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What Now, Yoga Alliance?

in Business of Yoga, YD News, YogOpinions

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by J. Brown

News that the saving grace CEO of the Yoga Alliance, Richard Karpel, is leaving after only two years was met with little more than a collective: “whatever.” But to anyone who wants to see the reformation that Karpel ushered in continue, his departure is both surprising and concerning. The reason for Karpel’s short tenure is unclear and, with many unresolved issues still facing the yoga profession, it remains to be seen whether the YA will rest on Karpel’s laurels while sliding back into the shell game that it has historically been or continue to evolve into something worthy of the hard earned dollars that roll into its coffers.

I started out as a virulent critic of the YA with a piece entitled: Yoga Alliance Approved, My Ass. I came in to the yoga profession back before the original YA mission of “non-binding guidelines” took an ill-fated turn into the current 200/300 hour “standards.” And, like many, resented yoga teacher credentialing that is nothing more than a rubber stamp. But I was won over by a phone call I received from Karpel soon after he took the job. He had read my post and wanted to talk to me about his plans to change things. I was impressed by his openness and candor. He successfully planted in my head the idea that the Yoga Alliance could potentially become a good thing for the yoga profession. I wanted to lend my support so I wrote a second piece called: Giving Yoga Alliance a Chance.

Richard Karpel has done more to transform the Yoga Alliance and put it on a better footing than anyone else before him, but now he is unexpectedly leaving.

In the last year and a half, Karpel has accomplished a lot. His triumphs include a complete legal restructuring into a membership organization that can actually offer benefits, a major public relations blitz where Karpel personally traveled around the country to address all the pent up ire in the spirit of “radical transparency,” and the introduction of an innovative concept to address the 800 pound standards gorilla always in the room. While the valuable change in bylaws will remain a lasting achievement, it’s hard to imagine that anyone else currently at the YA is going to become a new public face that picks up Karpel’s mantel, and while he may have come up with a good idea to do something about the standards, his vision has certainly stalled short in its execution.

The good will that Karpel garnered with his whirlwind PR tour was largely premised on the launch of the new website and the plan to institute “social credentialing.” Unfortunately, the website launch was a huge flop. We know that they had to change developers in midstream and that the YA comprises a complex database but, given the kind of money they have in their budget, the end result remains sorely lacking.

As it stands, there really is no reason for anyone to go to the Yoga Alliance website except to register. The search function is clunky at best. Even if you are able to find what you are looking for, nothing is provided that can’t be more easily found elsewhere. If someone is looking for a yoga teacher or training, they don’t go to the YA website. They just Google yoga and the zip code. And what’s worse is that when you do search for yoga teachers or trainings on Google there are no YA profile pages to be found. You’d think someone might have found it a good idea to have the profiles meta data reflect the teacher and studios more so that the site might actually have some search value.

If the YA website could deliver a search and rate/review experience that was more comparable to something like Amazon then I think that would actually provide a useful, consumer driven layer of accountability. A talented web developer should be able to implement a faceted search function and a clean user interface that would make looking for yoga teachers and trainings interesting and useful. Registering with the YA requires that those conducting the training programs complete an application process and agree to meet or exceed posted curriculum guidelines. And the teachers can decide and have a forum to share their opinion about whether or not registrants are living up to claims.

However, this is all contingent on being honest and understanding that the Yoga Alliance is not a standard bearer but rather a membership trade organization that provides curriculum guidelines to promote best practices. The idea that there needs to be more rigorous standards for yoga teacher training makes perfect rational sense. You want better teachers, you need more rigorous standards. But the hard fact is that there is no plausible way to devise and enforce a central standard that might in any way do justice to the many diverse traditions of yoga pedagogy. And those who proceed regardless, inevitably end up serving the interests of only a few.

The only enforceable standards for yoga teacher training are the ones that yoga teacher trainers are setting for themselves. The YA has a role to play as a form of “Better Business Bureau” for yoga but needs to stop masquerading as an accreditation.

And please, oh please, I wish everyone would stop suggesting that increasing the number of training hours is the solution. Regardless of whether or not a consensus could be reached about hours, there is still no way to enforce what anyone is doing and we are back to the same old problem that the YA has always had. There are other things we can do besides setting hour requirements to encourage higher quality yoga teacher training. As unsatisfying as this may be, there really is no other viable course. If we want to improve yoga teacher training and hold those conducting them to be more accountable then it will have to come from the professionals themselves and the communities they serve rather than an arbitrary central authority.

Speaking of which, I sympathize with the YA board of directors. They are volunteering their time and these are murky issues to wade through. But there is still more that needs to be done. And it’s too easy to just coast in a morass of paralytic committees, futzing with formalities rather than making bold decisions. Someone is going to have to be strong enough to resist the stasis that pushes us into the sham, and have enough vision to lead.

~

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

  • tami

    I cannot read this article… short tenor? a diminutive singer? sheesh.

  • YD

    Woops. Fixed now. Hope you can find it in your powers to read the rest of the article, which is quite interesting and important :) #grammarpolicejustdoingtheirjobswegetit

  • tami

    yes ☺️ absolutely!

