The Robotic Evolution of Yoga

Let’s face it: Technology has long been a part of yoga. Though once practiced by loincloth-clad men seeking spiritual enlightenment, this ancient practice has integrated technology at almost every turn.

From the first television broadcasts airing yoga instruction from within darkened studios to the newer ubiquitous yoga videos available online, yoga has evolved with the changing technologies of modern times.

By the millions, yogis have embraced specifically designed practice rooms while donning yoga attire made with sports performance textiles. We create playlists to accompany our time on the mat and download apps that break down poses limb by limb.

Now, the genius minds of mechanical engineers and physioscientists have upped the ante: Yoga is about to become, well, robotic.

Take the SmartMat (that’s the trademark name): Billed as the “world’s first intelligent yoga mat,” this high-tech mat is equipped with a thin layer of pressure sensors that provide a real time heat map of your body on the mat.

Like the real life yoga teacher, the SmartMat assesses your pose and alignment, and offers micro adjustments to guide you into a deeper expression of that pose. The real life teacher also integrates her knowledge of anatomy and yogic philosophy to make adjustments or suggestions, while the SmartMat uses responsive sensors, linked to smartphones or tablets, to analyze the weight of the body on the mat to make the micro-corrections.

The SmartMat’s virtual teacher (think of the pleasant voice of your GPS lady) greets you good morning and proceeds to instruct you to bring your feet together, hug the legs to the midline or put more weight on the back foot before congratulating you on your “perfect pose.”

Yet another new technology, Athos, builds the smart sensors right into the workout gear. Rather than imbedding the technology into your yoga mat, it’s part of the attire you wear. Your clothing is then connected to an app, where sensors track muscle effort and heart and breathing rates. This data, collected, interpreted and presented to you on your smartphone or tablet, is designed to help you optimize your yoga practice and avoid injury.

Still another, Kinect, calls for the yogi to practice—not being mindful of her drishti—but with eyes peeled to the television to track her movements and get real-time feedback on every pose. This device, connected to your TV or monitor, senses your every move during your poses, and displays what it “sees” right on the TV screen.

All of these promise one thing: Perfect yoga.

But that’s just the problem with these technologies: Yoga, as the sages taught, isn’t about achieving goals or perfect poses. The promise of yoga was never about physical poses or goals—but about a divine journey towards self-realization and enlightenment.

Today, yoga is more of a physical practice than it has ever been. We are instructed in the asanas, pranayama, bandhas and kriyas. We can reach a certain level of understanding through these things—but yoga is still more than just a physical practice.

Yoga is about self-discovery and spiritual inquiry. In connecting with the breath and detaching our senses from the outer world, we journey from a physical endeavor to a devotional practice. Our inquiry becomes much more than the function of our muscles, strength of flexibility, but rather that of peeling away the layers of old habits and beliefs (samskaras) to reveal our true and authentic selves.

Thoughtful yoga teachers guide us to practice with gratitude and acceptance. We learn to apply the Sutras, the ancient code of yoga, to our practice and our lives. The teacher can guide the student on that journey, taking him perilously close to the edge to face fear, boldness or the grace to surrender to what is. We are reminded to breathe and come away from the edges without judgment or reaction.

Make no mistake: These technologies are perfect for the gym crowd or anyone hell bent on achieving the perfect set of abs and glutes through countless reps.

But if we endeavor to do yoga with these new technologies—seeking the “perfect” pose or physique—we risk never journeying beyond the mechanics of the practice. We risk missing site of the subtle gifts of yoga: the ethical code, the healing, compassion, the consciousness that we are one with others and one with nature.

No tracking device or motion sensor can deliver that.

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