What is the biggest challenge of yoga practice?
Is it developing muscle strength, or flexibility, or the stamina to stay in difficult asanas? Or the ability to relax and release all the stress from your body?
Even if you become very strong, super-flexible and relaxed, you will hardly scratch the surface of the life-long practice called yoga. After ten years of almost daily yoga practice, the most challenging part for me is to stay aware of how my body is moving in every single moment, and to control and adjust these movements to get the most out of my practice.
I have been searching for radical ways to increase my body awareness for many years. I tried yoga classes, one-to-one sessions, online courses, self-recording. All of these have improved my practice, but they did not make me fully aware and ‘present’ as I was doing yoga. My mind was either rumination on problems of the past or anticipating the future. I often realised that for a good half of the session I was moving automatically without understanding how I performed an asana and what I felt at that moment. This was disheartening.
During the research into how motion capture (MoCap) technology helps professional athletes improve their performance, I occasionally came across an application called Yoganotch. It instantly clicked. This is how I can transform my yoga practice and gain full presence during sessions.
In this article I will guide you through my experience of using this state-of-the-art technology to increase my body awareness in a way I could never imagine. And yes — this is easy and accessible for everyone. If I have done it, so can you.
Why Body Awareness Matters in Yoga
The word “yoga” has Sanskrit origins and means “to unite” or “to connect”. It refers to a method of connecting body and mind, our physical being with the mental and emotional state. The Upanisads state that “yoga is so called because it brings about (1) a unity of the senses, the mind, and the vital force (prana), and (2) steadiness in contemplation by eliminating multi-pointedness of the mind”. The ultimate goal of yoga is to harness the frenzy of senses, calm the mind and achieve a union with the universal consciousness.
In ancient times this connection between body and mind was achieved through a one-to-one practice. The instruments of yoga were passed directly from teacher to student. This has been largely lost in the modern times with the focus on the physical side of yoga and the spread of group yoga classes. We miss the impartial feedback that only a very experienced and considerate teacher can provide — the feedback that shifts a student’s attention from the unruly mind to the slightest bodily sensations and ground the mind firmly in the “here and now”.
Body awareness is the essence of yoga and mastering it means paying special attention to how your body moves and how these movements build up throughout the entire flow.
What Yoganotch Is
Yoganotch is an application that collects data from small sensors (“notches”) placed on your body, analyses it, and provides audio feedback on the adjustments that you need to make. It is based on the latest advances in MoCap technology that uses 3D motion sensors and AI to generate accurate mathematical models of human movement in real-time. The same technology has been used in visual arts to create animated characters (such as Gollum in ‘The Lord of the Rings” or Na’vi in “Avatar”) and then expanded into other areas, like sport and healthcare. MoCap does not require a video camera, as the sensors automatically identify the position of your body and map your movements, so you can even practice yoga in the dark!
Yoganotch is grounded in the wealth of data collected from yoga practitioners. It expands the limits of our attention bandwidth and captures crucial data about body movements that the human mind is not capable of analyzing or retaining.
Stepan Boltalin, the founder of Yoganotch: “We created Notch as an upgrade to the human body’s awareness and motion processing capacity. Yoganotch is a manifestation of our interest and affection for yoga and self-improvement, in that yoga combines breathtaking postural complexity with simple and effective principles that help improve the body awareness which very few movement systems do. Yoganotch is capable of both capturing yoga postures in real-time and providing human-readable interpretations and recommendations personalized to fit the performance of a particular person”.
Yoganotch replaces the video recording of yourself when you practice at home, or even a yoga teacher in a group class, by providing impartial and detailed feedback.
My Goals and Initial Investments
To test the effectiveness of Yoganotch, I set the following goal: to use Yoganotch during my daily practice for four weeks and reflect on how my performance and body awareness had evolved.
Initial investment: a minimal set of four notch sensors costs $299, excluding shipping costs and custom duties, if you order from outside the US. There are no ongoing costs involved. Yoganotch grants free access to its application which is regularly updated with new classes and features and they do not plan to introduce paid subscription. Yoganotch may add premium content as a way to help yoga teachers monetize their expertise, but never in a way that prevents getting the full value out of the application without extra fees.
How to Start Using Yoganotch
Starting to use Yoganotch was simple and straightforward. I downloaded an app (currently compatible only with Apple iOS) and created an account. Then you need to pair the notches with your device via a Bluetooth connection. The Yoganotch app provides very clear instructions on how to do this. Please note that you can only pair your notches with one device, so if you want to share them with other people or use on a different device, you need to unpair them first.
Once paired, you can use your notches by picking a class, switching them on and calibrating them to adjust notches to the surrounding environment and measure your posture with the utmost precision. For calibration you need to place all the notches in the dock, close it and flip the dock from one hand to the other, gradually increasing the speed. For the best results you need to perform calibration remaining roughly one meter away from the device. At first, I stood too close to my iPad, so the calibration failed several times, until I learnt to stand further away.
Once calibrated, you need to insert the notches into straps, and place them on the relevant parts of your body according to the instructions. I placed one notch on my chest, one on the top of my hip joint, and one on both the left and right thighs. It is important to make sure that the straps do not slip during the session, because this will lead to inaccurate feedback. I use tight leggings and a bra for the best results. Though the Yoganotch web site advises placing the straps on bare skin for optimal performance, I have not experienced any issues using the notches on close-fitting yoga apparel, like this one.
