When I started practicing yoga, I never imagined that it would become as popular as it is now. I also never imagined that the majority of yoga classes happening these days would be a string of risky tricks taught by minimally educated teachers, all done to a rocking sound track.
And, while there’s a lot of benefit to moving intelligently through an athletic vinyasa sequence, when we move without any sense of anchoring, we are just feeding into the neurosis of our culture: to get the next thing.
While yoga practice has been documented to offer many profound benefits, it’s also producing an enormous amount of injury. As excerpted in the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer William Broad stated in his brutally honest book, The Science of Yoga, “A growing body of medical evidence supports (the) contention that, for many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky…The problems ranged from relatively mild injuries to permanent disabilities…Surveys by the Consumer Product Safety Commission showed that the number of emergency-room admissions related to yoga, after years of slow increases, was rising quickly.”
I welcome the increasing public awareness that a platform like the New York Times provides, but I didn’t need to see Broad’s data to know about the growing problem. I’ve been hearing about it frequently from beginning yoga students for years now. An all too common scenario was shared with me in Washington, DC a couple months ago. A beginning yoga student told me that he fell out of the very first headstand he’d ever done because there was no instruction beyond, “If you want to do a headstand, we have a few minutes for that now.” He looked around the room and tried to imitate what he saw. Once up, he fell to the side on a suddenly, sharply bent neck. Fortunately, he only suffered a few days of neck pain. But, injury from such a fall could have been, and often is, much more serious. Headstand, a tremendously beneficial pose, is also terribly risky. And it’s hard to teach well. Doing so requires years of practice and much education. But, sadly, “Do a headstand if you want to,” is the norm for beginning yoga teachers now.
It’s not just the fancy upside-down poses that require a well-educated teacher to be taught well. The populations we are teaching, for the most part, sit in chairs all day and rarely lift anything heavier than an iPad. Then they come to a yoga class where, for an hour or more, they flow quickly through poses, bearing weight in an unfamiliar way on their wrists, spines, and knees. It’s tragic that these poses, that can do so much to benefit sedentary bodies and racing minds, are instead hurting these weak joints and deepening an already troubling familiarity with, and desire for, getting to the next thing- the exact malady that yoga was invented to help heal. In fact, teaching any of the poses well requires an understanding that comes from deep study and long-term practice.
Broad writes, “Yoga’s exploding popularity — the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011 — means that there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury.”
In a typical flow-based yoga class these days, there is little or no instruction, often led by a teacher with a great personality who plays uplifting music. Not only is the event in no way representative of the vastly positive potential of yoga, it’s an embarrassing charade that looks kind of like something called yoga that one saw in a book once or twice. But, it’s really not the fault of the teachers. They are only doing what they’ve been taught.
Nearly all of these inadequately trained yoga teachers have been educated at or above the minimum standard that is almost universally accepted by those who hire yoga teachers. So, why don’t these teachers know how to teach an authentic and safe yoga practice? The problem lies with the body who sets the industry standard for yoga teacher training. The organization that does that is Yoga Alliance, the world’s largest registry of yoga schools and teachers.
Since 1999, minimum standards for yoga teacher training have been authored and administered by Yoga Alliance. According to Pam Weber, their Director of Credentialing, Yoga Alliance currently has about 40,000 yoga teachers and 3,000 yoga schools registered as being in compliance with their standards, far more than any other such organization. To the untrained eye, they seem to be the gold standard for yoga teacher training standards. But, the standard that they set for yoga teacher training is nowhere near adequate. And it’s ending up with a lot of people getting hurt, and far more people walking away from their first yoga classes disappointed and wondering what all the hype is about.
