A Declaration of Independence for Yoga Educators

© July 4, 2009 Leslie Kaminoff and IYEA

iyeaLogo-BadgeUntil a month ago, I was prepared to write a perspective piece for the International Journal of Yoga Therapy centering on the IAYT-sponsored Council of Schools that I attended this March in Los Angeles. Those well-organized and productive meetings produced a richly textured dialogue surrounding issues such as certification standards, accreditation and definitions of yoga therapy. Unfortunately, I can no longer write about those issues because it has become clear that dialogue can no longer exist for us as a community – it has been obliterated by the regulatory agencies of several states’ departments of education.

The state wants complete authority over your yoga

There is a nationally coordinated effort by state regulators to capture a piece of the heretofore unregulated $6 billion yoga industry. They are doing this through requiring yoga teacher training programs to obtain licenses to operate vocational training facilities. These regulators make no distinction between religious/spiritually-oriented and fitness-based trainings, nor do they distinguish between yoga teacher and yoga therapist training programs. By their definition if you teach people how to teach, regardless of your tradition or orientation, you are conducting vocational training and need to be licensed.

Perhaps you – like many – equate “unregulated” with “unsafe” and welcome this development, thinking it will bring professionalism and higher business standards to our field. Maybe you view it as a mere annoyance or necessary evil, so intend on proceeding with business as usual. In either case, you could not be more wrong.

Regardless of the enormous financial, legal, and bureaucratic burdens these laws would place on our field, the essential wrong remains. Even if obtaining one of these licenses was as easy and cheap as getting one for your dog, conceding that the state has the right to demand that we obtain one is a deadly error. Submitting to vocational licensing would permit state regulators to assert control over every aspect of our industry, including mandatory licensing for teacher trainers, as well as for teachers themselves

I do not overstate when I say that the entire field of yoga in this country is now at war with state regulators, and the stakes in this battle could not be higher. If we don’t overcome this intrusion into our beloved field, it will cease to exist as we know it.

These government bureaucrats would put a regulatory noose around our profession — I see no reason to offer them a collective neck, and tie the knot besides.

Government enforcement of licensing and Yoga cannot co-exist. Yoga is about freedom and Yoga is about relationship, and force destroys both. If we are not free to conduct our relationships free of interference by third parties, there can be no yoga.

I am on record in this battle for over 16 years. In 1993 I wrote I am “opposed to any entity that assumes the authority to license or regulate Yoga teachers as professional practitioners and to enforce its standards on the Yoga community.”

When the discussions about certification standards started heating up in 1997, the general consensus was that the yoga community needed to set its own standards from within, before someone sets them for us. I always rejected this rationale, and argue that regardless of who sets the standards, no one has the right to enforce them.

Today, 12 years later, the same people who were rallying to set their own standards are unhappily waking up to the prospect of having those standards enforced upon them, and are now rushing to make the case that yoga should be excluded from licensing.

If we want to fight these measures we must do so on the correct principles. Arguing that Yoga should be excluded from licensing implicitly accepts the premise that the state has the right to regulate us in the first place. Fighting on this basis means that we have already lost the war, and can only negotiate less oppressive terms of surrender.

Licensing laws are immoral

ALL licensing by the state is wrong, and it is only on that principle that we can mount a consistent case for our personal and professional freedom.

The proper role of the State is to protect the individual rights of its citizens. Our constitution has given our government the right to wield force – but this force is supposed to be retaliatory – meaning that it can only used against those who initiate force in violation of another’s rights. Valid laws are based upon the presumption of innocence and only punish those who are guilty of violating the rights of others. By contrast, licensing laws are based on the presumption of the potential guilt of an entire profession, and thus punish the innocent along with the guilty – while giving the public the illusion that the government is protecting them. Therefore, licensing laws are invalid because they permit the government to initiate the use of force against victims who have committed no crimes. Licensing laws constitute an inversion of the sacred trust we invest in our government to protect us.

Licensing is a protection racket

“Pretty nice business you have here, Mr. Smith, but this is a dangerous neighborhood. It’d be a shame if some punk threw a rock through your window, or set fire to your store. You know, for a small weekly payment, me and my boys here could make sure that’ll never happen…” If Mr. Smith refuses to pay up right away, he can expect the rock. If he still refuses, he can expect the fire.

Mr. Smith’s first instinct may be to plead for mercy – to try to convince these hoodlums he can’t afford it, he has many mouths to feed. He won’t get anywhere with this argument. If they let Smith off the hook, they’d have to make exceptions for everyone. Anyway, mobsters have families too, and this is their business – don’t they have a right to make a living?

