A Re-Declaration of Independence from a Yoga Educator

Orleans, MA

July 4th, 2019

Happy Independence Day!

As I send this, the sound of Cape Cod fireworks is being carried through the window of my room by a warm summer breeze.

I’m thinking of two anniversaries today. The first is July 4, 1979: Exactly 40 years ago today, at the age of 21, I left the USA for the first time in my life to travel to the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec, Canada. My destination was the headquarters of the Sivananda Yoga Organization to attend a month-long yoga teacher training course. I left the United States with one goal: to spend a nice month in the country sleeping in a tent, doing twice daily yoga and meditation, learning about Eastern philosophy and eating healthy food.  I had absolutely no inkling that I was embarking on a lifelong exploration of what it means to be a student and teacher of yoga.

Since that summer in 1979, I’ve never looked back nor had another career.  It has been all yoga for me – first as a full-time staff member of the Sivananda organization, then as an independent teacher, bodyworker and studio owner. 

From the very beginning, I was involved with the planning and execution of yoga related events, which is what I eventually did for a group called Unity in Yoga. From the mid 80s to the mid 90s, UIY brought together representatives of every tradition at international yoga conferences. It was at these events that the first discussions of national standards for the training of yoga teachers took place. I was, in fact, the author of the official 1993 statement from the Unity in Yoga Executive Board that endorsed the first-ever standards initiative:

“We enthusiastically support the ongoing dialogue addressing higher personal, professional, and ethical standards for Yoga teachers and therapists.” 

“We are in support of a process that results in the establishment of Yoga as a respected personal and academic pursuit, and any certification or accreditation that may result.”

Those two sentences were released to the public.  There was a third sentence that the board voted to delete over my strong objections. I considered it critical to establish a principle upon which these standards could be built, and without this sentence that opportunity was lost:

“We are, however, opposed to the establishment of any entity that assumes the authority to license or regulate Yoga teachers as professional practitioners and to enforce its standards on the Yoga community.”

I have been arguing for the principle expressed in that sentence ever since.

After resigning from Unity in Yoga in 1993, I agreed to be a member of the 1997 Ad Hoc Committee on teacher training standards.  We recommended the hours and subjects which became the 200 and 500 hour standards adopted by the Yoga Alliance, which came into official existence when it inherited Unity in Yoga’s non-profit status in January of 1999.1 

By the time the Ad Hoc Committee became the Yoga Alliance, I had resigned.  For the next 15 years, I was a vocal and consistent critic of the Alliance.  I started one of the earliest online yoga forums (eSutra) for the express purpose of circulating these views, and fostering challenging dialogue with the emerging leadership of the Alliance.2

Which brings me to the second anniversary I’m thinking of today, July 4, 2009: Ten years ago today, I hit “publish” on a rather lengthy and passionate blog post titled, “A Declaration of Independence for Yoga Educators.” 

Anyone who has been following the 20-year saga of national educational standards for yoga would probably tell you that 2009 was arguably Yoga Alliance’s lowest point.  YA’s custodianship of the standards was widely viewed as a running joke and their infrastructure was in shambles. To make matters worse, several states were actively seeking to forcibly regulate yoga teacher training programs under vocational licensing statutes. 

The Alliance had no policy against regulation ten years ago. Even if they had, they were prevented by the rules of their 501(c)(3) non-profit status3 from lobbying for or against anything. All YA could do was issue impotent, empty platitudes while at the same time making it easier for the regulators to come after teacher training programs by maintaining an online list of targets. In my blog post I was particularly hard on the president of the Alliance, Mark Davis, because in my judgment he did nothing to protect or inform his member schools about the dire consequences many of them were facing.

I won’t repeat here my impassioned 2009 arguments against both regulation and the Yoga Alliance, but encourage readers to follow the link to my “Declaration” to get a sense of how desperate I found the situation back then.

These two quotes from the “Declaration” make clear how much has changed in the intervening years:

“…I’ve been telling people not to expect any support from the Alliance on this issue – ever. Even if its board members were willing to agree on a stand for or against licensing (which, as of this writing, they have not) the mere existence of YA and its online database have made it vastly easier for the state regulators to do their jobs…”

“…Unlike the Yoga Alliance, IAYT (International Association of Yoga Therapists) has never sought to establish industry-wide standards for Yoga Therapy trainings – preferring to facilitate dialogue about standards among established and emerging schools…However circumspect IAYT remains about becoming an accrediting organization, without taking a strong stand against licensing, it has little hope of providing leadership as a strong defender of the freedom of its members…”

And now, here we are on July 4, 2019: What a difference a decade makes!  From the ashes of 2009, the Yoga Alliance revitalized its executive board, hired new leadership (a number of times4), instituted an anti-regulation policy and restructured its non-profit status by adding a 501(c)(6)5 that is legally permitted to lobby against state control.  This is an essential shift considering the scope of the ever-expanding yoga industry. YA’s advocacy efforts have challenged and defeated every state effort to regulate yoga teacher training programs.  Beyond that, YA’s legal team has even argued successfully in favor of legislation protecting the rights of YTT’s to operate free of governmental interference.

