I teach yoga in two very small towns, and as a result, when I go to a yoga class as a student, most people there know me to be a teacher. That the room is aware of my profession can make my time on the mat a bit stressful: I worry about whether they are side-eyeing my poses and evaluating my skill.
This is a feeling and fear not limited to yoga teachers, and it is a common experience among people who choose to practice in traditional class settings.
Are people looking at me? Are they judging me?
The answer: Yes. But not as much as you think.
No matter how many times your instructor reminds you to keep your eyes on your own mat, you will look around, and so will everyone else. It is in our nature to feast on the visuals that surround us, and in a roomful of bodies, it is inevitable that eyes feel hungry to examine them. Every single person in a yoga class will be looked at, multiple times, and more conventionally beautiful or physically gifted students will be looked at more (sorry, pretty people).
So yes, you are being seen.
As far as judgment goes, one has to consider the nature of the gaze. What is the intention and feeling behind the eyes? In yoga, errant eyes are generally full of curiosity and kind regard.
When a student looks at another student who is struggling, there is no evil feeling behind the look- not a wish for them to fail, but rather a benign interest in what they are attempting and how they are going about it.
When a student stares at someone who is beautiful or excelling, the looker is not generally full of envy or ill-will, but rather low-grade admiration and the desire to imitate.
Yoga is not, however, a spectator sport, and although students look at other students, their primary focus is themselves and their practice. This is not because they were told to focus on themselves but rather because of their reason for being there: to practice yoga, not to ogle at you. A train of thought may go like this:
“Look at the girl in the pink yogapants, wow her butt is cute, nice Tiger Pose, ow my hip is tight today, okay, time to touch my foot, breathe in, I did it last class, how long before Savasana?”
If you are the girl in the pink pants, you have been noticed, kindly, and prompted forgotten due to the looker’s concentration on their breath and body. Which is what they came to class to do, not to check you out.
I have to remember that sometimes my self-consciousness is a subtle form of arrogance. It comes from what David Foster Wallace once called a “deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” And it is built into my perspective because I am limited to myself, and my reality seems to develop around me rather than being a fixed thing that I am walking through. I feel that because I am always so painfully aware of myself, other people must be too, and that is just not the case.
Please, please, please do not allow your shyness to chase you out of a yoga class. Yes, people are looking at you and judging you, but only briefly and kindly. You are the most important student in the room only to yourself, and you yourself are worth your own attention. Go look at people and be looked at and then redirect to focus on your practice, just like everyone else.