By Ed Staskus
Back in the 1960s Jack Weinberg, one of the founders of the Free Speech Movement, said, “Never trust anyone over 30.” What he meant was that a great gap existed between those over 30 and under 30. The gap was credibility, to use the term of the day.
The expression was both celebrated and ridiculed. Today the Baby Boomers of yesteryear, for many of whom the catchphrase was a rallying cry, have become the way over 30s and are not trusted by anyone, at least not anyone who suspects that My Generation is the most partisan and self-serving generation of modern times.
Yoga practice is built on trust. Whether it’s the study of yoga ethics, or the concepts of introversion and concentration, or the 800-pound gorilla in the corner, which is yoga exercise, trusting in one’s teachers is important.
Having faith in their teachers motivates students to examine themselves and encourages them to grow.
If you can’t trust a yoga teacher, who can you trust?
“It’s the integrity and awareness that the teacher brings to class that is most important,” said Joe Palese, a Georgia-based teacher trainer who conducts workshops both nationally and internationally.
The problem is, there are boatloads of yoga teachers whose qualifications amount to 200 hours of training. In fact, 85% of Yoga Alliance’s more than 40, 000 registered teachers are registered at the 200-hour level. It’s when the front of the room gets sketchy.
Joe Palese has seen some of these teachers in action.
“The instructors were cool people and they’d play good music,” he said. “But, students didn’t know they were being taught poorly.”
Yoga can be traced back about 5, 000 years, although some researchers believe it may be 10, 000 years old. The first hatha yoga schools date back about 90 years. A 200-hour Yoga Alliance certified teacher expends an effort equivalent to one hour of study for every 25 years of yoga’s existence, based on the 5, 000 year mark, or about two hours of study for every year of modern hatha yoga’s existence.
That’s like stubbing your little toe on the base of Mt. Everest instead of climbing it.
Is there anyone who would hire a plumber, for example, to install a sink or toilet in his or her home, a plumber who bragged he had 200 hours of training?
Plumbers train at trade schools and community colleges. Their apprenticeships typically span 4 – 5 years. In most states they must have 2 – 5 years of work experience before they can take an exam and obtain a license.
A yoga enthusiast can train for 200 hours, earn their Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) title, and open their own studio the next day. They can even offer their own “Teacher Training” program not long after the paint has dried, or after 500 hours of experience, whichever comes first, according to Yoga Alliance Standards. Although YA registration is not a certification, it is a listing of those “who meet our minimum requirements for teaching experience,” explains the organization.
There’s something to be said for setting the bar a little higher, or at least approaching something like elementary school.
The men and women who teach first graders must have a bachelor’s degree from a teacher education program and are typically required to complete a supervised student teaching internship. Then, in order to actually teach their first six-year-old, they need to get a state license.
First grade coursework involves learning to read simple rhymes, beginning to count by 2s and 5s, and science experiments such as how pushing and pulling affects a wooden block. Sometimes a child will throw another child out of a chair to illustrate how forces at work can propel something at rest.
It does not involve complex dispositions of the body on a mat, concentration of energy in one place, or lessons on how to achieve a unified state of mind.
Yet, it seems, anyone can teach yoga, from simple down dog to enlightenment, after training for the equivalent of five full-time weeks. They do not need a license of any kind. No state regulates yoga. The one state that did, Colorado, in May 2015 relaxed its regulations to practically nothing after a storm of yogic protests.
“I get pretty fired up about this,” said Annie Freedom of the Samadhi Center for Yoga and Meditation in Denver. “How can you have people who know nothing about yoga regulating yoga schools?” Which begs the question of why teacher training facilities like the Samadhi Center continue to churn out new 200-hour teachers who know next to nothing about yoga.
“Sadly, ‘Do a headstand if you want to,’ is the norm for beginning yoga teachers now,” said James Brown of the American Yoga School.
In fact, no one even needs a Yoga Alliance anything to teach headstand and inner peace. Anyone can open up shop anywhere, on their own say so, whether they know anything about yoga or not. Many in the yoga business argue that because they are teaching love and compassion they should be exempt from state regulation.
It is basically a free-for-all in the free market, buyer beware.
Self-appointed yogis like Bikram Choudhury claim whatever they want, such as that hot yoga flushes toxins from the body (false), cures cancer (false), and keeps you going all night long in the sack (doubtful after 90 minutes of Bikram “Torture Chamber” Yoga).
“Cootchi, cootchi,” said Bikram Choudhury. “You can have seven orgasms when you are ninety.”
No matter the funny dada-like sense of it, it is coldly calculated, some yoga masters laughing all the way to the bank.
“The class was so bad I can’t even explain it to you,“ wrote Lauren Hanna in ‘Licensing Yoga: Who the F*ck Let You Become a Yoga Teacher?’
“It made no sense. The teacher should be arrested it was that bad.”
She may have meant having to listen to a newly minted 200-hour graduate explain how “hips hold deep-seeded feelings of guilt and resentment” or some other mumbo-jumbo, meanwhile offering up the new age mantra of “channel your inner child” as they try to encourage a fifty-year-old a few months shy of beginner class to do crow or handstand.
There is a reason why William Broad of The New York Times has written articles and a book about how yoga can wreck bodies, from torn cartilage to causing strokes. “There are no agreed-upon sets of facts and poses, rules and procedures, outcomes and benefits,” he said.
There are some in the yoga world who want it that way. “Things are not uniform by tradition,” said Gyandev McCord, the Director of Ananda Yoga in Nevada City, California.
As for rules and procedures, Gyandev McCord believes yoga should be left alone to self-govern itself, saying those “who don’t understand the landscape of yoga aren’t qualified” to regulate it.
Yoga Alliance opposes government regulation of yoga, including teacher training programs, saying it “would simply serve no benefit to the public or yoga community.” They believe regulation of any kind is unnecessary because yoga is “a safe activity, licensure would inevitably reduce consumer choice, government authorities are not qualified, and it may compel teachers to stop offering instruction.”
Although it is certainly laudable of Yoga Alliance to be mindful of the yoga community, it may be equally lamentable that fledgling 200-hour teachers are only able to grasp a little of the big landscape of yoga.
Training of any kind is optional.
“It’s not illegal to teach without training as a teacher,” explained Gyandev McCord. Maybe not, but maybe it should be, given that minimally-educated teachers instructing the uninformed in flow-based yoga to the soundtrack of their rocking iPods may be doing more harm than good.
“It’s an embarrassing charade that looks kind of like something called yoga that one saw in a book once or twice,“ said James Brown of the American Yoga School.
“Teaching any of the yoga poses requires an understanding that comes from deep study and long-term practice.”
But, instead of promoting “deep study” Yoga Alliance has gone the way of Trip Advisor, saying on their website: “Past trainees provide social ratings and comments about their training experience, which may be shown on our public directory.”
That’s a Little League home run. Hooray for babes in toyland and social media!
Given the way things are, and the way things seem to be going, it may be best to simply not trust any teacher under 30 and instead opt for older seasoned teachers who have gained their experience from even older well-seasoned teachers.
Although it is true that experience is gained by making mistakes, and real knowledge comes from direct experience, which under 30 teachers are doing, it is also true that experience is a brutal teacher. When it comes to rolling out one’s mat it might be better to do so in front of someone who’s already learned all about drawing without an eraser, someone who’s spent more than a few weeks of training getting prepared organized off on the right foot for a lifetime.
Better to do wheel pose in the hands of someone who’s not re-inventing the wheel.
A version of this story appeared in International Yoga Journal.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.