The Yoga Police Are Coming

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The charismatic CEO of the Yoga Alliance, David Lipsius, hired to overhaul the failed industry standards for yoga teacher training just over a year ago, has departed his position right at the very moment his master plan is set to be implemented. Lipsius’ unexpected farewell aside, the proverbial writing has surreptitiously appeared on the wall: The organization is planning to assert new power, but whose interests are being served is not clear.

The new administration, under Lipsius, spent the last year launching a “standards review project.” This involved paying prominent industry voices for advisory opinions, facilitating working group discussions via video calls, a survey of the membership, a “listening tour” across the country, and making what appeared to be a genuine effort to receive input from the yoga community at large. Of course, this also amounted to a well-crafted public relations campaign utilizing cherry-picked statistics and the images and reputations of contributors to communicate a tacit endorsement for something that has yet to be determined by no one knows who.

Just in case you didn’t know, the Yoga Alliance is actually two separate entities…. yada yada yada.

If there is one thing that the YA wants to make abundantly clear it’s that the YA has undergone a legal restructuring. This was initially presented as a clarification of what the organization does with all the money they collect from grassroots teachers and centers often struggling to make ends meet. Since its inception, the YA has always been just a registry. It began before the internet, and having a list of teachers was thought to be a useful service to the public. But, as yoga became more popular, the registry became a major financial boon and the organization grew, amassing a greater and greater surplus of funds in its coffers. When teachers and centers started to revolt and complain that the organization doesn’t actually do anything for registrants with all the money they collect, a separate entity was created to placate the unrest.

The membership side of YA has sought to provide continuing education along with “member perks.” Unfortunately, the content produced rarely offers much outside of what can already be easily accessed on Youtube. And, frankly, the longstanding practice of taking advertising dollars in exchange for a promo code in the YA newsletter, and calling it a “member perk,” verges on fraud. The YA efforts to help prevent government regulation have been the only saving grace of the organization up until now, but the good will around this has always been contingent on the repeated assertion that the YA was never going to become the yoga police.

Did anyone even notice that the Yoga Alliance released a plan to do away with the registry and turn the membership association into a regulatory body?

In all the discussions and debates regarding the YA over the last five years of attempted reform, the point has forever been made that the registry was part of the Yoga Alliance Foundation and was for the public good, separate from the Yoga Alliance membership association. This was always important because the registry represented the “standards” that supposedly were being set as a way to protect the public from all the bad apples. But, just before Lipsius’ last day on the job, in the equivalent of a Friday-night news dump, the YA quietly released two interviews with newly hired vice presidents for the standards and credentialing committees in which it is explicitly stated that the membership association will soon be assuming a new role.

In these interviews, the decision to give the YA more power to regulate yoga is expressed as a foregone conclusion. The case being made is that “students are coming expecting a certain deliverable” and that these changes are “matching what the public is asking for.” But the membership was never asked to vote on whether or not they think the organization should do this. And the infamous survey, that will surely be pointed to, in no way establishes the will of the membership. The bias of those who think that attempting to regulate the yoga industry by establishing an arbitrary set of unenforceable hours always seems to win the day over the nuanced consideration of safe and effective yoga transmission.

Wasn’t the membership association created to serve the members, not regulate them? And why is the membership funding a foundation that it has no say in?

The YA has always basically operated as a black box in which decisions are handed down arbitrarily without transparency. For the last few years, an effort has been made to make a show that this was changing but, ultimately, there is nothing collective about how the organization is structured and the process by which determinations are made is anything but democratic. The move to transition the membership association into a regulatory body is not about helping the members in their work of teaching yoga, or even making yoga teachers more qualified. The course being charted is really about meeting customer expectations and serving market forces that demand never-ending growth.

Also, funding teachers and organizations that bring yoga to underserved and marginalized communities is a wonderful thing, but when the money is extracted from yoga teachers under false pretenses and directed by the prerogatives of the administration instead of the membership, the organization is no longer operating as representative of teachers and centers but dictating its own agenda. More importantly, we have no reason to believe that the YA is prepared to act as the regulator of yoga in a responsible way. It has never shown itself in the past to be up for such an impossible task, and the departure of the visionary who was supposed to lead us into the promised land does not bode well.

No great progress has ever been made by replicating the mistakes of the past. If the YA wants to serve yoga, rather than the assorted political and economic interests of only a few, then it needs to break free of the prison it has built for itself.

The perennial arguments that if we don’t regulate ourselves then the government will, or that yoga injuries are on the rise and we have to protect the public, really don’t hold up under scrutiny. In states that have worked with local governments to regulate yoga teacher training by treating them like vocational schools, the protections that are being created do not address the substantive issues of yoga curriculum that the YA “standards” have perpetuated. Creating a code of ethics and a scope of practice, and devising a process for redress, can be done regardless of how many hours a yoga teacher-training course may be.

The conflation of hours with standards has profoundly undermined the competency of yoga teachers. Until we are honest with ourselves about this fundamental flaw then we will continue to bleed the profession of its spirit and betray our ideals. Only if we have the courage to smash the black box and have a real reform of the organization might we discover new ways of providing guidelines and resources that lift teachers up to a higher standard of personal conduct, and hold them to account for what they say they do. That YA is looking to increase hours and become the yoga police is the making of an even greater disaster. If those with vested interest in the yoga profession don’t want to see a continuation of all that has gone wrong, then now is the time to step up and put a stop to it.

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J. Brown

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, New York. A teacher for 15 years, he is known for his pragmatic approach to teaching personal, breath-centered therapeutic yoga that adapt to individual needs. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Elephant Journal and Yogadork.