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 are recommending 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: