Five reasons to think twice about enlisting in yoga teacher training

Assist in the transition into wheel at Thrive Yoga
Assist in the transition into wheel at Thrive Yoga

Recently I checked the class schedule at Thrive Yoga and realized that the original cast of teachers, except for Susan Bowen, the founder and owner, is no longer teaching there. Some current teachers were students on day one (along with me). That gave me pause.

I don’t know the reasons for the turnover. I know several have returned to their “real-life” professions or decided not to give up their free time to teach yoga. In addition, Susan has decided to use instructors that have gone through the Thrive Yoga teacher training program. Rockville is a suburban enclave with a handful of yoga studios spread out across the landscape while Washington, DC, or even Bethesda have more density in students and studios. Students also seem to churn through Thrive, with a few becoming the core constituency of the studio. Since I have not surveyed other studios, I don’t know if this flux of teachers and students is just how yoga works in the States.

But this realization made me examine the strange contraption called yoga teacher training (YTT), which seems to have become the main vehicle for propagating yoga across the American landscape. Just flip through Yoga Journal‘s print advertising or the local listing for teacher training, and you will see a mind-boggling array of options. What are we supposed to make of this proliferation?

1. A basic training program is a pretty low bar to set for getting into yoga instruction.

The Yoga Alliance, which was set up in 1997 to set minimum standards for schools and teachers, is a deeply flawed mechanism. If you look at its curriculum for the minimum 200-hour program, half the time is spent in practice or training, this is, doing yoga, perfecting alignment, learning poses and sequences from a didactic point of view. The remaining time divides into 25 hours teaching methodology, 20 hours human anatomy and physiology, and 30 hours on the philosophy of yoga, life style and ethics, with 10 hours for practicum (teaching under controlled conditions) and 15 hours for “electives” (whatever the particular training program feels important).

In a contrast,  training for massage therapists requires between 720 and 900 hours, with graduates submitting to state certification and licensing. Many (and here) criticize YA and its methods, and each new administration tries to improve what it does, but it’s basically an honor system. It does not guarantee quality of preparation.

2. So many choices – follow your guru

Photo: head shot of yoga teacher Iyengar
B.K.S. Iyengar played a key role in introducing yoga to a broader public in the States.

The major yoga lineages, Iyengar and Ashtanga, for instance, have more tightly controlled the list of teachers authorized to use the lineage name and where and how they study. On the other hand, one of the most ambitious, rigorous teaching and certification initiatives was Anusara, which was crushed under the weight of the scandal of the founder, John Friend, and his failed spin at being a yoga guru. Former Anusara studios and teachers are still offering training programs based on the core principles of Anusara.

Programs based on big-name teachers (Choudhury Bikram, Ana Forrest, Jivamukti, Baron Baptiste, Shiva Rea, Alan Finger, and I am not doing justice to the long list of teachers dedicated to passing on yoga knowledge) abound, but are not readily available across the country. You may have to take up short-term residency in New York City or Los Angeles to complete a program.

Some of the major wellness centers (Kripalu, which is teaming up with Harvard Medical School faculty and researchers, and Mount Madonna Center) are aiming for a more structured and thorough training, but that also requires spending time and money at the centers or authorized workshops.

And then there are the concentrated courses in tropical paradises, such as Costa Rica, the Bahamas and Bali.  And finally, the option of making the pilgrimage to India for extended training under the great masters and a lot of other lesser known, but solid teachers.

Should yoga instructors only go through a process that limits the sources of learning because of yoga lineage or geographic availability? I am sure that many YTTs are open to multiple influences, but it would take a diligent buyer to find out what makes up the curriculum and, even more importantly, the teaching approach.

3. Local restraints on options

Photo: yoga lies prone on mat, as instructor correct back bend
Lucky stiff! My friend, Glen Buco, demos cobra with Desirée Rumbaugh applying pressure.

Most would-be yoga instructors are at the mercy of local yoga studios that have YTTs and depend on them as a vital cash stream for survival. These programs can vary in terms of quality and consistency of curriculum content and teaching staff. Some of the studio chains (CorePower Yoga and YogaWorks) are standardizing their programs to ensure  staffing for their expanding branches, which may be a guarantee of standards. Corporate management should not a disqualifier for good preparation.

So in the end, the question may come down to whether you trust your studio owner or favorite yoga teacher.

4. A high price for perfecting your chatarunga

YTTs’  price tag of $2000-5000, plus the energy, time and discipline invested without a clear payoff, is a huge investment for most people, whether it’s crammed into a one-month intensive or stretched out over nine months of weekend classes. The decision has come from on more than a whim.

5. Lagging behind the edge of human science

Photo: yoga class in Warrior II pose
Learning yoga in a class setting has become standard in the United States

I have a deeper, philosophical concern about YTT. The current yoga orthodoxy (based on a  doctrine that came out of India as the nectar of “five thousand years of wisdom”) may be too fixated on the past and adapting it piecemeal to a new territory and era. It certainly makes for a fascinating but convoluted history, as told in recent books and articles. Do you really need to understand Sanskrit to teach yoga?

Our understanding of the incredible matrix of the human body, mind and spirit is being challenged by breakthroughs in neuroscience and myofascial investigation, to name just two areas that interest me. The central texts of yoga are steeped in the socio-cultural premises of pre-20th century India. How do they stack up against MRI imaging, the concept of neuroplasticity, and stem cell theory? As the Dalia Lama has shown through the collaboration with Western scientists and healers through the Mind and Life Institute, the melding of East and West can open new thresholds in human understanding.

Over the past 20 years, yoga has grown from an esoteric practice of die-hard hippies to become a “multi-billion dollar industry” (I have my reservations about that) that intertwine with North American mainstream culture and a free-wheeling market economy. It has not had a centralized administration to grease the wheels of propagation or a priesthood to keep the doctrine pure, or a marketing agency to spread the word. Compared to the risk of yoga being sucked into Western capitalist marketing and reductionist science. maybe anarchy has its appeal.

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