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Can Yoga Apps Keep You Fit as You Shelter in Place?

What does the actual science say and how will apps help?

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We are finding many people are staying home during this time. Zoom allows us to keep the quality of teaching active, our community connected and our students well being strong. We are even getting many loved yogis who have moved away joining us again. I am so grateful for Zoom and a community that is embracing change.
- Brooke Page-Thompson, Buka Yoga Studio owner


Transferring your entire workout routine from a gym, park or open space to yoga may not be ideal but there is more science supporting the physical and mental benefits of yoga than there used to be.

A 2019 University of Illinois study found that yoga measurably increased the volume of the hippocampus. “The hippocampus is involved in memory processing and is known to shrink with age” explained University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Neha Gothe, who led the research with Wayne State University psychology professor Jessica Damoiseaux.

Damoiseaux also observed, “The amygdala, a brain structure that contributes to emotional regulation, tends to be larger in yoga practitioners than in their peers who do not practice yoga. The prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and brain networks such as the default mode network also tend to be larger or more efficient in those who regularly practice yoga.”

What Science Does NOT Say

The evidenced-based benefits of aerobic exercises like running have a wider body of evidence supporting the benefits to executive brain functions. Here is a compilation of some of those studies that Christian Jarrett assembled for the British Psychological Society Research Digest.

In fact, Damoiseaux specifies that the prefrontal cortex was larger in yoga practitioners yet the prefrontal cortex, the region she explains is “essential to planning, decision-making, multitasking, thinking about your options and picking the right option" simply doesn’t have as wide a body of evidence to back it up outside of the 2019 study. So it will have a lot of catching up to do if it wants to obtain the credibility exercises like running and working out at the gym have.

Yoga Wake Up

Intrigued by the idea of a yoga alarm clock as I myself proceeded to shelter in place, I decided to try out Lizzie Brown’s app, Yoga Wake Up. The first-ever “yoga alarm clock,” as Brown describes it, is a “mobile app that replaces your traditional alarm with audio-guided yoga and meditation.

“In addition to bringing easy yoga conveniently to your bed, it also helps keep us off social media scrolling (terrible habit) and helps us easily add self-care to our morning and evening routines.”

Sun Salutations to Keep You From Scrolling

I loved the idea of yoga wake up, but the best of both worlds promise you could wake up with yoga while staying off-screen was not without compromise. It is decidedly more difficult to follow the asanas without a video screen to illustrate the asanas.

Now if you’re a seasoned and confident yogi or just someone with a keener visual memory, then the music, medications, and menu options which range from yogi playbook classics like “yin” to what a Jamba Juice therapy session mashup might sound like with “boundary boost,” will give you a heightened way to start your day. That said, the lack of visuals is a def downside.

Zooming-in to Your Local Yoga Studio

My personal fav shelter in place yoga app is Zoom. As social distancing shifts to shelter in place, I found that reconnecting with local yoga studios and instructors I have previously practiced within real-time and real space helped to center and put me at ease.

It didn’t matter that the lighting was dim or narration, at points, difficult to decipher as instructors figured out how to operate Zoom between Cobra Pose and Down Dog asana. My hunch is this new integrated options for students to telecommute will outlive the COVID-19 pandemic and remain an ideal option for students who happen to be running late or are just short on time to practice yoga while telecommuting.

Local Yoga Studios Embrace Change

In these times of uncertainty, yoga can be used as a way to clear the mind and instill a positive attitude. “Right now we are all living in a state of fear, anxiety, and confusion. Yoga is something that helps ground the mind and body. It connects us to our breath, allowing us to slow the heart rate down, engaging our parasympathetic nerve … allowing us to relax and rest,” says Buka Yoga Studio owner Brook Page-Thompson whose yoga center is based in Castle Rock, Colorado. For instance, the state of Colorado now has over 1,000 cases and on March 26, a mandatory “stay at home” order was issued and will be in effect until April 11.

“We are finding many people are staying home during this time. Zoom allows us to keep the quality of teaching active, our community connected, and our students well being strong. We are even getting many loved yogis who have moved away joining us again. I am so grateful for Zoom and a community that is embracing change.” Page-Thompson reports an increase in class attendance since the studio began using the app.

In addition, another advantage to attending real-time yoga classes rather than with yoga apps is that you’re getting a full class in real-time with an instructor who is responsive to questions and is watching the class to determine pace, level, and idiosyncrasies. The River Yoga in Denver, now giving classes via zoom, is even preparing to add one-on-one yoga private 30- and 60-minute yoga tutorials to its menu.

Paying it Forward

True to its name, “Karma Yoga Center is offering a free yoga class for anyone who is in the healthcare field or who needs trauma-informed yoga” states on the yoga studio’s Instagram page with a photo of a local health care worker clad in blue scrubs, her eyes peer out above the mask and beneath the shield as she sits on a creme and brown tile hallway floor, reclining against a hospital wall with a service dog by her side. “This is my friend Susan Ryan,” the post continues, “she is an ER Doc at Rose Hospital. She and many other health care professionals around the country are suiting up in their armor, putting their lives at risk, to help us all stay safe and alive.”

The Denver yoga studio founder Katrina Gustafson is making online classes for $5 each and a healthcare worker class is available, free of charge, to local medical professionals so there’s a more direct sense of participating in your community’s front line efforts to fight COVID-19.

Runner’s High

Yoga may not be able to replicate the sound of sneakers hitting a gravel trail or the rush you get once you’d made it to the top of an incline and are looking out over a valley below. Those were different times and places, though.

“Yoga is great, but it's totally different from running,” Ultrarunner Melissa Mincic reflects. “They complement each other nicely, but they're each great for different reasons.” Are they equally beneficial, then? Perhaps, one day, more peer-reviewed scientific research will let us know. 

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