Going from confident to self-conscious in a 90-degree turn. The change: a magic mirror and an awareness of how my sense of self can be so easily flipped by an external reflection.
Those familiar with Bikram yoga know it has a very different approach than other disciplines of yoga: the room is heated to over 100 degrees; keeping your eyes open is encouraged; staring at yourself in any of the 4 mirrored walls is expected. This is an eyes-wide-open experience.
It is sometimes the experience you don’t want in a yoga class. Instead of tuning inwards, retracting from the external world like you do in other schools of yoga, in Bikram, you stay connected to the outside world.
I have come to enjoy Bikram to give me a different physical and mental experience. The class is energizing. I use the mirror to reinforce silent affirmations. I develop focus around my wandering thoughts. I learn to ignore what I see.
It helps that I try to avoid the front row in this class. It feels too exposing. The front row – and the mirrors – create pressure to perform, something I feel enough of in life, and invite constant self inspection. So, I often opt for a back row.
On one particular day, I arrived late at class. I squeezed my mat in between two others in one of the only spots left – the front row. After getting my station set up, I stood erect, staring at myself squarely in the mirror. I took a few deep breathes to help me transition into the room and get over the discomfort of staring at myself. As my mind quieted, I began scanning my body top to bottom, only finding flaws. I noticed the bump in my pony tail, which I quickly fixed by redoing my hair. Lowering my gaze to my midsection next, I noticed a stain on my red tank top. I rubbed at it to see if I could remove it. I couldn’t. I then lowered my gaze to my skin tight navy pants. To my surprise, my usual problem area didn’t irritate me so much. That’s because I was looking slimmer.
My reflection showed the corners of my mouth turn upwards, my eyes widen and my chest puff up.
My snatched (haha!) silhouette had boosted my energy and spirits. I even felt stronger and more athletic overall. I breathed in this confidence and assumed my position at the front of class and flowed more confidently through the first series of asanas. I felt more willing to lead.
Then, things took a turn. When I took a turn.
A quarter-way through a Bikram class, you turn ninety degrees to face a side mirror to start a different series of poses. Until then, I had only seen myself in the front mirror, as my side view was obstructed by sweaty yogis packed all around me.
When I turned, I had to inch left and right in order to find my eyes in the mirror. I then scanned the rest of my body waiting for instruction on the poses to come.
Even though I was a dozen or more feet away from my reflection, I saw a change. Gone was my sleek frame from before. I looked almost 7 lbs heavier.
My heart began racing. My mind began wandering. Argh, I thought to myself.
The front mirror is a “skinny” mirror.
As I hang upside down in dandayamana dibhaktapada paschimotthanasa (standing separate leg pose), my mind wrestled with this agitation.
I was angry. At myself. At the mirror. At the shift that I felt in my worth, athleticism and even willingness to lead.
I raised my trunk to vertical to prepare for trikonasana (triangle pose). Angling my legs and head back towards the front of the mirror, where I faced at the start of class, I could perceive the contrast: In front = confidence and courage. To the side = shame and criticism.
Sinking into my legs, I turned my head from front mirror to side mirror and back again. The only difference was a slightly sleeker silhouette. Yet, drastic was the difference in how I felt about myself.
Now immersed into the pose, I gazed up at my fingertips and tracked what was visible: my chipped nails. My long and gently wrinkling fingers. The scars from elementary school that lined my wrists. It was the real me. These small parts of my body, though imperfect, had history, grit and true strength. Though flawed and showing signs of wear, my body reflected my truth, my past and the whole me. Acceptance flooded my lungs and swept through my body.
My chest puffed. My fingers pointed straighter and taller to the sky.
I would not let a mirror steal my mojo.
Moments later, I regained footing and once again faced the side mirror. I noticed the reflection I had rejected just minutes earlier with new awareness.
I said to her inside:
I accept you as you are.
And then I closed my eyes. And breathed.