Reimagining Yoga Teacher Training

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After twenty years of providing yoga teacher training at premium-priced 200, 300, or 500-hour increments, the yoga profession is beginning to reckon with the unintended consequences of relying so heavily on this deeply flawed economic instrument. The initial boom that heralded the expansion of yoga teacher certification programs has largely subsided but the industry has yet to adapt and is still operating under outdated assumptions. If we can muster enough courage, escaping the entrenchment that fuels our fears and undermines our purpose is within our power.

Talk of reform is in the air. Almost everyone agrees that the status quo is fraught with misgivings. One possibility is to create regulatory instruments to counter the adverse effects of the monetization policies that many of us have acquiesced to. The hope is that we can thereby create institutional structures that lend greater accountability. Of course, that means establishing entities with the authority to police. And, when it comes to yoga, attempting to claim a mantle of authority is tricky business. But rather than merely bandaging an infected wound, we might also consider a more radical change to the underlying economics that got us here in the first place.

I never for a moment questioned selling people a 200-hour teacher training.

The first teacher training I conducted was for free. It was 2007, and I had just opened up a center. I had never led a formal training before and wanted to give myself a trial run. Forty people showed up on the first day. Maybe two or three finished with me six months later. After that, I started charging $2200-$2500. This was just under the going rate, which hovered somewhere around $3000. I went on to do fifteen trainings over the next eight years with an average of 10 students per training. Before long, it became the make-or-break stream of income for the survival of my entire operation.

Doing the teacher trainings always felt like a trade-off. Some years I would have two big groups and things were prosperous. Other times, the numbers would fall off and I’d take on debt. I tried all kinds of different offerings and it was clear that classes, workshops and intensives could only bring in hundreds, but if you called it 200-hour teacher training then you were looking at thousands. At a popular center in a gentrified neighborhood, this amounts to large sums of money that easily start to eclipse the importance of yoga pedagogy in the training of teachers. It’s hard to refuse entry to someone who is not really ready to train as a teacher yet but is willing to pay when the rent is due and you need the money.

We’ve all made a calculation that it’s OK because it makes us a living but then can’t escape the sucking feeling in our guts because we know it’s bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that yoga teacher training is a bad thing. In fact, with classes becoming shorter and more fitness-oriented, trainings are often the only place where people can explore practice in a deeper way. And many people are having transformative experiences and sharing in healing with others because of their participation in teacher trainings. The power of people to come together with shared purpose and mutual support is limitless. In theory, the yoga industry is vital and important in that the benefits of its enterprise is ultimately for the betterment of humanity and the planet. That we have married the process of learning to teach yoga with an economic model that demands continued growth is where the compromising begins to encroach.

For every person who feels that the $3000 they spent was worth every penny, there are a hundred more who are not so sure, and millions who will never have the opportunity to find out. Studio owners are in a bind. The overhead they have taken on means that they have to do whatever they can to bring in more money. So, if setting up a 200-hour teacher training will accomplish the needed revenue then that is what they are going to do. And coaxing people to participate with proven marketing techniques, regardless of whether it makes sense in terms of yoga learning, has become an imperative. The teacher trainers are doing their heart’s work within the conditions being set, but those who are honest with themselves will readily admit that too often they are mostly playing a game of charades with expectations and hours.

With courage and imagination, we can reshape the “industry market standard” in ways that better serve everyone.

The best way to disrupt a failing system is to create something better. What would happen if we started thinking of teacher training more like an unlimited yearly membership? Instead of someone paying $3000 for intensely scheduled hours, the cost would be $250/month over 12 months or $125/month over 24 months. All the same curriculum could be included but the participant would have to maintain commitment and discipline over a longer span of life and the trainer would be fostering longer-term relationships. Granted, it would likely mean less money and fewer teachers. Centers will need to explore other ways of setting up shop that can sustain without the short-term jolts that hocking 200 hours currently provides.

Teachers and center owners can decide to do something different. We can choose how we wish to respond rather than reacting. We can be smarter about the leases we sign and explore more cooperative arrangements and shared ownership. We can utilize digital tools, and the subscription-based models that they have produced, to create the kind of relationships and shared yoga that we hope for. Most importantly, we can hold ourselves to the standards that we think yoga deserves and bypass the industry that forces us to play by rules that forsake us. In the transmission of yoga, the full range of possibility applies to not just our bodies but also the business we do in their name.

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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.