Most people who attend a yoga class assume that their yoga teacher is highly qualified, experienced, and has yoga teacher certification. But that is often not the case.
Some teachers come to yoga from other exercise or performance disciplines, sometimes without any formal training or qualification. By all means, this is not the case in every studio or in every situation, but it happens frequently enough that it has recently caught the attention of state lawmakers throughout the country.
The question being asked by both yogis and legislators is not so simple. How do we regulate the quality of yoga teachers and still preserve the integrity of the authentic tradition?
Teaching yoga is an important and rewarding role to play in another person’s life and it is a great honor to have the knowledge and ability to share this powerful discipline with others. But most professions in which an individual acts with a degree of influence on another person’s physical, emotional, or mental health are governed by a set of generally accepted guidelines that are enforceable through the legal system.
This is not so in Yoga.
It may be due to the spiritual connotation associated with the practice of yoga, or the simple fact that the general public and even teachers with limited training do not perceive themselves and the work they do as being on par with professionals in the physical or mental health fields.
But anyone who practices yoga consistently can attest to the powerfully transformative quality of the discipline.
A qualified and knowledgeable yoga teacher can help his or her students heal physical and emotional wounds, revitalize and renew their bodies, rediscover inner peace and calm, and become empowered to live their lives more fully.
A yoga teacher who lacks yoga instructor certification and has only limited experience wields a tool often more powerful than they might suspect. In the worst case scenario, this can lead to injury for the student. At best, it simply denies the student the full benefit of an authentic yoga practice.
One organization in the U.S. has already taken action to maintain its own regulation. Yoga Alliance is a registry of yoga teachers and studios that follow specific guidelines. By doing so, they can offer the title of Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) to people who complete recognized yoga teacher training. The program requirements include both 200-hour and 500-hour level certifications, with extensive training in the tradition of yoga, yoga methodology, anatomy and kinesiology, and business ethics.
At this time there are 84 registered yoga teachers in the state of Iowa. It’s likely a matter of time before most state governments require licensing for yoga teachers and yoga teacher-training programs. Some states already do. While there has been resistance throughout the yoga community to implementing restrictions on a discipline designed around freedom, formalizing standards for the education of yoga teachers can be an opportunity for yoga to emerge as a more respected and honored modality.
As yoga teachers empower themselves with the wealth of information available in qualified teacher trainings and obtain yoga teacher certification or licensure, it will only serve to enrich their teaching, and serve their students even better.
Of course, there will always be a dimension to being a great yoga teacher that is beyond simply knowing anatomy, or being able to cue correctly in Sanskrit.
A great yoga teacher is compassionate, kind, patient, and respectful.
A truly inspiring teacher looks at each individual as a unique and special person and finds a creative, positive, and enthusiastic way to help them rediscover the seamless relationship between their bodies and their lives.
These may well be the qualities that cannot be taught, licensed, or regulated.
Certainly, every yoga student wants to learn the most beneficial techniques in a safe and effective manner. And with an ancient tradition so vast, one could easily spend an entire lifetime learning.
James R. Miller, ERYT 500, is Director of Tree House Yoga Studio in Iowa City.