Will Western Yoga Change When We Return to the Studio?

What makes a yoga teacher? Pieces of paper? Letters behind a name? I’ve plenty of both and yet I hesitate to call myself a ‘teacher’. A facilitator? Sure. A guide? Maybe. But twenty-eight years – almost to the day – of standing at the front of the studio for the first time I recoil at the thought of using the word ‘teacher’ to describe what I do when I roll open my mat.

A conundrum forms when we try to codify unregulated practices like yoga. Codification helps set standards the consumer should trust but it also transforms a time-honored practice into an industry. It binds yoga to an unnatural list of rules and expectations that, the longer I lead classes, the more I want to push against.

The post that follows is little more than a frustrated vent. I know I have a point in there somewhere. I mean, I really do believe we need to question the current system. What I don’t know is how those questions take shape and what are the answers they reveal?

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an online advertisement for a new yoga teacher training program created by a well-known leader in the yoga therapy community. Since then one question has been simmering in the back of my brain. Why does this training exist? And why does its existence vex me so?

I think it’s because I’ve over-stretched my tolerance for the Western Yoga Industrial Complex (WYIC). Does the world need another yoga teacher training program? Instead of trainings maybe what the world needs are yoga teachers who are dedicated to serving their students, and the yoga tradition, more than they serve themselves. I know they exist, but they’re hard to find in all the noise and bustle it takes to transform a tradition thousands of years old into a billion dollar industry.

That’s why I hope one of the silver linings of these extraordinary times is a forced reckoning in the WYIC studio system.

The Western Yoga Industrial Complex is a system that forces a surfeit of studios to design 200-hour yoga teacher trainings in order to keep their coffers filled and their doors open. Some of those trainings, in turn, become human puppy mills. Every few months they produce a new litter of smiling faces posing for photographs with pride and holding teaching certificates fresh from the printer. They send a copy of these certificates and their hard earned cash to Yoga Alliance (YA) who then allows them to add the designation RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher) after their name. These eager graduate RYTs are giddy with excitement about their future. But after investing thousands of dollars in their training, most graduates will not go on to teach. And the ones that do often feel they’re in over their heads because the three months of training they received did not provide the experience they needed to feel competent. 

Doesn’t it seem odd and a little arbitrary that two hundred hours of study is all one needs to call themselves a yoga teacher? Ludicrous, actually. How did this happen? In an attempt to codify teacher trainings, and with what I believe was good intention, a YA committee created a list of competencies and sub-competencies deemed important for yoga instructors to understand. These are the recently revised competencies:

  1. Techniques, Training, Practice
  2. Anatomy & Physiology
  3. Yoga Humanities (formerly Yoga Philosophy, Lifestyle, & Ethics)
  4. Professional Essentials (includes merged Educational Categories of Teaching Methodology and Practicum)

Each competency has a minimum number of hours in which it must be taught. There is a heavy emphasis on the first two. Studios create a training program based on these hours and competencies, submit the written program to YA – along with payment, of course – and wait for approval. Once that approval is received YA allows the studio to use the designation ‘RYS 200’.

Given the absence of accountability – meaning there is no check to see if the studio’s program is following the curriculum submitted to Yoga Alliance or, for that matter, if the lead trainers meet Yoga Alliance’s approval – the studio is somewhat free to do whatever they like. Unless, of course, an enrollee in the teacher training is dedicated enough to look at the YA standards for RYS 200 trainings and to call the studio on it if the training they are receiving has strayed.

 If 200-hour teacher trainings weren’t necessary to keep a studio open and if we understood that the Yoga Alliance seal of approval holds no weight, what would happen? Would we forget about trainings and certificates altogether and transition to a mentoring protocol, where those who might feel a flickering call to teach study under a mentor until the flicker becomes a flame?

Or what if we flipped the yoga teacher training model around and instead of placing an emphasis on the physicality of yoga began trainings with a deep dive into the philosophy of yoga?  What if entrance exams were required? Or proof of a personal practice? Should personal practice – something difficult to define – be a requirement? 

My guess is that there would be fewer teacher trainings, fewer individuals wanting to train in the art of teaching yoga and, ultimately, fewer studios. 

Am I wrong to think that would be a good thing?

I guess maybe I’ve seen too much of the bad and ugly. Like the studio that boasts about the number of students it pushes through the trainings it hosts multiple times per year, taught by teachers flown in for the weekend and never seen again. And too little of the good. Like the pre-natal yoga teacher training that will hold back a certificate from a trainee until all assignments have been received and passed.

The yoga industry needs less of the former and more of the latter. Maybe, as we begin to return to our studios, that will happen.

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