February 17, 2011

Finding a Digital Yoga Studio

Sometimes I can’t make it to the yoga studio. I came home late and need an extra hour of sleep, or I’m up traveling far away from any yoga studio, or maybe a dear friend schedules a much-needed get together during that precious hour and a half. I’ve even showed up only to find the class canceled because of the weather. Whatever the reason, I’m left with an extra two hours to fill and no yoga teacher to fill it.

So, I turned to the digital world to fill my need for yoga, and these are the three programs I tried:

1. Yoga Tailor (on the computer)

Yoga Tailor is an online subscription yoga service that lets you build custom workouts according to how much time you have an your skill level.

We at www.yogatailor.com have come up with a unique technology that enables us to create custom fit yoga videos that are fit according to your abilities, available time, restrictions etc. We then stream this yoga video to you instantly. We also change the video every time you start a new session so that you don’t get bored. The videos also adapt based on your progress.

It sounds great, right? So I signed up for the free month trial period to give it a shot. My boyfriend was game, so I set the laptop up, rolled out our mats and picked a half hour session set at beginner.

What a disaster. The small, serene Asian instructor started with pranayama breath practice, but there was no voice over or written instructions on the screen. As her shoulders and belly convulsed, indicating kapalabhati breathing to my experienced eye, my boyfriend shrugged and began to mimic her convulsing, but without the breathing part. So much for being a beginners session. She closed her eyes for alternate nostril breathing, but since there was no voice instruction, I kept on having to open an eye to see what was going on. I imagine it would be be a problem anytime you weren’t facing the screen, like in downward facing dog, because you wouldn’t know when to move on.

After that came some basic stretches, and then – sigh – leg lifts. Poor Mike – even I felt dumb, like I was watching an eighties workout video and I should have been sporting leg warmers and a leotard.

It got worse.

The way the technology works, it builds a new session every time by randomly stringing together a series of streaming videos. Cool idea, except that there is often no rhyme or reason to the sequences. I love it when an instructor leads the class through a full twenty minutes on one side that melds ten poses into one heart-opening, core-strengthening, sweaty sequence. This will not happen with Yoga Tailor. Instead the poses follow no rhyme or reason.

Even more frustrating, at one point it got stuck when an error message indicated the next streaming video couldn’t be found. Now I was starting to lose my cool, and obsessively clicked on the ‘next’ button until it started up again. I may have skipped over a bunch of videos, because after only a couple more moves, we were lead into savasana. I felt like I hadn’t done anything at all. After savasana was over, Mike, who is the most open, positive, and enthusiastic guy I know, got up and sniffed, “That was really bizarre.” And walked away.

A few days later Yoga Tailor sent out an email saying they had put the voice over back on the videos, which solved the problem of not know what was going on while in downward facing dog. I decided to give it another shot.

This time I set up my mat by myself and picked 55 minutes at intermediate. Twenty minutes later my mat was rolled back up and I was canceling my account.

The voice over on the videos turned out to be a bored-sounding male voice, which was jarring against the visuals of the little Asian lady seated in a garden. I could have gotten past that, except the poses moved so fast, there was hardly time to settle in and work on posture before we moved to the next. Not that it mattered, the voice over breathed not a word about alignment. As I dropped into Warrior I, I expected at least a reminder about moving my right hip forward and left hip back. Nothing. There was no instruction on pulling my shoulder blades down my back in downward facing dog, or dropping my heels. No tucking my tailbone, no wrapping my hip under in side angle.

Finally, the poses were a little weird. I’m not an expert, but having practiced in five different studios with a myriad of teachers, I’ve started to recognize every posture that will come up. But this little lady was throwing out postures I’ve never seen before, like one which loosely resembled Trikonasana triangle pose, but without the usual setup of moving the hip back, and weird foot placement. The voice over said to just drop down sideways and put my hand on my shin.

In summary, I really wanted to Yoga Tailor to work, and would have paid the monthly subscription of $7.99 if the site had filled my needs. But there were just too many problems.

2. All-in Yoga (for the iPhone and iPad)

When you search for “yoga” in the iPhone app store, the one that comes up with the highest ratings – an average of 4.5 stars from 220 people – is the All-in YOGA application.

Join your hands in Namaste to welcome All-in Yoga…Broad content, photo, audio and video guidance and convenient grouping of asanas according to their level and type will turn your yoga routine into an inspiring travel to the depths of your being.

