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Giving Yoga Alliance a Chance

in For Teachers, YogOpinions

by J. Brown

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Since its inception in 1999, the Yoga Alliance has developed a deservedly bad reputation for collecting millions of dollars from the yoga community without providing any real service in return. However, a new president and CEO has taken over and the time may have come for yoga teachers and schools to rethink previous positions and explore the usefulness of a trade organization that is more responsive to their interests.

Let it be noted that I have been a long-standing and outspoken critic of the Yoga Alliance. In fact, after only a few months on the job, Richard Karpel, the new aforementioned CEO, read a somewhat infamous and damning blog post I wrote about the YA that prompted him to call me directly so he could introduce himself and tell me about his plan to turn things around. He was quite candid about what he found when he got there and the steps he is taking. I felt he was open to my perspective and genuine in his intention to improve the organization.

Setting aside for a moment the glaring and unresolved issues surrounding the credentialing of yoga teachers, Mr. Karpel succeeded in doing something quite interesting. He planted in my head a seed of possibility that the Yoga Alliance could potentially be of tangible value to the yoga community. The prospect all hinges on the confluence of our expectations and what the YA is actually capable of providing.

Significant changes have already been implemented. After some necessary legal restructuring, for the first time, the YA is now beginning to offer member services. Discounts on car rentals and cell phones may not sound like much now, but it appears that the YA will also be offering group-rate health insurance options. As a small yoga business owner who has been completely priced out of the independent market, and currently relies on state assistance programs to provide coverage for myself and my family, I can appreciate having another option for cheaper health insurance. This would be the first good reason I have ever heard for being registered with the Yoga Alliance.

Of course, most of the animosity towards the YA does not stem from the lack of member services. The main gripe and 800-pound Ganesh in the room is the issue of credentialing yoga teachers and schools. Here is where the expectations and realities are most at odds. Having engaged in dialogue and debate with yoga teachers of all stripes and statures on creating educational standards for the training of yoga teachers, I have determined that there really is no consensus ever to be had. I can honestly say that, in all these discussions, a good faith effort was made to find common ground. Nonetheless, the variant nature of yoga and how a yoga teacher comes to be simply do not allow for the imposition of arbitrary or pseudo-objective metrics. What’s more, all to often, earnest beginnings seem to readily devolve into a grasp for third-party reimbursement or a pedestal to stand on.

For those who bemoan the scourge of poorly trained yoga teachers and related injuries, demanding that a measly 200 hours is not enough time and that yoga teachers require more extensive study in order to ensure safety, I offer one simple and undeniable truth:

If a yoga teacher training program is providing instruction in practice that is injurious in nature, adding more hours to the program, regardless of what areas of study the hours are dedicated to, will accomplish nothing towards making the practice they teach any safer.

Now, I may not know a lot about politics or not-for-profit organizations but if there is one thing I have observed to be true it is that proposing something that has no chance of actually happening, just because it either makes you feel good or makes a point, is a sure-fire formula for nothing good happening. I know in my heart that the arbitrary setting of hours as a measure of yoga training has created artificial hoops that actually impede the learning process of teaching yoga, but I cannot escape the fact that the convention of 200-hour/500-hour certification is not going anywhere.

I have been out on a limb for years calling for a coup against the silly game that everyone is playing with the hours and public perception of the “credentialing” process. I have personally conducted yoga teacher training in both intensive and extended mentor formats. And anyone who has ever been intimately involved in the organization and implementation of a yoga teacher training program knows full well the subtleties of scheduled time, contact-hours, and actual learning that goes on. It bears repeating here: there is no oversight or consideration as to what actually takes place during said hours. So, as it stands, training programs are already only being held to the standards they set for themselves. Unfortunately, those standards are too often being tainted by the enabling emphasis on hours and the lucrativeness of yoga teacher training.

A sensible way forward might be to have a trade organization that promotes best practices by providing resources, education and incentives for registrants to conduct themselves with greater honesty and integrity. Sounds awful rosy, I know, but it’s not that crazy. Maybe we can stop kidding ourselves about hours and identify other ways to encourage more personal accountability. For instance, Registered Yoga Schools (RYS’s) could be required to submit not just a curriculum outline but also documentation, like copies of a lease or tax returns, to establish a requisite number of years of credible business operation. Registrants could be given an opportunity to write reviews and RYS’s would have an opportunity to respond to negative comments. RYS’s could connect to YA with certification numbers. And as a partial aside, a sensible grandfather clause is warranted. If people can provide pay stubs or tax returns to substantiate themselves as a functioning professional yoga teacher, for say seven or more years, then there is no logical reason why they should not have a path towards registration and participation.

