by Karin Carlson
NOTE: Shannon Roche, YA CEO, has asked that I make corrections to this article to reflect that David Lipsius did not, in his telling of the origin of YA, mention YogaFit or Beth Shaw by name. Since I know this story and the players, I provided the names for context. I have also spoken with YogaFit’s VP of Operations Jenny Baldwin; YogaFit has no problem with their mention in this story and thanked me for the article.
I recently attended one of Yoga Alliance’s listening tour events. It was a small gathering, with sixteen or twenty people in the room. I nodded to one of my own students as I walked in and thought it interesting that she was there. She had brought another teacher with her, who later said our mutual student seemed to know more about Yoga Alliance than she did. I thought this was interesting, too; we yoga teachers, as a group, don’t tend to know what our wider group is up to.
On the whole, the group was young and newer to teaching teachers. There was one, slightly older, woman, who complained that people won’t pay teachers what they are worth. Then there was the studio owner, dreadlocked, who answered her financial concerns with a quip about yoga being free. There was an academic gentleman, in his sixties, who said he was a member of a group who’d been working on a standardized test for yoga credentialing for years but this test had been stolen by the Indian government. None the less, he affirmed, a standardized test is inevitable. There was a woman who said we should just get as many ACE and YogaFit certificates as we can.
But the rest of the room was made up of very young women in stretchy pants, who had Natarajasana-on-a-beach-selfies as screensavers on their smartphones. I am not making this up. The girl next to me was on hers the entire time, including during a kind of grounding-invocation-dedicationy thing offered at the outset.
David Lipsius was there. He led the gounding-invocationy thing. He had handouts. And consent cards. I’m being trite but I do not mean to be. I was both disturbed and humored by the accuracy of the room.
I woke up the next morning confused, because I had dreamt about the talk and in dreaming about it was a little unsure what had actually happened and what I had merely dreamt up. But for me to dream about anything tends to mean I’m thinking pretty hard about it. So I spent the entire next day fact checking and hounding my teachers and peers.
I said I’d write about it, but it’s been over a week. The embers are a little cold. It felt both too big -I have to be careful these days what I say online – and too piddling to be worth my bother. If the general sway of things is apathy and disengagement, there is no reason why I myself shouldn’t also play armadillo. But these arguments, played over and over again in my head, also tend to mean I’m thinking pretty hard. It tends to mean there’s something in there.
There’s something that has to be said.
Yoga Alliance, ostensibly the representative body of yoga teachers in the United States of Yoga Industry, is out of touch. It is making a loud and public statement about revising itself, but it is unclear what that revision will actually look like. There is a grand show of transparency, diplomacy and ‘listening’, but it remains unclear whether that is merely a show or has something substantive behind it. Here is the irony: a body that claims to lend credibility to teachers is dubiously credible. This could be and generally is met with apathy and do-it-yourselfness, which is both honest enough in its way (you can’t actually define let alone credential a teacher of yoga) and disturbing (every man for himself is generally not a healthy room to be in).
It is unclear whether Yoga Alliance can or should represent the body of yoga teachers as a whole, whether any of us should bother registering, what the point of any this is or if we’re all just making it up and fending for ourselves.
Something in my dream was terribly angry. Some other thing was very sad. And yet some persistent, spitfire thing looked and sounded vaguely like hope.
A brief history and the question of standards
This is hardly the place to discuss the admittedly ancient but also contested history of yoga, other than to give a nod to the fact that Yoga Alliance and the modern yoga teacher are terribly new phenomena. Yoga has existed far longer than yoga teachers, studios, or franchises. More to the point is the question of how yoga teaching has come to mean what it means, and to highlight the fact that it’s all very shadowy.
By which I mean the general public hasn’t a clue. Which isn’t the general public’s fault. But the vast and growing popularity of yoga means that the general public believes in something called ‘yoga teacher’ and increasing numbers of that general public are participating in that belief by getting certified here and there, or going to a beer and yoga class now and then, or trying it out through the secrecy of YouTube. Sure, some folks just wear yoga pants because it’s au couture or socially acceptable, but that’s part of my point, too.
Lipsius gave a brief story of how Yoga Alliance was born.
In the 1990s, right along with the birth and boom of the fitness industry, a number of fitness professionals started to ask for yoga instruction. Beth Shaw of YogaFit capitalized on that demand and started offering weekend training courses. A number of long time yoga teachers, from various lineages, saw a danger in this and started talking. Across their varied experience, according to Lipsius, the one thing they all had in common was having gone to India at some point to study with a teacher. One month in India translated into 40 hour work weeks gets you to 200 hours. Unity in Yoga, a 501(c)3 that had been inactive for half a decade, offered to roll it’s non-profit status over to this new conversation in 1999. Yoga Alliance, and the RYT200 model, was born.