  • tami

    very good article. regardless of the style of yoga, the asanas are generally the same or similar enough that the language used to get students safely into and out of poses can be sanctioned, yes? maybe if certain, universal safety aspects of ytt are standardized, the rest can remain diverse. i don’t know. just thinking out loud here.

  • Asananine

    A minimum required period of yoga study should be a prerequisite for teacher training. A year would be nice, 5 years even better. Right now there is none. I would no sooner rely on local teachers to institute such a policy than I would Yoga Alliance. Most are convenient bedfellows, paying lip service to the lack of standards while at the same time benefiting from this lack, with seemingly no incentive to change them. Money talks.

  • Wondering

    Or yoga alliance could cease to exist and many of us wouldn’t know or care.

  • S.

    Well J. looks like Karpel snowed you like he snowed the rest. He talked a good talk, but when the chips are down, he’s history. YA will never tell why, but if he was the leader he claimed to be, he wouldn’t bow out so quietly. I wonder what his cut was.

  • I agree with your evaluation of the YA website. I do find the section that keeps track of my teaching and training hours useful. Overall, the site isn’t intuitive, which I find frustrating.
    As to the issue of training hours, whether you are 200 or 500, we all need on-going available training. For me, it is difficult to attend long trainings as I work a full time job and teach yoga parttime. Creative ways of providing desirable, afforable and available trainings for all of us would be a good start for YA. I don’t think making entry level requirements 300hrs is going to solve anything.

  • Hi everyone,

    I want to let you know that both Richard Karpel and I posted responses on J. Brown’s blog. The most recent of which follows:

    J:

    I have been overseeing Yoga Alliance’s development efforts since January, so it probably makes sense for me to respond.

    All of us agree wholeheartedly that much work remains to make our website as useful as it can be for the public and our registrants. Having said that, I do think you underestimate the challenges we have faced in building the site:

    1. Taking a very complicated set of standards — that were developed over time without regard to how that complexity would impact web development efforts — and translating them into an end-to-end digital solution to process the large volume of applications submitted by yoga teachers and schools.

    2. Developing an entirely new customized system to administer those standards (Social Credentialing) for which there are no models available to mirror.

    There were many other challenges we faced while building the new site, not the least of which was our previous database, which was riddled with design flaws, inaccurate data, and a whole host of other conceptual and administrative landmines left over from the past.

    I lay all of this out not to make excuses, but to explain why we were less focused on issues like SEO and outbound website links than the fundamental problem of building a website that provides the operational structure for our entire organization.

    Frankly, it took us awhile to get our development process in order, but Richard and I both feel very good about where we are right now and how efficient and productive that process has become. We define problems, balance their urgency against the resources (time and money) required to address them, and decide which development issues to address in an orderly fashion. The issues you mentioned are a good example — adding website links to the directory, and improving search are both scheduled to be addressed and launched by March 31, 2015.

    Finally, let me address the issue you raised about Social Credentialing. From a design standpoint, we agree it would be best to build as much transparency as possible into the system by requiring all schools to publicly display their reviews. (They can’t “opt out of reviews”; they can only opt not to display them publicly.) However, many of our schools were not as enthusiastic about Social Credentialing as you were. This new system represented a huge change for all of our registrants and the community, and we had to make certain decisions about what aspects of Social Credentialing were mandatory, and where some flexibility could be permitted. With this particular issue, we felt it was best to require schools to hear the feedback provided by their students, but not require them to display it publicly. However, we also thought we should create incentives for schools to publish their reviews, with the goal of perhaps eventually making it a requirement. We haven’t been as successful as we would have liked in designing those incentives, so there’s another development project for us to tackle!

    Thank you for raising these important issues and for giving us an opportunity to respond. Richard has always spoken very highly of you, and I look forward to your continued interest and ideas for Yoga Alliance.

    Barb Dobberthien

  • Hey Barb- Appreciate you chiming in. I hear great things about you and your team.

    I also hear what you are saying regarding the implementation of a big change that not everyone was entirely on board with. If I recall, there is a deadline coming up for folks to create their profiles. But at some point, a line does need to drawn, no? Everyone wants more rigor but they don’t want to have their reviews displayed? Maybe it can’t be both ways. YA is not in a position to police the registry. If there is a claim of misconduct against a teacher or school, there is no process for YA to discipline or remove them. This has always been an issue and requiring that reviews be shown is the least we can do. (I do not think this applies to the RYS syllabi – there is really no reason why the syllabi need to be displayed and was the thing that freaked people out the most I think.)

    And having dealt with databases some myself, I also understand the mess it probably was to get the new site up and running. My criticism of the site is geared specifically at whoever did the actual design and programming (maybe that is you?) Regardless of the chaos that the database was in or the challenges of getting those applications digitized, which I think is one of the functions that was done right, I still think a redesign of the site is in order.

    The current design does not support the YA mission. It neither supports the teachers and schools or spreads yoga outside of its registry. The lack of website inks, and more importantly the META DATA, are aspects that go to promoting the teachers and schools rather than promoting the YA (and securing the revenue that comes with that.) The “Find a Teacher” and “Find a School” buttons ought to be much more prominent then the “How to Register” buttons.