The removal of a threat is not a value. These regulators have nothing to offer us in exchange for our time, money and freedom. They merely offer to remove their threat of shutting us down.

Should Smith’s next tactic be negotiation, trying to make his protection payments more affordable? It absolutely should not. The removal of a threat is not a value. To offer even one cent to a blackmailing thug would be a total surrender of one’s priceless sense of right and wrong. Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote applies here: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

I say that there is no essential difference between our situation and Mr. Smith’s. These regulators have nothing to offer us in exchange for our time, money and freedom. They merely offer to remove their threat of shutting us down. Their claims that they are protecting the public are transparently false, and their offer of state-sponsored scholarship funding is ludicrous. That’s like a hoodlum showing up at your store to pick up his envelope stuffed with protection money, and paying a nickel for a piece of gum out of “good will.”

This issue is purely about money and nothing else, and in these tough economic times, the states aren’t even going to the trouble of disguising that fact. In my home state of New York, the bureau that licenses vocational schools has received no funding from the state budget since 1990, so their only income is derived from their licensing activities. Due to the economy, many of the schools they license have closed, depriving them of operating income. It’s no surprise that they are now looking for new targets and raising their fees astronomically. Via a bill recently introduced in New York, they are basically pleading poverty as justification for eliminating traditional exemptions from licensing and raising fees to $5,000.00 per year per location! Well, regulators have families too, and this is their business – don’t they have a right to make a living?

Perhaps it seems harsh to compare our government’s licensing agencies to a criminal enterprise. Well, consider this: crooks know their targets have a right to fight back with force of their own, and often choose to do so. By definition, the victims of governmental abuse are legally disarmed – so who is the more cowardly?

It is absolutely essential that we take a principled, consistent, uncompromising stand against the government-backed protection racket called licensing. There can be no compromise on basic principles, and it is essential that these principles be clearly and openly defined, because it will work to our advantage. It’s when these issues remain hidden or evaded that the side that’s in the wrong has an edge. Think of what Gandhi accomplished by sticking to his principles. He settled for nothing less than Independence because he did not recognize The Crown’s right to be in India in the first place.

The immoral is also the impractical

You can’t protect the rights of one group of people by violating the rights of another group. A consumer is never well-served by practitioners whose rights have been violated for his supposed benefit. It’s important to remember the distinction between certification – which relates to practitioner education, training and mentorship – and licensing, which involves government formulated test-taking and fee-collecting.

Licensing has done nothing to protect the public from unqualified practitioners in any field. In fact, it has the exact opposite of its intended effect: it creates in the public’s perception a false sense of security that shuts down any meaningful inquiry into a person’s actual training and qualifications.

Any honest doctor will tell you that the best test-takers are not necessarily the best physicians, but because of medical licensing laws, the good and the bad are all lumped in together with no way for the public to sort them out. Have you ever wondered why you can get detailed, comparative consumer information on your next washing machine purchase, but are denied similar data on the person you’re hiring to remove your gallbladder? Thank the medical monopoly the government has granted to the A.M.A. through its licensing power.

Here are some examples that illustrate how unnecessary licensing is: Let’s say I’m a doctor or a yoga teacher, and I lie to a prospective client about my qualifications in order to get their business. I’ve committed the crime of fraud, and should be punished by the law for the harm that ensues. What if I’m completely honest and say: “I have no actual training, but I’ve learned how to do this procedure from a book, and I’d like to try it out on you.” If both parties, with full disclosure and consent, agree to proceed, then whose rights have been violated? Where’s the victim, the crime?

What if I’m honest about my credentials, but abuse my client? There are laws against assault. What if I unintentionally harm my client? That’s why we can carry insurance, and should inform our clients up front whether or not we’re insured, so they can make a fully informed choice. With all these protections already in place, there is absolutely no need for the government to create licensing.

Yoga Alliance has conceded the State’s right to regulate yoga

In a May 13, 2009 letter in response to an online article about New York State’s attempt to impose vocational licensing on yoga teacher training, Yoga Alliance CEO Mark Davis wrote: “…a $6 billion a year industry…has attracted the attention of regulators. Which in turn is forcing (emphasis mine) this ancient tradition to conform to Western business practices.” Davis goes on to claim that:

“Ten years ago the founders of Yoga Alliance…foresaw this would happen. They believed it would be in the best interest of the yoga community to be proactive by setting voluntary compliance standards…to set the benchmark for a future possibility of licensing…Without Yoga Alliance’s standards each state would have the opportunity to create their own criteria which could lead to undue restrictions on the practice of yoga.”

