An Open Letter to Yoga Journal

many-yogis-one-classThe November 2016 issue of Yoga Journal featured an article titled: “What it Takes to Teach” by Tasha Eichenseher.  (Here is a link to the online version called, “Is 200 Hours Enough to Teach Yoga?” ).  The article discusses the ongoing controversy over teacher-training standards.  Whether or not you know anything about preparation for yoga teachers or even yoga itself, you would have to be living under a rock with no media access to be unfamiliar with this controversy.  It has been going on in every educational institution for many years.  To make that connection, here are some of the highlights of the controversy:  What makes a good teacher?  How do we train good teachers? How do we identify “bad” teachers?  Is it possible to turn “bad” teachers into “good” teachers through mentorship, supervision, incentives, threats or other seemingly objective evaluative concepts?  Do we need uniform standards?  How strict should they be?  How do we honor tradition and retain what is valuable in the process of implementing change?

All of us have heard all of these questions arise in multiple situations, especially in recent years as we witness change happening all around us. Many of the institutions we have all accepted and relied upon for years are not longer serving us.  Some of us cling to the past and want all new things to find someplace else to exist.  Others of us recognize that the need to revisit and maybe even update the way things have “always” been done is both necessary and overdue.  As a result we are witnessing a clash of cultures, which, in very simplistic terms, is between those who want to pull the past forward and those who want to move on.

In response to the article, the first comment I would like to make is this:  in my opinion, teaching comes from within, not without. You can try to feed ability from the outside in.  Many volumes have been written proclaiming the right way to do this.  But all we have to do is look at the results to know that some of those approaches will work for some people, but none of them work all the time.  Institutional thinking from government to corporations to medicine, etc., loves one-size-fits-all solutions.  We want to be able to apply one standard (or product, or rule, or cure, etc.) to every person and situation.  Makes for standardization, right?  And efficiency.  That way, whenever you get a product, rule, cure or academic course, you are getting a dependable, uniform treatment that you can rely on.  We can rest easy that not matter where you receive this service, it will be the same as everyone else who received it.  Admittedly I’m dating myself here, but what comes to mind for me is recalling a family vacation many years ago travelling the old highway U.S. 1 down the East Coast. We would search for Howard Johnson’s restaurants.  You always knew that you could get the same thing no matter where you were.  In some ways McDonald’s and Starbucks have taken over this role in modern life, but even those juggernauts have found they need to continuously change or suffer the consequences.  Our global community is too large and too diverse.  Unfortunately, though, individualized solutions are expensive and inefficient.  So the conflict continues.

The article mentions some long-time teachers who learned their craft “the old fashioned way”.  That is, through years of study with an individual teacher who would not let them teach until deemed ready.  And even then only taking on that mantle gradually and under ongoing supervision.  Some of you may know that yoga is more than a physical practice.  It is also a philosophy for living that encompasses additional practices beyond yoga poses.  Teachers from this old-style tradition spoke also of the many years of studying this philosophy and history to incorporate these important concepts into their teaching.  There was no counting of hours spent studying anatomy or the Yoga Sutras.  You simply studied because you wanted to learn all aspects of the discipline.  Through the years I have seen similar arguments in the Pilates community as those who learned their craft from the original disciples of Joseph Pilates advocate adherence to those strict guidelines while many newer teachers have continued to adapt and morph the principles developing new versions to address the needs of an ever-enlarging public.

In some ways, yoga is a victim of its own success.  What was once an esoteric practice thought to be limited to a few “bendy” individuals, yoga has gained widespread interest among a huge variety of participants.  The Yoga Journal article mentions a peer-reviewed study released by Dr. Dean Ornish showing the positive health effects of yoga which sparked enormous public demand.  That, in turn, created a need for more teachers. Thus, teacher-training programs began to proliferate.  Think about the rise of “for-profit” universities.  This also began as a direct in response to demand for trained workers in certain industries.  But as the training industry grows, the focus can become skewed and quality can be stretched beyond its capacity.

