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National Yoga Certification Standards, A Bad Idea?
Last Updated: October 19, 1999 ( A critique-in-progress prepared by Ganga White, Tracey Rich, Joel Kramer, Diana Alstad and other teachers and friends of White Lotus Foundation.) This letter is posted at http://www.whitelotus.org/library2/articles/standards.html and may be updated and modified as it evolves. Unedited copies may shared in their entirety with interested parties.

A group of yoga teachers have formed an organization, The Yoga Alliance, and are pressing teachers and organizations to agree to certain national standards for yoga teacher education. They have also proposed a registration mark or seal, "RYT" (Registered Yoga Teacher), to be issued by them and used nationally. There is good reason to want to improve the quality of yoga teaching in America. Questionable certification programs and self-appointed masters with little or no training and instances of abuse have been reported. This cannot be disputed, but the real question is whether regulations will change or improve things at all. We argue that they will not only fail to do so, but will probably make things worse.

 

The Purpose of Setting Standards
Some overt reasons why people want national standards for teachers include: 1) improving quality and ensuring that people don’t go to teachers who are harmful or destructive; 2) giving a baseline for helping people choose teachers; 3) giving a specific meaning and standards to teacher certification. Ostensibly, the whole idea behind this is "consumer"-oriented—giving students better choices. It assumes that now the consumer could be getting poorly trained teachers. It is also hoped that standardization will allow good teachers to connect into established systems, like insurance companies, to get benefits and payment. Another rationale is that standards will construct a certain kind of professionalism in the field. Point-by-point it can be shown that regulated national certification is not a good idea and will actually rebound and have a negative effect. A number of things the Alliance plans to do, like dissemination of information, do not need an exclusive or standard-controlling organization of teachers at all. All one needs is a Web site. Another stated purpose is "to nurture the yoga community". Do we want to create a bureaucracy to nurture yoga students? When has a controlling bureaucracy ever nurtured anyone other than its own members? Having standards neither guarantees nor is required for any of these types of things to happen. If one wants to do these types of things, one can simply do them—national standardization isn’t needed.

"To educate about the Yoga Alliance" is another stated purpose. Even if this national registry comes about, not every teacher and organization will join. This means there will be teachers who operate under its seal of approval and those who do not. Would this education by the Alliance then basically take the form of propaganda that says or implies that only those with their seal are the good guys and those who do not have it are the bad guys? Creating the Alliance will force the Alliance to claim themselves the best and most qualified—increasing division and conflict.

Blurring the Secular and Religious
The Alliance’s standards cross the line from the secular to the religious. By including meditation, chanting, instructions on how to live, right livelihood, lifestyles and ethics, they have crossed the boundary into sectarian, religious perspectives. What differentiates yoga from professions with licenses and standards, such as the medical, the dental, chiropractic and even massage professions, is that in many people’s minds, yoga has two levels—the physical/technical and the spiritual. Unless they want to divorce these two levels from each other—which it appears they do not, then it is not the same thing as, say, the medical profession which has fixed standards of scientific knowledge, practice and procedures that can be tested. One reason you can certify a doctor is that there are these objective standards of knowledge that one has to demonstrate and fulfill. Basically, as soon as you begin to combine these two arenas, by bringing in right livelihood and meditation for instance, there is no agreement as to what these things are. The Alliance has not yet defined these things, but requiring them without definition is meaningless. Defining them would confine them to one group’s belief systems and opinions. The United States Constitution specifically states that no government laws will be established regulating religious beliefs or practices. But in order to be certified by the Alliance we must accept the values, mindsets and beliefs that it sets. This goes against the very essence of yoga because there is no one yoga philosophical standard—nor should there be! Some yogis are vegetarian, some are not. Some Raja yogis (followers of Patanjali) believe in Hatha Yoga; some believe it a trap and pitfall. Some say that one should only or mainly do yoga in classes in order to be corrected and sure of doing it right. Others say yoga is an inner exploration that can only truly be done on one’s own and that a personal practice is therefore a more essential "training" than classes. Some believe celibacy is absolutely necessary; some think sexual fulfillment is important. Some say yoga is a path to truth; others that there is no path to truth. What then is right livelihood, right diet, right ethics? And most importantly, who decides—and on what basis? Once you define and legislate yoga or religion it is the beginning of institutionalizing it. Regardless of the intentions, this move in effect would give power to the more traditional and fundamentalist wings of yoga.