In the pursuant 18 years, the fitness and yoga industry boomed and wild fired. It’s supposed to go on, booming. Lipsius cited the IBIS report to the effect that in the next ten years, yoga will become a 20 billion dollar industry. If yoga teachers aren’t feeling their accounts swell, he suggested, its because we have failed to professionalize. If YA standards seem out of touch, its because the standards have not been revised since the founding. Hence, a massive show of re-organization, a calling on the yoga experts for their feedback, and an open to anyone standards survey.
That’s Lipsius’ version, anyway.
Scope of practice
There is another thread to this story. I don’t think Lipsuis’ rendition was wrong or misleading so much as it is telling; the other thread is more subtle. The dominant narrative, the one told by Lipsius, is literally dominant with all that domination implies. Prevalence. Entrenchment. Hard to see past and therefore a thing we tend to talk endless circles around. This narrative has created and sustains the status quo. The status quo says yoga is mostly fitness, mercantile, and downright soggy with an over saturation of RYT200s, the vast majority of whom never even wanted to teach but felt ‘teacher training’ was the only route to deepen their own study.
It is important that we develop subtlety. It’s important that we be able to see and deconstruct dominant narratives.
So I offer this:
At the same time that yoga asana were adopted by the about to take flight fitness industry, yoga started to show up in medical research and practice. The work of Dean Ornish in heart disease and Jon Kabat Zinn in mental health elicited a demand for qualified practitioners and a wealth of research dollars. However, to show up in the halls of science raised not only questions of demand but a more subtle question of regulation and scope of practice.
These questions were not hammered out very well, perhaps because of their softness and intricacy. YA started a teacher training mill and yoga went the way of the gym and fashion. The research went on, but it wasn’t conducted by yoga teachers.
Lipsius suggested that we – yoga teachers as a whole – have failed to ‘break in’ to the medical, educational, and military industries (and the moneys there). We have failed to ‘professionalize’. I don’t think he is wrong: yoga is not integrated into mainstream medicine, education, or government. But I question the implication that it should be. I have qualms.
After nearly twenty years of riotous growth, the riot itself brings us right back to our unanswered questions. The current reality is a quandary over scope of practice and regulation.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll talk of the medical industry. And I by no means intend to take on the whole of the question, but only a high level theoretical one.
It’s not a stretch to say the health care system is broken. We as a culture are more sick than we are well and more constricted by the health care model than we are served by it. It’s less a health care model than a disease care model. The medical industry fails to address the whole person just as it fails to address health; it can’t do such things because it’s focus is on ‘cures’ and ‘symptoms’. I say nothing about money, politics, or pharmaceutical companies.
Yoga, so far as I understand it, is the inversion of this scenario. Yoga’s underlying, if subtle, principal affirms the humanity of a person rather than her characteristic flaws, symptoms, or insurance coverage.
Way back in the long ago practice of medicine, there was an adage. This was back before medical schools existed, when one became a doctor after years of mentorship. Back when doctors made house calls. The saying was: a doctor cured sometimes, relieved suffering often, and comforted always.
I don’t think a yoga teacher should be involved in the curing of anything. I think our scope invokes the always end of the adage.
A question of principle
I’m speaking of theory, only. Every nurse, doctor, and researcher I’ve ever met does what they do out of love. We are all of us us placed in these imperfect systems and it is our job to change them rather than allow the harm we’re positioned to perpetuate.
David Lipsius, Yoga Alliance, and myself are all engaged in one and the same question. I’m just not sure it’s being explicitly stated.
Here’s a portrait of reality: Yoga Alliance claims to be the largest representative of the yoga community and uses the words integrity and diversity in its mission statement. It has a 90K member base, all of whom are charged about $50 a year for the privilege, which makes for a substantial war chest.
And yet, YA is in no way representative. It is out of touch with the ‘yoga community’, the vast majority of whom are either completely disgruntled with it or ignorant of things like listening tour dates. The thought leaders and experienced teachers, those original voices, were not in the room last week. For all that yoga is a billons of dollars a year industry and every Jo Schmo on the street knows a yoga teacher or two, the general public has no idea what YA is; the consumer-at-large was not represented in the room last week, either.
The only people there were people somehow inveigled in the RYT200 model. Folks like me who are trying to offer more than ‘yoga classes’ and a handful of freshly minted RYTs who are confused and alienated by the very model that made them.