In recent years leading yoga teachers have continued with Dr. Ornish’s ideas. There have been increasing efforts to have yoga recognized as a genuine therapeutic intervention that can work in concert with the medical community as part of a more holistic approach to health care.  The International Association of Yoga Therapists is a prime example of this type of advocacy.  This organization recommends more training, more mentoring, more hours, more supervision.  All noble and welcome ideas.  The Yoga Journal article further quotes teacher-trainers who impose similar requirements before releasing their proteges into a classroom, a potentially sound approach.  But here is another consideration:  all of this is expensive and time-consuming.  The article also states that fewer than 30% of yoga teachers registered with Yoga Alliance , the primary trade association of the yoga community, make a full-time living teaching yoga.  Ongoing training is not free.  Neither is mentoring.  If a would-be yoga teacher must maintain a job and/or other obligations, how does one justify the expense?  Granted, no one goes into teaching of any kind for the money, but few yoga teachers have any job security, health benefits, tuition assistance or paid leave time.  In my own experience of more than 20 years in the fitness and movement industry, most teachers who work for an organization (e.g., studio or YMCA) make $10 – $20 per class.  Through the years I have funded all of my own training all of which has been driven by my own interests and the needs of my ever-changing student population rather than any mandates from certifying bodies.  I did not start teaching until I felt ready, but I have learned much more about how to teach by actually teaching than I ever did by being told how to teach.  I often say that I “lead” sessions rather than “teach” since I learn just as much – if not more – from my students as I try to impart to them.  If I had to wait through all of those years to try to teach not only would I have lost a great deal of personal knowledge and skill, but I like to think my students would have also.  After so many years of studying and experience, I would also not want some governing body to tell me I did not have the correct credentials to be a teacher.

So what are we to do?  Obviously, there are no easy answers.  Despite the hand-wringing, however, I think there are some positive aspects to all of this which need to be brought to the forefront.  As always, nothing is always negative.  For example, one good thing about the proliferation of yoga teachers is that a participant has lots of choices.  I live in a town of 2,000 people and we have FOUR yoga teachers holding classes here on a regular basis.  If you don’t like the way one of us teaches, you can choose another teacher.  A short drive either north or south of my town provides even more yoga teachers and styles.  Also Pilates and many other mind-body disciplines.  There is something for everyone.  Teachers tend to weed themselves out, also.  People pursue teaching for any number of reasons, most of them well-meaning. But some aspirants may find that teaching is not what they thought it would be.  As with any profession, there is this idea that anyone can acquire the right skills with proper training, but this is simply not true.  The fact is that not everyone can be a good teacher.  It’s just not in their DNA.  Just like not everyone can be a good waitress, or hairdresser, or engineer, etc. etc. We are all different and we all have individual strengths and weaknesses.  We all need to find our own way.

The public will also voice its opinion.  If no one likes a particular teacher, they will stop attending that teacher’s classes.  This will either cause some soul-searching by that teacher that might lead to more learning, or perhaps a complete change of career path.  I recall a would-be yoga teacher years ago who began to teach classes thinking he was ready.  One day a participant came up to him at the end of a class and began describing her fibromyalgia.  At that point, this teacher realized he wasn’t ready to teach after all.  So there are other methods besides governing bodies that can sometimes also prevail.

Of course, we do not want participants to become injured and sometimes poor teaching can create some unfortunate consequences. This can give the industry a bad reputation which, I think, is part of the underlying concern here.  Personally I am a believer that there is a form of movement (maybe yoga, maybe not) that is appropriate for everyone and I would love to see everyone find their way to their own style. However, even the best teacher cannot necessarily control the way a student behaves.  The Yoga Journal article quotes Dr. Timothy McCall who says, “A teacher can encourage students not to do things they shouldn’t be doing, but a lot of people will just do what they want.”  No amount of teacher training is going to change that.

So I hark back to my initial opinion – teaching comes from within.  Mary Taylor, one of the long-time teachers quoted in the Yoga Journal article, speaks of the way training used to be.  “You had to really want to learn,” she says.  I couldn’t agree more.  One of the things I love most about yoga and Pilates is that there is always something new to learn.  Love of studying should always be part of the teaching vocation. I know we will continue to witness the struggle between how and what to teach teachers, but I hope that the discussion always allows some flexibility.  Yoga is all about strength, flexibility and balance for the mind and the body.  If we want to keep those ancient concepts alive any imposition of rules and standards needs to take that into account.

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