Who has the Authority to Teach Yoga?

by Allie Berger

Who has the Authority to Teach Yoga?

On the surface, this seems like a simple question with a simple answer: a certified yoga teacher has the authority to teach yoga, right? However, this answer brings up more questions, such as: Who has the authority to certify a yoga teacher? And, must a teacher certify separately to work with specific populations, like pre-natal, children/teens, veterans, prisoners, and/or to present classes with a specific focus such as restorative? Are “official,” approved trainings the only way to gain the necessary authority, or does “outside” training and experience count toward one’s credibility? Inevitably, such inquiry leads to a discussion of the role of Yoga Alliance in organizing and standardizing yoga teacher trainings, as well as the role of the student in discerning which teachers are qualified to teach.

Yoga Alliance

                First, let’s look at who/what Yoga Alliance is and how it attempts to standardize yoga training. According to information on their website (www.yogaalliance.org), the organization started to take shape in the late 1990s and officially gained 501(c)(3) status in 1999 when two groups, Yoga Dialogue and Unity in Yoga, combined. At that time, they established a small office in Reading, PA that housed only one salaried employee. They moved to Arlington, VA in 2009 and eventually branched into two organizations, maintaining the 501(c)(3) as a charity under the name Yoga Alliance Registry and obtaining 501(c)(6) status for Yoga Alliance, a “membership professional and trade association.” For our purposes, it’s more important to look at the Registry and its guidelines for membership of schools and teachers.

As a teacher, the minimum requirement for registering with Yoga Alliance is to complete a 200-hr training with a Yoga Alliance-registered school. All hours must come from the same training; a teacher is not permitted to combine hours from multiple trainings to meet the 200 hours. Additionally, as a membership organization, Yoga Alliance charges an annual fee of $55, plus an initial application fee of $50. So, for a new teacher registering for the first time, the total fees would be $105. They would then continue to pay the annual fee each year, plus an additional $50 application fee any time they upgrade their designation, from 200 hours to 500 hours, for example, and for any specialty certifications they might acquire, such as Children’s Yoga. To maintain status as an RYT, a teacher must also complete 45 hours teaching and 30 hours in continuing education every three years. These hours do not need to be completed with a teacher or organization registered with Yoga Alliance, but if coming from an outside source, must be “Someone who has both professional experience and substantial education related to one or more of the Yoga Alliance Educational Categories. The Provider must be able to document or demonstrate his/her relevant experience and education, and may provide Continuing Education only in their area(s) of expertise.”

The basic requirement to be a 200-hr Registered Yoga School is to submit a syllabus that outlines at least 180 contact hours, broken down into the following categories: 100 hours Techniques, Training and Practice; 25 hours Teaching Methodology; 20 hours Anatomy and Physiology; 30 hours Yoga Philosophy, Lifestyle and Ethics for Yoga Teachers; 10 hours Practicum. The other important qualification for a school is that the teacher trainers must themselves be RYTs, or “have a relevant degree, certification or substantial education in the subject that he or she will teach, which must be related to a Yoga Alliance® Educational Category, plus a minimum of 500 hours of teaching experience in that subject and/or the equivalent of two years of relevant experience in that subject area, as demonstrated by either documentation or an attestation by a RYS Owner or Syllabus Manager.” The Lead Trainers/Faculty have stricter requirements, and must have a minimum designation of E-RYT 200, meaning that they have taught for at least 2 years and 1000 hours after completing their 200-hour training. Schools are also required to pay application and annual fees. The minimum (a single designation) is a $200 application fee and $200 annual fee. If a school is applying to register multiple programs (200, 300, and 500-hour), both fees increase.

A New Guru?

Before Yoga Alliance, there was the authority of the guru. Certainly this tradition has been a longstanding part of Indian culture, but it also characterized the early transmission of yoga in the west. Some organizations, such as Siddha Yoga still embrace this model and uphold the grace of the guru and the power of shaktipat as ultimate authority. However, the spread of yoga in America has largely been a process of making the practices more public, more accessible, and more mainstream. Part of this process has also been a shift of power out of the hands of a single guru and into the shared space of student and teacher. I see the rise of Yoga Alliance as a natural expression of yoga’s integration with the ideals of secularization, democracy, and capitalism. In the absence of the authority of a guru, the yoga community looks to the authority of beaurocracy.

As with any governing body, Yoga Alliance has its benefits and drawbacks. It originally grew out of conversations among yoga teachers and a collective desire to organize in a way that would preserve the integrity of yoga as it continues to spread. This desire forms the spirit of the requirements for becoming a Registered Yoga Teacher or School in that they encourage both trainers and trainees to uphold a certain level of standards and to engage in continued education. They also strive to include all styles of postural yoga. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it is a way to hold all teachers to a similar level of standards.

On the other hand, it is difficult to enforce the specific training needs of any one style, and once the training has been approved there is no foolproof way to evaluate its success (though Yoga Alliance has instituted a “social credentialing” program, which requires graduates of a training to complete a survey before they can register through Yoga Alliance). These standards are also directed specifically at postural yoga, perhaps in response to concerns of physical safety. And, of course, there is the concern present in any credentialing organization that not all teachers who complete the same training end up being equally skilled. Finally, there are many experienced teachers who trained before Yoga Alliance existed and who are not eligible to register through them (as of August 31, 2001) unless they complete an additional training through a Registered Yoga School. For more criticisms of Yoga Alliance, see the following article by James Brown: https://americanyoga.school/yoga-alliance-ruining-yoga/

Is There an Alternative?

There is no legal obligation for a yoga teacher to certify and register through Yoga Alliance in order to practice. Certainly, there are many studio owners who will only hire teachers registered with Yoga Alliance but there are other teachers and studio owners who uphold rigorous standards without participating in Yoga Alliance or its Registry. In fact, some teachers have expressed concern that the perceived authority of a Yoga Alliance-approved certification may give new teachers an inflated sense of knowledge. Similarly, a student might see the Yoga Alliance RYT designation behind a teacher’s name and take everything they say and do as truth without a critical eye, not unlike the way a student might treat a guru. Recently, a friend and fellow yoga teacher posted the following on Facebook (minor typos corrected for ease of reading):

Dear Yoga Community: My silence is taken as acquiescence and I’d assumed I was being compassionate; we’re both incorrect. A basic 200hour YTT entitles you to teach a basic yoga class in the style in which you’re certified. It’s not a cart-blanche license to teach specialty classes like yin, aerial, restorative, prenatal, kids yoga, or meditation. Teachers (and studio owners): Too many times I see new YTT graduates offering advice on diet, meditation or postural alignment, etc… stop; it’s dangerous, disingenuous and cheapens the profession-not to mention unethical and against Patanjali’s Sutras. Take the time and invest in specialized and advanced trainings where you must embody and master the techniques you presume to teach. You owe it to yourself and your students. Students: ask your teachers where and from whom they learned. Who are your teachers’ teachers? It is important and you have a right to know. Demand academic excellence and professional ethics; it is your time and your body. Jai Ma.

This post makes several assertions about modern yoga practices:

1.       Most new yoga teachers have completed a single 200-hour teacher training.

2.       Such trainings do not provide sufficient knowledge about teaching specialty classes or populations

3.       The way to gain sufficient knowledge in these special topics is to take special trainings.

4.       Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is (or at least should be) a touchstone for all yoga practitioners.

5.       It is the joint responsibility of the teacher and the student (and the studio owner, if applicable) to examine the teacher’s qualifications.

The author of the post simultaneously insinuates that a 200-hour teacher training is necessary and also that it is not sufficient. I’m not sure I agree that an “official” (Yoga Alliance sanctioned) training for each individual specialization is what is necessary to prove one’s qualifications. Not all knowledge is so easily put into distinct categories. However, I do agree with the main point, which is that the prerequisite for teaching something is putting forth a genuine effort to become immersed in (I’m not sure I would go as far as to say “master”) and embody the technique. This requires humility and the ability to admit when something is beyond one’s level or area of expertise. The other point I think is important here is that it’s not only the responsibility of the teacher to uphold a high level of standards; students also play an important role in discerning which teachers have the types and levels of skills for their needs. In fact, encouraging students to become familiar with their teacher’s background furthers the democratization of yoga and makes Yoga Alliance (or any similar organization that might arise in the future) not the determining authority, but simply one factor among many to consider in a teacher’s resume. 

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