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Can We (Really) Improve Our Well-Being Through a Screen?

Thanks to this NYT article on meditation apps, YJ editors can't stop talking about how we define wellness.

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It’s been a year since the pandemic dramatically altered our lives. For many, jobs, schoolwork, and game nights catapulted into Zoom grids (and many of us would’ve already called ourselves very online in the Before). Our self-care rituals? Yep, also shifted to screens, as our favorite yoga studios and teachers created virtual studios. Workplaces also stepped in, offering access to apps like Headspace, Calm, and Rootd.

But can we find well-being through the medium — a screen — that’s fatiguing and depressing us in the first place? And whose version of “wellness” are we chasing? 

That’s one topic covered in a recent New York Times feature, “The Rise of the Wellness App,” which also dives into the steep increase in corporate wellness programs since 2019 and systemic inequalities in the healthcare system highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Employees who participate in corporate wellness programs do report more job satisfaction and higher levels of happiness, but there’s as much, if not more, research that suggests that our fixation on our smartphones contributes to headaches, bad posture, fatigue, depression and anxiety,” writes NYT staff writer Jenna Wortham

“Wellness, the way our culture chooses to define it, has become synonymous with productivity and self-optimization. But wellness isn’t something that can be downloaded and consumed, even if the constellations of sun-drenched photos on your Instagram.” 

It struck a chord. Ever entrenched in my own digital dependency (and bad habit of leaning on virtual practices to fuel late-night work sessions), I shared the article in our YJ general Slack channel: “Whoa, this story,” I sent to the online newsroom.

After reading the article, the other editors were as taken with deconstructing the idea of wellness as I was. 

Senior editor Tamara Jeffries pointed out how broader culture may portray wellness (“as the elusive utopic (is that a word?), eat-pray-love state of being that most of us can’t actually/easily access”) as opposed to how corporate culture may define it as the ability to crank out more tasks. Still, she conceded that “self-optimization is in both cultural and corporate definitions.”    

If we asked our followers ‘Are you well?’ what would need to be in place for them to say yes?” she asked in the chat. “For me the answer involves basic health, being reasonably rested and having nothing actively on fire.”

I thought it was such an interesting question, because so much of what I take for granted—healthcare, a full fridge—would probably be high on someone else’s list. While the needs Tamara mentioned resonated with me, I also added: connection with myself, loved ones, and nature (especially since I live alone and am a 30-minute walk from any sort of green patch.)

Tracy Middleton, our brand editor, entered the chat. She was particularly interested in how pandemic fatigue has essentially turned many of us into “husks in sweatpants,” bouncing from one screen to the next. Where’s the line? Can technology help promote basic health, rest, and connection while at the same time draining us of joy?

“Buddhism teaches that there are no quick fixes, and apps like Calm are better at advertising relaxing services — and profiting from them — than they are at actually providing them in a meaningful way,” Wortham wrote in the article.  

We all agreed with that but were also not sure if it’s that cut-and-dry. Many of us use apps to meditate and do find it helpful and accessible when we need it most. 

If your employer is offering free access to apps, taking advantage of them can’t hurt. As Wortham writes, employees who participate in such programs are happier and more satisfied with their jobs. 

As an online education editor for Yoga Journal, I’ve experienced for myself how video workshops have created a portal for community and practice that feels nourishing and balances the nervous system.

But here’s the rub, according to Wortham: “Corporate wellness strategies mimic the most problematic parts of wellness culture, equating care with a Wi-Fi-connected bike rather than finding ways to work together and form new models of health and care-taking that don’t automatically ascribe our value to how much we can do. For many of us, work is not responsible for our freedom or even satisfaction: It shouldn’t dictate our well-being, either.”