In addition, the Yoga Alliance has also joined the PHIT Act Coalition, a group of organizations that includes leaders in the fitness, sports, medical, and youth wellness communities who are lobbying for federal legislation that would allow individual taxpayers to place up to $1,000 annually in pre-tax medical accounts. These funds could be used to pay for physical activity expenses, including yoga.

Meanwhile, in 2013 IAYT went from facilitating dialogue about standards to launching an application process for the accreditation of yoga therapy training programs, the first twelve of which were approved the following year. In 2016, they credentialed 500 of their members as “Certified Yoga Therapists” (C-IAYT).  As of this writing, IAYT leadership has still not articulated whether they are for or against the state regulation of yoga therapy training programs or practitioners. As a result, I have not attended an IAYT event since 2013.

When I learned of the establishment of Yoga Alliance’s anti-regulation policy I began seeing them as a potentially positive force in the yoga industry.  In addition, when Richard Karpel took over as YA president in 2012 he went out of his way to find the strongest, loudest critics of the Alliance so he could reach out to them personally. Along with a handful of others, I was pleased to be the recipient of one of those calls, and we had a candid three hour conversation in which he admitted, without appearing defensive, to many of the failings for which I had publicly criticized the Alliance.

Following this welcome and generous gesture, I re-engaged with the Yoga Alliance, very pleased to find there were other pro-freedom, free-market thinkers on the board and staff who were willing to discuss the principles behind an anti-regulation policy. In particular, I want to acknowledge Brandon Hartsell, the former chair of the executive board, and Andrew Tanner, former executive board member and long-time chief ambassador for YA. Both proved to be up to the task of hard thinking and confronting challenging tasks.

Though I was sorry to see Richard Karpel leave the YA presidency, the new hire in 2017, David Lipsius, had the appropriate skill set and personality to lead the Yoga Alliance into the #metoo era, just as issues of injury and power abuse were heating up in the the yoga world. He brought a strong group of experienced staff on board and initiated the lengthy and daunting Standards Review Process (SRP) that culminated in last week’s announcement of the revised Yoga Alliance standards.

I participated in the SRP last year on a panel that evaluated a proposed scope of practice for yoga teachers.  Since the context of my original 1993 protest to Unity in Yoga was about the lack of principled decision-making, my recommendations went beyond scope of practice to address the most important principles upon which all policy decisions must rest.

Since last week’s release of YA’s updated standards, I’ve been asked by a wide range of yoga professionals and practitioners to offer my opinion. Now that I am no longer bound by the non-disclosure agreement all SRP advisors signed, I am free to fully share those thoughts with the world outside of Yoga Alliance leadership.

This is the opening remark in the review I submitted: 

YA should completely avoid any reference to “defining yoga.” It is not the job of the Alliance to do that, and any attempt at it would invite dissent, not unity of purpose. YA should function as a clearinghouse for ideas and debate that would help to educate the general public and teaching profession.

Regarding YA’s overall mission related to fighting regulation, I said:

The Alliance is walking a razor’s edge: on one side is the invaluable advocacy work being done to keep the government regulators out of our field; on the other is the need to avoid becoming the “yoga police,” along with everything that implies.

All the discussions I’ve had with the current YA leadership leads me to believe that they understand my first point very well.  In fact, in response to the very first question asked in a podcast interview released just today, Shannon Roche, YA’s CEO and President explicitly stated that it is not the job of the Alliance to offer a single definition of yoga.

Two nights ago, I had a long conference call with Shannon, Christa Kuberry, the V.P. of Standards and Erin Logan, YA’s Chief Operating Officer.  I told them of my intention to publish this article and requested their comments.  Shannon sent the following:

 “We know that there has long been a concern about Yoga Alliance stepping too far into the role of a regulatory body.  We worked purposefully throughout the Standards Review Project (SRP) not to overstep here and rather to best position ourselves to continue a central tenet of our work – that of fighting overburdensome regulation.”

