so you think you can teach yoga? an examination of YTT training & standards

Image via ~ yes, seriously.

If you want to become a yoga teacher, there are no shortage of training programs offering certification. Most urban studios offer a 200-hour Yoga Alliance registered training. You can get a generic YogaFit® training in no particular tradition. You can do a convenient online training program with Sadie Nardini, via streaming video/audio, newletters and downloadable PDFs. Or, if you’re in New York City, you can train with Tara Stiles to become a Strala Yoga-certified teacher in one month ~ 20 hours of workshop time for $2,500.

But the standards and quality of certification are inconsistent – and out of line with how yoga has been historically taught (“chest to chest,” through the relationship between teacher and student, and by personal, intimate experience). The yoga community in Toronto is getting together on September 30 to discuss the political and ethical issues around yoga training and standards. Some of the questions they will be asking: What does it take to become a teacher of yoga? What does the typical Yoga Teacher Training currently qualify one to do? Has business and profit taken over our tradition of passing on yoga and training teachers? What are the pitfalls of trying to regulate teacher training across lineages and traditions? Can we actually come up with regulations in a tradition with so many different points of view?

This is a conversation that reaches beyond Toronto and is relevant to yoga communities around North America. And based on what I saw at Geoffrey Wiebe’s Yoga Festival Toronto talk (which sparked the impetus for this event), it strikes a nerve in teachers and potential teachers. I asked Yoga Community Toronto mobilizers Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie to tell me a little more about their intention for this community conversation. Here’s what they had to say:

YTT has become an industry before our very eyes.  The number of programs and ubiquity of graduates would make it seem as though we were collectively training an army for some new and brighter tomorrow.  But really, there’s little cultural cohesion within the project of transmitting yogic knowledge.  And that’s because studios and lineages are doing their trainings based on business rather than communal models.  Business models by nature are limited in heritage and scope and sustainability.  But how else could it work here?  We’re not surprised, but wonder if there’s something better.  We would prefer that yoga not be used to polish the madding crowds of consumer culture.

As we look around the yoga world we see the same fragmentation and dispersal of energy, meaning and coherence that fuels consumerism, leaving practitioners dissatisfied and feeling inadequate.  The more people comparison-shop yoga ‘products’ (trainings, workshops, certifications), the more disconnected they tend to feel.  Would a basic manifesto of standards, integrity, and worldview begin to shift this?  We don’t know, but we do know that the more disconnected we feel, the more we treat our yoga practice as though it were a commodity rather than a journey of self-discovery that occurs in relationship with others.

We are hosting this event because the market-driven standardization of yoga has made it difficult for yoga practitioners to connect with one another around a common language. It also serves to reinforce the ghettoization of yoga into its physical practices, which do not at least on the surface require philosophical and/or social cohesion.  Truly, our focus on the body will unify us to a point.  But if we take on the yoga tradition as a whole, from patanjali to bhagavad gita to tantrism, from ethics to cognitive science to worldview to neurology to energetics, we may begin to step away from the personal enclosure device called the yoga mat, and work collectively for the common good and the broadest intelligence.

Perhaps the only way we can begin to work together to nourish the relationships which are integral to the sustainability of our community may be through collectively constructing and adhering to standards that we aspire to throughout our lives rather than credential hurdles we need to leap over.

We don’t need yoga to be one thing or another, but in the absence of any real cultural cohesion the whole endeavour sometimes feels like every other postmodern magnet of interest – something that distracts us from our issues rather than addressing them. We need to figure out as a community how to base our teacher trainings in sustainable relationships, rather than available weekends and disposable income.  We need to come together and develop standards which will nourish not only personal practice (and personal income in an age of dwindling employment options), but the community in which we practice.

If you’re in Toronto on September 30, be sure to attend the conversation. And wherever you are, think about how these questions apply to your own community.

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  1. i think that some parts of teacher training can be done remotely, but, when it comes down to it, some of it has to has to be in the flesh. would they ever certify a massage therapist who never touched the human body?

    while it seems like a no brainer to me that 20 hours is not going to cut it, i wonder what motivates that people taking the course. if it leads, ultimately, to lots more study and work, then maybe it’s a good foot in the door (albeit one that is very much out of my price range). trying to be judicious i suppose.

    i see my 200hr ytt as a good start… but also ultimately not enough. i think it’ll be different for every person depending on their background and what they intend to teach. more theory? more vigorous? etc…

    thanks! this is a great topic, as always.

