From the rising popularity of hot yoga to controversy over kids doing the sun salutation in middle school, the two thousand year-old ritual from India is having a moment. So we thought it would be a perfect time to visit one of the most twisted exercise games around, the 2012 Indiecade finalist Zombie Yoga: Recovering the Inner Child. (You can download it here.)
Zombie Yoga isn’t any old zombie game, as the name implies, but a zombie game in which you bend, flex, and balance your way through a donnybrook with the undead. Players perform the tree, warrior, and goddess poses in front of a Kinect camera to defeat the lumbering throng. Speaking as a guy who sits at a desk all day, the stretches here, while invigorating, aren’t all that strenuous, so the risk of throwing out your back seems minimal. So why is this so dangerous?
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According to Doris Rusch, who created the only game we know of that combines fighting zombies with the ancient art of stretching, the inspiration came from an uncomfortable moment in tai-chi class. “We had to do this partner exercise called push hands, a very simple exercise,” she says, “and I was very contested in my space by this really fragile, older woman. I felt under pressure emotionally.”
It wasn’t that Rusch’s geriatric partner reminded her of a zombie. “She was just a lady! She was very unzombielike!” she tells me. On the contrary, the exercise helped her to regain her composure after being rattled by the presence of a stranger in her personal space, explaining that she felt a mind-body connection. Rusch walked away from the experience with a realization that, by doing a physical pose, she could arrive at an emotional state, and wondered if she could somehow apply that to videogames.
The cheerful Rusch, a professor of digital media at DePaul University in Chicago, creates experimental games that help players live happy and fulfilling lives. Inspired by Joseph Campbell and the Buddha, her past projects include games that deal with the unlikely subjects of addiction, depression, and meditation. As a youth, she wrote short stories about jilted love before becoming fascinated with game narratives, watching her ex-boyfriend play games for hours. The interest eventually brought her from her native Austria to study in Illinois, but she soon became homesick. “I was here on my own. It was the first time I was separated from my relationship. I wasn’t very mature. It was really really fucked,” she says.
It was the feelings of isolation that, ten years ago, led her to yoga. She took a class and was hooked. She thought it was a wonderful spiritual and physical workout. She became a regular reader of Yoga Journal. She practiced for a long time before eventually growing bored with bending herself into shapes that, from her description, reminded me of an acrobat from Cirque du Soleil. “The thing I was proudest of was the Crane,” she says, insisting that it’s all a matter of technique. “You balance on your hands and you have your knees pushed into your upper arms. So your butt is in the air!”
As Rusch’s transformation from a lovelorn college kid to a radiant yogi illustrates, one reason people are drawn to yoga in the first place is because they’re struggling with anxiety. That’s something she hopes Zombie Yoga will help others alleviate. So, why invite zombies––those sedate, cannibalistic monsters that seem to externalize society’s subconscious incubi––to a tranquil and relaxing yoga session? Rusch explains that the zombies in her game are metaphorical, representing the fears that we encounter daily. “You have an actual manifestation of your stressors in front of you,” she says. “You can kick their butt and that’s satisfying.”