Learning and Cognition

Learning is a relatively permanent change in behaviour based on experience. Cognition is the processing of information from the environment or memory to respond purposefully to events, ideas and situtations. It includes musing, calculating, imagining, acting, speaking, attending and at times, refraining from doing those things.

Learning can be categorized in many ways, but one useful way involves dividing it into procedural learning, that is, stuff that we learn how to do, like ride a bike or knit, or print our name; and declarative learning, that is, information or ideas that we can recall or declare.  Motor learning (learning of purposeful movement) is an important kind of procedural learning.

I wanted to start this section with a recent email I received from Nancy:

Mirrors and Yoga

“Submitted on 2014/06/22 at 9:41 pm

Hello Blake,

I was in your class at the Toronto Yoga Conference on Balance, Community and Teaching….which I really enjoyed. I actually found out that I was doing a couple of things right even if totally by accident!

Anyway I recently had a student who has been a dancer all her life, ask me about the role mirrors can play in practicing yoga. We have some mirrors in our studio but they are not full (body) length, nor the length of the walls. She obviously has used mirrors to study herself in dance and I was wondering whether they were a useful tool in learning yoga as well. During your presentation you spoke about hands-on adjustments removing the student from their inner work in asana and I wondered whether mirrors would have the same effect? I know from an ego sense they are not a good idea but can people connect what they are seeing to what is happening physically?

Again, I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation in Toronto and hope to see you there again!


Ironically, when I received this email from Nancy, I was just sitting down to mark final papers for my ‘Motor Learning and Motor Control for Dance’ course. Three of my students had chosen to explore the role of mirrors in motor learning, particularly dance, so I have been thinking about those ideas and this literature.

It is reasonable to wonder if mirrors would be useful for practicing and learning yoga: after all, don’t dancers use mirrors all the time? The question is worth considering since it would be great to give students an advantage for their learning and growth in asana practice, and if yoga can borrow an idea from another movement tradition (dance), then why not? To date, actual research into the use of mirrors in learning a motor skill is quite limited, but I still think there are some lessons we could learn from it.

First, there is only one study I am aware of directly involving mirrors and yoga, and it examines how practicing yoga, especially certain kriya (techniques) leads to improvements in tracing a shape while watching in a mirror (Telles et al., 2006). In other words, yoga leads to better concentration and motor control when you use a mirror after practicing yoga, which is good news for people who need to brush their hair after a particularly arduous hot yoga session. As for studies about using a mirror to improve asana practice, I have never seen one in the literature, so we have to extrapolate from similar motor learning practices such as dance and Pilates to get the scientific lowdown.

The big idea is that the benefit of mirrors varies by task, experience of the learner, and the learner’s level of self-esteem.

Some research shows an advantage for mirror use, with improved retention for groups that learned a movement sequence while using mirrors (Dearborn & Ross, 2006), however in that study, subjects received absolutely no other feedback of their learning, so it is possible that the study simply proves that some feedback is better than none. In another study, slow sequences learned in front of a mirror were recalled more poorly than the same sequence learned without a mirror. However, the same sequence performed quickly was performed better when learned in front of a mirror (Radell et al. 2003). Here it is possible that for faster movements the movers cannot attend to the body as well, so the mirror might not actually help, only, it doesn’t impede. In another study where a Pilates posture was learned both with and without mirrors, there was no improvement for either group suggesting that the mirrors did not give an advantage (Lynch et al., 2009). However in that study, the task may have been too simple, and the number of subjects may have been too small to show any difference between the two groups.

One may wonder to what degree learners become dependent on mirrors. One study found the alignment of weight-lifting movements learned in front of a mirror were worse when the mirror was removed (Tremblay & Proteau, 1998). There is also anecdotal evidence from choreographers and teachers that dance students who practice in front of mirrors tend to have poor focus in performance spaces.

Mirror use can lead some learners to focus on their bodies and unsatisfactory body-image at the expense of movement (Radell et al., 2014), and generally leads to poor body image, especially for experienced movers (Radell et al., 2004). However, more advanced learners are less likely than beginners to say that they find mirrors distracting (Dearborn et al., 2006).

