I have a love-hate relationship with the fact that yoga has become a part of popular culture. On the one hand, I love that yoga is more widely known. More people getting to enjoy the benefits of yoga is always a plus. On the other hand, the fact that yoga is part of popular culture today means that we get a variety of completely unrealistic articles about the practice, including the recent (hilarious) claim by CNN that yogis make over $60,000 a year and the argument from Forbes that yoga and meditation could save us millions of dollars, which I’ve written about before.
The most recent article in this trend is a post by the Huffington Post and claims yoga is the “ultimate 2015 entrepreneurial venture.” The article gives four reasons to support this argument, including (1) “It’s relatively quick to qualify” as an instructor. So hey, if you are short on time, not sure what to do with your life, or have a few weeks off and some trust-fund money to throw down for an overpriced teacher training, don’t worry! “You can spread [the minimum hours for certification] out over a year, or you can opt for a ‘boot camp’ style certification course in just three weeks.” That’s just three weeks people! Trust the HuffPost; I’m sure you’ll be an expert yogi in no time, making it big as the new yoga-celebrity with just that minimal commitment. I mean, it’s a reputable institution, they must know what they are talking about, right? And once you go through that training, it’s on, baby! Think of what you could do with that newly achieved teacher certification! Apparently, “Yoga is a fantastic niche within the health industry because it focuses on relaxation, stress management, and is complementary to every other type of activity or sport out there. Yoga’s health benefits are legendary, as it has proven to help those with brain injury victims, PTSD, depression and eating disorders. Beyond this, people are desperate to carve out ‘me time’ and want to look better while also working on their spiritual, mental and emotional health.” So take that three-week crash course and go treat trauma victims! I’m sure that will end well for everyone involved…
The article goes on, giving three other reasons why it’s the best-kept entrepreneurial secret for 2015. Reason (2) argues that rural areas are in “desperate need” for yoga. Sure, you might encounter some “initial cultural resistance,” but don’t let that stop you! (Even if you are broke and just trying to survive; why don’t you have that trust fund to rely on? Don’t you know yogis make $62,400 a year according to CNN? If you aren’t that successful, it must be your fault; don’t you know it’s the hottest entrepreneurial trend? Just three weeks to get certified, people!) If the hypothetical yogi discussed in the article can eventually “grow her first, 15-person class into more popular lessons through the regional community college” in a small town in North Carolina, you should be able to as well, right? Reason (3) is that “karmic yoga makes giving back easy,” so you can offer “free yoga classes or yogic knowledge” (because that’s all karma yoga is, right?) and “perhaps lure in more paying customers, and test out new teachers” while you are doing quality service work. Reason (4) claims you set the fees, rules, pace, and everything else. These arguments seem pretty great, right? Right? Actually, no. But it’s important to get at why this is such a ridiculous article. Sure, some of these reasons are positives for teachers and yogis within the yoga industry. But there are some serious problems with these claims, including the fact that often these facts are excellent for the yoga industry, but often at the expense of individual teachers and yogis everywhere. Let’s take a deeper (dare I say more yogic?) look.
Problem #1: Certification programs don’t make expert teachers!
Joking aside, this is one of the most problematic assumptions this article makes. First, the assumption that it’s a good thing that getting a teacher certification program is easy and quick is a huge issue. The idea that a 200 hour teacher training actually qualifies people to teach yoga (especially yoga for trauma victims) has always disturbed me. This article completely misunderstands that a 200 hour teacher training course is barely enough to qualify anyone to teach yoga, especially for those who haven’t been practicing for years prior to receiving a certification, let alone qualify someone to teach to at-risk populations, including trauma survivors. Sure, I think it’s great people share their practice after only a 200 hour teacher training, and it can be done in positive ways if you teach only what you know and don’t assume you know everything because you are now certified. Everyone has something valuable to bring to the practice, and that’s awesome. But to assume a 200 hour certification program gives someone expert knowledge in yoga is, frankly, laughable.
