Yoga Alliance Behind the Curtain: Regulation Battles, the Death (and Rebirth?) of Social Credentialing, Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Inclusion

A dialogue between Brandon Hartsell and Leslie Kaminoff

In the wake of my previous post – inspired by the release of the Yoga Alliance’s updated standards – I’ve had many interactions with people deeply invested in the future of yoga teaching and teacher training.

The most notable conversation has taken place, via email and text, with my friend Brandon Hartsell, and we agreed to turn it into this post. I have inserted a good number of links, so if the topics we cover are of interest to you, feel free to dive down this rather deep informational rabbit hole. You will learn about Yoga Alliance’s anti-regulation history, their attempt to generate useful, community-based data about the effectiveness of TT programs, and most importantly, the unintended exclusionary consequences of YA’s updated standards for teacher trainers.


Brandon:  I read your 4th of July post this morning, and found it to be spot on. Thanks for taking the time to articulate it.

Leslie:  That means a lot coming from you.  Thank you for taking the time to read it.  I know that a lot of the positive changes I saw at the Alliance happened during your board tenure, so I’m keen to hear if there’s any inside information you’d want people to know about the history and importance of YA’s anti-regulation stance.

Brandon:  Sure.  I could add some additional context from my own experience as an RYT, RYS, Texas studio owner, and as a member of YA’s board.

I got interested in working with YA during John Matthews’ tenure as Executive Director. The Texas Workforce Commission became interested in regulating Yoga Teacher Training Schools, and John had the forethought and relevant experience to recognize the long-term disaster this would create.

Leslie:  So, opposing the regulation of yoga trainings is what originally got you involved with the Alliance. That’s back when a bunch of state vocational licensing boards were taking their lead from that guy in Wisconsin.  I actually spoke with him once…Pat Sweeney. I call him “Regulator Zero” because he started it all.  He actually created a PowerPoint to teach regulators in other states how to deal with their local yoga communities.  He called it “Licensing a New Sector of Schools: The Yoga Experience – Creating a Win-Win Relationship” (PDF link). I still have that slideshow.  It’s hilarious and harrowing at the same time.

My recollection is that Texas actually started enforcing the licensing law in 2010, and it got reversed a year or so later.  I know Jennifer Buergermeister, founder of the Texas Yoga Association and Conference was instrumental in getting it overturned.

Brandon:  Yes. Texas teacher training schools had already organized to oppose this action and with John’s leadership, YA assisted in successfully getting Yoga excluded from state regulation. John also had the foresight to establish the 501(c)(6) allowing YA to lobby and oppose regulation effectively.

Leslie:  Right.  As I pointed out in my article prior to that, even if YA had an anti-regulation policy, its 501(c)(3) non-profit status would have prevented them from doing much of anything about it.

Brandon: What’s interesting is that we found out the reason the Texas Workforce became focused on regulating Yoga Teacher Training Schools in the first place.  It was because they saw it as a source of income and they felt they could make the argument that YTT Schools fell under their regulations. 

Leslie:  Same in New York, except, as far as I know, YA was not helping us.  It was Alison West and others who came together, and started Yoga for New York.  We found out that the Bureau of Proprietary School Supervision (BPSS) had no direct funding from the state budget, so they supported themselves entirely from the licensing fees they collected from their targeted schools.  Back in 2009, the economy was tanking, and a lot of the schools were closing down, so they were highly motivated to find new sectors to license.  Contrary to what they claimed, it had nothing to do with consumer safety and everything to do with them finding new sources of funding.

Brandon:  That’s right.  In Texas, they had received no complaints or outcries about unsafe classrooms or unscrupulous training programs. Thankfully, Texas legislatures ultimately found this absurd – both in the Texas Congress and Senate. It may be worthwhile to discuss why the legislatures were absolutely correct from a legal perspective, which would articulate additional support for your principle-based argument, but let’s leave that to another discussion, when we could invite others who were involved to share their perspective.

Leslie:  Absolutely.  I’d like to hear from anyone who was involved, and who’s familiar with the legal arguments that led to the reversal of the licensing.

Speaking as a studio owner, can you say what it was like to have been targeted for licensing by the state?

Brandon:  As one of the larger teacher training programs in Texas, the state contacted my school (Sunstone Yoga) very early in their push for regulation. We were given the option of closing down our program or beginning the process of being licensed by the state. We began to comply in order to buy time in the hope that new legislation would pass. 

Beginning the process of compliance exposed me to how unqualified and unprepared the state was to regulate our industry. Programs have to be very cookie-cutter in order to meet the state’s standards. There are dozens of requirements that are fundamentally incompatible. 

