Discussion Excerpt: Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Yoga Mat (Video/Audio)
On Keeping Your Eyes on Your Own Yoga Mat – Discussion for Yoga Students and Teachers
Watch or listen to an excerpt of a yoga coaching discussion, or scroll down for a few transcript notes exploring the instruction to ‘keep your eyes on your own yoga mat’ with senior trainer Heather Agnew.
A Few Transcript Notes For Those Who Prefer to Read:
What strategies, philosophies, ideas or insights might help to encourage ourselves/our students to keep their eyes on their own mat and reduce the tendency to compare/judge/analyze/compete in class?
What might be the risks of peering around the room during practice to see what others are doing (Watchasana)?
A few thoughts to get us started:
Comparing your practice to someone else’s can draw you away from your own purpose for practicing – it can make the ‘performance’ of yoga seem more important than the ‘experience’ of yoga.
It can be easy to be distracted by the excitement of someone else doing fancy poses, but this can lead to striving, comparing, criticizing, even when fancy poses aren’t your aim for yoga.
Could you cause yourself harm by watching someone else rather than listening to your own body? Yes!
As a teacher, your yoga classes can sometimes devolve into a real competition. It can happen sneakily without you even noticing – it’s something to keep a handle on. I remember one class that I used to attend in Toronto that I loved, and over time it just got more and more intensely competitive without me even noticing. It took a friend visiting from Australia to point out that it was so competitive – that competitive vibe had just built and built but so slowly that we didn’t notice – like the frog in the pot.
After that, I got interested in seeing how I responded to this kind of intense class. It had developed my practice for sure, I was challenged and it felt transformative and like I was making big strides in my practice, but it had also developed my competitiveness, my ambition, and some unhealthy behaviors. It had sort of taken me down a different path that I wasn’t altogether comfortable with, or even interested in.
Watching what other people are doing on the mat might be like keeping up with the Joneses in a way. You aren’t the Joneses, you are you. Why are you here in practice? What are your aims, goals, needs, abilities today?
A question we might ask is: Who are you practicing for, someone else, the teacher, other students, Instagram…or for yourself?
It can be a kind of maturing process to let go of having to do every Vinyasa, to be able to take rest when you need rest and take on a challenge when you are ready for a challenge, without checking in to see what everyone else is doing. To make choices for you, not for anyone else’s expectations of you (or your own inner, sometimes unexplored expectations!)
Can we go too far with the ‘eyes on your own mat’ message?
Yes! I remember going to a studio that had 2 ‘eyes on your own mat’ stickers at the front of the studio – it set up this really harsh vibe for me – after all we are coming together to practice in community, and I felt like this insistence that my eyes should never wander from my mat to limit friendliness and connection. Sure, don’t compare yourself to others, but we can actually learn a lot by watching how others approach their practice.
Seeing how someone sets up their props in a unique way, or makes room for their boobs or belly, or adjusts their feet in Warrior 1 – these are all nuances that the teacher might cue today, but we can’t cue everything, and something it’s our students who are teaching each other the nuances and refinements.
We are social creatures, we learn from each other, mirror each other, match each other’s speech and gestures and habits all the time – that’s the nature of being a herd animal. Do we need to completely eliminate this natural instinct in yoga class?
So, this leads me to ask:
Are there benefits to observing others in practice? I’ve spent a lot of years exploring the potential harms of watching what other people are doing, so for today’s talk I got interested in what are the benefits?
Research has shown that watching movements activates similar parts of the brain to those that are involved in performing movement. This means watching sports performance might help athletes improve by strengthening the brain areas used when actions are performed. It’s really a case of monkey see, monkey do. This is why our demonstrations can be really useful when students are learning a new technique or transition.
When we observe someone else perform an activity – whether that be the teacher or fellow students, this activates something called Mirror Neurons. Mirror neurons are a kind of sensory motor in our brains that is activated when we are performing an action or observing someone else performing the same action.
Mirror neurons can help us to learn the skills that the person we are observing is doing – including technique, architecture, rhythm and timing, breath, gaze – all the elements of a pose or transition. They can also help us to build confidence to approach a new skill. Watching someone else be successful at a movement can help our own confidence and mindset.
Eyes Off/Eyes On
So, maybe there are two processes that we can map in our practice – first to be able to keep our eyes on our own mats – to practice without trying to meet the perceived expectations of the ‘right’ way to practice, and just move how our bodies move today.
Then, to be able to look around and observe and learn from each other, without having to use someone else’s ability or body or practice to judge or compare – both ourselves or others. To be able to practice together and learn from each other, without this devolving into some kind of yoga competition.
Join ERYT-500 and Senior Yoga Educator Heather Agnew for more discussions about teaching yoga.
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