Arguing that it’s “quick to qualify” to teach hardly makes yoga or yogis look great. It reflects the utter lack of oversight within the credential system for yoga and common misconceptions that “yoga is easy” or “yoga is simple;” in other words, that yoga is just asana, and a fitness fad at that. In fact, teachers who aren’t adequately trained are often a recipe for student injuries or the propagation of many (incorrect) myths about yoga to their students, some of which I’ve discussed before in my series on popular myths about the origins of yoga. But this includes more dangerous myths about, for example, the physical “benefits” of poses, or how best to cue alignment, or even what proper alignment is. Many times these myths are passed down from un-knowledgable teacher to un-knowledgable teacher, based on new age dogma, and never get questioned since the ideal of authenticity in yoga is often held up as law within yoga culture. Many times actual science of the body is ignored or misunderstood within yoga, overpowered by claims to “listen to the body” or that the “body is the ultimate teacher.” Listening to the body is important to prevent injury, but let’s face it folks: listening to your body won’t teach you the intricacies of the health sciences, including knowledge about nutrition, exercise science, biomechanics, or anatomy. Period. This is one reason why teachers who aren’t adequately trained can unintentionally cue students in ways that result in injury, a controversial topic being explored by Matthew Remski in his thesis research on What Are We Actually Doing In Yoga? (WAWADIA).
Teacher trainings have become the popular cash cow of yoga studios trying to make ends meet as well as a career goal of romantic (to the point of unrealistic idealism) young adults and yogis everywhere. That isn’t necessarily a good thing, and the overflow of barely qualified teachers into the yoga industry has resulted in many problems, including worker exploitation, low pay for teachers across the board, and lack of job security for many yogis trying to earn a living solely through their practice and teaching.
Problem #2: Regulation of certification programs is practically nonexistent!
Oversight of certification programs is pretty much nonexistent in the USA. The article mistakenly assumes Yoga Alliance “certification” is legitimate, as if the accreditation “RYT” (Registered Yoga Teacher) or “RYS” (Registered Yoga School) actually came from a valid governing body. Just a heads up for those who don’t know, YA is a nonprofit organization (a classification that is, I would argue, debatable) that took it on themselves in the 1990s to monitor and register yoga teachers/programs that meet basic guidelines as laid out by YA. The goal was a good one; teacher training programs were beginning to crop up all over the place, often as a way for studios to meet their bottom line, and there was no regulatory system in place at the time. But YA has largely failed to meet this goal. Not many people know about the history of YA or of yoga teacher training programs, and it’s a history rooted in Westernization, Colonialization, and appropriation of yoga. I’m writing about the history of teacher trainings in my dissertation, and I guess now is as good a time as any to share some of what I’ve been working on.
Those who started YA were predominately (white, middle-class) actors from the (once upon a time) California Yoga Teacher Association and it’s satellite magazine, the well-known Yoga Journal. These were people who were often partly self-taught and/or yogis who were “certified” during the 1970s, primarily in Iyengar traditions (I’m using quotes here because certification was largely non-existent at this point in history, so claims to being a teacher were largely based on years of practice or teaching lineage, and were as a result a bit haphazard). The curriculum that ended up being required in teacher training programs was institutionalized during this time period, the 1970s, and is based on a knowledge of yoga dating back to that time that reflects romanticized, Colonial understandings of the practice. Teacher training guidelines were coming out of Westernized teaching practices, namely classroom format for learning, drill-style instruction, and “scientific” understandings of yoga popularized by BKS Iyengar and only minimally grounded in fact at this point in history. So program guidelines were in many ways arbitrarily assigned based on CYTA’s and YJ’s perspectives of yoga (read: white, western, appropriated, and colonial) and what these particular people felt should be required learning to “qualify” someone as an expert in yoga.
