Yoga Gamification

One of the great things I have discovered on our new adventureis yoga. Yoga is an intensely personal endeavor and I probably approach it very differently than most. Strangely enough, for me it ties in well with gamification– a subject I’ve written about a few times before in the context of some of the ways we are unschoolingVie and Aidan. Here’s how I think about connecting yoga with it.

I had tried yoga before Costa Rica, sort of. Deb and I used to do it as one of the modules of P90X. We did yoga moves, and many were hard, but they were the same every time. When we came to Costa Rica, we started taking classes from Sattva Yoga and experienced a much deeper and genuine yoga experience. That’s where my yoga quest began – and I use that word intentionally.

For some context, I have traditionally been more of a team sports person for the most part all my life. I tend to get bored with repetitive individual sports like running, bicycling, swimming, etc. The individual sports I like tend to have some challenges to occupy my brain as well as my body, like snowboarding. I know many folks who tell me about the zen qualities of long distance running, or the peace of swimming but that’s not how I enjoy sports. I also tended to try many sports rather than fully dedicate myself to one and be the best at it. Aidan approaches sports that way too. Just one was hard to hold my interest.

Yoga does a great job occupying my mind as well as my body when I do it. It was the larger landscape of yoga that really hooked me, however.

Here is where I apologize to all my yogi friends. What I will share will probably not feel like the “essence” of yoga to many yogis or even most people who know much about it. However, in yoga, it is always about you and what you can do – not what everyone else is doing. So, for me, yoga shares many aspects of games. In my view, it is highly gamified and that is what draws me in.

Once again the definition of gamification I like comes from Gabe Zicherman:

“Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game dynamics to engage audiences and solve problems.” (gamification.co)

As I started yoga here, I learned a number of new moves, or asanas (poses). Then, Deb saw a poster of 900 asanas and told me about it. I had no idea there were so many. So, I started doing some research to understand all of the moves. That’s when I created my somewhat geeky spreadsheet of yoga positions. I keep track of the Sanskrit and English names of the poses, a picture of each pose, and additional data such as type of pose, etc. I also track when I completed a pose.

You might think there was one site on the web with a full list of all of these asanas. There are several. None are complete. In fact, I keep finding new ones. My spreadsheet now has 1113 poses, of which I’ve completed about a third so far. My original goal was to complete them all this year. Of course, that seems unrealistic, I know, even though we practice yoga 5-6 times a week now. There are some incredibly insane poses and people spend lifetimes mastering a few. Still, I like big goals.

That’s where gamification comes in. The thing that motivates me is the exploration. I want to explore and complete every one of those moves. If you play video games in particular, it’s a lot like wanting to visit every place, every challenge, and try every move or skill. Master Yogis may spend years perfecting one asana. For me, I want to complete the asana well, but it doesn’t have to be perfect; I’d rather move on to try others. My spreadsheet is essentially my map of this journey.

So how do I connect yoga with gamification? Yoga, for me, meets many of the core criteria for gamification. It also is strangely similar to how role-playing games (RPGs) evolve. These are games like World of Warcraft and Halo (campaign, or “story”, mode). The one caveat is that most game mechanics* and game dynamics* involve games embedded in a social setting. I turn all of these inward in how I look at gamifying yoga.

Let’s start with game mechanics*. First off, for me, the range of asanas present clear goals and many paths to get there. It is not just about the outcome of attaining the goal, it’s also about how you get there. Many asanas require a lot of prep work and conditioning before you can even attempt the pose and there are usually particular ways of getting into the poses that enable more success.

The asanas present a series of progressively harder challenges. Each basic move has a relatively simple version. Tree pose (Vrksasana), for example, is pretty straightforward to start. Flip it upside down and you have Adho Mukha Vṛksasana, or a handstand. Add the lotus position to get Urdhva Padmasana in Adho Mukha Vrksasana. Now, make it one-handed and you get Eka Hasta Padma Adho Mukha Vrkshasana. You get the picture. There’s plenty to keep me busy for years. Heck, even some of the basic moves are hard, like Bakasana:

yoga

Bakasana

Levels are a another common game mechanic. Yoga has no belt system like martial arts which could indicate one’s “level” or proficiency. However, I definitely feel a progression from simpler asanas to “higher level” ones. Things that were once very difficult are now easy. There is just no outward manifestation of your “level.” It is an internal feeling for me, and that ties well with the “spirit” of yoga.

