For a long time, yoga wasn’t something smartwatch makers thought was necessary to include on their list of “sports tracking” options. But when Apple unveiled its latest edition of the world’s best selling smartwatch in June last year, it made quite the statement: it added yoga as a dedicated option for its fitness-tracking capabilities.
The recognition by one of the world’s biggest tech firms that yoga should be up there with “cycle” or “run” as a trackable workout is merely a testament to how much the discipline of yoga – despite being modified from how it was thousands of years ago – has survived, and is still picking up momentum. But more importantly, it also opened up a whole new conversation about the role technology plays in yoga and highlighted an emerging industry trend.
With a focus on spiritual development – something that looks to train the body and mind to disconnect from the everyday and self-observe – yoga is a practice that’s remained pretty distant from the digital world. As a result, it was something that businesses looking to monetize on fitness were unsure how to approach. However, yoga is slowly but surely evolving to meet the needs of the modern world.
These days, mainstream gym-goers are using the discipline as a way to workout and support their health and fitness goals, and the two-thousand-year-old discipline has become popular with mass-market consumers. The 2016 Yoga in America report conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal revealed that the number of Americans doing yoga has shot up by over 50 percent in the last six years, with some 36 million people now practising yoga in the United States alone. Subsequently, the discipline has seen itself lumped in with the likes of HIIT and spin as a class offering at most commercial fitness clubs.
And so, with just about everything these days, yoga is slowly seeing an injection of innovation from innovative brands to meet the demand of insatiable, fitness-hungry consumers, gradually moulding to fit their ever-connected lives.
Wearables in yoga
Apple’s Watch was perhaps the first time we saw a conglomerate recognise the mainstream pull of yoga. It’s able to track users via heart rate in beats per minute (BPM) and display the active and total calories burned during exercise.
However, there might be a problem here. And that’s the idea that using heart-rate monitoring technology during practice is frowned upon in the yoga world. This attitude goes back to the premise of modern-day practice being built around “disconnecting”. As mentioned earlier, most consumers that practice yoga use it as a means to escape the technology that dominates their lives. For some, one hour of daily yoga is the only time they can truly switch off and not be overwhelmed by data, and so using a wrist-worn computer that employs sensors to tell consumers how many calories they have burned during this time could be contentious
But is there a role for technology in the future of yoga? Data, insight, and knowledge about how the body is responding to exercise, be it any exercise such as spinning or HIIT, is proving to be addictive. People are becoming increasingly fascinated by how they’ve performed during workouts, noting frequency and storing the respective data in their calendars.
Despite the fact some yoga practitioners are criticizing anyone looking to make yoga “high tech”, arguing that it goes against the very values of the ancient discipline, boutique yoga studio FLY LDN has a different perspective. Based in Aldgate, London, the brains behind this space – founder Charlotte Cox – has attempted the union of yoga and tech with success.
Instead of measuring how many calories visitors are burning – something many fitness studios are offering these days – FLY has used tech to focus on simply enhancing the yoga experience and how it’s performed.
The studio provides members with a unique vinyasa flow set against a 4K display. Measuring 20ft diagonally, the screen projects immersive and vibrant cinematic visuals, from bountiful mountain ranges to ocean swells and sunsets falling behind crashing waves.
Cox tells Welltodo that the aim of these dramatic visuals is to elevate the feeling of escapism and relaxation to create “a truly immersive environment”. They work in two ways: to make the client feel more motivated as they work their way through a more energetic flow sequence, and then more relaxed towards the end of the class, for example, during savasana.
“I loved the immersive, experiential elements of boutique HIIT studios and I wanted to find a sympathetic way to bring that to yoga. Our dimly lit room provides a sense of privacy and our beautiful visuals focus your attention away from distractions in the room around you, even while you are practising in a group setting,” Cox explains.
While Cox recognises there’s always a risk in trying something new, especially in yoga where there are a lot of preconceptions around what it should or shouldn’t be, she firmly believes that homogeneity is “death to a market”.
“It’s important that different tastes and consumer needs are reflected by the products and services out there,” she adds.
With FLY, Cox’s determination not to conform appears to be paying off. The studio has received positive feedback from the industry in the last year, she says, especially regarding its unique space and added visuals.
“People report feeling less self-conscious in class and more relaxed afterwards,” she adds, despite its critiques. She admits it’s not been an easy ride selling the idea to a more traditional crowd, for whom yoga is a very emotive subject and thus have particular interpretations of how it should be delivered.
