When I wrote tests in second grade, I remember the teacher warning us as we were taking our erasers and pencils out of our little pencil boxes, “And remember, keep your eyes on your own paper!”
I’ve heard that cheating in school is a common problem these days, but when I was a child, there is no way my eyes would have wandered during a test; I would rather have flunked than get caught with my eyes on someone else’s paper.
Not so with yoga mats.
I was reminded of my distaste for cheating one day at yoga class when the teacher said, “Do your own practice! Don’t look at anyone else!” He said it kindly (unlike my cranky second grade teacher), but at another class a few weeks later with a different teacher (and a different style of yoga), the teacher admonished rather impatiently, “Don’t look at anyone else! Look at yourself! Don’t go copying others—they may not even be doing it right.” Apparently, everyone’s eyes were “wandering.”
I began to get a little paranoid about glancing around in yoga class, because the truth of the matter is, I do often look at what others are up to on their mats. Sometimes I glance over at the mat nearby because I haven’t heard the instructions clearly, even though I may have been paying close attention (of course, there’s also the possibility that I was thinking of whether to sauté radish greens or make collards and black eyed peas for dinner).
Sometimes I look because the woman or man on the next mat has gorgeous form and I want to emulate her/him.
Sometimes I look because I’m curious about a particular individual’s tattoo or nail polish (not great reasons, I’ll admit).
Sometimes I just get tired of staring at my own hands and feet and I need to clear my vision by looking away.
Or it could be that I just don’t know how to do the pose and Amber or Jeffrey next to me does. If this is the case, is copying cheating? Or is it okay to learn by looking around? Sometimes, I’ve found, it’s easier to copy a pose that I can see than to follow an instruction when the teacher isn’t demo-ing or I can’t see her/him that well from where my mat is positioned.
It’s baffling at best. Perhaps one of the reasons I love Kundalini yoga so much is because the teachers always say, “Close your eyes.” This way, no one is looking at anyone else, which means that no one (except the teacher) is likely to notice if you’re not doing a pose “right.” On the other hand, my Kundalini yoga teacher has been known to say, “If you’re confused look at the other students. Copy them and you’ll get it right.”
The first time I heard him say that I almost laughed aloud. What happened to “do your own practice?” But the point is, students don’t always look around the room to compare themselves or compete with others. Sometimes we just need a little guidance, and it’s easier to glance at a student who seems to know the ropes (especially, perhaps, in Iyengar yoga where ropes may be part of the problem!) than to make a big issue of it.
And sometimes students support one another in this way, by revealing to a classmate how a pose is done—not to show off, but simply to be helpful. Sure, this student isn’t the teacher, and might not have a perfect pose either, but what’s so wrong with a little collaborative asana, anyway?
I do believe we should all do our own practice, and we should each and every one of us keep our eyes on our own mats most of the time. The same is true in life—it’s probably not healthy to always be looking over the fence, across the hedge, on Facebook, etc. to find out how everyone else is faring (and how much they’re spending, what they have on the grill, what their car looks like, whether they have a new girlfriend, etc.).
Live your own life. Do your own thing. “Keep your eyes on your own paper!”
Yet, it’s also okay to learn from others—from their failures, and from their successes. For that reason, sometimes, in yoga class only, I cheat, letting my eyes wander onto someone else’s mat.
But I would never do it on a test.
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Asst. Ed: Renee Picard/Ed: Bryonie Wise