Thoughts on yoga, the future (part 3)

As I mentioned, I’ve always had mixed feelings about Anusara yoga, especially when it became so clearly Anusara, Inc.  On the one hand, I thought the Universal Alignment Principals, while perhaps a bit oversold, are a wonderful, useful and easily communicated set of instructions about how to think of the body in and out of asana practice.  On the other, when I went to Anusara events, I often found them clique-y in a way other yoga events weren’t, which was a turn-off.  And frankly, the first time I saw video of John Friend (on Shiva Rea’s Yoga Shakti, a video I often recommend), he kind of freaked me out.  I thought “who is he, and what is he on?”  Little did I know…

All that aside, as I have sort of “grown up” as a yoga teacher, I came to really respect Anusara in one other important way: they demand a thorough and rigorous training of teachers.  I may not love a particular Anusara teacher or class, but I have full confidence that if I take with an Anusara-certified teacher, this is someone who has their $%@t together.  Now I’m sure that the Anusara certification process has its share of politics and drama, but until the current controversy I had a lot of faith in the brand and its teachers. (The Washington Post plays this angle in a good synopsis of the controversy thus far)  The steps from being a registered yoga teacher who graduated from an Anusara training to an “Anusara-inspired” to a full Anusara teacher are demanding, (unfortunately) expensive, and seem to be built to try to guarantee high quality teachers carrying the Anusara brand forward.

I bring this up because the issue of certifications, credentials, licensure and quality control has been in the forefront of my mind ever since the “Yoga Wreck” article was printed.  The article has prompted a long and healthy conversation in the yoga community about what we should expect, and demand, of yoga teachers.  My teacher and now boss David Vendetti, for one, went on record saying that he would like to see yoga teachers regulated by the state, with some of the same rigorous requirements massage professionals are held to.  (video here)  I’m not sure I agree with his conclusion, but I’d like to continue that conversation.

The irony of the Anusara drama, in my eyes, is that I was saying to friends not a week before Anusara started to fall apart that if anyone in the yoga community was ready to step up to higher standards, it was the Iyengar and Anusara “kulas”, because what they demand of their certified teachers is so tremendous.  (And I meant that as a complement)

Yoga is still a completely unregulated industry; you don’t need a degree in exercise science, like you do in many places to be a PT, or 600 or 1,000 hours of massage training, as a massage therapist does (depending on the state).  Any one reading this could declare themselves a yoga teacher, and go get hired or open a studio.  Whether anyone would hire them is another matter, but that’s the truth.  As I (and many others) have ranted, Yoga Alliance is a pay-to-play organization, and does not check on the credentials or quality of the teachers or trainings it licenses its name to.  Hence, I’ve seen a lot, a LOT, of bad teacher trainings producing wildly underprepared teachers.  To some degree, the market takes care of some of this- good teachers draw, bad teachers don’t.  But that still leaves a lot of room for bad teachers to injure students and generally drag down the good name of yoga.

The question, and I think it’s a critical one, is how does the yoga community set and enforce standards for teachers and studios.  Do we leave it to the state?  That sounds like a bad idea.  The few situations where states have attempted to regulate yoga, usually for tax purposes, have shown how little they understand about the practice, and how destructive they can be to a growing industry.  (See the current crisis in New York)

Here’s where Anusara was, and frankly is so valuable; they offered a model of what a comprehensive teacher training system could look like.  It had offered several “grades” of recognition much like belts in martial arts, included not just instruction on teaching asana but also anatomy, yoga philosophy and history, ethics, etc.  I’m not qualified to say if this is the “right” model, but I hope it’s an entry point into the conversion:

To that end, drawing on my understanding of Iyengar and Anusara trainings, and looking at my own experiences on both sides of yoga teacher training, let me put forward a few thoughts on how we might better certify yoga instructors and studios.  I’m know this isn’t a perfect plan; it may not even be good, but I hope it focuses some of a conversation that right now I just sort of hear in the ether:

1. Keep 200 hour certifications as the baseline for gyms.  For better or for worse, “gym yoga” has been where many a teacher cuts their teeth, battling florescent lights, loud rock n’roll and the sound of dropping weights to try to bring down dog to the masses.