All of this points at three principles from motor learning: variability of practice, specificity of practice, and feedback dependency. Variability of practice is the idea that the more ways and contexts in which you practice a motor skill, the more likely you are to learn and retain and consolidate that motor skill. So when a teacher challenges students to keep their hips square in three different asana within a single class, it is a form of variability of practice. Specificity of practice is the idea that the closer your practice environment is to the “real” environment, the better the chance that the skill will be transferred to the real environment. As much as we talk about getting our yoga ‘off the mat’, most of us will only practice asana in some sort of a studio setting. So the “real” environment and the “practice” environment are pretty much the same thing. However, alignment from the mat should eventually find its way into the way I sit at my desk, or stand on the bus. In both places I have noticed there are very few mirrors. Feedback dependency is the idea that if a learner is given certain visual or auditory cues during each practice while they learn a movement, they will become dependent on those cues when performing that movement. I would argue that most yoga classes create feedback dependency as a matter of principle, but that I consider that a negative thing and will likely make that the topic of another post altogether. Still, I would be very cautious about adding yet another level of dependency through the use of mirrors.

A class with variable practice (generally considered a good thing), might include some practicing in front of the mirror: in this way students get a ‘third person perspective’ on their practice and have an opportunity to correlate their proprioceptively felt experience with the‘picture’ created by their bodies which they can see in the mirror. However mirror use should stop before students become dependent on them. How long is that? Of course it depends on the student, but the visual sensory modality is so dominant over all the other senses that it actually will change what we think we hear, feel and sense with our bodies. The perceived location of the hand is even changed if proprioception is paired with misleading or confusing visual information (Cressman & Henriques, 2009). This happened after one session of 125 trials, which is unlikely to happen in a yoga class, however I suspect that feedback depency occurs more quickly than that, but this remains unresearchred.   Excessive practice in front of mirrors should also be avoided if one expects most yoga practice will be done without mirrors.

Equally it is useful to be aware of your goals before using a mirror. Mirror use can help with alignment, so long as the students know what to look for. Conversely it is possible working in partners might do an even better job, and also develop critical thinking skills leading to deeper practice as well as community. Still in a multi-level class it is useful for beginners to have visual reference points from more experienced students, since teachers will often only perform a move on one side. A mirror can provide extra information for those students. In some classes there is relatively little feedback, so the information from the mirror may be the only feedback the student receives. In any case it is important for a teacher to provide the student with goals. Overall the information from the literature doesn’t support a wholesale endorsement of mirror use, and this is one of those instances where the traditions of practice don’t necessarily match what is best.

Personally, I believe mirrors might have a place in a yoga class, but it should be quite limited. Mirrors could be used periodically to help students understand issues about alignment or to gain a broader perspective on their own performance, or peer examples for certain asana, as well as to provide contextual variety and an opportunity for teachers to stand further back from their class. I would only add here that we are better at perceiving visual differences in limb angle from side to side than we are from front to back. So you will get better feedback on Warrior II if your mat is parallel to the mirror than you will if you are facing into the mirror. Of course then you will have to take your head out of alignment to look, so it is a trade-off. Still though, if we want yoga alignment to transfer to the rest of life, we must learn how to use proprioceptive strategies to sense the position of the body in space, and this involves glancing at a mirror to get the picture, then focussing inwardly to sense the body, and spending most of the time feeling the body.

There are also important questions about the goals of asana practice: Is the goal of asana practice to make a pretty picture? If so, should the picture correspond to some external ideal or an internal reality? Should my alignment reflect an idealized form on a perfect body, or does it have a perfect expression on my limited body? Should my focus be on form or substance, or some combination of the two? How might I best explore the outward posture to reveal my inward character? It is important to remember that the mirror is a powerful tool that can provide deep insight or blinding distraction and users should consider its use carefully.

2 thoughts on “Learning and Cognition”

  1. Hi Blake,

    Thanks for the great workshop on being your own anatomy book at the Toronto Yoga Conference yesterday! I was the human who approached you after the workshop asking about your presentation talent and skill.

    I wasn’t sure where the best place to post this comment would be, but again, if you have any resources or suggestions as to how to become a better presenter, I’d appreciate it! I’m happy to connect offline as well. I’m not so much looking for guidance in terms of public speaking (e.g. stage fright) – I’m perfectly fine with that – I’m more so looking towards being an engaging and clear speaker, being intentional with words, improving pacing, reducing “ums” and “likes”, things like that. And hopefully how to work on all these things given limited time.

    Sheldon aka Wristwatch Guy aka Tall Elbow Guy

    1. Hi Sheldon:
      Thanks for the kind feedback. I have sent you an email in response, and perhaps we can continue the conversation.



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