  2. In Australia you can be certified with either a 200 hour or a 500 hour teacher training. Anything less than 200 hours and it’s a no deal. With the YTAA (Yoga Teachers Association of Australia), you can only obtain full membership with 500 hours training.

    I believe regulations in the UK are quite strict about this as well.

    I completed a 500 hour training but like Emma, I see it as a good start, but hardly the end of the road.

    I’ve heard tell of some students of yoga who’ve complained about their YTT experiences, feeling like they were not left prepared to teach classes. I’m not sure who they did their training with, but I could certainly understand if it was less than 200 hours, someone feeling a bit out of their depth. Especially if, like some people I’ve met, they come into YTT without lots of years of yoga practice behind them already.

    There’s so much to learn… the asana, philosophy, meditation, yogic physiology, anatomy and (standard) physiology, and the rest! Not to mention learning how to speak and deal with a class full of people, and work out how to instruct a class!

    I have heard it said around the yoga scene here that actually, the only way to really make money with yoga here is to run a teacher training program. That’s where the real money is in yoga for those who aren’t famous rock star yogis, and so perhaps that’s part of the reason behind the prevalence of teacher trainings?

  3. “…the only way to really make money with yoga here is to run a teacher training program. That’s where the real money is in yoga for those who aren’t famous rock star yogis, and so perhaps that’s part of the reason behind the prevalence of teacher trainings?”

    absolutely. in the Chicago area I would say most studios offer TTs. As a studio owner told me, that is the ONLY reason she offers TTs because a studio can not survive on group classes and workshops.

    I had this discussion with someone just yesterday….IMO there are way too many teachers and not enough students in my area. definitely a glut right now of teachers. other places may be different.

  4. A nice alternative option would be to offer a long-term study program to enhance and deepen your personal practice. I loved my teacher training program for the community, disciplined study, and benefits to my own yoga journey.

  5. There’s a reason most reputable universities and colleges are non-profit. Once you start seeing education as a revenue generator, there are all kinds of traps to fall into…even with the most well-meaning of teachers.

    The for-profit colleges in the US are in a lot of trouble for allowing (encouraging) their students to get huge, unaffordable loans to pay for an education that may/may not actually lead to employment. Many of these students were led to believe jobs were just waiting for them, and paying back the loan wouldn’t be a problem. Interesting, in light of Linda S.’s comment…

    This sounds like a fascinating event. I am waiting, with baited breath, for more details!

  6. This is one of the richest and most important blog entries of the year.

    The issues are convoluted and recursive, but they have to be addressed. Does yoga training fall under the *educational* rubric? If so, it is open to regulation a la Virginia.

    Is yoga education *vocational*? Then state entities like the Texas Workforce Commission can begin to shut down any program not properly registered with and responsible to the state.

    Do 200/500 certifications evince reliably good teacher qualifications across traditions? Very doubtful, given the profusion of TT programs that exist to generate income streams by playing on the perhaps misplaced career hopes of trainees. (As Linda-Sama says, there is in fact a huge glut of RYT’s).

    And should profit have any role in this whatsoever? If so, then corporate yoga is our future (aargh). If not, then we need yoga training in our college curricula, or perhaps something we’ve not yet seen in the ‘States.

    The question is not when the yoga movement will coalesce, but how it will do so. A thorough understanding of the issues at stake will help us make the right decisions. Again, many thanks and a big namaste.

    • hi jeff, thanks for weighing in. i appreciate your POV.

      i do, however, want to point out your america-centricism. this conversation is happening in toronto, canada. this blog, based in montreal, is also canadian.

      this illustrates the universality of this conversation. there have also been comments here about yoga training standards in australia and the UK. which is interesting, because not only are there inconsistencies within our communities, but there are broader, national inconsistencies. it’s complex and fascinating.