This is a strong statement with which I have only one issue. I would remove the word “overburdensome,” which implies that some regulation would be tolerated if it were judged to be “unburdensome.”  A more consistent stand would be to fight all regulation as a matter of principle. If you concede that the state has the right to regulate you at all, you have surrendered your freedom.  To paraphrase what I said in 2009:

“…[Regulatory] enforcement [by the government] and Yoga cannot co-exist. Yoga is about freedom and Yoga is about relationship, and force destroys both. If we do not protect our right to conduct our relationships free of interference by third parties, there can be no yoga…”

Shannon’s email continued:

“We also know that many around the world who employ yoga teachers have chosen to make our [voluntary] credentials a requirement for employment, looking to them as an indicator of high-quality teaching and safe instruction.  We do not take this lightly but rather see it as a deeply meaningful responsibility.  At the same time, we learned from all of the feedback shared by the yoga community through the SRP that there were concerns about whether this actually is an accurate interpretation of our credentials.  We do not take the need to fix this disconnect lightly, either, as we want both employers and holders of our credentials to feel the same pride and confidence in these markers of quality and safety in yoga.  The significant enhancements we just announced to our standards and the increase in our application and review process are examples of these corrections we are taking.”

Apparently, the Yoga Alliance has always considered their RYT designations to be credentials, but is now acknowledging that they have historically failed to act in such a way as to lend them much credence in the public’s perception. The upgraded standards are meant to specifically address that issue, which Shannon characterizes as a “disconnect.”

I still maintain there is a big difference between the administrative function of managing a registry and claiming that registering a teacher is the equivalent of issuing them a valid credential.  I believe the only valid credential a yoga teacher could hold would be issued by the school or teacher that trained them, and would be a certificate.  Perhaps it is just semantics, but the underlying principle is what matters, and the principle is relationship. An organization issuing a credential to someone with whom they have had no personal relationship is a problem, one which Shannon apparently recognizes as well:

“This does not mean that we are trying to replace or be a substitute for the appropriate relationship among schools, teachers, students, and mentors which, ideally, is the best place for many issues of concern to be worked out. What it does mean is that we accept our responsibility and intend to do so with integrity – such as ensuring that 200 hours equals a complete 200 hours, or that all Registered Yoga Schools operate with, for example, whistleblower policies in place. It would be irresponsible of us walk away from this responsibility, and we don’t intend to – it’s too important.”

The “many issues of concern” to which Shannon refers go beyond training and certification. Some relate to problematic classroom behavior of teachers.  I’ve always maintained that if the first court of appeal for addressing ethical breaches is seen to be the Yoga Alliance, that indicates two things: YA is overstepping its proper function, and something has seriously broken down on the level of community, communication and mentorship.

Some practical considerations I also voiced related to the expansive new operational responsibilities and activities YA is taking on by upgrading their standards. Application reviews, educational requirements, ongoing compliance, etc. would have profound financial, organizational and infrastructure implications for the Yoga Alliance. How does an organization which has historically had trouble responding to simple email requests for information become a more efficient operation capable of implementing the sweeping changes and increased vigilance to which they’ve committed themselves by February 2022?

I also expressed concern that the burden of administering these new standards would shift focus and resources away from the vital and highly successful advocacy work against governmental interference with our industry.

I was assured they are taking steps to address the administrative issues, and that their commitment to the advocacy work remains a core value for YA.  I was glad to hear that, but would be more convinced if the Alliance could explain not just that their anti-regulation policy is a correct and practical one but why it is a correct stand, on defensible ethical grounds.

Without a strong ethical foundation in place, all that’s left is decision-by-committee or opinion poll. Majority opinion does not constitute a principled stand, no matter how many “elders, experts and wisdom holders” may have contributed. Opinions change, frequently and rapidly. The past few years of YA’s history eloquently attest to that.

The Yoga Alliance has claimed that the foundation of their ethical principles is Yama and Niyama. Based on my understanding of those terms, this sounds good, but what does it mean to the Yoga Alliance, and its members?  

The yogic teaching concerning what we should avoid (Yama) is presented before we are told what we should pursue (Niyama). This is a significant distinction, because it’s easy for YA, survey respondents, and panels of experts to say that they are in favor of setting the bar higher for the training of teachers and the registering of schools.  In my experience, it is a far more difficult task to consistently and defensibly identify a principle behind what you are not supporting.  As evidence, consider how the original standards dialogue started in 1997 with people readily agreeing on the need for setting the bar higher6, compared to how long it took the Alliance to formulate a policy against regulation 14 years later.  