2. Require apprenticeships as part of longer trainings. (full disclosure, I am a teacher that currently offers apprenticeships with, well, me. More on that later, but here are a few details for those interested. And just so you don’t think I’m merely drumming up business, I know many wonderful teachers in the area, including Jacqui Bonwell, Coeli Marsh, and Chanel Luck, who offer such services.)  I was very fortunate that early in my career my home studio had an active open practice policy- every morning there were teachers and practitioners at the studio, doing their own thing.  There were a lot of young teachers, and a few senior teachers, and one of the constants was a dialogue about teaching- what was working, what wasn’t, how to handle teaching pose x or student y.  It was in many ways a de facto apprenticeship- real time feedback for young teachers.  And it made me better immediately.

As in any other craft, I feel some form of solo or small group apprenticeship is a critical piece of teacher development.  After all, isn’t apprenticeship a requirement if you want to be a senior electrician?  People are entrusting their bodies to a yoga teacher, not just their house wiring; why should they expect less than they would of a craftsman? And in other businesses, the unions or employers often underwrite part of all of the costs of professional development.  I know some studios do that.  If studios do, they should advertise it, and I’d love to see that become the norm and not the exception.  Better teachers, more confidence in the quality of product, I think everyone wins.

3. Set a higher bar for yoga studios.  This is a continuation of #1 & 2, and certainly, most studios do this.  Even studios where I whine about the number of really green teachers on staff rarely hire recent YTT grads.  But in the Boston area I know of one soon-to-open yoga studio, (name withheld) where the two lead teachers have not yet completed their own teacher trainings.  And they are charging $17 a class!  This is the equivalent of a hospital sending in a second year medical student in to run a critical patient examination, and billing the insurer as if their top specialist did the exam.  (Okay, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic, but…)  In many trades a “Master” technician has to be on staff, and often on hand, during a job.  This seems a reasonable expectation of a yoga studio.  And/or, perhaps:

4. Create a tier system of certification.  For instance, I teach for the Equinox chain of gyms in Boston.  As I understand it, if you want personal training, you choose from various “tiers” of trainers.  The tiers are determined by some combination of experience, reputation and how many levels of Equinox’s internal training school you’ve completed.  And, of course, the higher tiered trainers can charge more.

Could this work for yoga, so that your training and certifications can carry over and play into compensation and credibility?   Obviously, trainers at Equinox (or any other gym) are operating in something of a closed market inside their gym, where yoga teachers are operating on an open market, so it’s a little different.  But could this work?

For myself,  when I’m traveling, I’d like to know something about the teachers at a studio I’m visiting beyond a paragraph of yoga cliches that are akin to what an athlete says in the locker room after a game (“I try to teach class where students can find there edge, and be supported.”  Don’t get me wrong, a good teacher should do that, but reading it on a website makes me think of Kevin Garnett talking about 110% effort, or Belicheck saying it is what it is…)  I’d love to have a national database of teachers that is more informative than what Yoga Alliance offers.  And I’d like to hear that more teachers feel supported by the studios that hire them, not just left to sink or swim.

As I said up to, I’m not sure I these ideas are exactly right, or the only answers.  Thoughts- teachers students, what would you like to see?

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2 Responses to Thoughts on yoga, the future (part 3)

  1. jacqui says:

    Great article pat-as usual. Thanks for the shout out and the amount of thought given to a non-state controlled solution! Xo

  2. Natasha Mckenzie-Martin says:

    I love the required apprenticeship idea. I started out & faltered, now I’m looking into mentorship. I know I would have been much better out of the gate if I’d chosen a program that offered support to it’s fledglings.

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