Likewise, there are no points per se as a game mechanic. However, every time I complete a new asana, I log it in my spreadsheet. Only I see it. But, I know I got a “point” for that particular asana. It essentially becomes my own leaderboard.

Now we get to the softer game dynamics*, such as reward, achievement, status, competition, and even self-expression. They are all there, but as inward manifestations. If I accomplish a difficult asana, for example, I get the same dopamine hit gamers get when they accomplish a challenge. It’s an internal reward.

What excites me is trying, and accomplishing, new asanas. I don’t need an achievement badge on Xbox to feel the same result as getting an achievement. My spreadsheet shows me the ones I have and the many, many more I have yet to earn.

Self-expression comes with the territory in yoga. We are all built differently and are differently-abled. The way I complete a pose or even try to get into it (often awkwardly) is different than others. What I lack in grace, I have in tenacity, and that fuels most of the things I accomplish.

Competition is a tricky one. I am competitive. Very competitive Debbie would argue. However, yoga is not a competition for me with others. In fact we all love seeing someone accomplish a tough move that they hadn’t before. Rather, the competition, if anything, is internal. I push myself to do more and do it better. But, doing it better takes a big second seat to trying something new. I play RPGs the same way.

There are a few final ways that yoga is “gamified” for me. These come more from the world of RPGs than more basic “gamification” concepts.

Take skill trees, for example. If you look at a map of asanas, they look like skill trees in many RPGs. In RPGs, as you advance and get more experienced in the game, you “unlock” new skills that you can now use, such as new spell if you are a spellcaster. There are often different “trees” of skills for each type of character, such as fire spells or cold spells. Likewise, you can see “trees” of asanas. There are standing asanas, seated asanas, arm balance asanas (Bakasana is one), etc. Like RPGs, some skills may come more easily than others and they get more difficult the further you go (in “level”). As with RPGs, to get all the skills, you need to do it a long time.

For me, there’s even the concept of “quests.” I am currently on one of my own to achieve the Lotus position (or Padmasana). Once I do, I can “unlock” a number of variations that I have yet to try (that’s the quest reward). My ankles are pretty tight from soccer and don’t seem to bend the way most people’s do, so I have to work on trying to open my hips more. It will be quite an achievement for me when I get there.

Finally, there are “bosses” – those super-difficult opponents in games that you need to face, and defeat, before you can continue. Some asanas, like Lotus, are tough for me now, but I know I can work through them, like an easier boss, and get through to the other side (all those poses that become “unlocked.”). Then, there are a few asanas that seem so crazy difficult, like Eka Hasta Padma Adho Mukha Vrkshasana, that I’m not sure yet how I’ll get there. I tend to approach those sorts of challenges in steps and work methodically toward them. Eventually they yield. Just like a hard boss.

I’m sure I’ve managed to unsettle my yogi friends by bringing gaming into the picture. To a greater degree, I probably also unsettled my gamer friends by, gulp, bringing yoga into the picture. Unsettling is good though. It’s an attribute of change. And here in the land of pura vida I think I’ve found that elusive “sport” that I care about dedicating some serious time to, which is a big change for me.

A big thanks goes out to all my yogi friends and teachers for making this an incredible journey. Namaste. And pura vida!

 

* There are several good sources on game mechanics and game dynamics. I tend to like. Bunchball’s simple and accessible Gamification 101 white paper.

A Few Changes

There are ebbs and flows in most things and that includes our new adventure. We made a few more changes on the path to getting unschooling right with Aidan and Vie this past week. Things weren’t working quite as well as we liked and so we needed to do some tuning. The changes have given us all some new energy.

If you remember, we started our path in unschooling with a bit of structure in when we did unschooling; i.e., we had a daily schedule. On the flip side, we gave the young adults a lot of freedom in their choice of “projects” and helped them understand that they were responsible for their unschooling (with help and support of course).

Shortly thereafter I made my first mistake and realized that I was giving the young adults freedom in unschooling pursuits, but not in their schedules. So, I reined that in and allowed them to set their own schedules for when they got up, worked on unschooling, etc. as long as they hit an average of about 20 hours a week.