People who want to start a yoga practice and the majority of the fitness center managers who hire most beginning yoga teachers tend to have at least one thing in common: they don’t do yoga. So, when they see that a yoga teacher has Yoga Alliance’s stamp of approval, and if they learn that Yoga Alliance is the single biggest registry of yoga teachers and schools on Earth, they understandably expect that there has been some inherent rigor in the training that the teacher has had. They’d probably be shocked to know that, in a Yoga Alliance-Registered training, no specific curriculum is required to be taught, nor is there any required assessment of a registered teacher’s skill. Ever. And there are no plans to change that. It is this massive omission that has gotten us where we are with yoga right now: trainings with arbitrary curriculum being taught to prospective teachers who don’t know any better, and the situation was borne of and is propelled forward by Yoga Alliance.
Instead of telling trainings what should be taught, Yoga Alliance simply requires that a certain number of hours be spent covering each of five areas of study, with no specificity given on how to fill those hours. As listed on their website, registered 200-hour trainings (the level that 85% of their registered yoga teachers hold) must include 100 hours of practice, 25 hours of teaching methodology, 20 hours of anatomy, 30 hours of philosophy and ethics, and 10 hours of practice teaching. But, the content of each area of study is left up to the school. As Weber explains, “How do you monitor such diverse populations? Our standards are focused on educational category and number of hours per educational category. But we don’t dive into content.”
And, in response to yoga’s continued meteoric rise in popularity and their organizations own parallel growth spurt, Yoga Alliance has revised the application process, but has provided no further detail about what actually needs to be taught. Says Weber, “The way that it’s administered has changed, like what we require on the application, but not the standards themselves.”
Why aren’t they? Basically, as Weber puts it, it’s simply not where their priorities are at this time. Instead, she says that they are working on increasing transparency, and consistency; and, “Working on creating a credentialing system that can scale.”
Instead of creating content standards for credentialed schools, Yoga Alliance is introducing what they call “social credentialing.” Their website explains it: “Past trainees provide social ratings and comments about their training experience, which may be shown on our public directory.”
“We are empowering the trainees and schools to want to comply without us having to enforce it,” Weber explained. “Social credentialing is our solution to gaining more rigor.”
Yes, that is Yoga Alliance’s response to the mess that’s been made of yoga in the past few years. They are going to add a Yelp-like feature to their website. That is a fantastic disappointment to teachers like me who’ve witnessed an astonishing decline in the quality of classes over the past 20 years. Social credentialing doesn’t even to begin to approach what we need.
What we need is a lengthy set of specific objectives that a yoga teacher training needs to meet, as is the standard in almost all other vocational training. Since yoga can be practiced in many styles with varying emphases, creating rigorous and responsible standards among yoga teachers is indeed a very big job. But, organizations like the International Association of Yoga Therapists have managed to do it. They unveiled, in 2012, their “Educational Standards for the Training of Yoga Therapists“, 19 pages that cover, in great detail, training requirements for sanctioned yoga therapy programs seeking their approval, as well as skills assessments for the therapists they credential.
As difficult as the task will be, with 40,000 yoga teachers paying annual dues, shouldn’t Yoga Alliance be capable of it? As yoga practice has exploded, so have their coffers. According to the IRS Form 990’s that they provide on their website, their total revenue increased over 500% from 2005 – 2012 while their net assets increased nearly 1000% in the same timeframe.
But those impressive assets aren’t going toward raising curriculum standards. Weber says, “We know that there are questions from out there in the community about how well the 200 hour serves a teacher wanting to start teaching”. However, she adds, “It is not something that we are actively saying we must do right now. The earliest we will review the standards would be next year”. (The interview was conducted in September, 2013. It is next year now.)
Yoga Alliance has had 14 years to come up with something better. In that time, they’ve done next to nothing to raise the standard of yoga teaching. As Weber summed it up, “The reality is we haven’t changed the standards. Quite honestly, there hasn’t been a lot of revision.”
There are great teachers out there. But they are great in spite of Yoga Alliance, not because of it. These skilled teachers pushed themselves, and their teachers pushed them, beyond the mild standard that Yoga Alliance created. We need a body that ensures that all yoga teachers are appropriately educated.
While Yoga Alliance is making earnest efforts to improve, it’s too little, but it may not be too late. If we want to make a change, it’s going to take us standing up and saying no.