Mirror, mirror on the yoga studio wall

“But how do people check their alignment?” This question came from a yoga teacher trainee who’d just heard there are no mirrors in my studio. I was guest teaching on an RYT200 course in Queensland and many of the trainees had worked for some years as group fitness instructors – checking alignment in the mirror was a natural (and frequent) part of their teaching toolkit.


I explained that alignment comes from creating internal coherence rather than worrying about the external shape. The trainee looked doubtful. “But aren’t students going to get injured if they can’t see their alignment?” she continued. She had a point. Incorrect alignment can lead to injury and it’s important to keep students safe. But is looking in the mirror the best way to correct problematic alignment?

I’m not anti-mirrors by any means. I sometimes use them in my work as a yoga therapist. Early last year, I had a student who couldn’t feel her right shoulder after surgery following a surfing accident. The doctors told her there was no nerve damage, but she had no sensation in her shoulder joint at all. Over several yoga therapy sessions, we focused her attention on the injured shoulder in relaxed, kind and loving ways.


In one session I took this student to a mirror and we worked through a series of simple exercises in which she looked directly at her shoulder, touched it with her hand and then looked in the mirror at the reflection of her touching and moving her shoulder. After a few minutes, tears started rolling down her cheeks. “I can feel it”, she whispered. The mirror, in combination with gentle touch, had helped her to come into relationship with her injured shoulder and the mind-body connection that had been abruptly shattered through the trauma of the injury and surgery had started to heal.


Mirrors in group class environments, however, can serve a very different purpose. For some students, mirrors are a way of comparing themselves (favourably or unfavourably) to others in the room. Other students may take pleasure in admiring their form as they move through the postures. Then there are those for whom observing their bodies triggers a cascade of negative thoughts that flow from a sense of deep dissatisfaction with their own bodies.


From students with low self esteem to those experiencing body dysmorphia and eating disorders, some people are flooded with feelings of self loathing when they step into a mirrored room. Rather than deepen their connection to self, seeing themselves practicing yoga can become another opportunity for self hatred. Instead of experiencing unconditional self acceptance, their yoga practice becomes another weapon in the battle to change their bodies into something they believe to be less loathsome. Every posture is an act of self punishment, a way of escaping a state of being which they find unbearable.   


Coming to terms with negative body image is an inward bound journey and while mirrors may be able to reflect a state of self love, they cannot create it. External appearance, including alignment, is not a reliable indicator of internal experience - feeling and function are felt rather than seen.


Every single body is different and even if two identical looking people performed the same pose in the same way, their internal landscape would still render their felt experience of that pose unique to each of them.


It is certainly be helpful to observe the body’s patterns and postural habits and mirrors can be a valuable teaching tool in some situations. But visual observation must always be paired with good instruction that contextualizes the physical form as an expression of felt sensation. ‘How does it feel’ always wins over ‘how does it look’. But it’s hard to prioritise internal experience over external appearance when you have been trained to measure your success by looking at your body in a mirror. And let’s face it, most of us have been taught to measure our self worth by the way we appear to others.


Good, safe alignment is important. But good alignment may look different in each student depending on body type and lived history. Using mirrors to teach alignment in a group class runs the risk of reinforcing the desire to conform, encouraging everybody to perform the poses in the same way. That is the way we have been taught to think about our bodies in the wider environment – if we can only make ourselves look a certain way (thinner and younger, usually), we’ll have earned the right to love and be loved. 


Of course, if we’re all striving to look a certain way, anybody who can’t/won’t conform to that idealized image – whether it’s the ‘ideal’ body type or the ‘right’ alignment in asana -  stands out a mile.  This is the opposite of diversity. When we ask yoga students to conform to rigid alignment rules, we diminish the possibility of exploration, personal discovery and practicing in ways that are meaningful (and safe) for the individual.


Mirrors don’t just reflect the shapes in front of them. They project our hopes, fears, perceptions and experiences. And that makes every reflection subject to distortion, distortions that can be distracting on the journey towards self-acceptance and inclusivity.