The most important point is that the standards need to be presented as merely a suggested curriculum and include more content headings. This way, emphasis can be placed on competencies instead of hours and the actual relationship that exists between YA and registrants can be fully embraced. Otherwise, it will continue to be nothing more than a sham. The expectation that a 200-hour or 500-hour training certification can ever produce a fully fledged yoga teacher without mistakes must be dispensed with somehow. When it comes to yoga, there is no way to learn but on the job. Chances are that the terrible yoga teacher you took class with who was clueless and hurting people, didn’t end up making it as a yoga teacher in the long run, learned from their mistakes, or are caught up in a way of practicing that is ill-informed, in which case no amount of tinkering with curriculum guidelines will be of any use.

If the goal is to improve the quality of yoga training and hold yoga businesses and teachers to a higher code of conduct then attempting to create some sort of yoga police is absolutely counterproductive. It is simply not in the purview of an entity like the YA, or any other for that matter, to effectively regulate and enforce a standardized curriculum across the many diverse approaches, traditions and schools of yoga. The YA is a bureaucracy, like any other, with inherent flaws but potentially still providing some useful function or resource. I’m willing to give Mr Karpel the benefit of a whole lot of doubt because, ultimately, there really is nothing to lose. And sincere people always find incentive to do right.

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.  Visit his website at yogijbrown.com
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33 comments… add one

  • Great discussion and I’m glad you didn’t advocate one way or another but just threw the issue out there.

    I’m a recently minted yoga instructor cum lawyer. For ten years I worked for the Illinois’ state department that regulated all manners of professions, from doctors, nurses and dentists, to nail technicians and barbers. I prosecuted these professions for violating their licensing laws and, in certain situations, the ethical codes of their professions.

    My $0.02, I don’t want a strong, centralized “licensing” or “certification” body for many reasons, some of which you list. From what I’ve seen, after a private organization becomes the dominant force in an industry, it next seeks government regulation of that industry aligned with its own certification and ethical standards. Then everyone must conform, regardless of whether they teach that kind of yoga or not, because instead of being voluntary, now it’s the law.

    Then, once it gets regulated by the government, the government only takes more authority over the profession whether you want to or not – nature of the beast. The professional boards that administered many of the licensed professions in Illinois were nothing more than anti-competition boards, keeping good people and businesses out of Illinois by denying them licenses to operate, or in many circumstances, revoking licenses for violations, real or imaginary, of the ethical code.

    Furthermore, you’d have government employees (like myself) with z-e-r-o experience with yoga not only setting the legal and ethical standards for the profession, but denying or revoking licenses to those whom said bureaucrat thinks broke the standard. I know, I was a prosecutor.

    Didn’t wash your studio floor twice a week as required by the regulations? $500 fine. Hired an “unlicensed” yoga instructor? $1,000 fine and you can’t hold yoga classes for a month. Want to teach Sirsasana? Nope, “health experts” have determined it is harmful. Slippery slope, you think you’re just getting a teacher training regulation, the Man sees oh so much more!

    I know you’re just talking about teacher certification, but I have yet to see a government agency that did not arrogate more and more jurisdiction and authority over it’s field.

    Thanks for listening.

    Mike

  • Hey Mike-

    Thanks for chiming in. Your perspective goes very much to the point. In a previous incarnation, the YA sided with some state efforts to assert themselves into the yoga industry in NY. Fortunately, the local community banded together, hired lobbyists and were able to get legislation passed to protect us from the intrusion. At the time, the YA was very much on board and even made steps to encourage the state’s efforts. I mentioned this to the new CEO and he acknowledged this as a profound mistake. There are still regulation issues at play in other states.

    If you want to read more about this:
    http://yogijbrown.com/2012/05/yoga-business-government/

    Cheers.

  • Michael Palermo

    J. Brown,

    So what I’m saying might happen, almost happened, sounds like from the linked article.

    You guys did a grass-roots defense once, maybe twice, but eventually fatigue will set in, folks will run out of money, a big player will come in and lobby (I meant, lo$$y) the right legislator, bingo bango, you’ve got some functionary with a badge who couldn’t find his toes with a full length mirror telling you what kind of incense you can burn during savasana.

