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Yoga Alliance’s New Yoga Therapy Changes – How Do They Affect You?

in YogOpinions


by J. Brown

Last month, the Yoga Alliance announced a new policy regarding “yoga therapy terminology” that creates a significant new precedent. A lack of any public debate and transparency in the process has made it difficult to discern why exactly this was needed and what purpose it serves. Perhaps this explains why there has been almost no response from yoga teachers thus far. Or, more likely, people are just too turned off by the politics involved to care.

A few days before the official announcement, I received an email from Andrew Tanner, the official spokesperson for the YA, letting me know that a big thing was coming and asking if I wanted to record a podcast about it. Of course I did, so we arranged time for the following day. In that conversation, I learned for the first time that the YA has decided to limit the language that yoga teachers are allowed to use on their YA profile page. Based on legal advice, the organization felt it was necessary to make sure that no one is claiming YA registration as a credential for yoga therapy.

The concern is that certain language makes the YA liable for potentially actionable medical claims. According to an article in Law360, it is only a matter of time before the lawsuits start coming. The Yoga Alliance decided to get ahead of the game and created criteria for language that is not permitted and a list of recommended alternatives. The restrictions apply not just to the term “Yoga Therapy” but to related phrases that might suggest that the yoga instructor can diagnose and/or treat a mental or physical health condition. For example, the YA’s legal team has determined that “therapeutic yoga” is a problem but “therapeutically-oriented yoga” is not.

“Yoga therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of Yoga.” – International Association of Yoga Therapists’ official definition of Yoga Therapy.

At the core of the issue is that no one has ever really been able to make a distinction between yoga and yoga therapy. While some attempts have been made to make yoga therapy more specific to dealing with medical conditions, the official definition has always resisted limiting the profession to a clinical application. That is because even in the world of yoga therapy, couched in the language of research and academia, effective work is often still more intuitive than scientific. The process of transformation that is healing through yoga does not lend itself to standardization and there is a difference between prescriptive and processed-based models. But if we are to go by the IAYT’s official definition, all effective yoga teachers are essentially providing yoga therapy.

What makes yoga therapeutic or not, or whether stating as much constitutes an illegal claim is unclear. If I claim to help address something that the doctors don’t have much of an answer for, say back pain or stress, then I’m still safe under the umbrella of “holistic health and wellness.” But if I say that yoga can heal your fibromyalgia or herniated discs then I might be stepping on the American Medical Association’s toes. And, in the past, the AMA has gone after other emerging alternative healing modalities that treaded into their territory. Of course, this is profoundly ironic given how many doctors arerecommending yoga classes to their patients without distinguishing between those that are therapeutically-oriented and those that are not.

Setting aside the lack of transparency at the YA, and legitimate debates about the merits of YA standards and the credibility of yoga teacher training programs, the reason for the new policy has little to do with yoga and everything to do with politics.

Most folks who pay annual fees to YA often question why, when it seems that the organization doesn’t do much for them. The reality is that the registry is not designed to serve yoga teachers or studios, but rather “the public good.” The Yoga Alliance is not just one organization but two: it consists of the registry (501-C3) and membership benefits (501-C6). They set up the membership part to assuage complaints back when the public feeling about YA was at its all-time low. A percentage of all annual fees does fund the registry but this amounts to the yoga community contributing to the public interest, not their own per se.

I must admit that it rankles me a bit to have decisions about yoga teaching and the public good arrived at in a black box, and then dropped on the industry professionals it affects most in such a heavy-handed manner. That is the precedent I find unsettling. I am certainly not a legal expert but it’s hard to believe that if I were to be sued, whether it says “therapeutic” or “therapeutically-oriented” on my website is going to make the difference in the case. Moreover, if I adopt the recommended YA language and I still get sued, there is no reason to believe that the YA is going to come to my defense. While many yoga teachers are still able to work just fine without YA registration, more places are requiring it and the undeniable truth is that yoga centers with teacher training programs cannot remain viable unless they are in the YA system.

What does all this really mean to yoga teachers and studios?

The one good thing that the Yoga Alliance is doing for the yoga community, not to be undervalued, is taking a stance against government regulation of yoga. This is a contested issue but most insiders understand that outside regulation of the industry will not make yoga safer and will impede the individual freedom of yoga teachers to conduct their work as they see fit. Fact is, if the YA is going to fight against government intervention under the pretense that the industry is self-regulating then they can’t be seen as enabling illegal medical claims at the same time.

For the majority of yoga teachers and studios who are not working within a therapeutic orientation, none of this matters much now. If you didn’t get flagged with a language infraction then you might not have even noticed. Nonetheless, the YA has stipulated particular language to distinguish what RYT’s and RYS’s do from yoga therapy. And if you want to be registered, you have to agree to that despite any ambiguities . There is no more pretending that the YA is inconsequential. The YA is now officially “the man.” We can either choose to play ball or risk surviving on the margins. But if history has taught us anything, it is that once birthed, the piper will likely need to be paid.