“Beginning the process of compliance exposed me to how unqualified and unprepared the state was to regulate our industry.”

BRANDON HARTSELL

One example that stands out to me even after all these years is that a classroom hour is considered to be 50 minutes. If you hold a student in class for longer than 50 minutes you violate the law. You are literally a criminal. Now of course, there is nothing naturally criminal about a student voluntarily learning for more than 50 minutes, but if you are a licensed career school in the state of Texas, it becomes a criminal act. 

It takes about a thousand hours to get them the information they request.

Leslie:  Yikes. One thousand hours, just to file the paperwork! Even if your time was only worth the Texas minimum wage 10 years ago…[checks iPhone for minimum wage in Texas in 2009 – $7.25 X 1000]…that’s $7,250.00.00!

Brandon:  At minimum wage in 2009.  Unfortunately, you can’t just hire someone at minimum wage to take on the task. It takes a program director level person (and they will struggle). One of the studios that was a little ahead of us completed the project and spent about $20,000. That person did it on their own. We would have had to spend more.

Leslie:  And, that’s just the cost of your labor, let alone the legal and licensing fees, Certificate of Occupancy cost for each location, the surety bond – it goes on and on.

Brandon:  Needless to say, complying with licensing would have meant that most of the teacher training schools in the state of Texas would have been eliminated. We were one of the few programs with enough scale and resources to have survived the application process, not to mention the ongoing requirements which were also time consuming and burdensome. I point this out to highlight how easily regulation can be abused to the benefit of a few. There are several individuals in our industry who feel that only the State can give yoga teacher training programs validity and credibility.

Leslie:  And not surprisingly, those would be the bigger programs.  Yoga is not the first industry to have big players who would use a government cudgel to kill their competitors.  It’s sad, but true.  One of the other big programs in Texas was Yoga Yoga in Austin. I asked Rich Goldstein (the owner) about what happened in 2009, and he told me that he gave his lawyers a large chunk of change, and asked them to tell him what he should do about licensing – submit, or oppose?  He didn’t have a personal opinion about whether licensing was right or wrong, he just wanted to know the cost/benefit of either decision.  His lawyers told him it would be cheaper to comply than to fight, so he complied.  I’m sure he was aware that some of his smaller competitors would go under, so win-lose, right?  That, to me, is a good example of the difference between pragmatic and principled decision making.

Brandon:  I should point out that Barbara Dobberthien, who was leading the organization after Richard Karpel, saw the same thing happen when chiropractors pushed for regulations in the hope that they could capture more healthcare dollars through increased regulation. Well, they got it, and most of the smaller practitioners didn’t like it.

Barbara was a strong advocate for not letting this happen to our yoga community, as small mom-and-pop yoga operations are even less able to survive the disproportionate impact of licensing. It was her leadership, during and after Richard, that led to YA becoming an efficient and effective anti-regulation organization. If those skills have been lost or are being lost inside YA today it would be disappointing to say the least.

Leslie:  I guess that remains to be seen.  There are still a few potential battlefield states that are known for having a more activist regulatory stance.  As you know, I had this same concern – that YA might take their eye off the advocacy ball because of how much resource and focus will go into administering the new standards. If, for example, California goes after yoga trainings with vocational licensing, that would require quite a large legal war chest to fight properly.  California has already been hassling studios about employee vs. independent contractor tax compliance.

So, back to history: after the battle against regulation in Texas was won you stayed on with Yoga Alliance, served on the board, and eventually became the chair of the board.  As far as I know, on your watch, there were nothing but victories as far as YA vs. Regulators is concerned.

Any other inside perspective you could give?

Brandon:  Yes.  I agree with you about the importance of the relationship between the trainee (becoming a teacher/instructor) and the school that’s training them. I also agree that the certificate the school issues is the only valid credential. 

“…the certificate the school issues is the only valid credential… the relationship between a teacher holding a certificate and their students is what validates the effectiveness of the school.”

BRANDON HARTSELL

I would go further and say that the relationship between a teacher holding a certificate and their students is what validates the effectiveness of the school. 

It was this very insight that lead to Gyandev McCord and the board to support the development of Social Credentialing. Trainees providing feedback to and about their trainers and schools was implemented. 

The next step would have been for students to provide feedback about their teachers. This would help close the loop on quantifying the effectiveness of the relationships. If the newly minted teachers are happy with the schools and the students are happy with the teachers, where is the problem? 

Each of these steps has challenges but I have never heard a principled explanation from YA as to why they gave up on Social Credentialing. The few times I asked, I got convoluted answers that basically came down to a lack of trust in graduating trainees and in the public.

