Mirror, Mirror, Why Are You Here?

yoga classby Hillary Gibson

I’ve always been intensely competitive, constantly challenging myself to meet goals and comparing myself to others. When I began practicing yoga a little over a year ago, I felt I had found a place of community, a space where competition vanishes. Yoga studios filled with moving bodies exude an air of “we’re all in this together,” a treasured space in a world where a survival-of-the-fittest mentality usually prevails.

So, why do some yoga studios have mirrors?

For me, yoga has become a place to turn off all the competition. I practice yoga to strengthen my physical body, quiet my mind, and for a little while, forget about the ultimate goals I’m constantly working toward. For one hour, my present movements aren’t the means to some end.

But when I step into a studio enclosed by mirrors, I immediately feel restricted. Even if I waltz into class feeling every bit my inner goddess, as soon as I see my reflection I know I’m not going to have the liberating practice I hoped for. I know, I know, I’m supposed to love my body and embrace its beauty as is, but let’s face it: In a society where people are trained to meet unreasonable standards of body image, practicing non-judgment is really hard. And it’s difficult to tune out the yogini executing a flawless Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) to my left and not wish I could perform it as gracefully.

But yoga is about empathy—toward oneself and others—and recognition, not competition. It’s when mirrors intrude on a yoga space that I have to consciously remind myself of this.

I suppose some people want to see their reflection to help them with alignment. That’s a sensible argument, but I’ve found that feeling the posture rather than seeing it induces more beneficial muscle-memory type responses. I also suppose (and have frequently witnessed) that some people really admire their reflection and use that front and center spot to strike a few model faces. I’ve yet to see any photographers around, but I guess there could be some yogi paparazzi looming in the shadows.

For me, mirrors promote a competitive visual atmosphere that otherwise wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, exist in a yoga studio. Maybe the irritation I feel toward mirror-lined walls comes from my own inability to turn off self-judgment in certain situations, but I think there’s also something to be said for their interference with yogic practices like drishti. In a room lined with mirrors reflecting teetering yogis or amplifying visual sources of self-consciousness, it’s challenging to tune out the distractions and keep your focus soft.

When mirrors are present, I find myself significantly less rejuvenated and self-loving after a yoga practice. I treasure the opportunity to turn off criticism and appreciate my feelings and bodily sensations without judgment. During my yoga practice, I want to focus my reflections inward, not on an image in a mirror.

Hillary Gibson is the Web Editorial Intern at Yoga Journal and studies English at University of California Berkeley.