Yoga Alliance is not representative in that it can’t, for all the heft of that war chest, get more than 16 people into a room in a major U.S. city. It does not provide ‘members’ with a yearly publication (there is an infographic on the website, but nothing more than an infographic), a conference or any other consistent gathering. There is no regional or community based action, nor a representative to whom a member could file a complaint or ask a question or seek guidance of. I’ve taught for over a decade. This was the first face contact I have ever had with YA.
When I tell people I am a yoga teacher, they generally assume I am either a fitness barbie or a ditz wearing a flower crown. This is frustrating, but tolerable. When I tell people that there is really no such thing as licensure their eyes register surprise. When I try to explain that the ‘only’ voice of the yoga community doesn’t actually have a magazine, like Rotary International, or a local chapter or representative or office, like the Women’s March or the Audubon Society or the AMA, or elected offices like any union of actors or writers or run of the mill plumber’s guild, nor does it have peer review like any good institute or worth it’s salt mental health clinic, people are outright stunned.
What kind of a membership organization can function that way? No wonder disgruntlement. No wonder people voluntarily choose to not ally themselves.
The YA shift in policy regarding scope of practice, the culling of the experts in the field, the standards survey and the listening tour are all tangled up in a backdrop question of principles. They are gestures of change and shows of transparency. I think they are all well and good. But I don’t understand what YA intends to do with all this information, so I don’t know if there is transparency or just reference to it. I think the question of standards spits us back to the original questions. The persistence of the question proves that standardizing teachers is not an answer to the question but a part of the problem. Nor is it the the same thing as inclusivity, advocacy, or representation.
This all begs a question of whether a community or a regulatory style organization can best speak to our most urgent needs. They are two very different models, amongst many. I think YA has thus far been trying to apply the wrong one.
Advocacy doesn’t work well from a distance.
No one is happy with teaching standards. Not veteran teachers whose gifts are poorly reflected by lowest common denominators. Not the RYT consumers who were sold and bought into the idea that ‘teacher training’ is a part of a personal path only to graduate to disillusion. Nor the people who are excluded in myriad ways from studio and training culture.
Yoga Alliance is simply not credible as a standards maker. It is – or may be – credible as an advocate, an organization of self regulating yoga professionals. And it has done this, showing up to lobby when legislation threatens.
It has not done this within its own ranks and at its own boundaries. The shadow question of YA has always been regulation, and the ideal that we can organize ourselves so that the government or the medical industry or insurance companies won’t do it for us.
But the thing about self-regulation is that it doesn’t work very well unless it’s participatory. (NB: world history).
Unless YA can figure out how to include and involve itself in the yoga community, this whole public service announcement is a rouse. The ethics talk and code words are propaganda. The standards are just slights of hand, inveigling folks.
Freedom and Responsibility
I don’t blame YA for ‘ruining’ yoga. I don’t think yoga can be ruined.
Further, I am a direct beneficiary of pop yoga culture. The person I was when I first started was not a person who had the information nor the means nor the slightest inclination to go on a pilgrimage to India. I didn’t – as most folks don’t – have any idea how broad and deep the tradition goes. I had no idea what I was getting into. So instead of following ‘ancient, traditional teaching’ I became an RYT200 in Kansas City over the course of a summer. I repeat: I had no idea what I was getting into. I just did it because it seemed to be saving my chronically suicidal, ruthlessly alcoholic life.
This is no small thing, this opening of doors and saving of lives. YA is perhaps a victim of it’s own gargantuan growth, it does stumble under it’s own weight, but it also met me where I was.
Yoga does not work by standardization any more than it does ‘ancient, traditional teachings’. Yoga works by individuation. Which brings me, I suppose, back to the point of principles.
Yoga helped me. I do not think it can – or does in it’s current expression- meet everyone that way. I was lucky. Therein lies the question, and here I am, inveigled. I am no longer satisfied with the answers being offered.
My credibility as a yoga teacher does not come from YA, thank god. The only reason I’ve been able to emotionally survive is my constant, often desperate, seeking out of mentors, peers, and a wild cohort of friends (only some of them yogis). The greatest teaching skills I’ve picked up I’ve garnered out of relationships, in time, generally outside the context of formalized ‘training’. Any clout or authenticity I’ve got comes from social justice and mental health awareness, which are things I picked up not from the yoga world (thank god) but from advocacy in other fields. Also, I have a raunchy bar maid’s moxie. A poet’s obsession. A feminist tilt of the chin. Whatever legitimacy I have I only have because of personal relationships.
That is to say, I’ve got folks. They laugh at me when I’m ridiculous, call me out on my bullshit, and encourage me when I’m about to give up. Which is often. Which is often daily. Often daily I’m brought down from any ideals I have about myself or my teaching or yoga as a whole and smack hurled right up against the reality of breathing life.
