The big question yoga-preneurs seem to be asking these days is: How can we digitize yoga?

I don’t think this is quite the right question. Instead we need to be asking: How can we redesign the study of yoga for digital technology?

The mistake industries often make with new technology is attempting to use it to replicate a pre-technology experience. Laptops and iPads do not have the power to make a traditional, in-studio yoga class mobile any more than listening to a symphony on a cell phone replicates the experience of attending a concert. Sure, you can hum along, but it’s not the same.

This goes beyond the technical challenge of recording, editing and uploading content (How can we make yoga digital?) and becomes a design challenge (How can we design the study of yoga for digital technology?).

Technology does make “Yoga” (as a broad, general concept) more mobile, but iTunes podcasts and YouTube sun salutation videos are only the first step in this revolution. While these methods of digitizing yoga improve access, they make sacrifices elsewhere. For example, if the goal of a teacher is to record his or her Saturday class and put it online, the calculus becomes: “How much of the experience is lost by squeezing a physical experience into a digital format?” versus “How much is gained by the convenience of a making the class mobile?” Mobile is powerful factor, which is why podcasts and video streaming sites have become so popular, but it comes at a certain price.

In contrast, if we recognize that practicing yoga at home will never be the same as practicing in a studio, then we have the opportunity to design new experiences rather than being limited to replicating existing ones. We get to explore – and possibly even create – new forms of yogic study. This goes beyond the technical challenge of recording, editing and uploading content (How can we make yoga digital?) and becomes a design challenge (How can we design the study of yoga for digital technology?).

There are two methods of approaching this question. The first is to look at the user experience and the second is to look at what the technology enables us to do.

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Rethinking Mobile Yoga Based on the User Experience

As mentioned already, yoga at home will never be the same as yoga in a studio – and this is a good thing. You cook at home for certain reasons and go to a restaurant for others. They both feed you, but in different ways. Thus the design goal for each situation is to minimize the negatives and expand on the positives.

Yoga at home is a challenge, no doubt about it. Space, time and focus are much harder to come by when squeezing your asana between appointments or between the couch and coffee table. Furthermore, sweating alone will never be the same as moving and breathing as a group, and your iPhone can’t reach out and square your hips or offer the personalized advice a teacher can.

When considering the design of home practice yoga tools, we can minimize these drawbacks. For example, to accommodate shifting schedules we should offer classes with a variety of time options. To make up for the lack of in-person instruction, we should break down complicated poses in detailed “technique sections” with clear cueing and intuitive visual aids, and we should make pose variations available with the touch of a button. There isn’t much to do about the community aspect, but as we’ll see later, we can use technology to provide certain social media stand-ins.

There are unique opportunities that come with practicing outside of a studio, particularly the ability of the student to control the entire experience.

On the other hand, there are unique opportunities that come with practicing outside of a studio. The overall advantage is the ability to control the entire experience. Apart from choosing the class you attend (which is heavily influence by what is available in your area and when you can go), when you walk into a studio you must take what is offered. If all your teachers one week decide to focus on backbends, that’s what you get. If you want vinyasa but the sub teaches Iyengar, tough luck.

Never underestimate the power of expectations to shape how much you enjoy an experience. You might have been perfectly happy with a class if you knew beforehand it would be “like that.” Websites such as Breathe Repeat or to a lesser extent Classtivity are attempting to do this with live, in-studio class, but they will always be limited by the whims of teachers.

With digital classes we can set expectations with much more precision – how hard is the class going to be, what will be the focus, how long. For example, YogaGlo offers classes by Teacher, Style, Level and Duration. That’s a good start, and YogaDownload.com takes it one step further, allowing you to see exactly what poses you will be doing in class beforehand. This is a huge help to students as they choose and prepare themselves mentally for a class.

Beyond single classes, a final experiential aspect to consider is the “meta-experience” students are looking for. What are the short-, medium and long-term goals of the yogi? Continuity programs (like MyYogaOnline’s eight-stage packages) are nothing new in the yoga world, but digital offers a few additional opportunities: 1) seamless delivery of day-by-day and even hour-by-hour action steps, 2) personal data and performance tracking (which can be incredibly powerful/addicting) and 3) a long-tail approach with programs targeted at ever more niche audiences.

To conclude, the important questions from an experiential design perspective are:

– How can we design digital yoga to minimize the disadvantages of practicing at home – i.e. lack of space, time, focus and in-person instruction?
– How can we maximize the advantageous – i.e. choice, control, continuity and personal relevancy?

