Yoga, you’ve done it again. Taught me a profound life lesson from atop my squishy six-by-two-foot mat.
My first eye contact challenge came when I went through my 200-hour teacher training. My group of trainees was small, but we didn’t know each other well yet. We were asked to pair up and look into one another’s eyes for one minute, then two minutes, then three and so on as the training period progressed over the months we were together. It taught me to be able to stand in my own power and command a space with strength and ease. But there was and still is so much to learn from this exercise, and I forgot all about it until recently.
My second challenge came a few weeks ago when I took a yoga class at Bare Feet Power Yoga. I was again asked to pair up, turn and face my partner, stand as close as possible with our palms touching, and look into his eyes for 60 seconds. But this time I wasn’t among a group that had paid thousands of dollars to do whatever we were asked, and that brought so much more vulnerability to the surface. So even though I’ve always known eye contact was important, and I’d even had first hand experience with concerted eye contact exercises, it wasn’t until this challenge that I was confronted with just how powerful, how important, and how necessary it is.
In the span of 60 seconds, staring face to face with my sweaty palms completely open towards my partner, I went through at least 20 different strong emotions. I wanted to laugh because I thought it was silly to spend time during our short hour in a yoga class doing this. After all, it was a long day at work and I just wanted to move and flow and sweat. But I wanted to honor it, so I committed. Still, I didn’t know how my partner would treat this exercise, so I started questioning what he was thinking about. Was I being ridiculous for taking it seriously? Am I staring too much? What is he looking at? What if I laugh? What if I smell bad? So much vulnerability.
And then, a really cool thing happened. My partner didn’t laugh, and he didn’t look too serious. He was just there. So I was just there, too. We were just sharing the space. I was grateful he brought that grounding presence so that I could find it, too. I felt warm and happy to be stepping out of my comfort zone. It was the hardest thing I’d done all day. I was watching this community from outside my own point of view. I felt connected and removed all at the same time. All this in 60 seconds.
The moment eventually ended and we finished the class, and I didn’t think too much about it for the rest of the night. But as I reflect now, I think it’s way more important than just one of those yoga moments I share with my friends and they say, “okay, you hippie,” and we have a laugh.
There are plenty of research studies that describe the benefits of eye contact, like how extended eye contact (for both dogs and people) increases the level of oxytocin, the “bonding” hormone, in the body, which promotes nurturing and attachment. There are professional reasons for making eye contact (i.e. it makes your words more memorable, makes people notice you, makes you more self aware). There are social studies on the power and importance of eye contact, like that it “produces a powerful, subconscious sense of connection that extends even to drawn or photographed eyes”, that are tested to give scientific merit. And there are experiments that bring those scientific statements to life in a human way, like this public test very similar to mine.
But those initial feelings of vulnerability stop us from finding the latter ones of content, connectedness, peace, and ease. And I don’t think enough of us are going to, or at least don’t see the incredible need to, be the leader that my partner was for me. What I thought was one cool moment has turned into something that I think is a much bigger opportunity. It’s about making connections with people on a real, authentic, human level in our day to day lives. How incredible would it be if we didn’t go about our day isolated among everyone we live near, work with, work out beside or buy groceries from? Instead we meet eye to eye, try to understand each other, or at least respect the space we’re sharing.
A huge task to take on, but those 60 seconds sure felt like they had some impact. And we have to start somewhere, right? Yoga, you’ve done it again.