The Mirror in the Studio
The Ballet Studio
I returned to the ballet studio eight years ago at the age of 42 following a 17-year hiatus, and one year after dispatching my daughter into ballet class. (She wisely extricated herself from the ballet world five years later when she was 12.) My first plié felt like no time had passed. Tears gently oozed with the familiar music as my body felt the emotion and the memory of my dancing.
And then there was the mirror. My familiar companion. Judgment.
Not bad for 42. Me in a leotard. And a skirt to disguise the hips and belly.
But I could look better. BE better.
I was sucked into the obsession. Immediately.
- Where should I stand at the barre to get the best view (of me)?
- Do I look thinner today?
- Am I thinner than her?
- Is my stomach flat?
- How high is my leg in developpé?
- Is it higher than hers?
- Is the teacher watching me?
- Does HE like my dancing?
Wait, I am 42 and myopic. I can barely see myself in the mirror! And so went the next few years as I re-explored ballet from a new perspective. Can I simply enjoy it without the ambition, without the judgment? My muscle memory came back quickly. I still struggled with double pirouettes and piqué turns to the left. I still danced adagio sections in the center beautifully, maybe more beautifully with years of living coloring my dancing. And I loved jumping! Flying through the air. Joy! As I strained to revisit my ballerina dreams in this weekly Saturday adult class filled with other beautiful and accomplished “mature” dancers, I nursed agonizing muscle cramps every Saturday evening and my chronic stiff neck.
I was obsessed. I lost weight. A new ballerina friend remarked enthusiastically a year later – “Oh! You have your ballet body back!” My ballerina body. Thin. In pain. Grasping at those double pirouettes. Crying with joy at every plié and grand jeté. Trying to explain to my husband why I did this every Saturday even though it led to excruciating night cramps where I yelped around on one leg. I thought I loved it. But my body told me otherwise. I stopped. Yes, it was different at 42 than at 14, but the memories stored in my body were still there and would not let me embody the joy of dance without the pain.
The Yoga Studio
And then I walked into the yoga studio. There were no mirrors, no judgment, no right and wrong. I closed my eyes. I breathed. I felt my body. I felt safe. At peace (at least sometimes). Don’t get me wrong. I still judged myself. I still compared myself to everyone. Ha! I can touch my head to my knee and she can’t! Look at me doing headstand at the wall! Uh oh, look at her doing headstand without the wall! I slowly have begun to absorb the truth: there is no perfect pose to achieve. Gradually, there are more moments of peace and fewer moments of judgment. Fewer moments of obsessive chasing after the perfect chaturanga … And, with my neck, I have sworn off headstand (for now). But I am thrilled with handstand. (Thank you Jill. I hear your voice every time I go flying up through the air, heels over head, to become upside down.)
I was surprised when I saw the mirror in the new studio. I felt betrayed. How could you put a mirror in the yoga studio? Intellectually, I get it. The mirror is a good teaching tool. It provides good feedback. You’re not getting the shape of Trikonasana? Let’s go over to the mirror and find it. You can’t see your back body? Let’s go over to the mirror and find it. Angry at the mirror, I purposefully arrived early at classes so that I could find my own space, aggressively away from the mirror. For me, the point of yoga was to feel the poses and my body in the poses and get away from “right” and “wrong.” I love to close my eyes and remove the onslaught of visual stimuli and move inside. Hide inside.
Proprioception is your ability to know where your body is in space. It is a crucial “6th” sense and vitally important for balance and increasingly valuable as we get older. Dancers have tremendous body discipline but can be reliant on the mirror for feedback. When dancers move from the mirrored studio to the mirrorless stage, they can be disoriented, unable to perform if they are not performing for the mirror. Yogis tune in to their bodies, developing nuanced body awareness, balance, strength and flexibility – learning to distinguish between up and down even when they are upside down and without a mirror.
One amazing use of the mirror took place in a Feldenkrais workshop offered at Yoga Haven led by Kim Plumridge several years ago. She gave us all a hand mirror and asked us to look at our faces. Indeed, she commanded us to REALLY LOOK AT OUR FACES.
- Notice the asymmetry of each half of your face.
- What color are your eyes?
- What is the color and texture of your skin?
- How deep are your dark circles?
- What happens when you smile? Enjoy how you feel when you smile.
- Look into your own eyes and see your Self. Honor your Self.
- Like what you see in the mirror.
Astonishing! The mirror transcends self-absorption and facilitates self-acceptance, allowing the heart and soul to shine out with love for me … and for you. Perhaps it is time to open my eyes and make peace with the mirror in the studio, and my Self. Namaste.