Here we have the leader of a national Yoga association claiming “undue restriction” if states set standards, while he’s fully accepting State licensing. This tortured logic results from Mark’s concession that states have the right to impose licensing at all. Once you’ve surrendered to complete State control over your “voluntary” standards, what other undue restrictions could possibly matter? This is the equivalent of being proud that you were able to freely choose the décor of your prison cell.

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. Ten years ago, as one of the “founders of Yoga Alliance” Davis referenced, mine was a dissenting voice when I asked the then-forming Alliance to disband, dissolve, decentralize and leave it to the regulators to do the work of finding us:

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.

“These government bureaucrats would put a regulatory noose around our profession – I see no reason to offer them a collective neck, and tie the knot besides.”

e-Sutra post Nov. 23, 1999

This Spring, in my home state of New York, the Bureau of Proprietary School Supervision at the State Education Department logged on to the publicly accessible Yoga Alliance website and found 81 registered teacher training programs. The BPSS then sent 81 cease-and-desist letters to those schools demanding that they immediately halt teacher-training programs until they come into compliance with vocational licensing laws, or face a $50,000.00 fine. Collective neck; noose already neatly tied. To stage the proverbial hangings, all New York State had to do was put stamps on the subpoenas and drop them in the mail.

If the BPSS letter reads like a summons to a hanging, the closing of Davis’ May 13th letter reads like an epitaph:

“We realize that small yoga schools and studios may not be able to comply with NY’s lengthy and involved application process, forcing them (emphasis mine again) to drop their teacher training programs, and for this we are sad. Sad because the fierce individualistic entrepreneurial spirit they embody is a true manifestation of Seva and all of our quests for peace and harmony in our lives. Yoga Alliance stands strong behind its teachers and schools and will continue to do everything it can to support them during this time of need.”

He did not need to state the obvious: most of these “small yoga schools and studios” will be forced out of business without the income from their teacher training programs. If this is a war for our freedom, Davis has already surrendered and expressed his condolences to the casualties. With one hand he’s wiping away tears of sadness over licensing’s effects, while with the other hand patting his own back for having the “foresight” to make it easier for the states to license.

Yoga Therapy is Vulnerable

Unlike the Yoga Alliance, IAYT has never sought to establish industry-wide standards for Yoga Therapy trainings – preferring to facilitate dialogue about standards among established and emerging schools. Unfortunately, the above scenario also applies to the IAYT database of Yoga Therapy trainings – if your program is listed, it is exposed to the regulators. I’ve not yet heard of any YT programs getting similar letters from the State, but I can guarantee that it’s only a matter of time. 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. I would hate to see the day when a similar letter is authored by IAYT’s leadership.

What can I do?

For fairly obvious reasons, the IAYT journal would not be the ideal place to be detailing my strategy dealing with state regulators. For the web version of this article, I will briefly outline the basics of what I would personally do in these circumstances. Please consult an experienced attorney before taking any of the actions I outline.

Happy to be invisible

My most immediate concern would be for my program to be off the radar of state regulators. I have never registered trainings with Yoga Alliance or IAYT, but if I did have a program listed on either of their websites right now, I’d be very concerned about getting a letter from my state regulators. De-listing takes only a few minutes, and that would be my very first step.

I would also be concerned about any references to yoga teacher (or therapist) training on my website and promotional material. Anything that can be construed as “vocational training” would appear as a big red flag to state regulators.

Intensives, immersions, retreats are not subject to vocational licensing laws, so language that describes training using these terms is much safer. The vast majority of people who enroll in teacher training are doing so to enrich their personal practice, and never end up teaching full-time, so this is actually a more accurate way of describing the true nature of most programs.

If I were offering yoga therapy training, it would present a different challenge, as these have been more explicitly about learning professional, marketable skills. I’d have to be more creative in my language, but it’s not that hard to call what I’m doing by another name while still teaching the same skills. I would even have my students sign a release stating that they are studying for the purpose of their own personal enrichment, and they understand that I am NOT providing vocational training.

Happy to comply

If I had already received a letter from the state, I would politely tell them that I am complying with the law by shutting down my teacher training program (of course, after following all of the steps above). It seems counterintuitive, but this is actually the very best strategy for undermining the State’s efforts to control you – simply obey the letter of the law by going out of the teacher training business. This will not only deny them the revenue they were counting on extracting from you, it will force them to expend their rapidly dwindling resources in trying to prove that you’re violating the spirit of their law.

