our thoughts, therefore, looking at one’s pose for corrections (though, useful), outfit for color coordination (though, natural), or forehead for wrinkles (though, tempting) tends to take our thoughts in separate directions, hence, separating the yogi from the present moment.
David Life, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga, shares some insight on the subject of drishti in a Yoga Journal article entitled “Eye of the Beholder.” I’ve included an excerpt below, as an additional source of reflection:
We humans are predominantly visual creatures. As every yoga practitioner has discovered, even during practice we find ourselves looking at the pose, outfit, or new hairstyle of the student on the next mat. We stare out the window or at the skin flaking between our toes, as though these things were more interesting than focusing on God realization. And thwack! Where our eyes are directed, our attention follows.
Our attention is the most valuable thing we have, and the visible world can be an addictive, overstimulating, and spiritually debilitating lure. The habit of grasping at the world is so widespread that the spiritual teacher Osho coined a term for it: “Kodakomania.” If you have any doubt about the power of the visual image and the value of your attention, just think of the billions of dollars the advertising industry spends on photography every year!
When we get caught up in the outer appearance of things, our prana (vitality) flows out of us as we scan the stimulating sights. Allowing the eyes to wander creates distractions that lead us further away from yoga. To counteract these habits, control and focus of the attention are fundamental principles in yoga practice. When we control and direct the focus, first of the eyes and then of the attention, we are using the yogic technique called drishti.
Does this sensory experience support my practice and others? Whether we practice in a posh gym, serene studio, austere ashram, or on a few squares of linoleum in the kitchen of a small, city apartment, yoga is a spiritual practice as much as it is a physical one. By minimizing the urge to look and evaluate outward, we’re more likely to focus and “still the fluctuations of the mind,” the main objective of yoga practice, as Patanjali, the ancient scholar who systematized yoga, states in the Yoga Sutras.
Patanjali also wrote about the importance of pratyhara, known as “withdrawal of the senses.” This oft-overlooked teaching becomes even more important in the uber-information age, where we scarcely experience moments without some form of technology at our immediate disposal, loyally prepared to update or entertain us at all times. Pratyhara asks us to be discriminating about the kinds of stimulation we allow into our lives via our senses. For me, this makes yoga practice an ideal opportunity to go inward, giving our eyes, ears, and minds a much needed rest from all the external looking, listening, talking, texting, tweeting . . . You get the picture.
In summary, mirrors can be helpful for aligning postures, but, in my opinion, they don’t enhance the overall experience of a class more than their absence provides an opportunity for concentration and meditation. In Sanskrit, this graceful, one-pointed concentration is called samadhi, the final limb of the yogi’s path. To be clear, I don’t think mirrors make for “bad” yoga classes or teachers who use mirrors are any less skilled or authentic than those who don’t. I’m just giving one gal’s perspective when given a choice between “mirror, mirror, on the wall” or not.
What do you think, yogis?