Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Inquiry Into The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Self Teaching Apps

Following on from my previous blog regarding gathering information, I have been asking myself what I think of apps that are for self teaching physical activities. I got onto this train of thought because I have begun to take Yoga classes over the past few days. I decided that I wanted to try something new and a friend of mine has just opened a Yoga school so I thought, “why not?”. Unfortunately her school is nowhere near me so I downloaded an App instead because where I am right now there are no Yoga teachers at all! The app has many programs and work-outs that can be quickly downloaded and played later without internet connection, so very easy to set up and do at home. I do not need to go to a yoga class because I can self-teach with the help of internet connection, an app and a downloaded class.

What are the benefits and the disadvantages of this app for self taught Yoga?

As a professional dancer, I am experienced and have good knowledge about injury prevention and have good knowledge of anatomy and I know my own body’s limits, strengths and weaknesses very well. I have also taken many classes in pilates and I have done a class in yoga. There is virtually no risk of my doing something dangerous and if something is hurting, the bad kind of pain, then I know to stop and check if I am doing it correctly or just accept that my body has reached its limit.
For example, my lower spine does not go into a convex curve, it is arched and the maximum I can do is to make it straight....ish. It does not affect my dancing because I have the muscle strength, control and technique to support my spine and not injure myself. However, I cannot do curl up sit-ups very effectively because my lower back is only flexible when arching. Certain positions I cannot hold simply because I cannot get my spine to curve enough to allow it. When doing Yoga or Pilates, some exercises require me to put a cushion under my bum in order to give my back a little support and make it possible for me to do the exercise correctly.
However, someone who is not involved in physical fitness and does not have a good knowledge of anatomy, injury prevention etc., might download the same app I have and the same work-out and then teach themself. I cannot see this as being a very good idea because if one has not experienced what muscles feel like when they are working correctly and when they are working incorrectly, and has no knowledge of the body’s correct alignment, one risks serious injury to one’s self through one’s ignorance. I believe that it is always best to seek professional advice when beginning something physically challenging when one has no experience at all. The app does contain a person doing the exercises and diagrams of the body with the muscles being used highlighted, but if one has never actively used those muscles before, then how does one know that they are using the correct ones? When using minor muscles, someone unfamiliar to the feel of using minor muscles could be using major muscles and then the point of the exercise to strengthen the minor muscles is lost.
Risk of injury is a major disadvantage, one that can be overcome by a knowledge of anatomy and injury prevention, and by physical fitness experience or past Yoga experience and continued practice of physical activity to keep the muscles strong.

The app also contains different levels, e.g. beginner, intermediate and advanced. Again, a person may be inclined to move on to a higher level than is safe for them for no other reason than that their friend is advanced and they don’t want to be seen as not as good. Again, this causes a high risk of injury by trying to run before learning to walk.

With no trainer to encourage progress, notice improvement and monitor progression of level and technique, the risk of injury is quite high for someone with little to no experience of physical fitness, anatomy and/or injury prevention.

One advantage is that one does not have to stick to a time table or travel. The class can be taken at anytime and anywhere. One can avoid exercises that are too advanced or too easy, assuming that they have good knowledge of themselves and their physical fitness. The class can be as long or as short as is convenient. There is only the cost of the app which was very cheap. No equipment is necessary, but can be easily purchased and it is not expensive. The class can even be taken whilst wearing PJ’s! The classes are categorised so if one’s focus is strong abs, there are work-outs of varying levels which specifically focus on abs.

I am sure that Yoga teachers would probably disagree with some of the advantages and disadvantages I have mentioned and they would also have more to add. As a teacher they want people to attend their classes. Are they inclined to mention the disadvantages of self teach yoga apps more strongly because they would like people to attend their classes for which they have trained to teach and need pupils in order to be paid? I think they probably would and they would be right. After all, they opened the school for their own love of yoga but it is not a charity. It is their livelihood. They cannot work for free and they cannot work if they have no pupils. 

