Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: Who’s the Hottest, Bendiest, Most Zen Yogi of Them All?

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?

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  • Justin

    Basic rule of thumb for me: mirrors covered in a group class, but use mirrors when I’m running through my own practice (or in a very small group, where the only person I’ll see is myself). It’s nearly impossible to help from being distracted when seeing a whole host of other yogis in a room’s mirror(s), but during a personal flow, I appreciate being able to visually evaluate my performance (especially b/c there’s not an instructor there to correct me).

  • http://ranndomized.wordpress.com Ann

    Great post Rebecca! I practice yoga at home, as well as at Moksha (hot yoga); interestingly, when I practice at home, I don’t feel the need for a mirror at all (though my living room closet doors are mirrored so if I get an urge to eyeball myself, I can). However, when I’m practicing at Moksha, I make sure to land a spot right in front of the mirror. I think I like the mirror because a) no one is in front of me so I feel less restricted, and b) I do find it helpful when it comes to proper alignment. If I think about it, it’s not like the poses I practice at Moksha differ all that much from those that I practice at home so I can only conclude that I stand in front of the mirror because on a subconscious level, I am checking out my own ‘flaws.’ This of course, defeats the intended purpose of yoga! While I don’t typically check out other people during my yoga classes (I swear, I don’t!), I do sometimes sneak a peak – and I find that on some days, looking at the other yogis helps me to push myself further.

    Thanks for posting this!

  • http://babsbabble.com babs

    Definitely no to mirrors. When practicing we don’t need anything to bring our attention outward. Great post!

  • http://www.marciescudderphotography.com Marcie

    Love this. I have to agree with you 100% whole-heartedly about having mirrors in a yoga studio and how distracting they can be. The urge to check-oneself out..and others at the same time – can take away from the ‘internal feeling’.
    Excellent post!!!

  • Anon

    Well was in a class and the humidity was sooo much 3 mirror panels fell off the wall and smashed next to me. All the yogis aura must have deflected them from landing on anyone.

    I avoid mirroed classes because I focus on other people more and create too much judgment of myself as compared to the others I see.

    I do use a mirror when driving..

    Vampire yogi’s don’t worry about this

    Happy Halloween


  • Julie

    I was just thinking about this on Thursday at a spin class. There were front and side mirrors in that room, and I realized that it was the first time I’d seen myself working out head-on in at least a year. And yes, I was distracted. In one way it’s awesome to see yourself at the height of adrenaline and watching your body work at its max. But I’m quite sure that the instructor caught me checking out me and monitoring my fellow spinners. There are enough distractions both in and out of a yoga room. My mind alone provides enough wandering to occupy my time – mirrors are definitely not the answer to turning within for me.

  • Narcey Istic

    Of course, how else am I going to see me in my new lulu lemon. Or see my bootyaksina in Ukitasina. Where can I go that has ceiling mirros for bridge and shavasana. Are studios going to offer class videos soon. I hear that cameras are behind those mirrors.

  • Peggy

    Was in a Hot Yogi class and in the winter time the mirrors steam up pretty good. Fellow yogi was very creative and drew pics of anatomy on the mirror with finger before class and when everything steamed up the artwork was unvieled. Needless to say we stayed outward for awhile giggling.

    In all , MIrrors or no mirrors mmmmmmm ….. I say yes, because we focus more on what we are doing and less on drishti spots on the wall.

    All the best,