The Looking Glass
When you do yoga, do you use a mirror or go without? In the Ashtanga yoga tradition, which is the kind of yoga the five of us at Finding Isvara primarily practice, mirrors are not commonly used. The idea is that your focus should be inward, not outward. As Gregor Maehle puts it in his book Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy, "looking into [a mirror] draws awareness away from the core towards the surface... it is preferable to develop proprioceptive awareness... that does not depend on visual cues."
When I used to do Bikram yoga, the huge mirror at the front of the room was a key prop. Practitioners would use it to closely monitor their alignment and form. As a teacher, I found it useful to be able to direct students’ focus to the mirror to help them concentrate on the cues and integrate them into their bodies.
When I started doing Ashtanga yoga, some part of me definitely missed the mirror and getting to check my form all the time. But not having a mirror truly helped me “go inside” and start cueing in to the “subtle body.” When you look in a mirror, you see what is known as the "gross body" (large, visible muscle groups, joints, and limbs), and that’s where your focus goes. Without it, you tune into the smaller muscles inside the body and the inner workings both physiologically and energetically speaking. Drawing the mind inward is a much more meditative experience, as focusing outside oneself opens one up to the distractions of external stimuli.
I occasionally take Ashtanga yoga classes at a studio with a mirror on one of the side walls. The other day, I set up my mat right next to the mirror just to see what it would be like to practice with it again. I thought it would be a neat opportunity to dial in my form, but instead it was horribly distracting! Wanting to check my form took me out of the meditative practice of inward focus I had become accustomed to.
Using a mirror is neither right nor wrong, but I have really enjoyed the experience of practicing without one. I still like to learn from watching my form, but now I use photographs or video to check that periodically. Try practicing without one if you have not before. Or if there’s a mirror at your yoga studio that you can’t escape, try taking class from the back row, or purposely try not to focus in the mirror. You may find you get a much more meditative experience!