Leslie:  I thought Social Credentialing was an idea that was great in theory, but was executed poorly by YA. After hearing how it was going to work, I remember pointing out to Karpel that unless the graduating trainees could provide their feedback anonymously, it would never be truthful.  After all, those new instructors would graduate wanting to get teaching slots so would be disinclined to honestly answer questions about the quality of their training for fear of pissing off studio management.

Brandon: Yes, we got that feedback and I think it is a valid concern. I recommended they quantify it. It is not hard to do. Ask the question: “Is there feedback you were afraid to share because you believe there may be negative consequences?” If they reply yes, you let them know that the remaining feedback will be anonymous and not shared with the school. Then you get the details. We would then have been able to see patterns and could have adjusted.

Leslie:  On the other hand, we have seen many examples of how anonymous feedback can be used to vindictively to attack people, with inflated or outright false allegations. It’s actually happened to me, so I have seen it first hand, and it’s ugly.

Brandon: Yes, we considered a lot of the potentials for abuse of the system. There was also a concern that schools and trainees would conspire. The trainees would know the program was garbage but “liked” it anyway for some reason and wouldn’t report accurately. I find this scenario unlikely, but this open loop would be closed if we had developed a system to survey the students of the graduates.

Presumably if a high ranking school was actually garbage, student feedback would eventually uncover that. As a school owner with multiple studios that hire as many of our TT graduates as we can and who surveys our students, I know for a fact this feedback loop works.

Leslie:  Maybe it’s not too late to revive Social Credentialing, perhaps under a different name – maybe Community Credentialing or something like that.

Brandon:  There is so much opportunity for YA to facilitate real value with a feedback-centric credentialing process that I still get excited today when I think about it being rolled out on a national level.  I truly get that any one graduating trainee or any one student of a graduate may abuse the system, or at least not tell the full story – but with time and quantity of responses, the data would be significant and meaningful.

Many trainee graduates have had other schooling, so they know what quality looks like. Same for students. They don’t live in a bubble. They have taken other classes, and their opinions tell us about the relationship. In a fairly short period of time, schools could really find out how to adjust their curricula, and prospective trainees (via YA collected data) would be empowered to see the schools that were doing the best job at setting them up to be successful instructors.

But, instead of gathering data, YA gathered opinions (via the Standards Review Project). Now they have “data” based on opinions and are taking action based on that. As you said in your article: “Majority opinion does not constitute a principled stand.”

Quoting Shannon Roche (current President and CEO of Yoga Alliance): 

“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.”

What’s to keep them from having this very same concern in 2023? The only way I can think it would change is if the majority says “we still have no idea, but we can steer the standards by saying we are unhappy.” 

The truth is no one knows the effectiveness of the standards because no one has measured. 

Leslie:  Clearly, you’ve given this issue a tremendous amount of thought, and that really shines through in your analysis and recommendations.  What comes across to me is that if the kind of system you advocate had been in place several years ago, there would have been no need for the massive, expensive undertaking of the Standards Review Project, because the information the SRP was intended to generate would have been flowing in continuously via Social Credentialing.  And useful data would have been gathered from the ground up – where the real work of teaching and learning occurs – rather than top-down, from panels of “elders, experts and wisdom holders.”

If Alliance leadership could be persuaded by your argument to re-institute something like Social Credentialing, would you be willing to consult with them on the initiative, or are you completely done with your service to YA?  (NOTE: Executive Board positions are unpaid.) What if you could be brought on as a paid consultant?

Brandon:  If our community wants to see this project move forward, I would be happy to assist in any capacity. When I first came on the board, the primary community concern was that the Registry was poorly administered. YA addressed those issues excellently. Needless to say, often the reward for an organization’s success is new, more complex problems, and new complaints. 

For example, many people became upset when YA drew a clear line in the sand between Yoga Teaching and Yoga Therapy. There were lots of complaints, but the root objection went something like this: “We agree with the rationale behind the policy, but are mad at how it was executed.” 

What a lot of people didn’t know – or were never told– is that there was a clear and present reason this happened. When we fought regulation in Colorado, one of our own RYS schools fought against YA. Their argument to the regulators, in open session, was: “We practice Yoga Therapy under the Yoga Alliance registry. What we do – if not done correctly – is dangerous. Therefore, the government needs to step in to protect the public.” 

So complaints about the rollout of YA’s therapy policy take on a different perspective if you know this. YA needed to decisively get out of therapy to protect the greater teaching community.