Nevertheless, for other businesses looking to integrate technology and yoga, Cox recommends that their focus should always be on why a consumer should take a class or use the product.
“While tech revolutionises how we experience and consume fitness of all types, it will not make up for a badly taught class or a poorly designed product,” she says.
The Netflix of yoga
Technology is also changing the way consumers practice yoga by cutting out the need to go to a studio altogether, bringing the yoga teacher to the home in the form of live or on-demand streaming.
Peloton, which is already well-renowned for its “spin class in your living room” offering, recently announced a yoga concept in the same vein – where consumers can tune in and “attend” the class virtually from any connected device. Several other apps such as OMstars in the US and Movement For Modern Life in the UK, also offer this type of experience.
US startup TuringSense attempted to take the concept one step further last year with the unveiling of its connected yoga outfit, Pivot. Hitting the headlines as a one-of-a-kind product, Pivot is said to track yogis’ practice with precision and provide feedback through small internal sensors built inside a pair of yoga leggings and top, which can indicate whether the user is posed correctly. The clothes work by maintaining a wireless connection to a mobile app, through which consumers can take online yoga classes. The sensors insert a “live avatar” of consumers’ bodies into the class they are taking (on screen) so they can easily compare their movements with the teacher’s.
Although Pivot hasn’t made it to mass market yet, and it might not; “notify me when available” has been the status of the online shop for some time. Nevertheless, it won’t be long before similar concepts launch.
Colour and light as therapy
A quite unconventional way in which yoga is seeing a tech-influenced revolution is in a more sensory fashion; by using colour and light therapy. And ChromaYoga, another cutting edge yoga studio based in East London, is grounded in such hedonistic research.
Plugged as a “revolutionary new approach to practising yoga”, ChromaYoga combines light and colour therapy techniques to create an immersive, multi-sensory yoga experience not seen before.
Based on scientific research on the effect of specific light frequencies, each ChromaYoga class is held in an ergonomically-designed room lit in a specific colour. There are six different coloured classes, each with a teacher that guides the class through a set of sequences which correspond to the healing properties of that colour. Taking the yellow class for example, will enable customers to experience an energising flow designed to aid digestion and balance mood swings. While a red class will fill yogis with light that interacts with the body, by penetrating the first 2mm of skin tissue, increasing energy generation on a cellular level.
The studio’s founder, Nina Ryner, tells Welltodo that the idea for ChromaYoga came after reading lots of scientific studies on colour and light.
“I thought combining a design-lead space with yoga was pretty obvious, but I found that no-one else was already doing it,” she says. So she used the research to flesh out a concept and paired appropriate styles of yoga to the benefits of light and colour.
“There’s nowhere that offers the kind of experience we do, so I think most people who come to ChromaYoga are looking to be involved in something new and innovative and the response is always overwhelmingly positive,” she adds.
Until now, the focus for boutique fitness has been on physical fitness and appearance, but with the rise of ‘wellness’, Ryner believes that people are realising emotional health is just as important. Therefore, immersive techniques like those at ChromaYoga are something new businesses can monopolise on.
Tech and yoga: A growing companionship?
So far, the ways we’ve seen technology become integrated into yoga have been subtle. But it’s an area where growth is expected over the coming years. How exactly this will evolve, however, is not easy to gauge, even for those who are embedded in both spheres.
Yoga teacher, fitness instructor, and founder of UK Fitness group Lunges in Leggings, Matt Feczko, knows a thing or two about technology and yoga. He’s an ex-Microsoft employee and now product manager at tech startup MyBuilder – in addition to his fitness role. His training in the ancient art of yoga might not involve the integration of modern-world gadgets, but in terms of how he thinks technology can influence the discipline in the future, he does have a few ideas.
“I think there’s definitely something big happening around making experiences more sensory, and maybe doing further research studies into the proper sensory stages in different kinds of yoga – and what can be achieved to push those – could be how we see yoga more integrated with tech,” he says.
Referring to how hot yoga is known to heat the body and help us move and become more limber, Feczko thinks consumers could take other, similar elements into account, too, such as sense of smell, perception of vision, or with music.
“There are definitely more options to explore, especially around the senses of the body,” he explains, “involving technology here could be quite fascinating. You can imagine yoga clothing using technology to become smarter to give tactile feedback on how the musculature and the fascia of our bodies are actually working.”
He adds: “Is it the sense of smell, vision, sights, and what we hear? Or perhaps it’s more around physical aspects, like how different sensors on clothing, for example, could offer personalised feedback to improve the experience of the practice so people can practice yoga bespoke to them.”