Arnold Kling  

Why Take Yoga Classes?

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Matt Yglesias poses the question.

It would clearly be cheaper and more convenient to just unroll your yoga mat in your living room and work out while watching yoga videos.

The answer that pops into my head is "pre-commitment." When I think of yoga stretching (let's ignore the mental/spiritual aspect for this post), I think of something that would be very good for me but would be very boring. If I paid ahead of time for 8 weeks of classes, I would push myself to go. If I just had a video sitting around, I probably would not use it.

Take this as a correct model of my behavior. Does it generalize to the median student attending, say, George Mason or the University of Maryland? Perhaps these students look at a college course the way I look at yoga--as something that is good for them but is very boring. It seems plausible to me that these students might not be able to motivate themselves to watch videos of lectures. But once they make it to class, they go ahead and pay attention...somewhat.

This is a bit like Tyler's "ogre" model of in-person education. However, the ogre is not the professor or the yoga teacher. It is the part of you that pre-committed by signing up for the course.

If that is true, then online educators will have to come up with a pre-commitment strategy that substitutes for high tuition.

Meanwhile, I have read several stories about Coursera (including this one), which seems to operate under the assumption that the key to success in online education will be Ivy League instructors, rapid feedback, and peer interaction.

I have my doubts about the Ivy League instructors. I assume that they are devoting very little of their time and energy to this. Eventually, folks who are willing to put close to 100 percent of their bandwidth into online education should be better at it than the folks who put close to 0 percent.

Rapid feedback is a good idea. See Stating the Problem.

Peer interaction? I'm agnostic. Is one of the factors that make students motivated by a live classroom the fact that they are constantly looking around and comparing themselves to peers? Someone should study this.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Michael writes:

As somebody taking two of Coursera's courses (PGM and NLP) and also participating in study groups for both, I can say that for me at least the peer interaction is nice. It does help to keep me motivated, in that I'd be more embarrassed to do poorly or fall behind than I would if I were just doing it on my own.

That said, even more valuable is that it is a great way to meet people with similar interests. Meeting people in college was really easy. Since college it hasn't been as easy, but things like Coursera and meetup are helping.

Pierre writes:

For Yoga classes, one reason to take classes instead of learning by video alone, is feedback. Yoga poses require a certain amount of physical skill to do correctly, and a good instructor will be able to guide you by watching you do the poses and giving you corrections, some of which involve physically guiding you to the correct position.

It's certainly possible to use a combination of in-person classes and video instruction, and lots of people do use exactly that combination, but if your goal is to be good at Yoga, video alone is going to be slow and frustrating.


Pandaemoni writes:

When I hear, "If I paid ahead of time for 8 weeks of classes, I would push myself to go," I think "sunk cost."

quadrupole writes:

Look into the business models of yoga studios. You don't usually pay for 8 weeks of yoga, the normal business model is either:

x (usually 1,5,10) class passes, which you can use whenever, typically for up to six months out

fixed cost for unlimited yoga for a period of time (monthly, yearly, etc).

The first (and most commonly used), class passes doesn't have nearly the pre-committing effect you are indicating.

The second... well... no more so than ye olde gym membership.

Putting the business model aside, a good yoga class is often also social, and the *energy* of the room is quite important.

Trespassers W writes:

My wife and I both find peer interaction to be a net negative. My experience is that, more often than not, other students ask questions just because they like to hear themselves talk; if we're in a classroom, we're wasting time and money listening to their yammering, instead of listening to an expert. Neither of us really care what our peers have to say when we're trying to learn something new. In principle, sure, they might ask an intelligent question that I hadn't thought of, or ask a question that I was going to ask anyway. In reality, that almost never happens to me. Maybe I needed a better class of peers, but I've been to many universities of widely varying quality, and it's always the same.

In online education, peers are easier to ignore, unless you're listening to a live lecture. So it's a feature, not a bug.

Bob Smith - Arlington TX writes:

I went back into the Army in April of 1980. I remembered how we made fun of the old men who had separated and then returned, so I got up every morning for six months. I'd bicycle down to UTA, arriving at 6:00 a.m. I would use their Universal machine - doing 3 rotations, run 2 miles and go home. When I raised my hand I could bench 250 lbs. 40 times ( 4 sets of 10) lat pull 180 lbs. ( I weighed 181) without help and could run the 2 miles in 12 minutes.
It's not the location; it's the motivation.

GD writes:

You and Yglesias are thinking about this waaay too hard. The answer is pretty simple People take classes because it's fun. The socializing is part of the experience. Spending time with friends doing something you mutually enjoy. Meeting new people who likely have similar interests that you might befriend.

Don't underestimate the utility function of enjoyment/pleasure/whatever you'd like to call it. Same reason people shell out huge sums for concert tickets as opposed to sit in a soundproof room listening to a CD on a high-end system. Sure, the latter may be a more 'ideal' sound environment, but it's the experience of the concert that's valuable.

