Julia Maltseva: "Is it worth to join USA Yoga Alliance?"

“I’m registered in the USA Yoga Alliance". What really stands behind that sentence – a real authority or fake “stars on yoga shoulder straps”? Let’s try to answer this question.

YA

USA Yoga Alliance – is an American public controlling organization. It is widely recognized all over the world due to its standards of yoga teacher training and certification. The idea of creation of an educational-methodological centre appeared in 1997 at the San Francisco Yoga Journal conference during a discussion on developing national standards of yoga teacher training. At that stage there was no common approach in teacher training among the different schools and styles of yoga: some schools offered very detail courses that lasted months, others were limited to just 100 hour “yoga basics”.  The leader of the group called “Yoga Dialogue”, and later renamed into the Yoga Alliance team was Christopher Baxter, an architect and teacher of “Kripalu hatha yoga” (a style, created in an American yoga retreat centre, that was once established by an Indian guru Amrit Desai, who was later accused by his students of sexual harassment and cast away from his own ashram. This ashram was afterwards renamed into a “Kripalu Yoga institute” – editor’s note)

In 1999 the USA Yoga Alliance was created as a nonprofit organization whose main goal was to develop a standard for yoga teacher training, check that the standard is implied, and create a list of certified teachers and schools. Though the organization was registered as a non-profit it soon started collecting payment (membership fees) from individual teachers and yoga studios registered by the Alliance.  Currently the team of Yoga Alliance leaders listed on their website includes 11 elected volunteers. The main seat is held by Kerry Maiorca the founder of Bloom Yoga in Chicago. According to the website of this studio they mostly offer relax yoga and candlelight yoga. The Yoga Alliance website doesn’t provide any information on who controls all the cash flowing into the organization.

Based on the standards offered in 1999 the Yoga Alliance established the minimum duration of a teacher training course as 200 hours. This is a so called  “starting point” but it’s not the final goal. A teacher can move on to a more advanced level – 500 hours or 1000 hours. To evaluate the quality of training programs the Yoga Alliance defines the amount of hours dedicated to 5 sections of teaching: out of the 200 hours 100 hours should be dedicated to practice,  25 hours to teaching methodic,  20 hours to anatomy, 30 hours of philosophy and ethics, and 10 hours to teaching practice.

Unfortunately the Alliance doesn’t check the content of those courses. After finishing the Alliance certified teacher training course with the Registered Yoga School (RYS) the students may as well register with the USA Yoga alliance and receive the status of a Registered Yoga Teacher – RYT. To obtain that one simply has to provide a copy of their teacher training certificate, receive a confirmation of their yoga school certification and pay $100 for their initial registration and $55 for every following year. The yoga school certification fee is $400 ($200 per year).

For the confirmation of Yoga Alliance membership one not only has to pay the fees but also develop as a yoga teacher and practitioner. Every year the certified teacher has to teach for at least 45 hours and participate in workshops and trainings as a student for at least 30 hours.

 

Be mindful of the yoga teacher!

With the increase of amount of students the amount of teachers and yoga studio owners increased as well. Every day the Yoga Alliance receives approximately 1,000 teacher certificate requests and every month – 75 school certification requests. In 2014 the USA Yoga Alliance registry included over 45 000 active teachers and 3000 schools.`

Today in USA every teacher training group consists of sometimes 200-300 students instead of 20-30 people as it used to be some 10 years ago. It’s obvious that in such environment it is impossible to transfer the knowledge of yoga from teacher to a student as well as give valuable individual instructions to young teachers or to a small study group where every student has a personal relationship with the teacher.    Due to limited time (renting a large yoga hall is expensive) and teacher’s busy schedule they usually don’t have the time to communicate with their students outside class and sometimes don’t even remember everyone’s names. And certainly they don’t have the time to answer everyone’s questions or check whether everyone understood correctly the complicated aspects of philosophy, anatomy, safety etc. Not all schools have exams in the end of the teacher training course (sometimes they do have standard written tests but in order to attract more clients in future it is more convenient to not have any exams at all). The main reason for that is a lack of time for teachers to take exams from that many students.

bikram yoga

For that reason the quality of yoga teaching in USA and other countries keeps dropping every year. For many young yoga teachers the “basic” 200 hours of their teacher training become as much as they will do in their path of obtaining the yoga knowledge. More and more often today you meet a good looking and attractive beginner instructor, teaching his class in a joking tone with pop tracks playing in the background, with a minimum of alignment recommendations (or completely without them), encouraging their students to try some acrobatic tricks and not loading their minds with any spiritual thoughts. Very often the class may finish with a phrase: “If you want to do your head stand or any other inversion you now have a couple of minutes to do so.”