Mininum hours of training as a Standard?
Standards could possibly make sense if purely physical practices were separated from the spiritual aspects of yoga. Asana and pranayama would then have to stand alone. But most yoga teachers would not wish to see the context of yoga stripped down and shifted in this way. Say one does decide to limit the standards to the physical aspect of teaching. What kind of standards can be set other than the number of hours of training? Certainly standards of strength, flexibility or how many positions one can do cannot be the measure. There are acrobats, dancers and gymnasts who can do more than many yogis who have practiced all their lives. Does this mean they understand or can teach yoga? Suppose we use numbers of hours of class attendance. Does putting in time ensure the person will be a good teacher? Does a massage certificate (a profession with standards already set) ensure a good massage? Some great and renowned yoga teachers have never taken a class—this means they could not make the registry! Many teachers who have taken hundreds of hours of classes haven’t practiced in depth on their own. Can one become a good teacher without a personal practice? Should minimum numbers of hours of personal practice also be required? Who is to judge the quality or depth of a private practice and on what basis? The problems are endless.

It could be argued that while a minimum number of training hours won’t be a guarantee of teaching quality, it would be a bottom line of basic training. If one attended a certain number of classes, it would at least show exposure and supposedly increase the likelihood of becoming a better teacher. Then does it matter what kind of training these hours offer? Can it be eclectic and broad? Is this the same as focused and specialized hours? Which is better, how do we decide and who sets the standards behind this? What if the standards are totally open (as the Alliance is presenting them now) consisting only of specific numbers of hours in any style of training? What does it really mean to have that seal of approval? Does it mean one is qualified to teach yoga to everybody? How does choosing a RYT teacher protect people from getting injured by teachers using techniques that are inappropriate or improper for them? How does the Alliance protect the consumer who sees the RYT seal and feels this assures good instruction? A seal that certifies and implies that a person is a trained professional meeting the standards could open the Alliance to lawsuits for the acts of registered teachers. Many doctors regard certain yoga practices as dangerous and harmful and could testify as such. These are other ways registration can rebound.

Do standards prevent abuse?
It’s unfortunate that some teachers seem to lack ethics and there are instances of abuse. There’s no question that various types of abuse, both physical and mental, occur. But abuse won’t be eliminated by regulations which attempt to control it. Does anyone seriously think having rules against it will stop it? Yoga abuse is often between consenting adults, one of whom is naive. Abuse covers a whole spectrum of interactions that depend on the context, motives, and many things—it’s not just a clear-cut act that can be externally regulated. We must educate people’s understanding so as to reduce naïvetë. This movement to regulate is trying to institutionalize yoga by making it into a static, defined, structured, hierarchically controlled activity and under the guise of being consumer-oriented is really power oriented!

The government already has protection, laws and punishments against fraud, sexual abuse and injury. We don’t need the Alliance for this. Furthermore, a few of the swamis and yogis on the list of supporters have already been exposed for sexual and other forms of abuse, but they are now suddenly upheld as the champions of ethical standards! Imposing ethical standards is very precarious, especially in the arena of dating and love. Many fine teachers are happily married to former students! Will a teacher and student’s falling in love be stopped by a rule? People will still do what they do and just make it more secretive. Are we to treat people as adults or children?

What must be done instead is make people more aware. Yoga at its best is an activity that brings more self-awareness. The teacher’s job is not so much to legislate what’s right and wrong, but to help people move into realms of greater awareness. It is not the job of the teacher to tell people what to do, nor how to live, nor how to be, but to allow them to gain more self-awareness so they make the decisions for themselves that are right for their lives. The solution to complex, knotty problems is not regulations. Such attempts at problem-solving through bureaucratic control neither work nor are conducive to growth—on the part of the student or the teacher.

What is the Essence of Yoga?
In delineating between the physical, more measurable aspect of yoga and the immeasurable spiritual-consciousness-religious aspect, who are the watchdogs of all this? Who will supervise the supervisors? Once the door is open to standardization and legislation, how far will it go? Yoga is at least as much an art as it is a science. Do we register artists and musicians? Dance schools are just lineage affiliated. Yoga is not just a mechanical process. Even though it has a mechanical and measurable aspect, it is a non-mechanical, living thing at its core. Basically it has a very creative, non-mechanical essence that people tap into. Do we really want to turn yoga into a mechanical structure that a bureaucracy regulates? This so goes against the very essence of yoga that it cannot be permitted! Yoga can only thrive and evolve in a context of freedom, including free inquiry into its very nature.

Yoga has been free and unregulated for eons. India has every manner and type of yogi and no government or other regulation. For millennia the tradition has been that the student chooses the teacher, and the choosing is part of the growth. Now our Western conditioning wants to try to control it. Why not educate students in intelligent choices instead? We should let the public decide who they want as teachers. Keeping the field free and unregulated keeps people aware that they must choose wisely. This is better than making the choices for everyone by registering a small group of teachers as "the good ones."