For example, the reason Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are the iconic and required text for every yoga teacher training in existence today is because it was one of the few classical yogic texts translated into English by the 1970s, which was in large part due to Colonial British academics who had considered it important and translated, studied, and interpreted it to excess, rather than because it actually was pivotal to classical yoga traditions in India. There’s a bunch of research and writing on this already, so if you’re curious about it, check out this great article or this book by David Gordon White on the appropriation of yoga by British Colonialism (which was subsequently disseminated to the West, including America, as part of modern postural yoga traditions). Basically, “the Yoga Sutra has been elevated to its present iconic status—and translated into more than forty languages—only in the course of the past forty years.” Western yogis involved in the counterculture movement in the 1960s and 1970s took the Yoga Sutras out of historical context and put it on a pedestal, sacralizing it within Western yoga, and when these same actors left CYTA and the YJ in the late 1990s to create the Yoga Alliance, they institutionalized and canonized such texts as “essential” yogic reading.
Sure there are some good things in those guidelines the YA has for yoga teacher certification programs. But the requirements are based on ideas of what teacher training should entail that date back to the 1970s and haven’t been updated since despite a great deal more research on the actual history of ancient and modern yoga, the science of yoga, and biomechanics since that time. Not to mention the fact that oversight by YA is pretty much non-existent because of lack of funds/employees to actually regulate those registered. There is widespread controversy on whether their accreditation system is valid, or if it’s simply accreditation for a fee (in other words, a way for organizations to pay for “legitimation”). As the last article I linked to explains, “Instead of telling trainings what should be taught, 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. As listed on their website, registered 200-hour trainings (the level that 85% of their registered yoga teachers hold) must include 100 hours of practice, 25 hours of teaching methodology, 20 hours of anatomy, 30 hours of philosophy and ethics, and 10 hours of practice teaching. But, the content of each area of study is left up to the school.” In other words, the “accreditation” YA provides is based on literally no oversight of the actual content covered in the teacher training, and the content itself is based on outdated and in many ways arbitrary ideas of what it means to “know” yoga. You’ll notice there is no requirement to teach any biomechanics, despite this area of study being particularly relevant for yoga teachers; with that in mind, good luck understanding anything about anatomy in a 20 hour crash course, let alone how that anatomy relates to the actual asana practice. The fact that ethics is lumped into philosophy rather than being it’s own category addressing things like sexual harassment or diversity training is also a glaring problem given recent controversies about the prevalence of sexual assault in yoga and (accurate) claims that yoga is often exclusive and supportive of inequality.
YA has (not surprisingly) been vocally resisting attempts by state governments to provide more stringent guidelines on teacher trainings, claiming that most people don’t go on to teach full-time from such programs. While that’s true, recent efforts by state agencies to regulate teacher trainings are partly driven by increasing rates of injuries among yoga practitioners and concerns about student safety that are attributed to teachers not having adequate training. (I’m sure it is also that they want to begin cashing in on the multibillion yoga industry, as well, but the safety concerns are real.) The resistance of YA to these trends is in part because having states regulating yoga teacher trainings would severely cut into YA’s profits, which are made almost entirely through fees charged to teachers and studios to register with the organization as part of their “regulatory” system. This registration, no surprise, has to be renewed periodically, so it’s not just a one-time registration but a constant cash cow for YA. (YA’s profits, incidentally, have been skyrocketing in the last five years with the increasing popularity of yoga: “According to the IRS Form 990’s that they provide on their website, their total revenue increased over 500% from 2005 – 2012 while their net assets increased nearly 1000% in the same time frame.”) If state governments started regulating teacher trainings like other certification programs, YA would no longer have a monopoly on the accreditation process and would no longer be such an important and powerful institution in the yoga industry. (There is, in fact, and easy solution to this dilemma: yoga studios could separate trainings to “deepen ones practice” from those that are actual teacher trainings which qualify for state regulation, but this hasn’t caught on yet.)
Problem #3: Assuming karma yoga is only offering yoga!
Another big problem in this article is the idea that “karma yoga” is solely “offering free yoga classes or yogic knowledge” to others, particularly at-risk populations. The idea that this is all karma yoga entails is a very popular, but I think equally disturbing trend in the yoga world today. It’s been championed by numerous organizations like Off the Mat and Into the World or the Africa Yoga Project that do some awesome work, but ultimately do little to actually change the systemic variables causing inequality and trauma among the populations they serve. The idea that yoga service is only offering free yoga classes or disseminating yoga knowledge contributes to “yoga savior” projects that often serve to prop up the yoga teacher giving their time or teachings rather than actually helping the communities they serve in real, tangible ways.