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Rethinking Mobile Yoga Based on Technological Opportunities

So far we have considered how we could modify the structure of digital yoga to better complement the experience of practicing at home, but what about the other side of the equation? How can new technology allow us to extend and even reshape this experience?

The most important consideration here is that mobile devices­ supporting interactivity and multimedia are now the norm (with Apple alone selling 400 million+ iOS devices). In fact, the terms “interactive” and “multimedia” are already starting to sound dusty and obsolete because these are becoming assumptions rather than shiny new capabilities.

This new normal of interactivity offers three important design opportunities for digital yoga:

1. Non-linear experiences with greater content depth and context

The challenge of teaching is that different students come with different needs and expectations in terms of base knowledge and desired depth of content. For example, one reader might want a simple explanation of a pose while a second reader might want an in-depth exploration that includes anatomy and kinesiology. Previously, authors of educational resources had to take the middle ground, leaving certain students overwhelmed with too much detail and others still hungry for more.

The flexibility of digital learning, however, allows us to build multiple levels of experience into one book. It is possible to create an unobstructed, top-level route for skimmers and strategically link to additional content for in-depth readers. This is a concept I like to call “ten pages long and ten pages deep.”

The flexibility of digital learning, however, allows us to build multiple levels of experience into one book. It is possible to create an unobstructed, top-level route for skimmers and strategically link to additional content for in-depth readers. This is a concept I like to call “ten pages long and ten pages deep.” Readers should be able to instantly access definitions, glossaries, contextual details and information on primary sources. Interesting but lengthy sidebars that would be cut from a normal book should be retained for readers who want them.

The key, though, is getting the navigation right (or “user-interface,” to use the tech-y term). Additional material shouldn’t bog down those readers who don’t want it, yet it must be no more than a touch away for those who do.

2. Multi-modal and multi-situational Learning

Not everyone learns the same way. Some people are audiovisual learners while others do better with text, and everyone does better when complex topics are supported by creative interactivity (think: quiz-as-you-go textbooks, interactive 3D models or creative learning modules like this intriguing Pranayama app). The more modes of learning contained in an educational resource, the better.

Similarly, not everyone has the same daily routines or study habits. Another advantage of a non-linear, multimedia content package is that it makes any situation a learning opportunity. You must stop to read a textbook or be in front of a TV to watch a DVD, but a layered media package isn’t so limiting. You can practice a class at home, turn on an audio lecture for your walk to the coffee shop and then read text once you’re there. On-the-mat and off-the-mat learning should flow one into the other.

3. Social Connectivity and updateability

The old model where authors produce content that is consumed by relatively isolated individuals is gone. Neither production nor consumption exists in a vacuum any more. Content communities on the micro level (e.g. line-by-line commenting) and the macro level (e.g book-level discussions and Meet Up-style real world interactions) should build on what the author began.

As a “first edition” accumulates secondary (i.e. crowd-sourced/social) content, the author can make revisions based on community feedback and the publisher can quickly launch new projects based on demand. And those who bought the first version aren’t forgotten as updates are pushed out to existing readers.

That is just the impact of social on content publication, and doesn’t even touch on the topic of designing entirely new social platforms around yoga. Online support networks and data sharing systems like RunKeeper or Nike+ Fuel Band are just two mainstream examples of new forms of interaction that, while completely different from sharing a room with other exercisers, are no less social or powerful. And, who knows? Maybe there will even be a “Facebook of yoga” someday. In other words, dedicated social platforms for yoga (that may or may not rely on author-generated instructional content) are a wild card and really deserve an entire separate article.

To conclude, the important questions from a technological design perspective are:

– How can we design non-linear learning experiences that allow readers to quickly access core information while also facilitating deeper exploration? (i.e. “ten pages long and ten pages deep”)
– How can we use multimedia and creative interactivity to make information as accessible and understandable as possible?
– How can we use the wisdom of readers/students to build on what the author has begun? How can bridge the isolation of digital learning with new platforms for social interaction?

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Making Digital Design Happen

No matter how complex or low-budget a project may be, the key to innovation lies in not just in teaching yoga digitally, but in thinking deeply about the practice of studying yoga at home, stretching what is technologically possible, and designing an experience with the yogi – not the device or the format – in mind.

“Yoga designed for digital” is not any one format. Apps, ebooks, websites, even individual videos can all benefit from an experience-first approach. Nor is it one idea. Large commercial and small independent projects are all key players in the digital yoga landscape. However, I will say this: No matter how complex or low-budget a project may be, the key to innovation lies in not just in teaching yoga digitally, but in thinking deeply about the practice of studying yoga at home, stretching what is technologically possible, and designing an experience with the yogi – not the device or the format – in mind.

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