    Not in favor.

  • You’re my hero!!

  • Christopher James Whitson

    Finally a sane voice in this absolutely absurd and repulsive discussion. You’re my hero too!

  • Spiritual Bypass

    The same thing almost happened in Virginia, where the state smelled money in demanding licenses/fees from teacher training programs for yoga, while imposing regulations that would carry fines for violations (such as not having the state regulatory seal printed on ALL of your promotional materials etc. — $500 for each violation).

    The YA sided with the state in order to cozy up and enjoy the privileged status of being the go-to for setting the standards.

    Yoga studios banded together on their own dime, and were able to persuade a state senator to sponsor legislation that specifically exempted yoga studios from that attempt at regulation.

    The states will continue to attempt such things for the sake of money. The question is, now that the YA has recognized that they made a terrible mistake in the ‘side’ that they chose (I thought your whole purpose was to advocate FOR our interests, not against them), what can we count on you to do in the future?

    Your description is quite accurate, Michael. My question is, in the absence of of a centralized body, what prevention is there against capricious regulation by the state? Where would the advocacy come from on behalf of the teachers?

  • Christopher James Whitson

    There is no way to regulate Yoga without misrepresenting Yoga. Yoga Alliance should be about protecting Yoga’s diversity, not creating standards. YA dishonored Yoga from day one. How can you regulate a ten thousand year old tradition? Do all Christian churches answer to the same pope? NO. This is absurd.

  • Spiritual Bypass

    Agreed — and yet it is not ‘yoga’ being regulated, but the competence of its teachers in leading classes safely, beneficially and even ethically. And the states have no qualms about regulating if the right money angle is involved.

  • Christopher James Whitson

    I’m not sure why I can’t respond to your comment, Spiritual Bypass. So I will reply here. Who is to say what is beneficial or ethical? By what standards? Yoga has its own standards put forth by Patanjali, but even those are disputed in other texts. And, since when has Yoga ever been about being safe? Yogis staring at the sun surrounded by four bonfires in Pancha Agni at noon on the hottest day of the year doesn’t sound very safe. Yoga is not about safety. Yoga is about Samyama, moksha leading to samadhi. Yoga has no other purpose and to say it has another purpose is cultural genocide.

  • Christopher James Whitson

    Buyer Beware. That is what I say. if the “consumer” or student does not do their own due diligence to determine if the class is for them, they are taking a risk. No RYT registration will prevent an injury. Students push themselves too hard as often as teachers pushing too hard. And plenty of RYT teachers have no business teaching yoga asana. I have been teaching for ten years, and I can honestly say, when I see RYT, it discourages me from wanting to take that class because I see that teacher as part of the problem, a sell out and a narcissist more concerned with their own credentials than with authentically transmitting a lineage.

  • Spiritual Bypass

    10 years of teaching have made you proud, Christopher. Little more.

  • Ananda

    Thanks for revisiting this with new information. I have been so conflicted about YA lately. I recognize them as a registering body only. They present themselves as a registering body only but then put limitations on who can give CEUs based on their ‘standards’. However they also do nothing to stop teachers from lying about their registration status/credentials. Even after receiving proof about teachers lying.

    It’s kind of a joke, pay money for a false sense of credentialing.

    That being said I still chose an 300 hour program based being able to register with YA as a 500 RYT. I recently found out that my teacher lied to us when she said our 300 hour training was registered with YA. After a year and a half of training and work we will each walk away as CYTs but not 500 RYTs, thus can’t give CEUs according to YA (unless we also hold a 200 E-RYT). This teacher is also allowing other teachers in her 200 hour training to lie about their status. I don’t care if people don’t believe in YA or what they do. Just don’t lie about it.

  • Katie

    Hi Ananda-

    This is Katie from Yoga Alliance. I just wanted to clarify that our current standards are pretty broad in terms of how teachers qualify to provide Continuing Education. In fact, there might be an argument that they are not rigorous enough, which is why we are taking a look at this process in the coming year with our standards committee. Currently a teacher must be an RYT 500, E-RYT 200, E-RYT 500 or “qualified faculty” which allows for expertise that falls outside of our standards. Here is a link to the specific requirements: http://www.yogaalliance.org/ya/b/Instructions/Contact_Hours_for_Continuing_Education.aspx

    I recognize that you had a broader point, but did want to clear up that misinformation.

