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Basic Oversight or ‘Yoga Police’? The Appropriate Role of Yoga Alliance

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**This post was written by Yoga Alliance for YOGANONYMOUS

Standards without oversight are not standards. They’re suggestions.

Last month, Yoga Alliance launched a new website that makes real changes to our credentialing system and introduces a brand new concept to the community – Social Credentialing. The changes are designed to address a glaring weakness in the way the system has operated for the last 14 years: We provided no oversight of our own standards.

Under our old system, after we approved a yoga school’s registration, we had no idea whether they followed the curriculum they submitted with their application, or even whether their lead trainers were qualified to teach yoga. The new system gives Yoga Alliance new, robust tools with which to provide transparency and oversight. It enforces accountability by letting us all know whether our Registered Yoga Schools are following the standards they have agreed to uphold. It also provides the schools with feedback to help them improve the educational experience their student customers receive so they can teach yoga safely and competently.

But James Brown thinks we should change our standards before we fix the system used to enforce them.

Mr. Brown published a blog post on his American Yoga School website accusing Yoga Alliance of “ruining yoga.” Mr. Brown contends that yoga is producing an “enormous amount of injury”; that those injuries have been caused by incompetent yoga teachers; that it’s our fault that those teachers have been poorly trained; that our new social credentialing system is “too little, too late”; and that the primary solution is for Yoga Alliance to dictate a “specific curriculum” that all registered yoga schools must follow.

Despite our different perspectives, we agree with Mr. Brown that our objective should be to promote the safe and competent teaching of yoga. But his solution to the problem puts the cart before the horse.

What difference would changing our standards make if we have no way of knowing whether schools are in compliance?

That is why we focused first on increasing the oversight and transparency of our current standards, while working concurrently on a process with our Standards Committee and subcommittees to review every facet of our credentialing system. Kerry Maiorca, the chair of our ethics subcommittee and a member of our board of directors, recently published an article on YOGANONYMOUS about the work the committee is doing to establish a new, more rigorous Code of Ethics; the weakness and unenforceability of our current Code has long been a sore point with many Yoga Alliance members.

Another subcommittee is developing an alternate pathway to registration that many highly qualified yogis who have been studying and teaching yoga for years are almost desperate to see us enact. Next on the committee’s agenda in 2014 is a process that will eventually lead to vast improvements in our Continuing Education program; incorporation of distance learning standards into our credentialing regime; and a thorough review of the standards themselves that will lead no stone untouched. Everything is on the table, including the potential for a yoga-teacher certification, an idea of which Mr. Brown appears to be particularly fond.

Mr. Brown’s opinions and the conversation they have sparked provide an excellent demonstration of the wide variety of opinions that exist within the yoga community about the challenges we face. Here are a few comments posted to his blog:

Dan: “Where is the parampara in modern yoga, its certainly not with yoga alliance. Bring back the good old days where we used to get slapped about and yelled at if the senior teacher saw we were putting ourselves in danger or lacking integrity.”

Grateful: “My suggestion to improving quality and accountability in our profession is to use YA to designate mentor teachers. Yoga teachers would be required to complete some hours of mentorship that includes practice, study and observation of skill. Mentors would then report to YA that their mentees were qualified to continue holding their credential- or alternatively, make recommendations for further growth and study.”

Wendy: “Replace ‘yoga’ with ‘pole dancing’ and it’s the same issue! Huge classes taught by people who started by watching Pole Dancing How-To videos or YouTube.”

Maureen: Guru driven yoga styles, yoga celebrities, yoga clothing, yoga products, yoga retreats, yoga websites, blah blah blah. This is a spiritual practice (or breath practice since the word “spirit” means to breath) and asana a sacred geometric communication system to God to align with sacred earth and space frequencies on a daily basis.

Chris: Part of every yoga training should be training in physical therapy. Physical therapists are the ones who have to deal with whatever went wrong in a yoga class.