As mentioned earlier, IAYT – founded in 1989 – has still not taken a stand on regulation, and because they aspire to have a seat at the table of healthcare delivery, they need such a policy even more urgently than YA.  I often characterize the organizational distinction between the “easy yes” and the “hard no” as the difference between cheerleading and leadership.

Here’s my case for a what is literally a first ethical principle from a yogic perspective. The very first Yama is Ahimsa – the avoidance of doing harm. In the context of YA’s mission, what exactly is it they must avoid harming? The process of teaching yoga.  What is the vehicle for the process of teaching yoga? The student-teacher relationship.

In support of this principle the leadership of the Yoga Alliance should establish what I refer to as their “prime directive”7:

“The Yoga Alliance must never insert itself into the student-teacher relationship, and must work to prevent anyone else from doing so.”

The Yoga Alliance must function as a system of voluntary self-regulation in the field of yoga teaching. The training of teachers must be done by certifying schools and/or teachers, and the competency of those trainees can only be judged from within a teaching relationship.

It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that membership in the Yoga Alliance is strictly voluntary.  When the state of Wisconsin tried to make YA membership mandatory as part of their regulation efforts, Alliance leadership was justifiably outraged, and threw their legal muscle behind defeating that initiative. 

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of YA and that has not hampered me in the yoga marketplace – so far. Whether that continues to be the case depends primarily on my status (or non-status) as a provider of CEU contact hours recognized by YA.  Ironically, I’ve been assured that the online courses I’ve developed at yogaanatomy.net will not require some sort of YA “stamp of approval” in order be accepted for the 30 anatomy hours in the upgraded RYT200 standard.  BUT the CEU status of the live contact hours I provide in my in-person workshops seems to be in limbo due to my non-membership in the Alliance.

Clearly, there are a few kinks like this to still be worked out.  Stay tuned.

As always, your feedback is welcome.

Leslie

As always, my deepest gratitude goes to Lydia Mann for her unwavering support and expert editorial assistance.

Footnotes:

1If you look up the Yoga Alliance Registry’s underlying corporate identity, you will see that it is not organized under the laws of its current home of Washington D.C., but those of Washington State – the former home base of Unity in Yoga’s founder, Rama Jyoti Vernon.

2 This excerpt from an e-Sutra post I wrote sums up my 1999 attitude toward the Alliance pretty succinctly: 

I respectfully suggest that the Alliance do the following:

  • Complete its task of creating standards for instructors.
  • Make it clear that training programs and individual teachers will comply with the standards on a completely voluntary, honorary basis…No enforcement or verification. It will be up to the students to determine the honesty of their teachers (it always has been, anyway).
  • Thoroughly publicize the standards and the terms of compliance to the entire world.
  • Disband.

3 501(c)(3)s are organized and operated primarily for religious, charitable, scientific, educational, and certain other purposes. They are what most people think of when referring to nonprofit organizations.   A 501(c)(3) is strictly prohibited from engaging in any political activity and is very limited as to the amount of lobbying they are permitted. The primary beneficiary of their actions is the general public, NOT their membership.

4 Davis was gone by March of 2010, to be replaced by John Matthews, who would last about one year, followed by the 2-year tenure of Richard Karpel, which, after a gap, led to the 18-month reign of David Lipsius.  YA’s current President and CEO is Shannon Roche.

5 A 501(c)(6) is business league or trade association that is organized and operated primarily to lobby on behalf of the common business interests of its members. 

6 That was a very easy call back in 1997, when there were aerobics instructors being taught to lead yoga classes in a single weekend of training.

7  The Prime Directive is a Star Trek reference. Early in the series “Enterprise” (a prequel to the Original Series) the first captain of the Enterprise Jonathan Archer sensed the need for a Prime Directive, and stated: “Some day my people are going to come up with some sort of a doctrine, something that tells us what we can and can’t do out here; should and shouldn’t do. But until somebody tells me that they’ve drafted that…directive… I’m going to have to remind myself every day that we didn’t come out here to play God.”

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4 comments on “A Re-Declaration of Independence from a Yoga Educator

  1. Hello Leslie,

    Reading and re-reading. Thank you. Wondering if you can direct me to schools who are not registering or releasing their affiliation with the yoga alliance. Is there an actual alliance/network of schools and teachers collaborating outside of the YA regulations?

  2. Thanks for the question, Michelle. There have been a number of alternatives to YA proposed over the years, and some are in development right now, but nothing to which I could currently direct you.

    The independent teachers and programs are – well, independent – and generally need to be tracked down individually.

  3. Thank you Leslie! I appreciate the response. I will continue to be open to connecting with other independent teachers and teacher training programs.

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