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Shannon Brady

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Real vs. Virtual: how some of my favorite phone apps can sabotage human connection

It wasn’t until I climbed atop my home spin bike, popped in my earbuds, and touched the little app on my phone to follow along with one of my favorite Peloton instructors that it hit me: there’s a perfectly beautiful bike leaning against the kitchen side door. My husband brought it up from storage last week to motivate us. Tires are freshly pumped, and the weather Gods have gifted Boston with a couple of glorious 70-something degree days.

And yet…

Instead of taking my real bike out on a real ride into the real world, I took a virtual ride. In my basement, plugged into cues from an instructor inside a NYC studio who wouldn’t be able to discern whether his Boston basement rider was actually riding or simply listening in while sipping gin out of her water bottle.

I completed my virtual ride, and enjoyed the workout (sans the gin – in case you thought I was serious), but realized afterward what I’d missed – an opportunity to connect – to life, to nature, to human beings I can see, hear and touch.

This basic desire – to see, hear, touch, connect – to other human beings is the number one reason I teach yoga. The burgeoning pile of apps hitting the market designed to save us time, get us fit, keep us connected – is in many ways doing the opposite. Get too ‘connected’ to any of my apps, and I could literally sequester myself to the basement with no connection other than an occasional interaction with one of my grumpy cats who’s come trolling for dinner (a bowl of kibbles ordered from my Amazon app).

Who needs a gym membership? 

I love my Peloton app. I do. And until a week ago, riding on a real bike outdoors would have involved a full length LL Bean parka straying into my gear chain, perilous streets with black ice and snow clumps, and a run-in with a pissed off driver cursing at our April Fools Day hit of snow (for real – in Boston). I’ll spin indoors, thank you. I also love that many once-yogaphobes are finally giving it a shot. My former linebacker Dad even asked what poses would heal his trashed-out knees (his words, not mine). If it takes an online app with the comfort of knowing one can practice in the privacy of their own kitchen floor to get someone to experience the benefits, I’m a fan.

But a virtual yoga teacher, personal trainer, spin instructor, can’t give you feedback or encouragement based on what’s really happening RIGHT NOW. They can’t put their hands on your back in Child’s pose when the expression on your face is screaming, “fuck this, I can’t go on.” A teacher in a real live classroom, fully present, is capable of assuring you that hell yeah, you CAN go on. There’s even a few 200-hour yoga teacher training programs offered online. As in, learning to teach a live class with real people – all from a laptop. Yikes. Alas…

I miss my Frangos

They’ve since been bought by Seattle Chocolates, taste the same, and the pretty little individually-wrapped truffles still come in the iconic hexagonal-shaped box I remember from childhood. Fellow Seattle natives know what I’m talking about, as these little delights still make their way into many a corporate gift basket every Holiday season. But it’s the origin of these precious little mints that I miss sorely. Purchasing a box today is simple as tapping the yellow smiley icon on my phone. Two or three clicks later and that smiley starts to look like a smirk: one more transaction taken out of the hands of a real life sales person behind a counter and into the virtual marketplace. Buying Frangos used to mean accompanying my mom to the grand, opulent, Frederick & Nelson department store downtown. We dressed for the occasion – and it was an occasion. You didn’t enter through the brass doors wearing yoga tights and sneakers. Not if you wanted any help from the well-groomed sales staff. Yes, there was parking to contend with, time out of your day to allot, the chance your size wasn’t available. But touching the goods, talking to others, extending the outing to include a lunch break nearby, made buying a box of Frangos an experience vs. a last minute I-forgot-to-get-my-uncle-a-gift swipe of the phone.

I shop online all the time. In many cases it’s just easier. If I bust my leg and need milk and bananas I’ll tap my InstaCart app. But I do that knowing I can’t ask the cashier how her day is going, or get advice from the guy behind the cheese counter on what’s the best brick of Cheddar. The clothes I buy to look halfway hip in are mostly worn when I’m out shopping, not tapping the Nordstrom app on my phone. I save that to make sure my nieces’ on the other side of the country get their birthday gifts on time.

So, I guess the message here is, use your apps, but don’t get swallowed into your phone. Get out and see, hear, touch people. And come to my yoga class while you’re at it 🙂


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