Charlotte: “I would love to see yoga schools required to be accredited by an entity such as a state department of education”

Derek: And again, I am stating some of “my yoga standards” only to point out that broad “standards” are well nigh close to impossible to get a consensus on, and would very likely be an imposition on a large percentage of equally qualified Yoga instructors who don’t agree with whatever these older yogis sitting around the dinner table are insisting is the true yoga.

Stef: “If we truly understood yoga, we would not be encouraging more restriction, we would be encouraging more freedom. We are trying to get yoga to fit into modernized western greed & it’s not going to work no matter how many regulations we put on it because the more we try to fix in this consciousness, we may eliminate one problem but create several more in the process.”

Yoga Alliance staff is made up of hard working, mission-driven professionals, most of whom were yoga teachers long before joining the Yoga Alliance team; many of them still teach. We know that we’ll need to continue to make sweeping changes to provide the public with the transparent credentialing system it deserves. We also know that many individuals in the yoga community — Mr. Brown is clearly one of them — are not yet aware of the changes we have already made and recently began to implement.

The conversation around change is needed, but the manner in which we have these conversations matters too.  Mr. Brown’s article was both extreme and inflammatory (he called it “How Yoga Alliance is Ruining Yoga”), and ill-considered — a particularly noxious combination. He met with our staff back in September, ostensibly to learn more about our standards. But his brief dismissal and inaccurate description of the sweeping changes that we are initiating (i.e., “They are going to add a Yelp-like feature to their website.”) make it clear that his only real interest was in twisting our words to support his extremist opinions.

Mr. Brown posted his article on Jan. 8. We drafted a response and submitted it the next day as a comment on his blog. However, he refused to post the comment, preventing visitors to his website from considering our point of view unless we removed certain information that he disagreed with. We saw no problem with the information, and declined to remove it.

On the morning of Jan. 10, without any notice or explanation to his readers, Mr. Brown deleted a section of his original article that quoted a prominent yoga teacher in a manner that suggested that she agreed with his argument. (He also removed a photo of her that he had used to illustrate his post.) Later that day, we received a private email from that teacher, who is registered with Yoga Alliance and is also the lead trainer for a Registered Yoga School, letting us know that she was “horrified at his attempt to associate me with his article.”

Mr. Brown still hasn’t informed his readers or explained why he deleted the material from his blog.

We eventually agreed to remove the information that he found so upsetting, and our comment was finally posted on his blog on the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 14, long after the herd had moved on. YOGANONYMOUS has kindly agreed to publish our response to Mr. Brown below:

Yoga Alliance is far from perfect.

We have acknowledged repeatedly that we have much work to do to add rigor and credibility to our credentialing system. But James Brown’s blog post, claiming that “Yoga Alliance is ruining yoga” is misinformed about our role and the real challenges we face; makes broad assertions about sweeping trends in yoga, and provides nothing more than anecdotes to support them; and mischaracterizes the changes that we are presently making to add rigor to our credentialing system.

It is especially surprising to read such harsh criticism from an individual whose RYS 200 has been registered with us since 2009 and also recently completed our process to register a 300-hour teacher-training program.

Mr. Brown notes that Pam Weber, our director of standards, told him that we would not review our current standards until “next year.” What he fails to mention is that the interview was conducted in September 2013. It is now “next year.” In 2014, our Standards Committee will develop more robust ethics standards and will begin the process of revamping our continuing education program and undertaking a thorough review of our current training standards. As part of that review, the committee may decide to consider a certification program for yoga teachers, as Mr. Brown recommends.

But our first objective, which we have been working towards for the last 18 months, was to ensure that there is meaningful oversight of our current standards. That’s what our new social credentialing system, which was just instituted last month, is designed to do.

