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I Am Become the Yoga Cyborg

I tried yoga tech gear to see if it enhanced my practice.

by Ankita Rao
Aug 9 2017, 8:39pm

Trying on the Muse meditation headband. Image: Anita Rao

To live in today's society you have to be mindful and aware and flexible. Or is it mindfully aware and strong? I don't know, it's something like that, and yoga is supposed to help transcend the stiff monotony of our coffee-desk-happy-hour existence and find some peace of mind in whatever piece of our mind is left over after Game of Thrones and Trump's daily tweets.

With that kind of prescription—targeted usually at people with some expendable income—coming from our doctors, podcast ads, magazines, and moms, the tech industry has followed. It started trickling in with the yoga apps, like Yoga Studio and Daily Yoga. But then stepped up its game with internet-connected yoga clothes, vibrating yoga mats, and hardware meant to deepen your meditation practice.

I felt a strong urge to explore this new intersection of ancient practice and new tech. I've grown up doing yoga, my mom owns a yoga studio, I've spent months at ashrams, and I'm a certified yoga teacher. But I'm also addicted to my phone and any attempt to completely unplug has usually been thwarted by my need to make money and know what my friends are doing.

If there is a place for technology in yoga, I was open to finding it. And so I started to try out the various yoga gear on the market.

Nadi X, Internet-Connected Yoga Pants, $300

Let's start with internet-connected yoga pants, because they sound wild. I tried my first pair of Nadi Xs on in SoHo, where the Wearable X team who created them let me test drive the product while moving through a quick yoga flow of downward dogs and warrior poses. They were comfortable and compressing, a far better fit than any Lululemon pants I've tried.

The pants have a sensor that is placed on the inner thigh—it's pretty light and unnoticeable and clips in right above your knee. It connects the pants to a customized app in which I input basic information before beginning.

Once the pants are connected to the app, they're supposed to know what pose you are in—be it upward dog or standing mountain pose—and vibrate in certain spots that should encourage you to move in a certain way. For example, if you're in a lunge position, they should be guiding you to sink your seat lower to the ground while pushing off of your foot.

Mediocre Warrior 1 in NadiX pants. Image: Ankita Rao

This didn't exactly work for me. In a couple of the demos, Wearable X spokesperson Amanda Jacobs helped me input one pose at a time, and in those cases the pants would pleasantly vibrate in certain places (btw: this company also makes a sexier product called Fundawear that involves vibrating underwear, but this one is completely PG). But the vibrations didn't feel intuitively directional to me, and had I not been guided by the team, I might've overlooked the fact that they had anything to do with the pose.

When I started to do a flow without inputting each pose into the app, the app failed to recognize what I was doing multiple times. In its current stage, I can't imagine these pants being useful during a yoga class, where you can't keep stopping to tell the app what you're about to do. It could, however, help if you're practicing yoga at home on your own, if only to encourage you to stay in a pose longer.

SUPA Powered Sports Bra, $180

Next I tried on an internet-connected sports bra made by SUPA. This bra is for all sports—the woman who made it, Sabine Seymour, is an avid snowboarder—but can be used for yoga as well. And Seymour told me it's particularly helpful to find out when your heart rate returns to normal, bringing the body back to a state of relaxation.

I tried the SUPA tech at home during various rounds of my personal yoga practice. It's a simple set up—the sensor, which the company calls a reactor, is clipped onto the front of your bra right above the rib cage. It took a few tries to get the app to recognize that I was wearing the reactor, even though my phone recognized it via Bluetooth, but eventually it started to measure my heart rate.

The SUPA-powered sports bra. Image: Ankita Rao

I'm not sure that the measurement was accurate. I had my sister, a doctor, take my heart rate at resting, and it was around 64 beats per minute. But even before I started yoga, the SUPA sports bra had me in the upper 70s. There could have been many reasons for this, but that was just a discrepancy I noticed when I started. And when I looked at the stats later, they were similarly strange.

The sports bra is colorful and comfortable, and the app has one of the best user interfaces I've seen. But underneath the design this was essentially just a heart rate monitor with a few specific, tailored features for running. This doesn't strike me as incredibly innovative, since similar insights about your performance can be achieved through a FitBit or Apple Watch, but Seymour told me the company is hoping to work with sports brands so that the tech will become more ubiquitous in base layers and other sports clothing.

I have no idea what's happening in this screenshot. Image: Ankita Rao

I didn't look at the app until after my yoga practice, but I could see that if it synced correctly, I could glean some insights from the patterns of my heart rate during my session. This might be useful over time, since heart rate monitors allow you to track your body's resiliency as it returns to normal after more high impact movements.