Or, similarly, you could eat every meal in your own home by yourself more cheaply and conveniently than going out to eat. But what's the fun in that. The restaurant industry makes billions annually because they provide a valuable service, a big part of which is experiential. Same for yoga studies.

And you guys are really undervaluing one of the important social benefits of both yoga studies and college. They're great environments in which to meet members of the opposite sex who are more likely to share things in common with you than some random stranger in a less demographically selective environment.

PrometheeFeu writes:


At first blush, I agree with the sunk cost argument. But there is a signaling (at least to self) component here. Not signing up for a yoga class signals nothing. But signing up and not showing up shows you to be a flake. People don't want to signal being a flake, so they sign up and then have to go in order to avoid signaling being a flake.

Various writes:

Arnold, I am glad you got around to this subject. My personal bias is that online education alone will not be adopted on a wide scale because of the "boredom" factor and the challenge motivating oneself to fully participate. This is just my opinion of course, based on my personal education experience back in the day. But... I do believe that online resources can enrich and compliment the classroom experience. My recollection of high school, college, etc. was that the primary roadblock to learning was boredom. Mix it up a little (by adding different learning venues, such as online, video, etc.) and I believe most students will, on average, learn more.

tom cullis writes:

1. There is clearly a social benefit to yoga classes.

2. There is motivational benefit to being there (trying harder with other around).

3. There is actual need for feedback as its very easy to do poses badly and fairly difficult to understand how to do them well on your own. Feedback is much more important in exercise than most people give it credit for.

Tom Kirkendall writes:

Isn't yoga simply attractive recreation for primarily females, just as golf is attractive recreation primarily for males? I'm not sure it's much more complicated than that.

Seth writes:

Two years ago I would have agreed with you about Yoga classes and videos.

But, now I think that the $7 I spent on a Yoga DVD to give it a try was some of the best money I've spent in the last couple years. I use it once a week. It's easy to work into the schedule. It has several options so I can do anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour.

Here are some of the surprising things I discovered:
- The time while doing the DVD goes by faster than time in some other workouts.
- For several days after I do the DVD, I feel like I got a great massage. Aches, pains and sore muscles are gone.
- Yoga has strengthened muscles I never knew I had which has had a lot of benefits.

I've never signed up for a yoga class, but I never signed up for any exercise class, so I might be missing out. But the main reason I haven't signed up is because of the commitment.

Re: Peer interaction, 2 thoughts.
First, I've taken classes online and felt the peer interaction was extremely helpful.
Second, peer interaction is one reason I comment on blogs. I learn much more from it.

JKB writes:

Well, yoga class is how much of education has become. Show up, follow the words of the teacher, perhaps accomplish something then don't think about it again until next class. Very convenient and doesn't require real thinking about Yoga or whatever subject.

Of course, that is not learning in the long term sense. Few assimilate the ideas into their other thinking or, for Yoga, activities. And with Yoga, your "class" is just a repetition so after a while you know the routine but few become able to break the moves into parts and reconstitute them in different forms.

Not really the way to study or to become educated. But then the lecture/recitation, teacher-centric way of the classroom is not conducive to real learning. Inducing 'school helplessness' that is difficult to overcome after 3 or 4 years of "education." Far more would come from the problem method or study group with expert coaching, especially with non-technical subjects. Instead of questions to the instructor or instructor prompting, students challenge each other, debate points and actively sort through the subject in a manner that requires thought and preparation.

Much as was discovered in this experiment back in 1919:
'Teaching Boys and Girls How to Study' (1919) by Peter Jeremiah Zimmers, Superintendent of City Schools, Manitowoc, Wisconsin

This could be done online but it requires cooperation and I foud this excerpt Arnold cited in his April 18 post on 'Imagine: How Creativity Works' to highlight an obstacle to online study groups:

researchers at the University of Michigan...brought groups of people together and had them play a difficult cooperation game...The groups meeting in person quickly solved the problem, finding clever ways to cooperate. The electronic groups, in contrast, struggled to interact
Brian Clendinen writes:


I am really glad you made this point, Bryan need to really look at this in his upcoming book. In my opinion this aspect was 75% to 80% the value of going to college. I could of learned 90% of the knowledge by spending equivalent (possilble less) time reading but because the accountability to teachers and wanting to get a degree it motivated me to study more and learn which I would not of done on my own.

This is why a college is a lot less valueble for students who are fairly smart but a lot more self-motivated than me.

This is also why homeschooling works so well even with parents who are academically weak. My mother when she went to high-school worked hard and struggled just get C’s, and she was my main teacher 3rd thru 12th grade. However, her main job really was grading and forcing me to do my school work, although in high school she really was an administrator more than anything. It was tutors and community college professors who did the grading and teaching were books feel short.

Although I think GD has a really good point about enjoyment and I would put that into my 75% to 80%. I loved a good class decision let alone debate (which almost never happened because few teachers want disagrement).

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