Should Yoga Teachers Be Licensed?

The big thing in yoga studios over the last few years is the concept of teacher training. A few moments spent in research will reveal that there is no consistency in curriculum, no quality control and no assurance of competence upon completion in many of these trainings.

If we are concerned – and we should be – about the injuries happening in yoga classes, there needs to be more accountability from these “teacher trainings.” At a lecture on back injuries that I attended a few years ago renowned physician and Iyengar-trained yogi Dr. Loren Fishman stated that there are more injuries in yoga than in any other industry!

Yoga Alliance has issued its opinion of guidelines that should be the basis of teacher training. The first problem with its guidelines is that they are rather tepid and fuzzy.  A further issue is that that guidelines can be interpreted in a number ways; it is all left up to the studio’s teacher trainer coordinator.

I find it a bit alarming how many people I meet who’ve completed a 200 hour teacher-training program who never practiced yoga before going into such a training, who don’t practice at all and don’t have the slightest idea how to construct a class. It is disturbing to hear that much of the time in these trainings is spent coloring pictures of Hindu deities, taking field trips to yoga studios, playing games and singing songs.

That doesn’t sound like yoga teacher training to me. That sounds like adult daycare.

Yes, meditation and mantra should be part of a teacher training program. But let’s face it, most people going for a teacher trainer program are not going for those things. Most likely, they are training to teach yoga-fitness classes, not yoga. You’re not most likely going to get a yoga teacher job at the local YMCA, gym or  – many yoga studios – teaching mantra or meditation.

And so, we have to get real about this. Basic level new instructors need to understand anatomy, alignment, health contraindications, and modifications for physical differences in the populations they teach. That should be a priority in these programs; the workshops where you can color pictures of Shiva’s many manifestations can be saved for later on.

While I resist the idea of licensing of yoga teachers I am prone to agree that something needs to be done if we are serious about keeping integrity in yoga as a discipline and a health guide rather than a “hot”, trendy workout done by this year’s celebrity spokesperson. Unfortunately, it seems we cannot depend on ourselves because too many of us are more interested in making money than following any kind of ethics guidelines, which is kind of ironic considering that ethics is a pillar of yoga to begin with.

Yoga has been packaged, sexed up and made a marketable commodity, yet those of us who rail against nude, sexist yoga pictures (but with socks on, of course!) are called prudish. When I see a sock advertisement with a hairy, nude, 400-lb man in Crow pose, I will retract my statement that marketers are using sex to sell products.

P-90X has a Yoga Segment that I looked at one time and cannot look at again. And P-90X is not alone – most fitness tapes have stretching segment that they call yoga.

There is a recent video “Who Owns Yoga” which is really depressing. (“Voga”-really?)  Just add the word yoga to something and somehow it becomes something more…..even when it really isn’t.

Don’t even get me started on aerial, suspension or – yes, paddle board – yoga.

And just about everyone apparently can become yoga teacher certified. Which means what, exactly?

I was at a conference a few years back when a question from one of these “just-add-water-and-stir” instructors (who had been working at a YMCA for three months) asked the presenter why it was a bad idea to put a woman in a headstand who’d recently had whiplash from a car accident. The presenter had made this comment earlier – “you wouldn’t put someone who had whiplash in a headstand, right?” To those us who had years of experience and practice that was obvious. Yet our newly-minted 200 hour lululemon-wearing instructor didn’t get it. Worse, she’d been doing just that in her class with a student. Sigh……..

On the one hand, this is what we’re up against and one reason why injuries are occurring at such a rapid rate.

On the other, there are earnest, sincere people who want to become yoga instructors and eventually teachers. They get it – they understand that teaching is education plus experience and practice. Where in the world do they start their journey?

Ideally, you should be able to begin that journey at a local yoga studio that states it conducts “teacher trainings.”  And there should be some consistent quality in that training whether it is in New York City or Peoria, Illinois. Is certification really enough when the standards of acquiring one are so iffy and, if not, then are we looking at the possibility of, gulp, licensing?

Interestingly, a few years ago the idea of licensing came up in one of our East Coast states. Yoga Alliance gathered up their members and protested against it, of course. One statement in their argument caught my attention. It was this: “Many yoga teachers will lose their jobs if licensing requirements become law.”

Maybe be they should.  Maybe that’s the point. Someone should not be able to call themselves a yoga teacher just because they essentially bought a piece of paper. CPAs, massage therapists and hair stylists have to be licensed to show competence in their fields and they have less ability to inflict harm (at least physically!) than some poorly trained yoga instructor who wants to take his/her class into Wheel pose.

In my opinion, if we are not going to require licensing – and who really wants to do that – then the training really needs to be tightened up. For example:

1. First anyone who wants to do a fitness-yoga teacher training must be vetted. If you have no background in teaching and/or anatomy and movement you cannot go into teacher training.  So, training in these areas must be provided so that a prospective teacher can move forward. Call it pre-teacher training.

2. The prospective student should have the appropriate educational program for his/her goals. A student who wants to teach a class of mostly asana and a smaller amount of pranayama needs a different 200 hour program than someone who wants to teach meditation. Maybe some kind of independent study teacher training could be managed if group training is not feasible.

3. While the students are in teacher training, they should be required to teach small blocks of an established instructor’s class – say a 10-15 minute block. This provides them a type of apprenticeship, gets their feet wet by teaching students rather than their fellow trainees, builds their confidence and allows them critique. It also ensures that the trainees are likely doing a practice on their own since that is where the teaching will come from.

Teacher training should not be just a money-generator for studios and studios that offer teaching training should be held accountable for the product they are turning out. Studios owe it to the field of yoga itself to turn out competent instructors. It’s clear we cannot depend on Yoga Alliance  because they have too much invested on maintaining the status quo. The steps that YA seem to be taking are ones that put out the fire rather than preventing the fire from sparking in the first place.

The states themselves have taken notice of the rise of yoga and yoga studios. Health clubs that are regulated are asking why yoga studios are not under the same scrutiny and regulation that they are; training programs for teachers of various skills are asking why yoga teacher trainings do not fall under the same governance that they do. So the possibility of licensing is not some far off idea and indeed may one day be the case.

Those students who start their journey well-trained and who have a practice will have nothing to fear if that should eventually be the case.  But I would hope that we in the yoga profession would clean up our house before any such government intervention is needed.