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Pros & Cons: The Visual Plane of Reference in Yoga Classes

My experience teaching yoga classes at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind over the winter helped me realize that sight and the visual plane are not the only way to experience or teach a yoga class. Those of us with the privilege of vision often take it for granted and rely heavily on our sense of sight as our primary point of reference for navigating our way through space; because we are able to see the world, we come to depend on our sight as if it were our the only tool in our sensory interpretation tool box. When I started leading class for “totals” (the term used to describe those who are totally blind), I realized quite quickly — well, after putting my foot in my mouth a couple times — that even my verbal cues were laden with visual references. In order to teach effectively in this specific context for these particular students, it was clear that I needed to change (specifically, de-prioritize) how I thought about the place of sight and the visual plane of reference in relation to the experience of a yoga practice.

It was absolutely a challenge for me but I grew as a teacher and as a practitioner from my experience; not only did I learn how to rely less on the visual as a cue reference in my teaching, I also gained a better understanding of how so much of the true nature of the physical asana is actually a wholly internal and intimate experience. I came to understand more fully that a very important part of the experience of yoga happens inside yourself, a process only visible to your third eye. (wink, wink — wink, ha)

I have thought a lot about my experience at the CNIB and it has lead me to consider in detail both the upsides and downsides to using the visual plane as a point of reference in our yoga practice. In most yoga classes, the visual plane comes into play primarily in two ways: (a) demonstrations of the postures done by the yoga teacher and (b) the strategic placement of mirrors in the studio space.

Visual Demonstrations

The Upside: Strong teaching demands that teachers do their best to include cueing in a variety of forms that are useful and appropriate for all the different kinds of learners: verbal (spoken cues), visual (demonstrations) as well as tactile (hands on adjustments and guidance). Demonstrations provide an opportunity to see what the the postures look like in their physical form and so, of course, those students who learn primarily and/or most efficiently by seeing will obviously find asana demonstration to be a most powerful tool for coming to understand the alignment and shape of the pose.

The Downside: (1) Demonstrations can inadvertently create an expectation on a part of the student (and, I’d argue, the teacher if they’re not aware) that the posture should look a certain way (ie, my Triangle Pose should look like “the teacher’s pose”) in order to be “correct.” In truth, however, an authentic expression of any yoga pose is as unique as the human body itself. In this way, demonstrations can teach the student to rely on an external reference rather than learning to trust their own body to interpret the cues in its own natural way.

(2) Demonstration cannot express what the posture feels like in your own body. For example, I can suggest the experience of relaxation by visibly softening my body and dropping a loud exhalation in Childs Pose, but that fundamentally fails to communicate what the posture might feel like for the individual student specifically.

(3) Demonstrations can create students who simply follow along in class rather than learn the poses themselves. While there’s nothing wrong with a student who simply follows along (you do you!), I believe a good teacher seeks to teach their student the craft so that the student might one day become their own teacher and not remain dependent on external guidance.

The Use of Mirrors

The Upside: I have practiced with mirrors in the past and I currently teach in spaces with mirrors on a regular basis. I believe mirrors can be an incredibly effective tool that provide students with the opportunity to observe their bodies take the shape of the yoga pose and move through transitions.

(1) Mirrors provide a reflection of their bodies so that students can see themselves in the pose, thereby learning how to adjust the details of their physical alignment. For example, a student can see whether or not their chest is centred over their hips in Warrior 2, something that can be hard to feel out. When our bodies get used to moving in misalignment, it can begin to feel normal, so we may need to see what is off in order to make the adjustments.

(2) At the beginning of my journey with yoga, I was barely out of my teens and had incredibly low self esteem; I loathed to look at my physical self, at what I considered to be an unattractive mess, just not up to snuff with the normative beauty standards that had taught me to hate my body. The mirrors in the studio space challenged me to learn how to look myself in the eye — to accept and even embrace myself and my body as beautiful, capable and strong. Mirrors give students the opportunity to confront themselves and their own issues with themselves in a safe and supportive place.

The Downside: (1) Mirrors can create an environment in which students develop the habit of comparing themselves with others in the room. This can happen without mirrors present, of course, but mirrors can reinforce a comparative and even competitive tendency among students. Competition is the opposite of creativity and so comparing ones’ expressions to others can lessen a student’s ability to be truly natural and authentic in their practice.

(2) Mirrors can create a fixation on the physical alignment of the pose which can undermine the importance of the more subtle and internal aspects of the practice. If the gaze of the student is stuck on the mirror, the flow of the yoga can be lost as can the opportunity to feel intuitively in the practice.

(3) Not every student will find the presence of mirrors as a tool for overcoming body image or self esteem issues; some students may have these issues only reinforced by the presence of mirrors.

And So...

Visual demonstrations and mirrors are both useful tools for students to learn the poses in their practice… or they can become a crutch, a limitation or even a hindrance if their upsides and downsides are not recognized by the student and their teacher.

Here’s my suggestion: Make use of visual demonstrations when they’re provided, if it enriches your practice — but please don’t put pressure on yourself, your body or your expression of the pose to look a certain way. If presence of mirrors serves your practice, use them when it’s appropriate but know that you don’t need them — you can learn to listen to your body and trust your alignment without the external reference of the mirror. My students at the CNIB navigate their practice without the use of visual demonstration or mirrors and their practices are just as strong, well aligned and (perhaps more) fully embodied as my students with the privilege of vision.

Whenever you’re comfortable with it and it’s safe to do so, close your eyes in practice and allow yourself to really turn inward. Feel the postures from the inside out instead of worrying what the postures look like on the outside. Prioritize the quality of your experience, the quality of your breath, rather than the aesthetic or performative aspects of the physical asana practice. Yes, the postures can look beautiful, but what’s really important is that they feel beautiful.

Yes, I want to see your face smile, but even more so, I want you to feel your heart smile.

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