I am directly trying to state the indirect. I think the only legitimacy YA can claim – and it’ll have to claim it – is a principled stance within the yoga community. YA should be a place yogis can express concern, hammer out difficult questions in real time, and vow, like doctors the Hippocratic oath, to do no more harm. We do not lack teachers, trainings, certificates. You cannot define ‘yoga teacher’. But you can grow an ethical backbone. Which turns out to be the very thing the amorphous yoga world lacks.
But here is more, issue.
Credibility and accountability are interdependent. And they are things found in the guts and organs of communion. The most important moments on my life have happened in the aching silence of meditation. Or they developed slowly, slowly, out of year’s long inquiry into yoga darsana with people who came into and out of my days. Or they happened suddenly, because someone happened to have been there right when I needed them. The most beautiful things I’ve ever seen are related to human bodies, breathing, together. Sometimes in a yoga classroom. Often, not.
And yet there is nothing so universally or frequently expressed in the yoga world as loneliness.
Read that last part again.
Community and Credibility
I often feel the yoga world is like a Petri dish. The viruses and the organic matter decomposing and the stimuli of regular ordinary life are examined, prodded, and erupt in a context of containment. Our scandals, discrepancies, and failures are not separate from those of history and culture at large. They’re just convoluted and so precious to us they seem more loud, more urgent, more insane. They bubble up like yeast through various guises of spiritual by-pass, selling out, posing and deflecting, personal crises and cult like revelations.
Our problems – the scandals, the credibility, the accountability, the false claims and hollow posturing – can’t be addressed with a top down, managerial model. Accountability is no more handed down than is credibility.
This isn’t often seen, because it’s subtle, but the yoga world suffers a void of accountability. We lack people who can call us on our shit and hold us steady. Most of us in the yoga demographic are only in it for ourselves. This is true of teachers who are abandoning their registration, to schools who are claiming Not Yoga Alliance Registered as a selling point, to the wide swath of general population who are just in it because it feels good and are only interested in the feel good. We want the freedom, but not the responsibility. We’re more concerned with our personal issues or what to brand ourselves than we are concerned with community or underlying truths. Again, Petri dish.
The only feedback mechanisms we’ve got are positive: you attend a training and get a slip of paper, but nobody ever fails and there is no option of auditing or mentoring or working with someone to get through the hoops. And we don’t want it any other way. We want credibility to be a thing we can buy. That is, something handed down from an Other.
Again with the Petri dish. Go ask pop culture how effective fixing your outsides to heal inner wounds is.
You teach a class and most of the students gush thank yous, but the one who was uncomfortable simply leaves and never comes back. You post something on Facebook and your brain pops with likes and dopamine. So you’re drawn to post something again, something more popular this time, something impressive or beautiful or a meme worthy.
Popular classes are better paid, driving teachers toward less integrity and more accommodation. This makes teachers avoid negative feedback and peer collaboration as a financial necessity. It spins lowest common denominator into warp speed.
You graduate from a ‘training program’ and upload your certificate but other than an occasional email reminding you to do your CEUS and pay your dues, you’re suddenly left very alone. Training programs don’t offer after care.
There is no place, no community, not even a Yelp for concern or negative feedback. Again, literally: graduates of RYSs can leave feedback on the YA website, but this excludes anyone who didn’t complete the program – for any reason. The website also excludes peers, let alone employees, employers, competitors, other professionals or community members.
And forget the website, which in no way serves the wider community: if a student feels uncomfortable or is hurt by something a yoga teacher does out there in the wild world, that student has no one to turn to.
There are no peers, no supervisors. There is no mentorship. No integration. No base.
There is no forum for a common conscience.
The yoga world is a mess. It’s contested. It’s volatile. It’s confusing. It’s wishy washy. There are claims and counterclaims and standards and improvements all over the place. We don’t lack them. There is no shortage of teachers, or research, or dollars available to the industry either. YA’s claim to best or better or standardize any of that flies in the face of reality.
What we do lack is a voice for concern, for hope, and for commitment to something. There is no clear ground on which yoga teachers can stand with integrity. If YA could articulate that, then it can fairly claim to advocate. It’s code of ethics would become a living text and an endless working over.
Failing that, it’s just fake and it’s dead.
Founder of the online yoga studies program Deeper Practice and the non-profit, Return Yoga, Karin Lynn Carlson has brought yoga out of the studio to at-risk populations for over ten years. Return Yoga in a non-profit organization offering community-based yoga classes, outreach classes, and deeper courses of study including teacher training.