Leslie:  I remember you telling me about this as it was happening, and it reminded me of how the whole state regulation effort got started in the first place over ten years ago, in Wisconsin.  Pat Sweeney (“Regulator Zero”) told me that he had never considered yoga teacher trainings as a target until a local school of Yoga and Ayurveda approached him and asked to be regulated as vocational training!  Like the Colorado school you mentioned, they made a similar claim about public safety, but it was clearly an anti-competitive move on their part.  Of all the TT’s in Colorado at that time, they were basically claiming they were the only ones qualified to be training teachers because they had the Ayurveda component.

I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this story, but back in September of 2015, a few months before YA announced the therapy policy, we just happened to be vacationing in Kauai at the same time my old friend Larry Payne (co-founder of International Association of Yoga Therapists) was leading a group retreat there.  He had with him John Kepner (IAYT’s Executive Director), and on the day they were all were visiting the Hindu temple there, we decided to meet up with them.

When I had John to myself for a minute, I reminded him – for what seemed to be the hundredth time – that IAYT was doing a great disservice to its membership by not having a policy about regulation.  I knew YA was getting ready to take some action, I just didn’t know exactly what, or when, so I told him: “If IAYT doesn’t take the lead on this issue, you’re leaving it up to the Yoga Alliance to frame the conversation on Yoga Therapy Trainings vs. Yoga Teacher Trainings – and they will.” That admonition fell on deaf ears – he just wanted to get out of the conversation.

“…we need IAYT to be empowered, and they couldn’t be with the Alliance in the way – nor can they do it until they clarify their position on regulation.”

Brandon Hartsell

Brandon:  Well, we need IAYT to be empowered, and they couldn’t be with the Alliance in the way – nor can they do it until they clarify their position on regulation. This all seems reasonable to me, independent of complaints abut how we implemented the therapy policy.

So what does the community want? If they want to know they are a good school, then they are going to have to validate that by asking their graduates. If the graduates want to know if they are good instructors, they are going to have to ask their students. And when the student data is rolled back up to the schools, THAT closes the loop on the effectiveness of the school. It’s simple, but any solution that can handle both complexity and diversity will have to be simple to be effective. 

Without providing a system for gathering that ground-up data, it is clear to that me YA is inadvertently pushing from the top-down towards less diversity – and the most disadvantaged members will be the ones that suffer the most.

Leslie:  To play devil’s advocate here, I’m sure the current leadership of YA would point out all the diversity and inclusion measures they’ve taken lately.

Brandon:  And I’m sure all those measures are coming from a genuine desire for yoga to actually be more diverse and inclusive, but here’s one example of how the new, higher standards could have the opposite effect: forcing all 200 hour programs to be taught by E-RYT 500’s gives us no actual assurance we are getting better outcomes. What it does assure is that those who can’t afford to become E-RYT 500’s are being systemically excluded from the training of teachers in their communities. Either that, or they will require the assistance of others, which they also probably can’t afford. This gives an unintended advantage to those who are already able to afford these trainings, and removes the agency of those who cannot – and all without a data-driven reason. There will definitely be some amazing trainers who are left behind simply because they cannot afford to become an E-RYT 500.

“…forcing all 200 hour programs to be taught by E-RYT 500’s gives us no actual assurance we are getting better outcomes. What it does assure is that those who can’t afford to become E-RYT 500’s are being systemically excluded from the training of teachers in their communities.”

Brandon Hartsell

Leslie:  That’s an excellent point. Even if there were data that proved upgraded standards would produce better outcomes, there will still be the issue of the prohibitive cost involved in the additional training.  In that scenario, if YA were truly committed to inclusion, they would need to provide a ton of scholarships. At that point, YA starts to really look like a federal agency actively involved in wealth redistribution –  the only difference being that participation in YA is voluntary.

Brandon:  Why have diversity measures from the top down when you could be supporting inclusion from the bottom up?  There could be many instructors who have enough amazing survey results to be a significant indicator of their quality as teachers. That says a lot more to me than hours, or money spent on trainings.

Imagine a feedback loop in which a teacher documents how they improved themselves over a period of time – and there is actual student feedback data that supports their claim. For example: “….some students found me gruff, so I worked on my approach, and stopped getting that feedback…..I noticed others were getting complimented on _________, so I developed that skill….etc…”

Leslie:  That’s exactly how it’s happened for me with the online survey we instituted for my workshops several years ago.

The critical feedback is hard to hear, but it’s the only way to find my blind spots.  I have definitely  improved as a teacher – and as a human – as a result of that kind of feedback.

Brandon:  Exactly, and if an organization like YA were supporting that process for you, it would be an exceptional relationship with clear value.

Leslie: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if the Yoga Alliance were supporting the kind of ground-up feedback system you’re proposing, I might even be tempted to join.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email