After working this way for about two months, the pendulum is swinging back a bit in the other direction. While we are still giving Aidan and Vie schedule flexibility, we are adding back more structure to their unschooling work. And I’m taking a little break while Deb, who recently finished working remotely, takes over.

Many things were going on, but I think the biggest factors leading to these changes were overexposure to technology and what I’d probably call dwindling motivation in Aidan and Vie to take unschooling seriously. It got a bit too easy for them to slip into letting technology drive what they did vs. driving it themselves.

In fairness, they are 13 and 11. Having the responsibility for directing one’s schooling path, while an awesome opportunity for pre-teens, can also be a daunting and at times complex task. We adults are still working to get it right.

I had already come to a good understanding of how Aidan learns, which is very different than me. That led to some learning on my part, which I also wrote about. While Aidan did continue to work on his recipes, more and more of his time was spent watching videos on YouTube, not just of cooking, but really anything he could rationalize as unschooling. He’d track his unschooling time meticulously and then switch to watching more YouTube videos – not unschooling related – and not keeping track of his technology time as we had asked.

Vie also tracked unschooling and technology time and focused. The challenge with Vie was in what the topics of focus were. We went from a project comparing digital art tools and another focused on making videos of walkthroughs of Vie playing a video game, to creating a video game, to just wanting to play video games as learning. Topics would change almost weekly and get more abstract.

Each time Vie would change topics, I would spend a number of hours researching the topic, learning the tools (e.g., Adobe Flash gaming engine to build a video game), etc. It was getting frustrating to me.

Vie and I had a good discussion about gamification, Gabe Zicherman’s TED talk How Games Make Kids Smarter, and how Vie wanted to focus on being a video gamer. While I was hesitant, I was open-minded towards trying it. My requirements were simply that Vie describe what the particular video game offered in terms of learning content, and then after playing the game, how would you know that you learned something; i.e., how do you know you were successful at learning what you expected to.

As we went along, it was getting harder and harder to get Vie and Aidan to tell me what they were working on. They weren’t doing the few things I asked them to do. For example, Vie wasn’t writing up what was learned from gaming. I was also getting a lot of “Dad, we are responsible for our unschooling so why do we have to tell you what we are doing?” It is certainly a creative argument that I would probably raise – they are my young adults after all 🙂 – but it wasn’t helping me help them.

What I was coming to realize was that Vie and Aidan, in different ways, really didn’t want to unschool. That didn’t mean they wanted to go to school. They disliked that idea even more. They just weren’t very interested in [any]schooling. Period.

We had set them on this path of unschooling. Here I’ll emphasize unschooling and not home schooling. In Grace Llewellyn’s great book on unschooling, Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, the book is targeted toward young adults who want to do this and may need help convincing their parents. We had a bit of the opposite situation, so the book didn’t help as much.

I went online looking for some help and guidance. What I found surprised me. I found tons of advice on tactics for helping learners with different subjects, what tools and resources are most helpful, where to go for all sorts of supporting material, etc. I also found strategies for helping learners develop curricula for their unschooling. I even found information on how to help your learner learn a subject they think they dislike, such as math. What I didn’t find was anything helping with getting your learner to want to unschool. Most of the information assumed that that wasn’t a problem. While I can’t say I did an exhaustive search, I did expect to find some information fairly quickly.

Adding to the mix, more and more, particularly with Vie, most of my suggestions and asks were getting met with arguments. Aidan didn’t generally argue, he just often “forgot” about requirements and rules.

I was getting frustrated. I felt like I was giving them lots of room. I was open-minded about what they were working on and how they were doing it. And yet, I felt like it wasn’t working. While I felt that Vie and Aidan were taking advantage of the situation a bit, I felt like I was failing in making unschooling work. And I hate to fail. I know, I need more Type-A Detox. Failing is an opportunity to learn something. While that’s true, and I do embrace that philosophy, it was “different” for me when my kids schooling is on the line.

After one particular night where we caught both the young adults on their computers well past their bed time and against our rule of no technology after bed, and then learned that it was a pattern, we decided we needed some changes. My trust in them was a bit broken. And I needed a little break. This was Deb’s very good idea.