  • Christopher James Whitson

    There is no way to regulate Yoga without misrepresenting Yoga. Yoga Alliance should be about protecting Yoga’s diversity, not creating standards. How can you regulate a ten thousand year old tradition? Do all Christian churches answer to the same pope? NO. Catholics answer to the pope. This is RIDICULOUS. Yoga Alliance is Ridiculous. It could be something truly great. But without completely overhauling its entire model from the ground up, starting with a clean sheet of paper, and protecting Yoga’s diversity, it’s irrelevant in my book. It should be called Asana Alliance. Since students are mainly seeking interesting sequencing. What student comes to class asking about Samyama? One in a million. What a joke. Next Yoga Alliance will be trying to regulate those who offer Satsang. LOL.

  • Christopher James Whitson

    Katie, if you ever want me to take you seriously you are going to have to quit your job.

  • Joanne

    Great read again, J. Brown. Mike–great feedback! Have a look at this… government!!

    http://www.pranayogacollege.com/blog/2012/09/26/shaktis-views-and-details-about-pctia/

  • Joanne

    Ananda–what about your state or province? Can they help you if someone falsely advertised themselves?

  • Ananda

    A few of us are banding together and meeting with a lawyer. Ironically the teacher is featured in the Yoga Download ad on this page – at least my page. She’s kind of a big name so we have to make sure we are together in this to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

  • Joanne

    Wow, I’m surprised. I’ve heard she is a fantastic teacher. Do you think that part of her reasoning is the struggle with the YA? Do you think it’s because of the issues that yoga teachers and trainers of teachers are having that she possible didn’t renew her dues to YA? I’m so sorry you’re going through that.

  • Ananda

    She is a great asana teacher. I can’t even begin to speculate why she lied. At the beginning of the program we were told it was registered but after calling YA they said she’s never even submitted it. It’s not merely a matter of it not being accepted, she just never did it.

    I honestly don’t know what to think. I know she doesn’t think highly of YA but my stance is “If you don’t believe in YA don’t register, but don’t lie about registering your program or encourage other teachers to lie so they can give CE credits.”

  • Anonyogi

    “Unfortunately, those standards are too often being tainted by the enabling emphasis on hours and the lucrativeness of yoga teacher training.”

    Too true. In the area where I live, every Tom, Dick and Harry has a RYS teacher training program. There are also some not so good, and even dangerous teachers out there. I shop around a lot of different studios for practice space. I downright had to stop going to one studio because I couldn’t relax in class knowing that people less experienced than I was were being taught sequences that could very easily leave them injured. The teachers attitudes were also fairly irreverent… basically not observant of the class’s general level and adjusting to it… rather steam rolling on with the agenda even though no one could follow and jumping into hard postures without a basic warm-up.

  • Morning Star

    The Iyengar community has a set syllabus of asanas and pranayamas and a process where you have to demonstrate that you can perform and teach those asanas and pranayamas to a panel of senior teachers. This rigorous method takes several years and weeds out flaky, emotionally unstable teachers.

  • John

    You can look at that another way… The Iyengar hierarchy drip feeds teachers information in tiny amounts over several years making sure they know as little as possible as long as possible. If they teach something they learn outside Iyengar their certification is revoked. This suffocating process makes sure only emotionally unstable zealots addicted to the notion their fundamentalist faith is the only correct path become teachers. It also maximises profits.

    I’ve trained with some great Iyengar teachers and many more terrible ones (among many hilarious examples was the 90 min class that involved nothing but the teacher trying to make every student’s body fit to the shape she had in mind for warrior 1) .

    As always it’s the individual not the school. The important thing is to find people who have what you need. These days I mostly get my yoga from a gymnastics / circus guy who has never even watched a yoga class, because he has a better practical understanding of the bandhas than all but one of the (far too many) yoga teachers I’ve worked with.

  • Honomann

    You do circus yoga? With a clown? Sounds about right based on your comment.

  • Ananda

    Charmingly rude.

  • John

    :) Done any clowning? Sad thing is I’ve met a guy who taught it who had more to offer than some Iyengar teachers – physically and on other levels.