    Ultimately, these matters require vision to resolve. That is my biggest concern. Not so much that you and your team are not capable of doing what needs to be done but that no one will have the courage to make the tough decisions. My good wishes are with you. I hope there is someone who can hold the feet of the board to the fire more than me.

  • S.

    Of course schools were not as enthusiastic as we are about publishing the reviews because most of them are shams. They are just out to get $3k a pop per student. Most of what is being “taught” in these 200 hour degree mills is appalling and unsafe. No wonder you also provide insurance.

  • Since Barb referenced the comments from my site, I thought they ought to be included here as well. My response to Barb is above.

    From Richard Karpel:

    Hi J. Thank you for the kind comments. You have always been very generous in your assessment of my tenure at Yoga Alliance, and I will always remember that.

    Since I’m still president of Yoga Alliance for a little while longer, I thought I would offer my perspective on some of the issues that appear to be causing the anxiety you express in this blog post.

    As you know from our discussions, I am confident Yoga Alliance will continue to move forward in a positive way. There is absolutely no danger of the organization “sliding back into the shell game that it has historically been,” as you put it. We have an excellent board that is focused on getting even better, as well as a talented and responsive staff. When I leave, Barbara Dobberthein, one of the most productive and competent executives I have ever worked with, will continue to oversee the operations of the organization. I am proud to have hired Barb and can assure you the yoga community will be fortunate to have her leading the organization.

    You call the website launch a “huge flop” and pronounce the “end result” sorely lacking.

    There is no doubt the launch was rough. But a website is a living thing; there really is no such thing as an “end result.” If you had lived with the site every day since December, like the Yoga Alliance staff has, I think you would be amazed at the progress we have made. From my admittedly biased perspective, you underestimate how difficult it is for a small organization like Yoga Alliance to build a great website. Is it really fair to hold our 10-month old site to a standard “comparable to something like Amazon”?

    Yes, the search function could stand to be improved. However, I can assure you it is much better now than it was 10 months ago, and it will be that much better 10 months hence. Amazon has had 20 years and billions of dollars to build its site. I don’t ever expect Yoga Alliance to rival their accomplishments, but we have a strong development process and the website will get better.

    I’ve been here long enough now to remember what the Yoga Alliance website was like in 2012. The search function was almost completely worthless. RYTs and RYSs were listed as plain text on flat HTML pages. A huge amount of the information presented on the ages was inaccurate.

    We had huge holes to dig out of throughout the organization and I’m proud of the progress we have made. I am also confident that we have built a solid foundation and if you are patient you will be pleasantly surprised by what Yoga Alliance has in store for the future.

    In the meantime, thank you again for your kind words and for taking the time to share your concerns. Yoga Alliance needs members like you who care passionately and hold our feet to the fire.

    My response:

    Richard- Thanks for stopping by.

    I do think it remains to be seen whether the YA will continue to evolve. Not because I doubt the abilities and determination of Barbara and the team you have put together, but because your departure and the nature of not-for-profits raises questions about whether the board is up to making the necessary decisions that gives your team the vision to execute. You did much more than oversee operations and who will play the role that you have played after you are gone?

    About the website: just because the website is better than 10 months ago when it was nothing doesn’t mean it is done well now. I don’t think I underestimate what it takes to make a website. I wrote “more comparable to something like Amazon” because the YA site does not need to do half the things that Amazon does but ought to take some clues on the user experience. Fact is, the YA site is quite poorly designed. It neither supports the teachers and schools or spreads yoga outside of its registry.

    Why are there no website links on any of the profile pages? The designer thought that it was important to include links to Facebook and Twitter but not display an url to link to the RYS’s website? And there is no reason for it to take months to add this.

    But the Meta Data is really the most embarrassing thing about the website from a web developer standpoint. Even as an amateur developer myself, I know that the cardinal sin of search engine optimization is duplicate meta data. Google is basically ignoring the YA website because every profile page has either: “School Profile | Yoga Alliance” or “Teacher Profile | Yoga Alliance” as the meta title. That is friggin absurd. That the developer did not do this originally is incredible. There should also be a meta description that pulls from the bios but right now there is no description at all. I am betting that were this to be changed, within a few weeks you would start to see YA profile pages popping up all over Google searches. The YA is a huge brand and has a massive data base, it is absurd that the site has this flaw. If the YA is still using the same company that made the site then they need to consider new developers.

    Unfortunately, a redesign is in order. I didn’t even get into the flaws with the way the “social credentialing” is set up. Makes no sense that schools can opt out of reviews. Or choose to show stars without comments. If social credentialing is really the only bit of oversight save for the application process then both stars and comments need to be mandatory. Otherwise, what’s the point? I think the issues with the current iteration could easily be fixed with a website redesign. But this will require some vision.

    I am a patient man. And the board and your team deserve support. But, as you say, someone has got to hold the feet to the fire.

    On behalf of the yoga community, thanks for all you’ve done.

  • joe

    Good job Richard, and not an easy one. Wondering if this writer could be any more full of himself, though.

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