Those of us without artistic talent may have completed a paint-by-number painting at some points in our lives, to at least have the feeling of making a piece of art. Some of us may have completed more than one paint-by-number Rembrandt or Van Gogh replica, and then went on to make art without guidelines.
After her experience with debilitating health issues and attempts to study yoga at home, Elizabeth Morrow saw potential in the paint-by-number model for yoga beginners. What if she applied the same approach to learning yoga?
The result is a specially designed yoga mat and learning program called Yoga by Numbers. Morrow wanted to create something that would dismantle barriers of access that prevent people, especially those with chronic health conditions, from trying yoga. The mat has a series of gridlines and markers that indicate where you can put your feet and hands, while instructional videos explain the mechanics of the poses.
“One of the driving forces behind Yoga by Numbers is the desire to say you don’t have to be your ‘best self’ before you try something,” Morrow says. “You deserve to learn and grow and work to improve your health regardless of what modifications you need to make.”
Yoga by Numbers reimagines how people, especially those who are not naturally kinesthetic learners, can start yoga. Meant to be an introduction to the practice, it makes yoga accessible to a range of learning styles and abilities.
Just as paint by numbers were an introduction to art for many people who would have never picked up a brush, in this interview Morrow explains how Yoga by Numbers is a learning tool for people who may be intimidated by a “blank” yoga mat.
How did your health concerns and experience as a yoga newbie inform the development of YbN?
I began practicing yoga because I was recovering from a partial lung collapse and blood clots, and yoga allowed me to keep moving. I wanted a way to learn alignment and positioning at home because the combination of physical pain, decreased lung capacity, and general fatigue meant traveling was exhausting. And I was scared; when everyone in the hospital tells you how lucky you are to be alive, you feel both luck and fear, especially when the thing that could have killed you is still present in your body! That experience really convinced me that a system focused on empowering people to learn the mechanics of postures at home would enable them to take the first steps into yoga.
What are some of the barriers that people may encounter if they are curious about learning yoga? How does YbN help to dismantle those barriers?
There are logistical barriers that anyone might face, like finding the class you want to take at the time you are able to take it, and there are additional barriers that are part of a broader discussion on identity and inclusiveness.
For a person dealing every day with a health condition, chronic pain, or disability, just traveling to a studio may sap their energy. A frustrating thing about chronic health conditions is you don’t know when you will feel well, or when you will be exhausted or in pain. I experienced traveling to a studio only to find, ten minutes in, I was in pain and could not finish the class. Because YbN is designed to be modified according to people’s abilities and stamina, it helps people practice on their own terms, which is particularly important for those of us dealing with health issues.
For a person with cognitive challenges or learning disabilities that impact the pace at which they learn or their ability to learn new vocabulary, YbN dismantles barriers by offering visual aids. The goal at Yoga by Numbers is to empower people to practice yoga by making it accessible to anyone who wants to improve their health.
I knew I wanted to develop a method for helping people learn yoga poses at home when I began teacher training, so everything the teacher presented or other students brought up, I thought about how I could translate it to someone watching a video at home. I kept going back to the idea of painting by numbers, and how it sets people up for success. I was sitting on my mat one day thinking about how to apply the same idea to yoga instruction, and the numbered circles popped into my head. When I drew the design, I added gridlines as a way for people to determine where on the circles to position their hands and feet. That allows us to cue things like “Stand with your left foot on the inside of 22,” or “Align your second toe with the gridlines so your feet are turned very slightly inwards.”
Last year, I had a student who asked about putting markers on his mat so he would know where to place his feet in standing poses. His question lead to a long Facebook discussion, with many people opposing this idea because it interferes with one’s ability to “feel” into the poses and develop awareness of where they are in space. I’m wondering if you’ve encountered any such resistance, and if so, what your response would be.
This is such an interesting phenomenon and one I have encountered. In my experience that opinion has come from people who are already practicing yoga, which tells me the system is working for them. But I think it is important to ask the people for whom the system is not working what would help them. I am confused by the impulse to tell other people that how they learn is wrong. It leaves no room for a diversity of learning styles, cognitive processes, or preferences. People learn differently and face different barriers to learning based on what privileges they have and what privileges they don’t.
Some people need new concepts broken down into concrete steps; that is what markers do. A person who doesn’t relate to the idea of feeling his body in space and thinks markers would help him progress should not be discouraged from trying to learn. It doesn’t mean everyone has to use markers; different strokes for different yoga folks!
When I developed the prototype, I tested it with a number of yogi friends. One told me it would not work for her because she is a kinesthetic learner and needs a teacher to move her into position so she could “feel” the movement. She thought private lessons were the best way for beginners to learn. Private lessons work for her, and that’s awesome, but they are inaccessible to many people because they’re very expensive. I think she should be allowed to take private lessons because she can afford them and they work for her, and I think someone who wants to put markers on his mat so he can remember where to place his feet has just as much of a right to enjoy yoga, however it works for him. As he keeps placing his hands and feet on his mat, repeating the motions, and learning to breathe and move, he will develop more awareness. He won’t develop more awareness if he is discouraged from trying because he doesn’t get it right away.
Not only is the YbN mat and system and innovative product, but as a “values-driven benefit corporation,” you’re working with an innovative model. Why is it important that this product is infused with your values?
Yoga by Numbers is a business that stands for healthy people and healthy economies. In current political discourse, these are often framed as mutually exclusive, as if nations need to decide whether to invest in people or the economy. Yoga by Numbers wants to participate in disproving that false dichotomy. Many politicians and pundits behave as if there are two options: letting business run wild for the sake of the economy, or pouring money into social programs instead of investing in business development. There is another option.
If businesses offer responsibly produced goods and consumers buy them, those businesses grow. When they grow, they employ more people. When more people have jobs, the government collects more tax revenue and spends less on unemployment benefits. When the government collects more tax revenue, it can invest in both social programs and sustainable businesses, which then continue to grow. As sustainable businesses keep growing, employment rates increase, environmental degradation slows, and communities improve. Politicians and big corporations don’t want people to understand how simple it is, because they are making a killing off of the broken system we have now.
Yoga by Numbers exists because we want to be part of this education movement. We want to show that you can responsibly manufacture a product that improves peoples’ lives, while helping people envision a better life for themselves and a better world.