Giving Yoga Alliance a Chance

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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.