During a recent class on the live streaming yoga app, Yoogaia, I started my computer’s camera and touched my toes.
After a few poses, the teacher said, “Good job, Tina.” Startled by having been addressed by name and feeling self-conscious, I smiled but then realized no one else but the teacher could see me. This is the maximum amount of interaction I prefer in yoga classes.
I seem to fit a couple of the typical user profiles of Yoogaia, whose classes I’ve been virtually attending over the last week. As a new-ish parent, I’ve found it difficult to find a good time to leave the house to go to the gym, and I travel frequently, making it hard to justify a monthly gym membership some months. And although I’ve never downloaded another interactive live streaming app before, like Meerkat or Periscope, I decided to give this one a try.
Helsinki-based startup Yoogaia (pronounced YO-guy-ah), a play on the Finnish word for yoga and the mythological Greek goddess, has a roster of qualified yoga instructors who lead a variety of classes in English, German, and Finnish, live streamed from each of Yoogaia’s three studios in London, Helsinki, and Hong Kong. Covering three time zones, the daily live class schedule spans six to 20 hours of the day, with monthly pricing ranging from $11, for a yearlong subscription, to $22, for a single month. Users can choose to activate their microphones and video cameras, letting the instructor see and hear them in real-time. People who don’t have time or prefer not to go to the gym can practice yoga, pilates, barre, and meditation classes wherever they have a connected device.
The question of who will adopt interactive live streaming technology is important, given that the latest such apps on the market–Meerkat and Periscope–are competing for users, but thus far have yet to implement monetization models. In contrast, Yoogaia has tapped into the $60 billion digital health market by leveraging live streaming technology to offer a product that lies somewhere between physically going to the gym and watching a prerecorded workout at home.
During his hectic career as an art and creative director for several large advertising and design agencies in Helsinki and nurturing an ever-growing family, Mikko Petaja found it increasingly difficult to make it to the yoga studio for his early-morning classes. That motivated him enough to found Yoogaia almost two years ago, where he is now the CEO. Since then, he has relocated to London, where he grows and supports Yoogaia’s business.
Yoogaia has rapidly scaled up in several different markets since 2013. Originally starting out in Helsinki, Yoogaia opened its London and Hong Kong studios in 2014. In August, it received a $3 million seed round from Sanoma Ventures, Nokia Growth Partners, Inventure, and Point Nine Capital to support its international expansion. Last month Yoogaia started to test out classes for the German market and rolled out its iOS app.
Petaja tells me that Yoogaia will have over 100,000 users by the end of this year, and its revenue grows by 25% each month. There are 15 people on Yoogaia’s team and 50 teachers at its three studios.
Yoogaia’s plans to formally enter the U.S. market are longer term, and generally refining the product is a top priority. “We’re less than two years old, but we have a global audience. There are a lot of things that we are still experimenting with,” says Petaja.
Even without a physical studio in the U.S., more than 25% of Yoogaia’s users come from the U.S. (Last week, that number climbed to 29%.) Anyone in the world can sign up for and use Yoogaia. “[The U.S. is] where a lot of our gold comes from,” Petaja says. “The awareness of consumers in that market is in some ways higher in regards to using online services and potential online fitness solutions.”
There is one drawback to using Yoogaia in U.S. time zones, however. The titles of some of the classes don’t make sense (and the content of the classes may be off) when they are streamed live–“Good Night Yoga” is broadcast at 7:30 p.m. from London but streams at 2:30 p.m. in New York. Of course, most of Yoogaia’s classes aren’t meant for specific times of day, and all of them are archived on the site for people who miss the live sessions.
The company is also trying to better understand who its users are and refine how it delivers its service. One aspect is keeping classes small, with an ideal cap at 60 participants. “For the teacher, there’s a limit to the number of students that he or she can instruct properly,” Petaja says, alluding to the users’ camera feature. “We may not want to have that many people, but from a technology point of view, we can scale up pretty quickly.”
Yoogaia is not alone in experimenting with the live streaming fitness video market. (Just Google “live streaming yoga classes” for proof.) New York City-based Peloton, a spinning studio and stationary bike retailer, has an app that it uses to stream live and video-on-demand classes to thousands of users across 14 countries from its New York studio. Tulsa-based Live Streaming Fitness offers a broad range of fitness classes from instructors’ homes or studios. On the social live streaming video app Meerkat, a few users specialize in fitness classes. None of these services offer video communication from the viewers to the instructors.
Crunch Fitness, the national fitness gym chain, live streams a class each Wednesday on Meerkat as well. In addition to the Meerkat stream, Crunch also runs a larger and decidedly more formal VOD service called Crunch Live, where subscribers access prerecorded workouts that are updated throughout the week.
Crunch once considered doing live streams of their physical classes but thought it would be too burdensome to the instructors. “We kind of made a calculated decision to go with prerecorded because we wanted the user to be the star and feel like someone was working with them directly,” says Christina DeGuardi, Crunch’s senior vice president of branding, marketing, and communications. “The teacher’s attention would have been divided.”
There are other business cases to be made out of busy consumers’ demand for yoga experiences. Executive lounges at London’s Heathrow Airport started offering sporadic yoga classes last year and now offer a special yoga room to elite travelers, a trend that includes airports in Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Burlington, Vermont. Hotels have been offering yoga classes to their guests, too.
Hyatt, meanwhile, once ran a yoga video-on-demand program called YogaAway, where guests could follow classes on their hotel rooms’ televisions. The hotel chain eventually cancelled YogaAway because few guests were using it; this is one indication that Yoogaia’s growth may hit some speed bumps. Not everyone, after all, wants to engage in something spirituality-leaning like yoga in a decidedly nonspiritual position: alone in bed, with a smartphone. And some folks need the motivation that comes from a room full of real-life, twisting humans to keep up the program.
Others, as Yoogaia’s growth indicates, do not.
One night, after a particularly long day, I curled up in my bed with my phone and streamed one of Yoogaia’s prerecorded meditation sessions from an earlier live stream.
As the instructor spoke calmly into the camera, she assumed her students were seated, but I reveled in the fact that I was lying down with the blankets over my head. I would have been mortified if someone in a physical class would have seen me in that somewhat childish position. But even if the on-demand option fit my life at that particular moment, I felt a twinge of guilt for having missed the live version from earlier that day. I made a mental note to attend the next live stream, but that seemed like a familiar tack from the time when I vowed to use my gym membership more often.