    Is warrior 1 yoga? Headstand? Handstand? Seated forward bend? They’re all gymnastics / circus basics – go with the useless teacher associated with the well marketed brand (Iyengar) or go with the one who knows how best to teach them? On the occasions when the brand and the skill go together it’s an easy choice. Sadly that doesn’t always happen, with Iyengar as with any other brand.

  • Honomann

    I’m sorry, I thought you were interested in yoga. It sounds like you are just interested in asanas. If that is the case, the circus is the best place for you.

    You can badmouth the Iyengar “brand” all you want, but without him you wouldn’t even know that “warrior 1″ is a pose. It’s called Virabhadrasana I just for future reference.

  • John

    Ah, the fallback position. When the physical teaching isn’t up to scratch, announce it doesn’t matter because it’s “just asana” and “yoga” is something more. I like good yoga because it accesses more than the body through the body, that, to me, is what makes it different to some other philosophical systems. If I want lectures on ethics, or life, or philosophy, I’ll find a qualified lecturer to learn from. Very, very, rarely that person is a yoga teacher. In Iyengar’s individual case it may be he is one of those rare people, though just from the fact his students half jokingly refer to him as “Bang, Kick, Slap” I doubt it. In the case of too many of his students they are sadly lacking as philosophy or asana teachers.

    Just for future reference warrior 1 is a modified lunge and the overwhelming evidence is it was borrowed from gymnastics. How it differs and why is an interesting study in what the physical practice of yoga is and how it works, but since its only asana I guess that doesn’t matter to you.

    How does the Iyengar quote in yoga body go? “If my brother in law had any concern for my spiritual well being he did not share it with me”

  • I have a few questions to ask.
    When YA offers liability insurance, does it apply to Canada too?
    Regarding credentials I think that if there are teachers out there that are not doing their work, those are the minorities.
    Most of us are experienced and knowledgeable and without an injury in our entire career . So, please, make sure that you do not drive everybody crazy to present more papers and more middle men having to investigate and review every paper that we present.
    I suggest that we keep it very Yoga oriented, with most of us honoring Satya and of course Ahimsa.
    If a teacher is not applying those Yoga principles, she or he will not have many students for sure, they will walk themselves out of Teaching.
    My suggestions is for Yoga Alliance to offer more courses in different aspects of Yoga and each of us have something to contribute to that.
    Namaste and many blessings to all of you.
    Mirta

  • Christopher James Whitson

    I have met very few “Yoga” teachers who practice Satya, let alone teach it.

  • Christopher James Whitson

    Spiritual Bypass,

    Do you know me personally??? If not, you are making assumptions about me based on a few comments on an internet forum. Making assumptions is tantamount to willful, unexamined bias, which is tantamount to narcissism. See, I actually practice! If you want to know something, just ask.

    If you want to make assumptions, go ahead. But hopefully now you’ll realize that when you do make assumptions, you lose credibility.

  • Dana Kingsbury

    I know Christopher Whitson, and I can say that he does do his homework, and is simply trying to uphold the true essence of yoga that should be considered in such a debate-it is the soul of yoga that creates the true backbone in yoga-not some externalized source. If Christopher ever seems proud, it is usually because he has a good reason-not for simply the sake of being proud. It is a good point that students should do their own research to determine if a class is right and safe for them, just as in psychotherapy a client gets a free consultation with a psychologist to determine if it is a match. If a teacher is teaching based on what creates union for them, then this will provide the proper regulation for the students that resonate with that teaching style. And the less regulation from up top the better. It would be wonderful to see YA go in a direction towards as Christopher said the diversity of yoga, to include more on individual teaching style that strongly represents the true purpose of yoga… and this not require an act of rebellion, but an act of integrity from the ground up where it is not about how yoga can fit into and work with/comply with the system, but how it can innovatively go against the grain of narrow minded regulation and systemic money making trends-then it will be about much more than a piece of paper and the number of hours, but about how disciplined and genuine are the teachers in their own practice. Yoga should require state legislation to submit to it’s standards, not vice versa; safety is determined by how honest the teacher is w their practice, and this often does not come from what they are told to do by people who know little about the practice of yoga.

  • Dana Kingsbury

    And as far as money is concerned for yoga teachers, there is increasing flexibility in the money world, many good options for supplemental income. Perhaps YA could discuss these. If anybody is interested in what I know about worthwhile supplemental income that can also support a healthy yogic lifestyle feel free to contact me on facebook under the name Dana Paramita.

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