Fortunately, Deb had recently finished her part-time remote work and had time to step in more deeply. We had a family meeting and talked about what we needed to change. We talked about how we needed to add back more structure to the unschooling.

Deb started with having Vie describe to Aidan what middle school was like. Vie had a fairly typical unpleasant middle school experience, full of rules and consequences, lots of behavior management and little actual learning, bullies, and micromanagement of time to name a few. It was a brilliant move. Aidan had had an awesome experience at University Cooperative School, but didn’t have a larger context of what most schools were like. And this got Vie to remember all the reasons why the middle school experience was so bad, hopefully creating some appreciation for unschooling in both cases.

Deb adding back more structure around what they were working on along with a little more structure around daily activities to go back, at least a bit, to a routine. We also limited technology in a few ways. Vie and Aidan needed to write up short descriptions of what they wanted to do online and why before they did. They also needed to use their computers in the main room of the house; no more sneaking computer time late at night. We explained that in time, if they were working well with this structure, then we could try relaxing it a bit.

Deb is also adding in some structured time for conversation – talking about things in the world, why things are the way they are, etc. to spark broader interest and questions. It was a great idea. It’s already led to discussions on economics, body chemistry and biology.

This last week has been a lot more manageable after the changes, even with the serendipitous intervention of having no Internet for 5 days now. While it’s been inconvenient for all of us to not have internet access, and while it’s been frustrating getting the cable company to make a visit to fix it, it’s been interesting to see the household effects of no internet on top of our added structure. Stepping back and taking a break (from technology) may help Aidan and Vie get some perspective. It works for adults too. It already has in my case.

In reflecting on recent events and doing some more research (thanks to the Wi-Fi at the Shack), there are a few insights I had that I’d thought I’d share.

Systems and Goals
Awhile back, Deb found a great article on systems and goals. I had intended to do something with this in a future blog post, but the opportunity for application in our current situation was powerful. Essentially, the author James Clear makes the argument that systems are more valuable than goals. We all grow up – and continue into the work force – setting and achieving goals. Goals aren’t bad. But systems can be more useful. Systems are structured ways for consistently working toward a goal.

As an example, you may have a new year’s resolution to lose some amount of weight or get fit or save some amount of money. Many people abandon these after a short time. The goal doesn’t easily lead to day to day energy and focus on the goal. In contrast, if you simply start going to the gym consistently a few days a week and put in place some structure to make that easy, then you will eventually lose weight/get fit. More importantly, you don’t just achieve the goal. You now have in place tools that will help you consistently achieve that goal in the form of a system.

In our case, I was focusing on the young adults having projects and goals (of their choosing). I did not have in place enough structure (a system) for them to make consistent progress. I think adding back structure to our unschooling will help Aidan and Vie develop more systems for working toward achieving any goal.

Executive Function
Adults have the ability to visualize and plan for the future, think strategically, and see how they need to tune near term actions to better help them with their longer term strategy and goals. It’s called “executive function.” This ability is not well developed yet in pre-teens. Immediate gratification trumps longer term, and more substantial, benefits. We probably all have examples of this coming into play in our early teen years.

Unschooling gives responsibility to the learner to determine what and how they want to learn. They develop a love for learning and with some guidance, they can learn anything. The challenge I see, now, is that without developed executive function skills, it’s hard to expect a pre-teen to be able to do this well. I’m sure in time they may naturally get there, but I also see the role of a parent is to be a significant “flywheel” in this process – something that makes it go better, faster, stronger. At times, I think this means that we need to add more structure and help edit goals and systems a bit.

I’m still getting past my ego and inability to make this work smoothly so far, which is tough. We came into this so optimistic, thinking it would be a wonderful, easy experience. At least I did. I was naïve. It’s hard. Though, it may not be nearly as hard as dealing with some of the negative side effects of schools (over reliance on homework, bullies, less attention to individual learning styles, etc.) over which you feel as though you have little ability to effect change.

However I can’t think of anything more important and so we will keep learning, tuning, and refining what we are doing. We’ll also keep sharing our journey. Maybe it will keep some folks from falling into some of the holes along the way that we did! It is all part of the journey and I think we will all be stronger for it. Pura Vida!

“That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.”

Nietzsche