I primarily teach in spaces with mirrors on at least one wall in each studio, sometimes more than one wall. In my own practice, when facing the mirror, I’ve noticed how preoccupied I can get with my appearance and also with other people. I’ve thought about teaching my own classes facing away from the mirrors…for a long time. It’s a hard change to make!
With the new year, I committed to trying this out and have continued to teach many of my classes (not all) facing away from the mirror. In one space, I taught one class with two long rows of people facing inward, facing each other. I also knew I’d be participating in Eat Breathe Thrive’s Module One training (Yoga, Food & Body Image Intensive) in February and this got me thinking about the connection between mirrors and body image too.
The first yoga studios I practiced at didn’t have mirrors, and I’ve understood it was because the focus of yoga is more inward than outward, to feel the pose rather than see the pose. Practicing in this way helps build a better sense of where our body is in space. Moving into our heads to critique our bodies or others brings us out of the present moment. Yoga poses and alignment offer a context to bring us into the present moment, but they aren’t ultimately the goal of yoga.
Of course it’s possible to speak to that aim while facing mirrors, it’s possible for people to close their eyes (and worth a try!) but it’s just harder when there is constantly a mirror in front of you. For people who primarily practice in one location – if that location has a mirror, they may never have practiced yoga without a mirror.
As someone who has struggled with food and body image issues, it’s not lost on me that many of us, even if we are healthy enough to not be in treatment for an eating disorder, struggle with negative thoughts which may be exacerbated by staring at our reflection – and the reflections of others – in yoga clothes for 60-90 minutes. These negative thoughts could be judgments about our bodies or others’ bodies, or comparisons … most of us can acknowledge we’d rather not have those thoughts and make those comparisons … but stopping the mind from doing that after years of doing so, living in a culture that encourages that, is not as simple as just deciding not to.
Obviously I don’t think avoiding mirrors completely is a solution for body image challenges, but taking mirrors out of the equation has so many potential benefits that it started to feel inauthentic to me not to try.
We were able to practice yoga in a very similar way without mirrors as we did with mirrors!
Most people who did comment said that it felt very different. Some felt it was different in a very positive way, that it changed the atmosphere of the class; some people missed having access to the mirrors for alignment purposes. New students in particular sometimes found it more challenging to follow the class (I do tend to tell new students to yoga or new students to the studio to place themselves more in the center of the room so they can look to others if they need to, regardless of the availability of mirrors). In the space where two long rows of people faced each other, more than one person brought up how nerve wracking it was to even consider making eye contact across the way.
As a teacher, the experience of teaching facing away from the mirrors was different for me too. Based on my training in trauma informed yoga, I generally try to be in front of people, where they can see me, rather than behind them. Mirrors actually help me feel more visible because even when I am behind people, they can see me in the mirror. So facing away from the mirrors feels awkward to me as the teacher too – but I talk a lot, I ask before assisting, and make noise if I’m about to assist someone. Ultimately, I decided that my personal discomfort is not a good enough reason to stop doing something that I believe is more beneficial for my students.
All that said, people have a right to feel how they feel, and it doesn’t need to be a moral thing whether people like having access to a mirror or not. It’s possible for a mirror to be a neutral tool for some of us. When I receive feedback, I try to acknowledge it without invalidating it, and, if requested, share my reason for facing away from the mirror. The other benefit of teaching at such a large studio with many classes and locations is that if people really just don’t like facing away from the mirror in my class … the very vast majority of classes do face the mirror, so they have a lot of other options to choose from.
Have you practiced yoga with a mirror, without a mirror, or in both types of settings? What is your experience of mirrors in yoga?