Mirror, Mirror On The Wall…

A few weeks ago I received a nice e-mail from an incredibly handsome gentleman, with a good taste in blogs, named Gary.

Gary had a great suggestion for an article. Here’s an excerpt from his e-mail (emphasis added by me):

I have an interesting idea for a future article of yours and it is about mirrors in the dojo.

Are they more helpful or do they have very little use when it comes to learning and understanding your body/kimochi?

I had this argument with a fellow instructor of mine this week and I believe that mirrors are wonderful to have when practicing, because one can correct their own posture/technique without relying on the Sensei to always do it for them.

He believes that one should only focus on feeling the technique and not basing it on the “look of it”. I told him that one can think they are “feeling” a correct technique for 20 years, then one day look in the mirror and realize that their shoulder is raised or the punch is not centered.

That is why I feel the mirror is important because you can see the correct posture first, then work on the feel of it.

What are your thoughts, sir?

Now, except making me feel like a knight (Sir Jesselot), this e-mail sparked a memory of a story I once heard about mirrors, that I think is relevant.

The story was about a tall building, probably a skyscraper, somewhere in New York (I think), during the city’s modernization, and tall buildings like this one was still a rare sight.

Anyway, this skyscraper belonged to some big company, and many employees worked long days in this place. The company was growing fast, so more and more people were using the elevators.

But recently some employees had begun complaining about the elevators, which they felt were too slow, now that they had to wait for them all the time (more employees = longer waiting time for elevators).

So the company, not wanting to upset their employees, desperately tried to turn up the speed on the elevators

But it was hard.

The speed couldn’t be increased without adventuring everyone’s safety.

Then, suddenly, one engineer at the company got struck by a “blinding flash of the obvious”. He thought: “The elevators aren’t slow. They’ve always had the same speed. The problem is that people think they are slow, because they have to stand in line for such a long time, now that we have so many employees. And then they have to ride in a packed elevator full of other sweaty people. It’s a psychological problem, not a technical one.”

And that changed everything. The engineers at the company flipped everything around, and found a perfect solution.

Install mirrors.

It was that easy.

First of all in the lobby, where people wait for the elevator.

And then inside the elevator, where people wait to get out.

And it worked perfectly. In a survey that the company did a few weeks later, people thought that the elevators had become very swift and convenient. Much faster and better.

But the secret was spelled M-I-R-R-O-R-S.

The speed of the elevators never changed.

And that’s why we still have mirrors in elevators today. And in most lobbies.

By changing a small detail (instead of looking at other people, you could now look at yourself) time seemed to go faster.

I’ll return to this story in a moment, but to get back to the original question in the e-mail, are mirrors more helpful when training? I don’t think anyone can argue that they are.

The more feedback you can get, the better:

  • Auditory and visual – from your sensei.
  • Visual – from the mirrors.
  • Kinesthetic – from yourself (your feelings).

The problem arises when the above point in the middle (“Visual – from the mirrors”) is dominating, making you forget, neglect or even reject the other two points (your own feeling and your instructor’s feedback). Like everything else in life, a healthy combination (of all three sources of feedback) is preferred.

To put it more pragmatic, use mirrors when you feel you need exactly that input.

Then, when you’re done with that, go work on it without mirrors – Get some additional feedback from other sources. After a couple of days/weeks/months (depending on what phase you’re in), revisit the mirrors, see if the problem is fixed, and then find something new to work on (based on the visual input the mirrors give you this time).

Just the way you would continually work with feedback from your sensei, and feedback from your own feelings. The principle remains.

In Japan they even go this far to avoid “getting stuck” in the mirrors:

Okay, I promised to get back to the story, and now I will.

How can we use our knowledge from the elevator story in our dojo?

It’s quite obvious.

If you teach kids who are used to MTV, iPods, computers and mobile phones 24/7, then standing still and listening to an old fart explaining the “deeper meaning” of turning the back foot 30 degrees in nekoashi-dachi requires a humongous effort.

That’s when they can stand and look at themselves in the mirrors, while the rest of the class listens to the sensei!

So, finally, the answer to Gary’s e-mail has to be that there’s no clear answer. Mirrors have different pro’s and con’s depending on what kind of training you are doing, what quality you’re after, how many students you’re after, and what type of people you have in your dojo.

Personally I’ve almost never seen a dojo in Okinawa with more than one mirror.

Sometimes two.

In our dojo we have 44.

Maybe says something…

“I used to live in a room full of mirrors; all I could see was me. I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors.

Now the whole world is here for me to see.”

– Jimi Hendrix

9 Comments

  • I feel that it is necessary to train with mirrors and without. You need them when you have time for your own training and your sensei is not there to help you. But you also have to train without them to not be fixed with them and to not lose your concentration from your sensei and to train your kimochi etc.
  • gary
    Thank you so much for your input, Jesse. Not too sure that I'm incredibly handsome though :( I may not want to stare at the mirror too long admiring myself in that aspect. 7 years of bad luck isn't fun for anyone :( Thanks again for keeping your word too.
  • Andi
    Did I already mention I love this blog?
  • Szilard
    Cool article. You might want to check out the following article: http://www.sirc.org/publik/mirror.html It is a summary of research findings on body image. Well, it is mainly about mirrors.
  • Patrick G
    The front of our dojo is mirrored. No mirrors on any of the other 3 walls. The mirror is good to observe your own technique, but also in a large class it is helpful if you have difficulty seeing the Sensei demonstrating something. You can use the mirror to see what he/she is teaching without everyone having to move around.Because it is only on one wall, you can observe yourself in one direction, and rely on feeling and sound in the other directions. We often face different directions when we start Kata so that we don't get used to having the mirror in the same place all the time.
  • I've been surfing online more than 3 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It is pretty worth enough for me. In my opinion, if all website owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the internet will be a lot more useful than ever before.
  • Gerry
    The majority of my training is outdoors, so I rely more on feeling the correctness of technique. When I do self-checks I'll hold a position and look down at the different body parts and make corrections as necessary. I'll also do self-checks by making sure all related muscles for a technique are engaged by holding the end position and tensing/relaxing my body a few times. In the winter most of my training in in my garage, but I've held off placing mirrors there since I'm so used to what I've described above. I do believe mirror have their place though, especially for newer students.
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