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Do You Think They Noticed?: Why People Aren't Thinking About You During a Yoga Class

How often have you attended a yoga class and worried about what people might think of you as you walked in and rolled out your mat? You sat there with a lump in your stomach, looking around the room to see if anyone noticed that you're there for the first time, or that you don't have the most expensive mat or the nicest yoga clothes, or that you were rushing out the door to make it on time and as your child was hugging you they got a Cheerio stuck in your hair. You are not alone. But let me assure you, people don't notice these things as much as you might think.

The Spotlight Effect: Feeling Like the Center of Attention

It's called the Spotlight Effect. We have a tendency to be sensitive to and focus on information that is relevant to ourselves. We focus our attention on ourselves. And in turn, we assume that people are focusing on us as well. This effect can occur not only for appearance, but for behaviour as well. In a group setting, people tend to overestimate how often other group members recognized someone's contributions and the number of comments that were received (Gilovich, et al., 2000).

I picked my son up from his first day of high school and after he got in the car I asked him how it went. He told me about how he had injured his finger playing basketball, which isn't a surprise since he and I are quite clumsy. And then he proceeded to tell me about the new classmates he met and how they were quite similar in many ways, and that he didn't stutter in class as much which he was happy about. He has Tourette's Syndrome, so sometimes, especially when he's nervous, he stutters and makes noises which can be quite embarrassing for him. I shared with him this concept that I learned about in my Psychology class about the Spotlight Effect and how even though we may feel embarrassed about things and think that people are judging us, they really don't notice us as much as we think they do. Now, he is 6'3" and lanky and has tics so one might imagine he would stand out in a crowd. But before he got to the car and I was watching him, not once did I notice someone's jaw drop or see somebody stare at him while he walked by. However, sometimes he can feel as though this is happening. I'm sure we can all relate.

This effect can occur even just by thinking about an embarrassing behaviour or event. I would argue that we have all been afraid that we'll be attending a yoga class and let out a fart! We worry about how many people would notice and what they would think and how humiliating that would be. We're concerned about other yogis judging or comparing us, competing with us, noticing when we fall out of an asana or get too tired and take a Child's pose.  Although people differ in their ability to focus their attention away from themselves when there is a task that requires their attention, if you look around you'll probably notice that the other practitioners are so busy focusing on their own technique and dying in class (especially if it's a Power flow) - or they're in their own head and thinking about how many people are noticing and judging them - to be concerned with you.

Focus on Your Practice

By allowing the Spotlight Effect to influence you, you are robbing yourself of your practice. You can become so involved in what others might be thinking of you that you aren't concentrating on your technique, breath, or experience. A major aspect of yoga is mindfulness and being mentally, emotionally and physically involved in the postures. When you aren't present, you're merely going through the motions.

Although people tend to focus on themselves, they also vary in the extent to which they do so. People who are highly self-focused and who do not easily shift away from themselves tend to score higher on scales for generalized anxiety and depression (Muraven, 2005). Your mindfulness practice can help you to shift your focus as you learn to work with your mind to find balance between being self-aware and being self-focused. One concentrates on recognizing the thoughts, sensations, and experiences, while the other is outwardly concerned with how you are perceived. Being self-focused can also lead you to pay less attention to those around you and cause poor memory (Lord and Saenz, 1985).

Releasing your thoughts about those around you and finding balance between focusing on yourself and being self-aware not only deepens your yoga practice but also helps to reduce stress and anxiety. By recognizing that you can exist without being under constant scrutiny, you are free to live, unencumbered by expectations or embarrassment. And remember, if you fall out of a posture or pass gas in class, even if people do notice they probably won't remember for long after.

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