Fundamentally, the abuses that will come from attempting to regulate something that essentially cannot be regulated will be greater than the abuses occurring now. Let’s not synthesize the worst of both East and West, combining old authoritarian tradition with modern authoritarianism—bureaucracy. Rather, wouldn’t it be better to take the best from both worlds? Take the questioning, free spirit and scientific wherewithal from the West and combine it with wisdom and insight from the East. Making a bureaucracy of yoga and trying to regulate it goes against the core of what yoga is.

Should we put yoga into the mold?
Much of the mind and reason of these standards is trying to mold yoga into the Western medical-insurance model in order for some people to make a living. Do we really want to try to make yoga fit into the flawed, Western bureaucratic health care system, dictated to by corporations and insurance companies? (If insurance companies want to have rules or standards, let them make their own.) Every one knows this model is highly flawed to begin with. Whether or not one accepts the Eastern worldview, it would be counter-productive to mold it into non-viable Western structures. Is the RYT to become the AMA of the yoga world?!!! Even the goal of getting yoga into the school systems would be undermined by these proposed standards because they promote the religious parts of yoga such as chanting, meditation, ethics, lifestyle and study of Hindu scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali Yoga Sutras. This would most probably bring lawsuits from both secular and religious people.

Yoga is not about professionals making a living. It’s fine if people make their living with yoga but this is not what it’s about! It’s more about self-exploration and the self-knowledge and insight into life that one can glean from this study and practice. It can be deeply personal and private. Are we going to treat people like adults or children—the latter, incidentally, is what the Western bureaucratic model does. It takes people, plugs them into the system, tells them what to do, and says, "Don’t ask too many questions. We know what’s best; we know the way." The issue is really about economics, control and power. Many people are fighting hard against this dysfunctional approach and here the Alliance is trying to fit yoga into it!

Fear of the "Outside"
The Alliance justifies its motivation for the registry partly through fear, saying that if it does not do so, regulation will be imposed upon us from the outside. We feel that fear of government control is unwarranted and specious. The government has as much interest in and ability to control yoga classes as it does dance classes! This kind of thing can’t be controlled. The same reasons we would fear government control from the outside should be applied to Alliance’s governmental control from the inside. It will still be "government" control! Inside government control or outside government regulation of yoga are both undesirable. Though their motives might be sincere, what types of people want to establish this kind of controlling body? Additionally, the Alliance is not now, and could not possibly be, democratic. Did all yoga students or even all yoga teachers decide to do this, vote on it and elect this group? This group does not represent even the inside of yoga! There is neither agreement nor acceptance of this—instead it is being imposed, with urgency. Real democracy takes time. Why is the Alliance in such a hurry to ramrod it through as fast as possible? If nothing else, a lot more debate is certainly necessary. Even if it were democratically decided upon, we still find it ill advised for all the reasons already stated.

Haven’t we learned that power corrupts? No matter how sincere and well-intentioned people may be, once put in a place of bureaucratic power they face the danger of being attached to the power that that gives them. Controlling ourselves out of fear of being controlled by the government, is in fact being controlled by the government. Postulating that the government is going to control us is specious because they can’t—if for no other reason than the constitutional prohibition.

Let’s not institutionalize Yoga
Some teachers or organizations may qualify for the proposed seal and, being unaware of implications and repercussions, feel there is no harm or loss to join and sign on. Even though White Lotus’ teacher training meets the proposed standards we are not joining this movement. We feel this whole movement is contrary to the feeling and inner spirit of yoga. We feel it will cause far more harm than it will correct. We feel this movement is attempting to institutionalize, bureaucratize and police yoga. We do not want to see such yoga politics created. Yoga is far too big to be put under one umbrella! We ask, is it good for yoga at its core to be both institutionalized and bureaucratized? No, it’s in our best interest to oppose strongly all such attempts to institutionalize yoga. We must educate students in right choices and what to look for in teachers instead. Education and awareness is the only answer

 

White Lotus Foundation holds Yoga teacher training courses four times per year in Santa Barbara, CA at our beautiful retreat center in the mountains. Students attend from around the country to receive their yoga certification. For in-depth information on our Yoga Certification Program, click Yoga Certification. Our courses are renowned around the world for their comprehensive content, individual attention to each student, and for the wonderful
transformational experience of studying with yoga pioneers and best selling authors, Ganga White and Tracey Rich.
White Lotus Foundation offered the first yoga teacher training and certification in America in 1968.

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