      “The question is not when the yoga movement will coalesce, but how it will do so.” yes, yes, yes. this kind of conversation is a first step in the how. my wish is that other communities will also come together to discuss these concerns.

      i think that the “solution” lies in “something we’ve not yet seen in the States.” my feeling is that it will require a model not in current use, a new paradigm. the current market based model doesn’t work.

  7. Thanks for this. I’m currently weighing my options as far as teacher training–I probably won’t be able to do it anytime soon, but there are many programs in my city and it’s tough to know which one might be best for me. I look forward to hearing what happens at your meeting!

  8. Very informative, Roseanne.

    Where does the Yoga Alliance fit in? There seems to be a big split among teachers about it. What’s your take?


    Bob W.

    • my feeling is that the yoga alliance is an ineffective “solution.” it sounds like it doesn’t carry much weight, and is also inconsistent.

      keep in mind that there is also a canadian yoga alliance, which is even more ineffective.

    • YA has nothing to do with certifying teachers, they are a registry of teachers who have certain qualifications that YA thinks yoga teachers should have. YA does nothing for yoga teachers other than take their money. I let my YA registration lapse a long time ago. YA does nothing for me, why should I give them any money?

      Before people started looking for yoga teachers’ pieces of paper, my own teacher and his studio were not YA registered. My teacher opened one of the first yoga studios in Chicago in the ’80s after living with his guru for almost 10 years, studied with P.Jois three times and studied at an Iyengar institute. He was grandfathered into YA because that’s what people were looking for in teacher trainings — studios who were YA registered.

      If it wasn’t for that, he would have never become YA registered because he thinks it’s a crock.

  9. A very interesting topic and one that I’ve pondered. I think this really emphasizes the Westernization of this tradition – the boiling down of the Indian tradition to postures, breath and maybe meditation (which could be and is another topic of discussion.)

    I think certification became something like the snake swallowing it’s own tail: a “Certification” progam was initiated. “Someone” thought it was a good idea. Studio’s bought into it thinking (feeling?) they weren’t reputable if their teachers weren’t “Certified”. Potential teachers felt they couldn’t teach if they weren’t certified. So studio’s started offering TT programs and whoa! money maker! Now a person may have difficulty finding a studio to teach in if they aren’t Certified and Studios/gyms will only hire students who are Certified.

    So in order to teach, one needs to be certified, but being certified doesn’t mean a person is a good teacher, just that they met some criteria and pay an organization yearly dues.

    I see this happening in my corner of the world. There is a local TT program in addition to one of the Fitness Centers offering YogaFit. I’m witnessing a glut of inexperienced teachers in a limited market.

    But it does come back to the question, who is overseeing the TT programs? What defines a good program? Should a program have more philosophy or more asana? Should the first 200 hours show a comprehension of philosophy and to teach require 500 hours with the addition of asana? What about continuing education? How come attending a workshop by David Swenson (Ashtanga) doesn’t count because it wasn’t offered at a “certified” studio?

    I look forward to hearing the results of the Toronto discussion.

  10. Here’s something else to consider. More traditional yoga schools like, say, the Bihar School of Yoga, have yoga teacher programs that take 3-4 years to complete. Not just 12 months or less.

    And taking another step back to the Guru-Disciple relationship, training under those circumstances can take many more years. I myself, have been studying with my own Guru since 2001 and in some respects of the various topics we cover, I still feel like a babe in the woods. Of course, when I did my yoga teacher training, I realised that actually, my knowledge of the more esoteric aspects of yoga was indeed quite a lot more developed than I’d realised.

    I guess the thing is – the only thing that makes a good teacher is ongoing experience and practice. But in order to get started, is it responsible to send someone out there as “qualified” teacher with only a month or less of experience as a yoga teacher, with a relatively scant knowledge of anatomy and physiology even? Of how to deal with issues a student might have? And more, so much more.

    Teaching yoga is both simple and complex. And the simple part doesn’t come first! 😉

    Anyway, if this is how yoga is to be taught in the west – in these structured classes, then yes, the more rigorous and structured the training one must complete, the better. Because I’ve seen the look some students get in their eyes when they look at you while you’re in the yoga teaching hot-seat… adoration, up on a pedestal-like.

    That could all go drastically wrong. Teaching yoga is not just about being able to do all the poses and describe them. It requires a refinement of the mind, too.