Well, I don’t know about all that. But I grabbed my boyfriend Mike – for a newbie’s perspective – and we set up our mats in the living room.

The first thing I noticed was the female-centric design. It’s very purple and flowery, and may be embarrassing to have on your phone if you’re a guy. But besides that, I was pretty pleased with the interface. A calendar function records all the sessions you’ve done, and has a different inspirational quote every day. You can also download all the content to your phone at once so that you don’t need to ever have an internet connection, which makes it perfect for traveling.

As far as the actual practice, you have a few options. You can choose from some ready-made programs that have already been put together by a yoga teacher, build a practice from their library of 200 asanas, or have them suggest a program according to your age, weight, level of experience, style (static, dynamic, or mixed), and length of time. After putting in my preferences, they suggested “Shakti Yoga: Strength.” Before I started I clicked on the music icon, and to my delight found I could upload my whole yoga playlist to play in the background. Alternatively I could listen to one of their yoga tunes, which aren’t too bad, to be honest.

The male voice who led us through was relaxing and trustworthy, giving instructions in plain English. If we didn’t understand a pose, we could pause and explore it more, looking up detailed instructions.

Uttanasana: Stand up straight. Start bending down to your legs keeping your back straight. When it gets hard for you to keep your back straight, lower your head and grab your legs with your hands in order to help draw your stomach to your thights. You head hangs freely.

It also came with a picture of what muscles were being worked, and a video of her going into and out of the pose. The young lady demonstrating is both skilled, and realistic. She’s isn’t model-thin, but you can see the strength of her legs. When a picture of her doing a wide-angle seated forward bend came up, with her pressed flat to the floor, Mike exclaimed “Woah! Is that photoshopped? Are you going to do that?” I shook my head emphatically, no. She is very flexible.

The order of the poses makes sense, too, moving from Warrior I to Intense arm side stretch pose (parsvottanasana) and to wide-legged forward bend. If you are more advanced, you can choose to have a female voice say only the name of the pose instead of giving instructions.

In summary, I would say the only downside of using this program instead of going to a class would be the lack of adjustments from the teacher. I would even venture to say it mimics a crowded thirty-person class where the instructor can’t give much individual attention anyway. It costs $1.99 on the iPhone, and $2.99 on the iPad.

3. YogaYak (on the computer)

This one was my favorite! YogaYak offers free videos on yoga, pranayama, and meditation. I quickly found a Morning heart-opening practice for intermediate practitioners. It took a while to load, so I dickied around on the computer for a half hour until it was ready, and then settled in with my mat.

The video was of a woman practicing on her mat in a open-air pavilion surrounded by lush greenery, with the shushing sound of waves and the occasional bird in the background. The Germanic voice over was calm and supportive, if a little monotone. The series felt familiar to me, and so did her instructions of grounding down while reaching up, feeling my inner thighs turning inward, and pressing my fingers into the floor. I began to feel as if I were in a private lesson. The woman who demonstrated had good form, and exaggerated the instruction to pull the belly up and in, or roll down the shoulder blades, so I had a visual reminder of posture. I could see someone less experienced doing the series as well, since it avoided the harder positions like crow pose or half moon.

There were only a couple downsides: First, it was shorter than a normal class, at forty-five minutes. Even at half the time, though, it still felt comprehensive, with Warrior positions and wide-angle forward bends that flowed naturally into one another, and it didn’t feel rushed, just steady. It even ended with a long-ish savasana with only the sound of the waves.

Second, I found myself taken out of the moment by the wish to be in that pavilion, in Costa Rica, where after I was done I could strip off my yoga clothes and go streaking into the ocean with a whoop and enjoy a breakfast of mangos. Alas, I had to bring myself back to the apartment and eat Kashi cereal for breakfast. Not all the videos are by the beach, they have some in the park and some in what looks like an American park.

Finally, I might get bored eventually with what’s available. I like showing up to class and not knowing what the instructor will give to me that day, and there is a limit to the videos available. But if you just need to get some yoga in, this will definitely do the trick.

For a fee of around $8.95, you can buy classes to download, so that you can take them with you when you don’t have an internet connection, or if you just really love a class and want to do it over and over. Like I said, I’m not a creature of habit, but I could see how someone could get addicted.

Do you have any other digital yoga studios you would recommend?

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