Mirror, mirror…

Twitter told me that it’s International Women’s Day and Fat Tuesday. What an appropriate day, then, for me to see this Tumblr post by Penguinslover:

I vaguely remember reading about a study in college (a long, long time ago :-) ) that verified what this animated photo shows — that a woman’s cognitive perception of her body can literally be this divorced from reality.

I teach yoga, and one of the themes that I constantly bring into class is that yoga is not about body image — to a point where I would rather not teach in a yoga studio that has mirrors.

I’ll take a step back here to say that in the yoga community, there are some who believe strongly that students should have mirrors, and others who believe that mirrors serve only to distract. At Hilltop Yoga, where I teach Ashtanga yoga a few times a week, mirrors would never be allowed. At the Michigan Athletic Club, where I teach power yoga once a week, the club’s dedicated yoga studio has two connected walls with mirrors and two connected walls without, to accommodate yoga teachers from both schools. Teachers who want their students to be able to see themselves have their students face one way, and the other set of teachers have their classes face the other way.

My sister, who recently started teaching yoga in San Jose, Calif., and I have had long conversations about this. I think that once a student gets to a point where they have a very keen sense of body awareness — where they turn inward first to feel what their body is doing in space and time — then selective use of a mirror can refine alignment of muscle and joint actions/relationships. Reliance on mirrors before that? I see students every week use the mirror to check themselves out in the same judgmental way they might do in the morning as they get dressed for work.

This brings me back to the animated graphic posted on Tumblr that I’ve inserted into this post. Despite all this, I don’t think I’ve changed enough from my middle school days, when I look at my profile in the bathroom mirror and feel hopelessly frustrated at the size of my belly. After teaching yoga for more than 18 months, I still do what the woman in this picture is doing. I mean, this evening, after taking a much-needed yoga class with Misty Flahie, I went to my local natural foods store and tweeted this without seeing the hypocrisy at the time.

Do I need to lose weight? I could stand to lose a few pounds. All my pants have been fitting a litter tighter since the winter started, and there is a very logical reason for that: since November, my schedule has either been so sporadic (some international travel, which can throw you off for a long time) or so work-intensive — and something has had to give. That something has been my yoga practice, which is all I do to stay fit. I don’t run. I don’t do cardio machines at the gym. If I don’t take a sweaty 90-minute yoga class or find an hour or so at home to practice, then I’m not getting a physical workout. In the last few weeks, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to an actual yoga class that I took, rather than taught.

But do I need to lose weight in the way that I’m thinking about it in my head? The way I think when I look in the mirror. Probably not.

So, in honor of International Women’s Day, I’ll try (again) to do a better job of walking the yoga walk when it comes to body image. I can’t blame mirrors — it’s how I use them.

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9 thoughts on “Mirror, mirror…

  1. I’ve gained a bit of weight over the winter too…and I’ve been attending class 5 nights a week + cardio when I can…still isn’t enough to 1. shake the negative body image and 2. cancel out the insane amount of butt sitting I have to do for my job. Frustrating. Salads here I come. At the same time, I know I eat healthy (I know you do too!) and we all need this reminder to treat ourselves with kindness. Acceptance has been one of my frequent intentions.

    • It’s inspiring how healthy you eat, but I hear you on the frustration of winter. Hopefully, spring is truly on its way — and hopefully, that will be a factor helping us on this journey of feeling better (inside and out).

      Yoga is an amazing companion on the journey to self-acceptance. Friends, family and colleagues are too!

      • aw thank you! I eat healthy, but I think I need to step away from the carbs a bit haha. Yes, I’m so looking forward to fresh Michigan strawberries and asparagus! C’mon Spring. You’re so right about support – friends, family and colleagues are wonderful to bounce ideas off of and to keep me balanced. Thanks :)

  2. ALL women do that thing where we suck in at the mirror. My goodness, I’m sure I’m 20 lbs. lighter in my mirror pose! And yoga without mirrors … sign me up! The major reason why I work out at home in front of the TV and not a gym is the lack of mirrors. And observors, of course. People who are exhibitionist with their exercise creep me out. P.S. Great blog!

    • Thanks for the shout-out on the blog, Sarah. Seriously, we should make it our resolution for 2011 to get to at least one yoga class together (one sans mirrors, of course).

      So true on the observer thing re: exercise. I’ve always thought those gyms where people can walk by and watch you is rather intimidating. Now, one-way mirrors where you can people-watch out to give you a distraction from the treadmill — that would be another story. I have always needed a distraction from exercising in a gym setting, which is probably why I don’t go to gyms to work out anymore and why yoga is my cup of tea. It was like trying to move my body while transporting my mind somewhere else more interesting and less tedious than that elliptical.

      Btw, I think “mirror pose” would be a great symbolic yoga posture. Not sure what the Sanskrit for “mirror” is though — will have to research that, ha.

  3. Thank you for this post. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since you wrote it, and have decided that I need to be as kind to myself as I am to other people. It’s really hard…

    • So happy to hear that this blog post helped you reflect. When it comes to body image, it is SO freaking hard to be equally kind to yourself as it is to be kind to others. Nearly impossible, I think, for most of us. I think that’s why it’s important that women, especially, set an example for other women by not telling friends and coworkers how great they look and then in the next breath talking about how they themselves need to lose weight. We need the same standard for friends and self!

      Yet…I am still catching myself doing that — even after writing this blog post.

  4. Thanks for posting this. I began my yoga journey as I gained weight in recovery from anorexia. I do not go to yoga studios with mirrors, as mirrors do not serve my practice. If I’m concerned that I’m not properly aligned, I ask the teacher for help. Then I feel what proper alignment feels like, rather than just do what I think looks good.
    I also have to remind myself that even though I may be getting a great workout, the reasons I do yoga are so much deeper. I have to admit, it is more of a challenge as the weather gets warmer to resist that desire to lose weight.

    • Thank you for your candor. That is a tremendous journey, to start down this yogic path as recovery from anorexia.

      I agree that an instructor is so important in teaching us how to investigate our own practice, how to feel correct alignment from the inside out. Your comment is a good reminder too that perhaps as the weather gets warmer, yoga teachers could increase their verbal cues for another type of alignment — that of better aligning how our mind feels about our body.

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