Who is the fairest one of all?
The Evil Queen would probably be perfectly content admiring her reflection in the giant mirrors of the yoga room, (only until Snow White rolled her mat out in her spot and then all hell would break loose).
But for some of us those mirrors, or more accurately the reflection in the mirrors, can be a challenging prospect without engaging a certain level of detachment.
Adopting a more detached approach to our reflection by removing the emotional values we place on it is a handy lesson from our Insular Cortex.
Change your frame of reference.If detachment feels cold, remote and unfeeling, remember that other definitions of detachment include objective or separate, as in ‘detached housing’. Objectively speaking a detached house isn’t cold or aloof, just able to take a metaphorical step back.
To face your reflection in full length mirrors, under bright lights all while wearing form fitting active-wear requires detachment for us to see ourselves through a different lens. Turning down the volume on our inner monologue for 90 minutes to become more aware of our default responses to our reflection and our practice takes practice.
Why practice detachment?
Although challenging, successful detachment is rewarding. We become more teachable, aware of our knee-jerk emotional responses, open to or self acceptance. Would a more detached approach might benefit your yoga practice?
1. Stop cataloguing your strengths and weaknesses.
We've been conditioned to believe this a good thing, to bring awareness to our strengths and weaknesses, to catalogue the areas we can improve on and others we shine in. Not everything that seems like a good idea actually is a good idea, just ask the producers of the movie Cats.
When we assess our strengths and weaknesses we have a tendency to find lots of fault(s) and the occasional tiny slivers of positivity.
"I am terrible at balancing postures. I'll never be able to do *insert posture name here*".
"I'm too fat/thin/bald/hairy? It's hideous."
"I suppose my eyebrows are okay."
Good v Bad.
As soon as we allocate value to something about ourselves, no matter whether we determine it to be a strength ‘good’ (i.e. eyebrows) or a weakness ‘bad’ (i.e. our balance) we are locked into how we feel about that 'thing' unless we change that thing. We now have to get better at balancing (or whatever) to shift it to the 'good' column leaving no way to accept ourselves and our yoga (and our balance!) simply as we are.
This is also true for features that we 'hate' about ourselves (mine used to be my feet), as long as we call them bad or ugly we are locked into feeling that way until we change them, and that my friends is how we end up with something as tragic as labiaplasty (Google it at your peril).
2. Forget arbitrary measurements.
Most of the measures we use when we observe ourselves are totally arbitrary and based on comparisons either to ourselves on a different day or to others around us.
"What is wrong with me today? I can normally do this posture no problem."
"Snow White is so beautiful, her nose is perfect and her postures are amazing! I'll never look as good as that."
Trying to stop this kind of deeply ingrained behaviour is hard. Sometimes even to notice that we are doing it is a challenge. Try the example below as a template for detaching yourself from this kind of comparison and measurement.
Question: Is twenty degrees celsius cold or hot?
Answer: It is neither cold nor hot. It’s twenty degrees. Cold or hot is our comparative (and emotional) response to the temperature. How we feel depends what our usual experience of twenty degrees is. Are we acclimated to higher or lower temperatures? Is the sun shining? Is it windy? Is it raining? Am I dressed for twenty degrees?
What does the temperature have to do with your inner critic?
Well it’s like this, your balance is neither good nor bad (nor cold or hot!), it is just your balance. If you like, try replacing balance with any other body part or trait. Your teeth, your breasts, your feet, your laugh, introversion, extraversion, whatever. Our judgement of these things as good or bad is driven by comparison not reality.
3. Choose your own thoughts.
Deep within your cerebral cortex, behind your frontal lobe sits your insular cortex. This lobe acts as an interpreter, it notices what’s happening internally in your body and translates these sensations into appropriate emotional responses. It’s a remarkable function known as interoception.
It works like this. Imagine your bladder is full, your insular cortex receives the sensation of pressure and fullness and responds by conveying an appropriate response. If your bladder holds a total of one litre of fluid and is currently pretty close to that limit then an appropriate response is something along the lines of:
‘I need to go to the bathroom to empty my bladder.’
Consider for a moment the futility of the responses below:
’You useless idiot, how can anyone have a bladder so tiny? If only you had a bladder as big as *celebrity name here* then your life would be much better’."
Why is my bladder full already? Yesterday I was able to drink way more water and didn't need to go to the bathroom anywhere nearly as often. I'm hopeless."
In this way the insular cortex gives us an example of self-detached observation that can be useful to adopt.
4. What would my IC (insular cortex) say?If you catch yourself defaulting to critical judgement have a go at implementing this type of detached thinking. For example, imagine you are practicing Tree Pose and fall out of the posture, do you allow yourself to indulge in the type of internal commentary below?
a) Reactive comparison ‘This is so embarrassing! I'm the only person in the room falling out of this posture.'
b) Internal criticism ‘My balance is so terrible, I'm never going to be able to do this pose. I don't know why I even bother with this’.
Instead think about how it feels?
Can you instead draw your attention to the physical sensations of the posture instead of your emotional reaction? Both when you fall out of the pose and when you hold it for longer. With detachment and without judgement ask yourself if your weight is on the heel or ball of your foot? Is your core contracted or relaxed. Where is your gaze resting? Notice small things such as the direction when you lean or fall. What is your breath doing? Where do you get stuck?
Notice these things then use the information to provide objective feedback to yourself. For example: 'When my weight is forward on my toes I lean more forward and tend to fall out and reach down. If I lean back more and shift my centre of gravity toward my heel that creates a different outcome.' Do the same when you 'successfully' do a posture. Examine the physical sensations of holding the posture with ease, what did you feel? Where did you feel it? Can you replicate it?
5. There is no such thing as perfect.
Your insular cortex isn’t perfect either, occasionally (or more often) misinterpreting internal sensations such as a racing heartbeat as anxiety when excitement would be more appropriate. If you don’t manage to magically implement this practice perfectly every single time overnight, congratulations, you're human.
It's a practice.
If you catch yourself, for example, berating yourself because your jeans are a smidge too tight (i.e. 'how could you let yourself go like this? Why do you have so little willpower? Lockdown isn't an excuse to just turn into a slob!') take a step back and put your yoga pants on instead. You can choose to do the math and eat less buttered digestive biscuits and increase your physical. activity until the jeans fit again without feeling the need to add anything else to the story about personal weaknesses, laziness or any other traits.
That might just be me?
And remember, at least you're not responsible for a $100m film adaptation of a musical about cats that was watched by half a dozen people.
A final word on the Insular Cortex.
Many of the regions of the brain are positively impacted through yoga practice. The Insular Cortex is mediated by yoga practice, leading to increased interoceptive awareness and pain tolerance in yoga practitioners. Research has also shown that yoga practice increases grey matter density and white matter connectivity in the Insular Cortex.
Image credit: Dr. Johannes Sobotta - Sobotta's Textbook and Atlas of Human Anatomy 1908, Public Domain.