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.