It seems counterintuitive, but this is actually the very best strategy for undermining the State’s efforts to control you — simply obey the letter of the law by going out of the teacher training business.

Remember, the whole reason the states are doing this is that they are cash-strapped and in desperate need of more resources. Without a centralized database of registered programs to rely upon, they will have to employ their limited manpower in a labor-intensive effort to round up individual victims. So far, the yoga community has played into their strength by centralizing our data about our training programs. Now is the time to play into their weakness by de-centralizing, de-listing and dispersing.

Does this all seem dishonest to you? Consider this: if an armed thief breaks into my house, am I obligated to walk right up to him and show him where I’ve hidden my valuables? In that example it’s completely moral for me to hide or lie. The yogic way to state this principle is that ahimsa comes before satya – if telling the truth causes demonstrable harm to myself or another, my first duty is to avoid that harm.

Ready to Resist

The strategy of hiding and “complying” will not work forever, because eventually they will single out a studio as a test case. When the inevitable legal challenge to their authority is made public, we must respond with visible, vocal, principled civil disobedience – we must refuse to obey the law on the grounds that the law is immoral. If the world learned anything from M. Gandhi, it is the power of unflinching resistance in a righteous cause.

At some point it will be up to the State to explain how they made hundreds of teacher training programs disappear due to their takeover attempts. It will be up to the State to explain what pressing public need dictated such draconian measures. It will be up to the State to explain the YouTube videos of studios being shuttered and yoga teachers being dragged away. In short, they will have A LOT of explaining to do. Fortunately, we still have freedom of speech, and we live in an age of instant and effective communication. We can and must use this communication to bring our cause directly before the public.

In preparation for that day (which will surely come), we need to be ready to respond with protests, sit-ins, press releases and even large, illegal yoga trainings that will hopefully result in mass arrests of peaceful, principled yoga teachers. The time to start planning for that is now.

We are the Satyagrahis of our time

Our society is rapidly slipping into outright fascism.  At some point, each one of us must exercise the power of our independent, discriminating mind, and decide where we draw the line.  Like Gandhi, we have Satyagraha – the power of truth – on our side. It is, in fact, part of our job description to teach it. If we don’t take a stand for freedom, who’s left in the world that will?

For me, it couldn’t be clearer. Yoga and force are incompatible. It is precisely against the introduction of force into our field that I have been fighting all these years. If you recognize that this is your battle as well, now is the time to let your voice be heard.

If we don’t take a stand for freedom, who’s left in the world that will?

Ultimately, the only legitimate standards are the ones we set for ourselves, and for which we agree to be held personally accountable.  If groups of us with similar standards wish to join together for mutual benefit, that’s certainly OK – as long as we don’t presume to speak for anyone else, or seek to impose our standards on others.

If we seek legitimacy, we need to recognize it can never be bestowed upon us by another- it is something each of us can only grant to ourselves – by the integrity of our thought, speech and action.

A Declaration of Independence for Yoga Educators

I am posting this message to the web on July 4th, 2009 – Independence Day – the same day I’m launching an initiative that I’ve been planning for many years: IYEA – The Independent Yoga Educators of America. If you agree with the principles I’ve outlined in this article, and want to participate in an uncompromising battle for our freedom, you may want to consider joining. There is no fixed fee – all donations are completely voluntary and go directly to support writing, networking, organizing and legal fees. There will be no online database maintained – individual programs and educators can use the IYEA designation as a public statement that they support voluntary standards, and are steadfastly united against government licensing of our field. IYEA’s tag-line is: “Defending our right to teach about freedom.” For more information and to participate, please visit: http://iyea.us/

Proposed IYEA Statement of Principles:

I am an independent yoga educator.

I teach about the value of personal freedom on all levels of human experience.

I embrace my own standards for my education, and the training of my students – and am willing to be held accountable for living up to those standards.

I value my freedom to conduct my relationships without coercive interference by third parties.

I will resist to the best of my ability any entity that assumes the authority to license or regulate me as a yoga educator or to enforce its standards upon me.

signed, Leslie Kaminoff

Leslie Kaminoff, July 4, 2009

I wish to acknowledge the invaluable guidance and encouragement of my friend Ron Pisaturo, the editorial contributions of both Lydia Mann and Kelly McGonigal and the never-ending inspiration of Ayn Rand.

Leslie Kaminoff is the founder of IYEA and the Breathing Project, a nonprofit educational corporation in New York City dedicated to the teaching of individualized, breath-centered Yoga. He is also the co-author (with Amy Matthews) of the book Yoga Anatomy.