In this teaching mode injuries inevitably occur as well as an absolute misunderstanding in the heads of beginner students of what Yoga really is. Many students leave class disappointed or upset as it wasn’t what they expected. Even though the Alliance calls itself a controlling organization it only does a formal check of certificates. Technically the certificates can be bought or falsified. Also the Yoga Alliance does not get involved in educational methodology aspects of teacher training and does not check the content of educational programs. According to the American Commission on Consumer Safety the amount of injuries in yoga classes is growing in geometric progression. And it is due to teacher incompetency. But neither the school nor the teacher will claim responsibility for your injuries. Before class every student is requested to sign a Yoga Disclaimer or Liability Waiver created by lawyers. This waiver states that the student is aware of an accident risk and is responsible for their own health and safety in a yoga class. The teacher is not responsible for any injury (including death), that may appear directly or indirectly as a result of a yoga class.

Unfortunately the Yoga Alliance does not undertake any action to affect and decrease the amount of injuries caused by amateur teachers. This could be easily changed by correcting the teacher training programs or enforcing obligatory exams. Yoga has now transformed from a secret practice performed by small groups of ascetics into an enormous commercial industry. One of the reasons for that is low investment expenses required to start making money by teaching yoga. You don’t have to build factories or buy expensive equipment. All you need is a yoga mat and a teacher training certificate.

The cost of a 200 hour teacher training is an average of $2 000 (although famous schools like Bikram or Jivamukti can charge up to $10 000 per training).  Just for comparison it’s important to say that a “dietitian” course takes over two years and will cost around $4 500. Education in the US universities will be several times more expensive. This is why more and more US graduates prefer a cheaper path of yoga as their profession. This way avoiding going to a college or a university. To complete a yoga teacher training you are not required to have a degree. Yoga Alliance is also passive about that issue. They don’t make any attempts to increase the quality of yoga teacher education. When a yoga teacher has a job interview especially for a large yoga studio or gym they are usually interviewed by managers or HR staff who have a very vague understanding of a teacher training process. For them a certificate with the Yoga Alliance stamp means much more than complicated sanskrit names like “Shivananda ashram”, “Bikhar School of Yoga”, “Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram”, "Ramamani Yoga Institute" (B.K.S. Ayengar) etc. Those managers would probably be surprised to find that in reality there don’t exist any standard educational programs or exams for Alliance registered teachers. It is obvious that the Yoga Alliance has created an ambiguous and deceitful image by calling themselves a controlling organization, and in reality only dealing with collecting fees and selling their brand.

 

What does Yoga Alliance really do?

Until present day the standards adopted by the Yoga Alliance in 1999 have not been significantly changed, detailed or amplified by informative instructions despite the serious changes that have occurred in the past 15 years. Those changes include the availability of many sources of yoga, including electronic resources which can be made mandatory for yoga teacher training courses. Also the latest yoga research results which may affect the course content are not acknowledged. The Yoga Alliance sees its mission in supporting the yoga business, guiding it in legal and management aspects and global expansion, instead of developing recommendations regarding the content fullness of teacher training courses and control of its abide in order to ensure the quality of knowledge and experience obtained by young teachers. It’s hard to agree with the quote from the Yoga Alliance website: “Encouraging safe yoga instruction by promoting adoption of Yoga Alliance Registry’s quantitative Standards.” The Yoga Alliance is more concerned with registering more and more new members and developing new features of their website rather than the actual yoga issues.

Is it necessary to register in the Yoga Alliance?

Registering in the Yoga Alliance may be tempting due to its visible “reliability” as a brand and all the bonuses and discounts offered to the Alliance members. But those discounts are not available to everyone. After a successful registration the teacher receives a proud name «USA Yoga Alliance RYT – registered yoga teacher» (or RYS — registered yoga school) as well as the right to use YA brand logo on any documents or advertisement materials in order to raise their image in the eyes of employers or clients. Starting from October 2011 the Yoga Alliance organizes conferences and webinars in the USA dedicated to the matters of yoga business in the US, especially the personal and professional growth, marketing issues, role of technology in yoga business, profitability and maintaining client loyalty, creating a brand, opening your own store of products and services. Also the Alliance members have an opportunity to receive consultations on legal issues regulated by the US laws. For foreign members these recommendations are usually useless due to the differences in legislation and economics in different countries.