Building My Own Sessions
At the outset, I tested several classes available on the Yoganotch platform, but my true aspiration was to build my own sequences that I have honed through years of practice. Yoganotch has a sequence designer that allows you to build custom flows by simply dragging and dropping asanas from the library. For example, I have created a Surya Namaskar session that lasts 17 minutes and consists of 53 asanas. Each asana has a duration of 20 seconds, including 5 seconds for transition between postures. I put together several repetitions of the same asana to increase the time I stay in a posture (e.g. I combined 3 plank asanas to stay in a plank for one minute).
Building my own sessions was as intuitive, as it was fun. There was a downside though. Some asanas do not have a video guide (e.g. Full Monkey pose), so you need to know them by heart. The level of feedback also seems to vary for different asanas, although the overall feedback was very detailed and to the point. Audio comments draw a user’s attention to certain bodily parts (e.g. “lengthen your spine” or “square your hips”) suggesting that the user should correct their posture. Sometimes the feedback is more generic (e.g. “Check your chest”), but this is still helpful, as it invites you to reflect on the posture rather than move from one posture to another mechanically.
Stepan Boltalin, the founder of Yoganotch: “When we started developing Yoganotch, we had to admit that we vastly underestimated how complex and challenging the task of performing a 3D motion analysis of yoga would be. One thing that stood out with Yoganotch was the complexity of mapping verbal cues, which are at the core of the yoga learning process to the interpretations made by our software. As result, we have a vast library of instructions that are dynamically generated, based on the data measured by Notch sensors. For every fraction of a second, there are dozens of possible recommendations we can make, so we have to prioritize them based on the particular posture, its place in the sequence, the practitioners overall skill level, and their preferences. We are planning a roll-out with a greater degree of personalization, where recommendations that you hear become relative to your biometric parameters as well as your most current practice history, while keeping the focus on the safety of our users”.
All in all, audio feedback lies at the heart of the Yoganotch application and is extremely helpful. I have noticed considerable improvements in my practice after just four weeks of using Yoganotch. When you practice yoga for many years, it is easy to become overconfident and stop paying proper attention to the subtle nuances of the asanas. Through verbal instructions, Yoganotch helped me to refocus my attention on the posture I was doing at that moment. Yoganotch combines a precise analysis of your bodily motion with the data collected from many practitioners and it steers your focus exactly towards the aspects of the posture which need improvement. This is something that not even a yoga teacher can always spot, at least not in a group class where the time devoted to every student can be very limited! In this sense emergence of smart technology, such as Yoganotch, might be an auspicious sign. It could be the starting point in combining the latest technological advances with the ancient tradition of yoga, which was completely personal and paced according to each student’s capacities.
Measure This — Do Metrics Work for Yoga?
Yoganotch not only provides real-time feedback, it also analyses previous data and assigns a score to each session on a scale from 1 to 100 with a breakdown for each asana. These scores serve as a reference point to track how your practice changes from day to day and how your performance of specific asanas evolve. For example, I could immediately see an improvement in the Downward Dog posture from 65 to 82 over the course of just one week, as I followed Yoganotch’s advice to square my hips and lower my chest. Yoganotch also has tools to set weekly and monthly goals and track your progress against them.
That said, I am not entirely comfortable with the metrics engine being applied to yoga. Metrics trigger comparisons, comparisons encourage competition and competition is a violation of one of the fundamental principles of yoga — non-violence (ahimsa). Osho, the popular Indian guru, once said that “comparison … is the greatest disease,… because each individual is unique, and comparison is not possible…”.
Yoga advocates compassion to every living being, including ourselves. This means that we should treat our body with care and gratitude and not push it beyond its boundaries in the search for perfection or higher performance scores. On the other hand, the ability to collect and analyze quantitative data about body movements is where the MoCap technology provides the greatest value. How can we reconcile the scoring system with the non-violence and non-comparison approach in yoga?
Stepan Boltalin, the founder of Yoganotch: “Our metrics engine was a hot topic both internally and now externally, as many practitioners would see a scoring system as a step towards competition and away from yoga fundamentals. Although we did design the scoring not to incentivize competitive behavior, but rather as a frame of reference for people to reflect upon the evolution of their practice, we appreciated the opportunity to learn how our design decisions could affect people’s yoga practice. After collecting opinions from our audience, we are reworking our metrics engine to make sure it helps people get the maximum value out of their practice with Yoganotch”.
Revisiting the standard performance metrics to make yoga practice reflective of your personal strengths and limitations is more than welcome. In the end, yoga is a path open to everyone; technology should serve as a tool for personalization and flexibility helping to shift the focus from pure “physicality” to the deeper layers of consciousness.
Results: What Has Change Over Four Weeks
Using Yoganotch technology daily for four weeks I have witnessed a palpable improvement in my practice. First, it helps me remain aware of the slightest body movements. By giving verbal advice based on the data collected from my body in real time, the technology draws my attention to the precious nuances of every asana and sheds light on the areas that need more work. Second, it is personalized and attuned to my own practice — something that Yoganotch is determined to develop further with even deeper personalization. The feedback from Yoganotch is not abstract and prone to misinterpretation, it reflects exactly how my body moves. Third, Yoganotch is very easy to use: the set-up is straightforward, you do not need to fiddle with a camera, try to stay in sight of it and then play back the sequence to understand how well you did. Your yoga flow is uninterrupted, so you can focus entirely on your practice and not on the technology.
All in all, Yoganotch has dramatically improved my body awareness keeping me focused on my movements and staying present in each moment of my practice. As an ancient master of yoga reputedly said: “Yoga takes you into the present moment, the only place where life exists”.