Listen to my conversation with Andrew Tanner:


J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, podcaster 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



8 comments… add one
  • S.

    From low bar standards, to outright fraud of what the definitition of yoga and yoga teaching is in the West, Yoga Alliance is a strong force in reducing Yoga to a passing fad. It is time to defund this organization, and return yoga to the teacher/student model. Not the “keep my studio in business by doing endless teacher training” model. Clearly it is not working.

    • Wondering

      Yes S!

    • JJ

      I agree entirely on this. I cannot begin to describe my overall frustration with this organization.

      The biggest frustration that I have at the moment is that I teach teachers in a model that doesn’t easily fit into the YA standards and greatly exceeds those standards (it’s usually 800 to 1000 hours). And I don’t charge for the training because I’m teaching people to teach to take over classes at the studio that I own.

      But, inevitably, some of those teachers move to other cities and want to continue to teach. They have a hard time getting into studios because the studios want YA registered teachers and YA no longer recognizes people trained by unregistered trainings (as they did in the past).

      So this means I need to fill out scads of paperwork and maintain annual fees so that my teachers can register if/when they want to. I feel like I “have to” join a do-nothing organization so that my teachers can pay fees to a do-nothing organization so that they can get their foot in the door.

      It used to be, you could call or accept a letter from the training teacher and get insight. But now, it’s all about whether or not they are YA. It’s so frustrating!

  • dave

    This is so complicated.
    I just get my mat out and do my yoga. Sometimes I don’t use the mat…

  • I'm not a doctor but I play one in a yoga studio

    This whole “yoga therapy” thing needs to stop. It’s gone too far afield from teaching asanas. From my standpoint, folks want the cache of being a therapist without the benefit of college degree in physical therapy and its mentored internship program and state certification. This is especially true of folks doing the Katy Bowman regimen and other techniques.

    Yoga teachers flock to this stuff because it sounds and looks “science’y” and they pick up some profession “cred” to distinguish themselves in the marketplace. However, it’s just a matter of time before someone gets hurt (because of a lack of physiology and anatomy training in an academic environment and clinical experience). And then the lawsuits will follow. This will be a sad day because it will put yoga back to where it was in India 50 years ago. There it was seen as something fakirs and charlatans engaged in, not serious and educated people.

    These self appointed governing bodies of the yoga world don’t help the situation. They seemingly validate that which should be discourage.

  • Yoga is so much more than asana. According to Patanjali, the practice of Yoga consists of eight “limbs” with which we should all be familiar. Yoga Therapy, far from being therapy “without the benefit of college degree in physical therapy and its mentored internship program and state certification” is probably closer to the original model of Yoga with the added knowledge of Western scientific studies (and indexed on PubMed via IAYT’s International Journal of Yoga Therapy. In my Master of Science program (two years of study with a mentored clinic, and Anatomy & Physiology was required for admission to the program) we first studied the bioscience behind what we do and why it works. We learned from professors who not only have degrees in Western science but also incorporate Yoga into their work, whether they are working with patients directly or working in the lab studying how Yoga works (or doesn’t) when added to medical treatment plans. Western medical practitioners are already recommending Yoga (and Yoga Therapy) to their patients. IAYT has been working hard to create standards of education, a certification process for Yoga Therapists (with a grandparenting option for those of us who completed a course of study with an accredited training program), and a comprehensive scope of practice. Yoga Alliance never communicated with them about these issues which might have resulted in a much different statement and less of a blowup in their community. Read IAYT’s statement about this issue here: http://www.iayt.org/page/IAYT_EDResponse

  • Colleen

    Neither I nor any of my colleagues have ever claimed that therapeutic yoga cures any condition, mental or physical. Yoga does not cure anything, but it is a path to create space and nurturing for the body to more fully engage its own healing process. You could also say that medicine does not cure the flu or pneumonia, but decreases the bacterial load so that the immune system can do its job. It’s the same with yoga. It decreases the sympathetic nervous system response to injury and/or stress, it reduces the tension load on overtaxed muscles, and thereby creates cellular space for the breath to expand and fill the cells with prana–that life-giving force we need to thrive.

    Those who think yoga is only a physical exercise practice are sadly misinformed. It is a spiritual practice that goes back thousands of years, much further back than christianity, islam or judaism. Unfortunately, this essential part of the practice is being ignored by many so-called yoga studios that only promote the “yoga buns” and “sweat ’til you pass out” physical practices. As i call it, “cookie-cutter yoga”. It’s all very sad.

  • Elizabeth

    There have actually been several great, timely commentaries on this from yoga teachers. I had two emails from individual teachers in my inbox the day after the YA announcement. The IAYT just sent out an email featuring four of them.

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