Meanwhile registering in the Yoga Alliance may be useful for teachers who besides their teaching activity wish to open a yoga studio or a yoga merchandise shop and grow as business owners. The yoga Alliance offers discounts for health insurance, education, clothes, and yoga accessories, hotel, car and ticket booking, legal services and electronics. Although 90% of these bonuses are only available for North America – USA and Canadian citizens. The other 10 % include clothes and merchandise, but the cost of delivery to Russia would be 3-6 times more than the cost of the actual item. Yoga Alliance registered schools offer CE (continue education) hours which can be used to promote to the next teacher level eRYT200, RYT500, eRYT500 etc.

In Russia and CIS countries there are very few schools that offer CE so this system can’t be effectively used either. When applying for a yoga teaching job in Russia the Yoga Alliance Registration is not necessary as it is not a licensing organization and it is based in the USA. In the USA and Europe things are different: the brand of Yoga Alliance supported by the Yoga Journal is for most employers an authority and becomes one of the privileges when choosing a new teacher for their studio.

 

Russian standards for yoga teacher training

Meanwhile every continent and almost every country now has its own alliance, organization or yoga federation like European, South American, International, French, German, UK, Australian YA etc. All of those are public organizations and technically anyone can register their own Alliance /Federation as long as they obey all the legal formalities (having a certain number of members signed up, etc). None of the bureaucratic organs of a given country will check the yogic qualifications of the establishers of this Alliance/Federation as it is a public organization or basically an “interest club” with a few members. The USA Yoga Alliance has become the most popular organization due to its connection and advertisement by the Yoga Journal.

Similar Alliances, Federations and even yoga “Universities”  and “Academies” exist in Russia. But of course those are just some loud names, as the “Universities”  and “Academies” are public or business organizations which don’t have an official status of educational establishments except for maybe an advancement training license. In reality the quality of yoga education depends only on the knowledge and experience of teachers who lecture on a teacher training course and doesn’t have anything to do with licenses, names or status. And in this aspect the courses vary significantly from very experienced specialists to amateurs and crooks.

In the official RF government registry there’s no such profession as a “yoga teacher”, and yoga itself has only recently (2017) been added as a part of “fitness-healthcare” activity, and from a bureaucratic point of view it’s best to be a certified instructor of exercise therapy or wellness gymnastics. But practically the employer either knows the authoritative schools and TTC and only hires the graduates of those “quality” courses, or doesn’t know and doesn’t care much as long as the teacher has some kind of a certificate. And the employer is happy as long as the clients are happy.

So far there were no attempts of governmental control of yoga teaching in Russia (or any other country in the world). The control is only limited down to the tax sphere (and here it’s enough to have a registered SP or an Open Company)

As a result there appears more and more new yoga teachers but the curriculum of teacher training courses does not always correspond to ones expectations. Before enrolling in a teacher training it’s worth having a chat with competent people who can evaluate the teacher qualifications for a given TTC. Because sometimes a disappointment may be hidden behind a loud and serious name.

Expert yoga teacher

Conclusion

Probably those activists who suggested an idea of a controlling organization at the 1997 Yoga Journal conference didn’t mean creating another bureaucratic giant, but an effective organization that would be able to solve the most burning issues regarding the quality of yoga teacher training. Or who knows maybe back then they did already mean to make this so called “non profit organization” a profitable enterprise. The problem with creating one common standard is that there exist different aspects of yoga like yoga sport, yoga therapy, a traditional Indian type of Sadhana, psychological and spiritual aspects…There are different styles, schools, lineages of teaching even in Indian Hatha Yoga, this is why it is so hard to create a unitary standard for everyone. It’s a hard task but may be it can be accomplished when you stop judging which style is better but instead try to evaluate the quality of knowledge that is being transferred to students and a competence of different schools. This is exactly what was expected from an international controlling organization but the issue remains unsolved. Of course neither the goals nor the terms of TTC developed by the Yoga Alliance allow to create highly professional specialists and the lack of a curriculum control allows the appearance of such profanity as “rock n roll yoga”, “hip hop yoga”, “hula hoop yoga” and so on.

 

Teachers opinion of the US Yoga Alliance:

Principal of Himalayan Yoga Academy (Svargashram, Rishikesh, India):

As a founder of one of the leading schools of yoga in Rishikesh, the world capital of yoga, I recommend to treat any “prestigious” certificate with a certain amount of humor. No piece of paper can substitute your knowledge and experience. Actually in Rishikesh 99% of schools give certificates to absolutely anyone who pays enough money. I can hint you where in Rishikesh you can buy a US Yoga Alliance certificate for $50 or $2750 with a barely noticeable difference in the art design of the paper. Basically in both of those places they will make you take a test with questions like “Name any 3 asanas in sanskrit” or “What does yoga mean to you (in 10 words)?”