Oversight is critically important for the credibility of our system, because until now we have had no meaningful way to monitor the actions of Registered Yoga Schools. Just as traditional yoga was passed from guru to student, the Yoga Alliance system entrusts the lead trainers of our registered schools to be responsible for delivering a quality program. (Mr. Brown neglects to mention that in addition to the training standards, our credentialing system establishes minimum requirements for training and experience for the teachers at our Registered Yoga Schools.) In the past, there has been no way for us to respond to complaints from students of teacher-training programs that are registered with us, even if the information we received was troubling.

Let us share with you an example of an RYS that we have received multiple complaints about over the last several years.  In the span of three weeks, we received three separate complaints after the school’s most recent training this fall:

[Editor’s note: When initially published, this article contained three examples of complaints we received about an unidentified RYS.]

While these three complaints certainly strongly suggest that the RYS in question falls short of Yoga Alliance standards in multiple ways, our organization does not have the staff or infrastructure to conduct the kind of expensive, time-consuming investigations necessary to verify the accuracy of these complaints. For an organization of our scale (44,000+ RYTs and 2,900+ RYSs in 76 countries) and level of resources, there was nothing we could do but grit our teeth.

Under Yoga Alliance’s new social credentialing program, the schools’ own trainees will be our “investigators,” providing feedback about their training experience in the form of ratings and comments. The system will provide a wealth of information to potential trainees, along with insight into the school’s culture and training experience. The system will shine a light on the schools that are delivering quality programs as well as those that are not meeting their students needs and might consider a different yogic path.

Mr. Brown mischaracterizes our social credentialing system and says it is too little too late, but imagine how the school mentioned above would have to change their business practices if these complaints were brought to the light of day. It will take time, but our new system will provide the public and the yoga community with a much clearer picture of the quality of the teacher-training programs that are registered with us.

“Instead of telling trainings what should be taught,” Mr. Brown complains, “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.” He also complains that “no specific curriculum is required to be taught.”

Mr. Brown is apparently unaware that most yoga teachers and schools don’t want a credentialing organization to tell them precisely how to teach yoga, or that it would be impossible to forge a consensus in the yoga community about a “specific curriculum.” In fact, one of Yoga Alliance’s guiding principles since it was founded in 1999 is protecting the rich diversity of yogic thought and style. That diversity and flexibility is precisely the reason that yoga has survived for 5,000 years and has transcended boundaries of geography, religion, language and culture and spread to every corner of the globe.

“There are great teachers out there,” Mr. Brown notes in one of his statements that we agree with. “But they are great in spite of Yoga Alliance, not because of it.”

It is not Yoga Alliance’s role to “create great teachers.” We were established by the yoga community to set minimum standards for yoga teacher-training programs. It is up to the schools that register with us to provide the training that enables their students to flourish, and it is the responsibility of individual Registered Yoga Teachers to practice and study their way to greatness. Perhaps it is this fundamental misunderstanding of the role of credentialing organizations that leads Mr. Brown to lay the blame for all of yoga’s perceived ills at our doorstep.

Mr. Brown praises William Broad’s column about injuries in yoga that appeared in the New York Times Magazine and his book on the same subject, and quotes him as follows: “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.”

We disagree. We think that the explosion of popularity in yoga means that more people are interested in pursuing the practice for health and wellness and that more people than ever are eager to spread the power of yoga by teaching others about its beauty and the fulfillment and growth it can bring. Does this mean that we think there isn’t room to improve the quality of yoga teaching? As the largest support organization for yoga in the world, no group is more concerned about spreading the power of yoga in a safe, professional and competent manner than Yoga Alliance.

 

About Yoga Alliance:

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 12.30.23 AMYoga Alliance (YA) is the largest nonprofit association representing the yoga community. Our mission is to spread the power of yoga one person at a time. We believe that the individual experience of yoga is of paramount importance, and are committed to supporting the passage of yoga from trainer to teacher, teacher to student, and student to aspiring yogi. Our role as the national support organization for the yoga community is to ensure that the practice of yoga will keep growing, so that more people will connect with yoga and be transformed. As an organization we keep several core values at heart: service, transparency, learning and community.

 

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