Should I think the same advantages and disadvantages applied to “teach yourself how to dance” apps? I should have to admit that the answer is no. I am not biased in anyway because I am not a dance teacher trying to get people to come to my school. Teaching one’s self how to dance cannot be achieved unless one has a large space to do so and all the appropriate equipment and knowledge of injury prevention, technique and anatomy. I should dare say that teaching one’s self how to dance cannot be achieved in a safe way at all.
Teaching one’s self to dance is highly dangerous even if one has experience in physical fitness, including Yoga. The reason is that the body is not naturally turned out. Yoga is controlled movement done standing or on the floor. Dance is movement that can be fast, involves turning the legs out, upsetting the body’s natural alignment, jumping, landing, turning and pushing the body to perform under strain. It cannot be learned in a day. It takes years and years of practice and repetition to strengthen and shape the body to prevent injury.
All dance styles starts with a plie, but if one analyses it, it is possibly the most complex step of all and its correct execution help avoid injury. The parts of the leg must be in a straight line, the weight placement must be in a plumb line (though this is debatable and in terms of tap it is totally inaccurate as the weight is placed on the balls of the feet to keep the heel taps clear of the floor), the knees must bend over the centre toe, the spine must remain straight, the stomach muscles engaged, the gluteals engaged, head erect, feet not rolling inwards or outwards, back muscles engaged, turn-out must not be forced, etc.. Even before the knees have bent we are required to stand in a plumb line. What is a plumb line? This is the part where yoga and or pilates training, or being a builder or architect, allows one to understand what is meant by standing in a plumb line, but to the average Joe it is not necessarily known what is meant by this. 
Whilst children in our first ballet classes, we are not taught in depth about the properties of the plie nor the importance of this one step. It is simplified to "bend your knees. Keep your heels on the floor. Look down and check your knee is bending over the third little piggy." We do our plies in first position turned out, first position parallel and in 2nd position turned out. We also never go beyond a demi plie. As we get older, it gets more complicated with different positions of the feet and the movement of our arms in more complex patterns whilst we are doing plies. We then let go of the barre with one hand and then do our plies with no barre at all and progress from the demi plie to the full plie and then execute the full plie in all of the position whilst in the centre. We learn how to execute a demi plie on one foot at the barre and again in the centre when we gain the strength to do so. Then we are using our plie to land us from grande allegro steps and for getting up and down from our pointe shoes.
Children do not need to know about the bones and muscles in the feet, ankles, knees, legs and hips to begin to learn to plie. As we progress and go on to professional training and professional dancing, it is an essential part of our knowledge to understand how these bones are constructed, their movement allowance and the muscles that are needed to hold our bones and joints in the correct position. This allows us to know exactly where we have an injury if injury occurs and better explain to a physio what the problem is. It allows us to heal faster because we know what is going on with the muscles and bones. We are more successful at protecting these muscles and bones from injury because we understand exactly how they move and which muscles work to move what part. All of this knowledge we have gained gradually and have taken many years of repetition and practice to get our body's muscle memory to be able to protect itself.

Here is just one article which is in relation to the bones in a dancer's foot.
It is very difficult for the average Joe to understand. It talks about the movement of the foot and mentions ballet steps that mean absolutely nothing to non dancers, even if one speaks French! I have over 20 years' experience in dance and I am still learning and improving my technique.

Is it really possible that someone can learn all of this by teaching themselves to dance from an app?

All dancers start at the basic steps. We are not allowed to progress until we have the strength to do so.  How can an app monitor a person to see if they are physically able to move on to harder steps? We do not start pointe work until our bodies are strong enough and developed enough to support ourselves. We do not wing in tap until our ankles are able to handle it. Some dancers never achieve pointe work or winging simply because their teacher will not allow them to attempt it because they would severely damage themselves beyond repair. Our teacher is the one who can see and notice if our bodies are strong enough to handle these stresses and strains. Our teacher can correct our technique, and as we get older we are able to do this ourselves to a certain extent with the use of a mirror and feeling, but can we do this ourselves if we have no experience of dance?

Then there is the class structure itself. We do not start the class with what we like first. For example, I love allegro but when I am doing my own class I do not start at allegro simply because it is my favourite. I still begin with the barre exercises, move on to centre work, and finish with allegro and pointe work, with the exercises for each section being done in the correct order. It is structured in order to warm up the body so it is able to perform with as little risk of injury as possible throughout the entire class. A person unfamiliar with these reasons might be inclined to start with allegro because they like it best and thus cause themselves injury which could have been easily avoided had they followed the structure of the class.

Dance cannot be done in one’s living room. Dance requires space. The choreography is always going to be the same if there is no one to invent new routines and part of dance is being able to pick up new routines and perform them. Shoes are of massive importance to dance. One cannot dance in shoes too tight or too loose. In terms of pointe shoes it is not like saying, “I am a size 5 can I have pointe shoes in a size 5 please?” There are many things to consider, like heel width, box width, general tightness, ribbon and/or elastic placement, toe width, strength of the shank etc.. Then of course there are the many different manufactures of pointe shoes to consider. Some manufacturer's shoes will fit perfectly whilst the same size by a different manufacturer will not. Then what is needed to prevent blisters inside the shoe? It is impossible to buy one’s first pair of pointe shoes without the knowledge and expertise of a pointe shoe fitter and one’s own teacher.

The only advantage that I can see in these “how to dance” apps is that it provides a class structure for those who can already dance to teach others how to dance. Even then it is not a great advantage to a dancer wanting to teach with no prior knowledge of teaching. I am able to teach but I was taught how to teach, even then I was taught how to teach ballet and tap only. I did not attend lessons on how to teach other styles of dance. It will be easier for me to learn to teach other styles because I have already been taught the basics of how to teach posture and alignment, and I know about cognitive development, body development, how to break down exercises, how to correct, etc.. All I shall need to learn, that is new for me, is the style, syllabus (if there is one) and individual class structure (which will start in the same manner as ballet and tap classes, ie warm up first).

I think that some physical fitness  can be self taught through use of an app but a good knowledge of the subject is needed to do it safely and long experience in a similar form of activity. I do not think that self taught dance or gymnastics are a good idea because of the years and years it takes to develop strength and technique and the risk of injury is far too great. This has never been a problem before because there were no self teach dance apps or videos. It is something that has grown and developed from the technology available to us today.

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