Olga Sidorenko (Ukraine):

When you want to receive knowledge you go to a Master instead of an Alliance, coop or cooperative. Everyone understands that. But when you want to sell your skills but don’t yet have enough authority or charisma, such organizations and certificates can be very useful. For a small fee those organizations support the young teachers and as a result everyone’s happy.

Ilya Zhuravlev (Moscow):

Some people think in vain that  a piece  of paper with names of western yoga organizations, alliances or federations on it will turn them into “authoritative teachers”. All of them are private business projects that mainly just collect fees and in return provide their logo without actually controlling the quality of teacher training and further teaching skills of their members – and today more and more people know about this.  One can teach just a couple of classes and everything will become clear for both the employer and the students. If the teacher is “weak” no titles, logos, labels or stamps will help. So your skill and knowledge are your main “certificate”. Organizations like Yoga Alliance mainly aim their marketing at young teachers who wish to strengthen their status with a logo of an organization. The International Yoga Federation established in Argentina was considered in CIS as very respectable organization. We thought so due t lack of information. About 10 years ago I received their certificate just by paying a fee. They didn’t check my skills all they wanted was to receive my money. Later we would transfer them money and they would send us certificates for the graduates of our TTCs. But as time passed they would make these certificates more and more expensive. In reality all they did was organize yoga sport championships in South America, none really knew about them in North America or non-Spanish speaking European countries (the UK, Germany, France have got their own Yoga Alliances). American Yoga Alliance requires the certificate scans besides the fees so at least they do some kind of a background check although the certificates may be purchased or simply photo shopped.

The US Yoga Alliance has been using American marketing resources which helped it become more popular. Now they even host yoga business conferences which mostly teach to develop the yoga industry and yoga marketing, developing insurance and crediting in the yoga sphere etc which is a very American concept. Maybe in the American society where insurance and loans are so important people can’t really survive without them such conferences are necessary. I’ve had a personal conversation with A.V. Lappa who is a member of the Yoga Alliance and continues to issue their certificates for the graduates of his TTCs. But despite this fact his opinion of the Alliance and American yoga in general is still very low. He finds the American yoga approach very commercialized and tending to become more a part of the show business and entertainment (he very often mentions his opinion in his lectures during the TTCs). From my personal experience I can say that I know some western teachers (mostly american) who have ERYT 500, teach at Alliance registered TTCs, but still remain very weak in their personal practice, don’t follow principles and values of yoga in their everyday lives and in general are not very well educated.

I have personally been to classes taught by such teachers at western yoga festivals and conferences. Other american teachers I met had both knowledge and experience. This proves that the Alliance logo itself doesn’t guarantee or prove anything. It only means that this teacher or a yoga studio pay regular fees. At a certain point I found Teacher Training requirement programs published at the websites of International Yoga Federation (Argentina) and US Yoga Alliance very useful. As those programs contained requirements for the subjects and amount of hours dedicated to them. Although when I was one of the leading teachers at the old Moscow Ashtanga Yoga Centre (broke up at 2010) which started offering TTCs in Moscow in 2003, my colleagues ad I significantly expanded and diversified those programs.

Only the certificates of serious schools, masters, and styles of yoga have real value as those schools actually correspond to quality requirements. Neither Shivananda and his followers or the Bikhar school of Yoga, or Pattabhi Jois and Sharath, or B.K.S. Ayengar, or T.K.V. Desikachar or Shrivatsa Ramasvami (this list can be continued) – needed any alliances or federations to tell them how to teach. Their knowledge and experience were their only authority. This should be our goal instead of creating a bureaucratic organization or a brand. Only the wisest should be an example but not the canniest and businesslike.

I personally think that there’s no need in spreading bureaucracy and organizations in the sphere of yoga as it’s only profitable for people who create them who by means of these organizations “control the market” and provide for themselves financially. Instead every teacher should try to improve their skills and knowledge, gain more experience and transfer it to other people – then their authority would grow without any logos or memberships. Only beginners can be fulled by advertisement and papers with “respectable names” but as soon as they start understanding what yoga is, people start feeling the insincerity right away. B.K.S. Ayengar used to say: “I don’t demand your respect. I earn it.”

To me a controlling organization is more dangerous than an incompetent teacher. You can simply ignore such teacher if you use your head (and A.V. Lappa likes to say that yoga is not for stupid people). But an organization can slowly grow and especially in CIS it can become corrupt and limit your access to information. It can enforce an idea that it is the only source of “real yoga”. And as a result anything that this organization excludes due to their personal preferences or principles and sometimes simply out of market competition or private connections, can fall out of your view. There are also hundreds of yoga alliances and federations in India. There yoga schools get government registration but through religious or charity organizations (trusts). In this case all government is concerned about is the absence of criminal, fraud, or political extremist behavior. The government doesn’t regulate yoga teaching itself.