Muse, Meditation Headset, $299.00

Meditation is an integral part of yoga—in fact, the whole rigamarole with the sweaty sun salutations and twisty poses is largely meant to help you sit in a comfortable meditation posture for as long as possible. For this I used the Muse headband, a "brain sensing" technology that you wear around the back of your head.

Muse's parent company InterAxon probably makes the loftiest claims about the biometric capabilities of its technology out of everything I tried. The website has a compendium of research supporting neurobiofeedback, and the impact of an intervention like the Muse headset on cognitive abilities.

Meditation posing with the Muse headband. Image: Anita Rao

I meditate pretty much every weekday, usually just with a timer and sometimes with a guided meditation from Insight Timer, but I've never tried anything like this. It was a bit difficult to get started—first my Muse wouldn't connect to my Bluetooth, and then it wouldn't sync with the app. Eventually, I got it going.

The headset has seven electroencephalography (EEG) sensors, and says it measures brain activity, in this case the different types of brain waves: delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma. These happen at different levels of activity—delta is usually when you're sleeping, beta and gamma when you're actively thinking or processing information.

When I tried it, it wasn't clear which waves were active or not, but the chart displayed whether my brain was "active," "neutral," or "calm". I also received incentives—called "calm points"—based on my performance.

A screenshot from my meditation session. Image: Ankita Rao

Biofeedback, as a field, has helped both scientists and consumers better understand their bodies and sometimes their minds, but I'm not sure I gleaned any actual insight into my meditation practice through Muse. If anything, I felt a little more anxious when I would look at the app and see that I was less calm in one session than the other—I almost started competing with myself, and meditation isn't exactly a space in which you want to feel competitive.

Read More: I Meditate Every Night, But I Couldn't Outsmart This Brainwave-Reading Headband

If a fun gadget and if a pretty app with beach sounds makes people meditate more, I guess it could be a positive addition to the world. Meditation has been proven countless times to have tangible and positive effects on the brain and body. But for me, the less I have to think about when I'm preparing to meditate, the better.

Yoga Studio, Yoga app, $1.99

I downloaded Yoga Studio for the purpose of this project but I had actually earnestly tried it before. The app is one of the better and more popular yoga apps, and it features dozens of different yoga sequences and sessions for different experience levels. The soothing voices and instructions are accurate, and the user experience of the app is pretty seamless.

But there was a reason I deleted it a few years ago, and I remembered that this week. Yoga poses are very precise—so much so that a hip turned one inch outward takes you from something that can cause injury to something that can prevent injury. And yoga injuries are real: there were 30,000 yoga injuries reported in emergency departments in the US from 2001 to 2014.

A screenshot of a sample class on the app. Image: Ankita Rao

I still maintain the view that yoga is, for the most part, more helpful than it is dangerous, but the thought of beginner yogis relying entirely on an app to learn complex poses worries me. Furthermore, the need to keep looking at the app to see each pose took away from my ability to stay present through a sequence of poses. (As a side note, Yoga Studio could do a lot more to stay away from the white, female yoga stereotype that has diluted the practice in the West.)

Yoga classes can be prohibitively expensive, and apps like Yoga Studio could help create more access points to the practice. But the risk of trying to follow a disembodied voice might be too high for this to be a true benefit.

*

I won't pretend to be surprised that yoga technology, for the most part, is not for me. It was fun to try different sensors, get readings on my progress, and to feel vibrations while doing yoga. But to the extent that yoga, and the people who want to do it, have been exploited the technology just seems to add insult to injury—adding unnecessarily to an already $9 billion industry, and preying on stressed out people.

There are also the drawbacks inherent to wearables and other internet-connected technology: privacy issues. Most of the apps have some control of the data you input, though it's usually encrypted and only shared when aggregated. Seymour, for instance, told me that SUPA has gone out of its way to make sure the consumer gets an alert any time their data is shared, say, to get a free pair of sneakers through a partner brand.

Meanwhile, the technology that these companies have created could be far more useful elsewhere. I could see the Nadi X pants being helpful for physical therapy, or for patients with certain types of neurogenic diseases in which a vibrating sensation might help pinpoint musculoskeletal issues. And the SUPA bra is probably more useful for the extreme athletes it was tested on to prevent burnout, rather than for someone doing a headstand.

But in a quest to practice anything that brings me closer to myself, or more aware of my mind, I think these technologies can just get in the way. And I've got plenty of thoughts, plans and Hulu shows to do that for me.

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