Karma yoga is translated as “selfless, altruistic, service” not “let’s go teach some yoga for free to people in need.” It involves abandoning self-interest and utilizing reason to achieve perfection in action. I’m not an expert in Hinduism, so I’m not going to attempt to teach this concept. If you’re interested and want to learn more please find a qualified instructor who has studied these topics deeply. But I think it’s clear when we start to describe “karma yoga” in popular culture as (per the HuffPost article) a way to “perhaps lure in more paying customers, and test out new teachers” while you are doing quality service work, this isn’t really selfless service, and isn’t really karma yoga. This popular manifestation of “karma yoga” is ultimately about building a personal brand; it’s about utilizing free classes to market yourself and create a (paying) following, a means to give the teacher greater exposure. This is what I’m talking about when I say such “service” is largely self-aggrandizing and narcissistic.
The real goal of this type of service work isn’t to actually serve people in need or help communities suffering from huge and growing inequality, or structural problems like the loss of the permanent employment model, mass inequality, or growing poverty. The goal is in many ways imperialistic, a “white woman’s burden” that portrays the yoga teacher as the “yoga savior” bringing yoga to the “uneducated, uncivilized, or heathen” masses, helping that teacher claim they are “authentic” because look, they are doing service work! They are a “real” yogi! And such interpretations of karma yoga ultimately fail to actually solve the real problems those populations are dealing with, which are structural. Yoga (as it is practiced in the West today) can be a great way to treat the symptoms of larger problems like poverty, but it can’t ever solve them. Real selfless service, real karma yoga, is about taking our yoga off the mat (literally off the mat, so Off the Mat and Into the World, it’s not just bringing your mat with you to other parts of the world and then staying on it). It’s about doing truly selfless service work to end larger social problems, to use our privileges to help those who are disadvantaged, all of which won’t happen just by teaching some karma postural yoga classes on a donation basis at a local studio as a way to gain more (dare I say selfish?) exposure. Those types of classes can be great but it’s not karma yoga unless there isn’t a self-serving component, and either way it does little to actually help the populations we are teaching asana to.
Problem #4: Yoga Teachers Don’t Exist in a Social Vaccuum!
The last reason the article gives for why yoga is the ultimate 2015 entrepreneurial venture is one that actually does benefit yoga teachers: the ability to set the fees, rules, pace, and everything else (though arguably this benefit comes with any self-employment model, not necessarily yoga). This ability allows teachers to create a flexible schedule around other commitments and to have control over their own employment, which can be a plus. But the article fails to consider how yoga teaching doesn’t take place in a vacuum; teachers can’t just set fees artificially high to make ends meet because they live in social worlds and are constrained in particular ways. If you are teaching at local studios, you could be constrained to when they have available classes for you to teach. If you want to charge for private classes, you’ll have to consider what is a reasonable amount given the area you live in and what others are charging, all of which involves marketing research and a sound business strategy. You’ll have to stay on top of everything for your private business, including things many teachers don’t usually consider when they first think of getting into the industry: things like insurance or liability, managing time, marketing yourself on top of your other responsibilities, creating boundaries with your students, and so on, and so on. So to say the ability to control your own work is a positive to the business is true, but it is simultaneously a negative because it takes a ton of constant, daily work to be successful (and many, many yoga teachers aren’t successful even if they do put in the epic amount of work required, meaning they are still unable to make a decent living on just their yoga business).
I think to conclude, it’s important to be realistic about our yoga practice(s), and be especially critical of popular culture claims about yoga. Part of the practice of yoga is developing our ability of discernment, to accurately, truthfully, and deeply understand our world and our selves so that we can take reasonable and effective actions for meeting our goals. Yoga, science, and business can be a powerful combination, but unless we remain true to the heart of yoga and connect yoga with accurate scientific knowledge (both STEM and also social) we can lose sight of the important parts of the practice and inadvertently yoke yoga to capitalist business enterprises, rather than use yoga to make systems like the capitalistic business enterprise better.
With love, light, and… yoga ❤