I am not sure that Yoga Alliance registration is mandatory for all US teachers. Legally that should not be possible as the Alliamce is a public and not government registry organization. And if for example you’ve been authorized in Mysore, you’ll easily find an Ashtanga Yoga teacher job even if you’ve not got the US Yoga Alliance certificate. Same with Ayengar Yoga – they have their own complicated certification system that takes many years and the only real certificate can be received in Pune.

I still don’t know why Russian teachers register in the US Yoga Alliance. They probably think that it can be an additional advertisement for students. But the general public opinion and official media politics in  RF are currently very hostile toward the US (I personally don’t support and “cold war” I just clearly see those tendencies).  When a Russian teacher becomes a member of the US Yoga Alliance he recognizes the leading and controlling role of this organization over himself as a regular member who pays fees to American bureaucrats.

Andrej Lappa (USA):

In my opinion it’s due to the Yoga Alliance that the quality of yoga teaching in the USA keeps dropping every year. Before the Yoga Alliance was established an authorized teacher was someone who had decades of experience and reached his realization in yoga like David Life, Gary Kravtsov, Doug Swenson, Mark and Johanne Darby and similar. But then the Yoga Alliance was established and it became a method of making money by selling “authority” to anyone who was willing to pay a membership fee. For a small pay the Alliance grants yoga studios the right to establish yoga teacher trainings and issue the Alliance certificates. But sometimes those studios are ran by people who neither have their own teaching method, nor enough experience in yoga. To organize the TTC they buy a ready manual and invite a few teachers from different styles of yoga. Each of those teachers takes the students through 2 days of introductory course into their style of yoga and as a result the students get a very general idea about everything in general but nothing specific in detail. I often see graduates of those courses teach a class with a bit from ashtanga yoga then a bit from ayengar yoga and another part from some other style. But they can’t see the final goal of yoga practice neither for themselves nor for their students. This kind of yoga has transformed from a spiritual path to enlightenment into a moneymaking business.


William Broad (New York, USA). From the book "Scientific yoga":

Each school has got its own program and they teach whatever they think necessary. The words “registered” -  “received a properly registered and official license”.  This way it sounds like someone “registered” is a professional who received a massive preparation and passed examination at some governmental organization that regulates this professional’s work. But it is not so. Those people who apply for a registration do not have to meet any requirements – they don’t have to report their education, pass any state examination or prove their professional integrity.

 

Andre and Cecily, founders of Yoga Detour studio (Toronto, Canada)

Yoga Alliance certificate does not denote the credibility it claims. If you are considering training to become a yoga teacher, or if you are already a teacher and plan to affiliate with YA, consider this:

  1. None of your favourite teachers were hired because they’re an “RYT”. They were hired for their skill, character, professionalism and capacity to nurture and inspire. 
  2. Unlike a designation like RMT for registered massage therapists, there is no governing body or council behind Yoga Alliance to hold RYTs accountable for upholding a certain standard.
  3. Schools with the RYS designation aren’t held accountable either. When applying to be an RYS, all you have to do (besides forking over $400US) is tell them what they want to hear. Paint by numbers. Fill in the information that will satisfy their online list of criteria, and you’re off to the races. No one will ever follow-up to see if you’re actually teaching what you said you would on that form.
  4. Yoga Alliance has replaced the importance of skill and tenure with an over-valued logo. The process of becoming registered is time-consuming, frustrating and a perfect example of disorganization and lack of credibility. The only reason teachers and studios put themselves through this is because they’re afraid that without it, business will suffer.
  5. The yoga community doesn’t support Yoga Alliance. Esteemed and senior teachers whose experience predates YA will tell you that there is no way to quantify someone’s ability to teach, regardless of hours spent on the mat. Typically a 200-hour program does little more than introduce students to the basics of teaching. But thanks to YA and the validity of their certification process, these students believe they have accomplished the necessary prerequisites to teach.
  6. Being “certified” is not the same as being a good teacher. YA states, “It is not Yoga Alliance’s role to ‘create great teachers’. We were established by the yoga community to set minimum standards for yoga teacher training programs. It is up to the schools that register with us to provide the training that enables their students to flourish, and it is the responsibility of individual RYTs to practice and study their way to greatness.” While we question the truth behind YA’s claim of being established by the yoga community, it suffices to say that even the organization itself doesn’t purport to be anything more than a purveyor of arbitrary requirements that have come to be accepted as the gold standard. 

(full article of Andre and Cecily here)

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Translation from Russian by Elena Karmaz

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