  11. I posted this over at Grounding Thru The Sitbones, but I wanted to add to the conversation here, too.

    Thanks Brenda! I admit, I didn’t have the most comprehensive TT. I was naive at the time I signed up, and can’t justify spending another few thousand dollars to improve how that looks on my resume. Instead, I’ve filled in the gaps with teaching, reading and observing other teachers. Both my bachelor’s and in-progress master’s degree are in related fields.
    This ultimately doesn’t benefit anyone. Good teachers are lost in the shuffle when having a teaching certification means nothing, meaning yoga students are missing out on getting really great, effective teaching. (If I had a nickel for every class I’ve been in with inappropriate sequencing, adjustments, or just blah teaching, I’d have my 500-hour by now!) I would even venture to guess that many studio owners would rather be focusing on their classes and developing long-term student relationships rather than churning out TTs, but it’s the TTs that put them in the black.
    I just hope that we evolve into something with a little more integrity, and that the Toronto conference helps determine the steps in that direction. In the meantime, I’ll continue to try my best to pay, endorse, and sustain the people and practices that further a sophisticated and healthy yoga for everyone.

    I adore this blog for the many smart, critical posts that come up here. Keep it coming 🙂

  12. I often remind myself that yoga was passed down to today over hundreds of generations of practitioners, they all received it and studied it face to face, heart to heart. They stayed with it until their teacher saw that they were fit to pass it on. This inner work goes beyond numbers of hours, standardized criteria don’t capture the essence that we must find within in order to pass on this work to the next generation.
    Maturing as a teacher requires time, beginning a training program requires significant personal practise. Many/most current TT programs don’t require that the student know the poses and the teaching of yoga. The TT programs in most cases are mislabelled, and are better called in-depth yoga training. Were they two to five years in length then they would be producing yogis who could teach others.
    Being able to recite something one has learnt is not the same as having internalized the teaching, and tested it on oneself. Before one can teach another how to transform one must transform oneself.

  13. Thanks, Alan. You’ve said what I’d like to have posted, but didn’t get around to it. As you say, yoga was historically passed down teacher-to-student in a highly individualized way, because the yogic tradition encompasses so much more than asana. Each yogi comes to practice with unique genetics, family-centered conditioning and deeply set patterning. It was never meant to be a commodity—a one-size-fits-all physical practice. It’s a life practice that leads to freedom. But one must traverse the thorny recesses of one’s own ego, to get to the point where understanding lives.

    As Svasti says, yoga is simple and complex, and the simple doesn’t come first. Standardized teacher training and certification requirements will never uniformly produce teachers with the depth and compassion necessary to transform lives. As Alan says, as teachers we must first transform ourselves, and it requires so much more than knowing how to teach poses.

  14. Just a note about yoga alliances, they might not be “all that great”, truth is even in their “uselessness” you don’t even need to be part of one to teach yoga! Where we (me and Roseanne!) live, in Quebec you can seemingly practice many many things without actually being certified to do so, or belonging to any association. You can literally send out an email or hang up your shingle and boom you are a ‘teacher’!

    In our province it is very easy to belong to an organization that allows you to write receipts for massage therapy, for example. In other places it is not like this, the standards are more strict. Reading some of the posts, it seems that looking to the grassroots movements of massage therapy (and others!) alliances, associations, groupings of standards, we might find some useful tips on how to proceed in our own individual communities in terms of yoga “regulations”, as now yoga is at that same cusp of becoming ‘big enough’ that we want and need it to become more regulated ‘so that we can feel safe’. I think this need for safety in our modern world is where this complexity over standardization, sustainability comes from.

    At one point in time folks were practicing yoga in all its’ forms, doing all kinds of bodywork within their communities because that’s just what they did. They were compelled and through that desire they studied, learned, trained and then eventually became the teacher. I think this is still how it really works, you don’t just ‘decide’ to be a teacher, it’s a long difficult, self inquiring process, and it should be.

    People were practicing and teaching yoga, massage, acupuncture etc. long before regulating bodies came into play. It just seems that now its’ yoga’s turn! And from what I’ve seen so far in my country regarding bodywork organizations, it’s a never ending process of continual refinement…kinda like yoga.

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