Standards for yoga teaching or empire building?

Yoga was recently in the mainstream media (BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the Guardian, the Daily Mail and iNews) over a plan for national occupational standards for yoga teacher training in the UK. The media would not usually report something which sounds rather dry unless there was a controversy, but before I get onto all that, the basic facts are that a large UK yoga organisation (the British Wheel of Yoga) are working with Skills Active (a ‘sector skills council’) to create national occupational standards (NOS) for yoga teacher training. A week after the story hit the news, the BWY Chair Paul Fox produced a short video to answer some questions about it, and the BWY website has a statement from August about the plans and the process.

bwylogoInitially I was rather undecided about this issue, partly as there isn’t much information about what exactly would be in the national occupational standards and who they would apply to. And so far no one from the BWY or Skills Active has contacted me as a general member of the BWY as part of the promised consultation. So what are national occupational standards (NOS)? Well, they are ‘benchmarks of performance’ and would ensure a level of competency among those teaching yoga for an ‘agreed core of fundamental skills’ for yoga. So far, relatively sensible. But the more I read and thought about it, the more I began to wonder what was really behind this, and was is the right thing for yoga, for all those attending classes and for yoga teachers?

The official statements from the BWY and Skills Active give a number of reasons why this initiative is happening, and these include:

  • a request from the sector to set a benchmark for the teaching of yoga
  • confusion of insurance providers regarding the standards for yoga practice and what could be insured
  • confusion from training providers regarding the correct qualification required by the sector
  • need for standards that set a minimum level of experience/skills that ensure safe practice in teaching yoga, preventing the risk of injury to participants
  • request for consistency of standards for teaching yoga, across the UK to provide a clear benchmark for entry on to the SkillsActive Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs) [list taken from annotated letter in Peter Yates’ comments on the Independent Yoga Network newsletter website]

According to various blogs, several of these points can be dispensed with: the REP scheme already exists and has its own framework and standards for those who wish to join it, such as yoga teachers in gyms or other fitness settings; there are several insurance providers offering yoga teaching insurance at competitive rates, and little evidence of confusion of what’s covered; there is no ‘correct qualification’ required by the sector, because the scope of yoga is so broad. And, judging by the list of organisations against the NOS proposal, I would suggest that the ‘request from the sector for a benchmark’ is in fact, a request from one single organisation. In essence, I feel the debate boils down to:

  • trying to eliminate all risks and injuries in a yoga class
  • empire building and seeking to control others.

I’ll deal with risks and injuries first.

class-mats-klInjuries happen to humans when we’re doing physical things, from walking on pavements to cycling, running or playing sports. Injuries also occur in the office and at home when doing everyday activities. For example, someone could be sitting at a desk and twist round to reach something behind them, feel a muscle twinge and say “Oooh, I’ve pulled my back”*. The person is unlikely to think “Oh, that happened because I didn’t have someone with the necessary qualifications telling me how to reach behind me safely”. They just had a twinge in their back, possibly from prolonged poor posture, or a former injury or weakness etc. Now, if the same movement was attempted in a yoga class (e.g. a seated twist) and someone turns their upper body round and experiences a twinge, is this the fault of the yoga teacher? This injury could occur whether the teacher was qualified to NOS standards or not. It could occur with or without a teacher. We therefore cannot create a set of standards for yoga teacher training that will elminate the risk of all injury to those in yoga classes.

And let us not forgot that injuries don’t only happen to ‘the general public’. Injuries happen to yoga teachers themselves, and occur at all levels of fitness and capability, from the local judo club to elite sports people. There are hunderds of top sports people who have had injuries whilst working with qualified trainers and coaches. I doubt any of these top names would say that their injury was because their trainer wasn’t qualified with national occupational standards. Injuries happen because we have human bodies which are fallible. We all need to accept an element of risk and personal responsibility when doing anything physical. And we need to put the ‘risk of injury’ in yoga classes in perspective. There is research from Australia which suggests that yoga-related injuries are low at only 2.4% of respondents over 12 months.

I agree that it is sensible not to increase the risk of injury in a yoga class though, and there are ways teachers can teach to help reduce the risk of harm. Unless the yoga teacher training course is of very low quality, I would expect that all courses would cover modifications, understanding different body types and requirements, what’s suitable for beginners versus experienced yoga students etc. A teacher who is ignorant of these things and where students don’t feel safe is unlikely to maintain large class numbers – people do vote with their feet.

This links the discussion to the other element behind this which I refer to as empire building. The move has come from the British Wheel of Yoga (the body I’m trained with), and according to various blogs and websites, the same individual behind it this time, tried to implement this c.12 years ago. The current chair of the BWY has made public statements rubbishing other yoga teacher training courses. It is true that there is a huge variety of teacher training courses available, and it may be difficult to compare a course which can be completed full time in a month with one which takes place once a month for three years. However, there are umbrella organisations in the UK which have registers of courses, such as the Independent Yoga Network (which represents c.50+ yoga schools) and the Yoga Alliance UK, or the BWY Accredited Groups of yoga organisations.

keep-yoga-freeWhat has really annoyed very many yoga teachers and organisations in the UK (at least 10 different ones including the Independent Yoga Network, Yoga Alliance UK, Yoga Scotland, Yoga Ireland, and others, see the Keep Yoga Free website), is that the BWY does not have a moral or special right to say what yoga is or isn’t, and for their view of how to be trained to be imposed on all others. And it transpires that the BWY has paid Skills Active £20,000 to undertake the work – this hasn’t gone down well with other yoga schools. Many articles against the NOS plan focus on the wide range of what ‘yoga’ is, which ranges from self enquiry to a religious Hindu practice which the BWY has no right to try to standardise.

The BWY should aim to offer comprehensive, high quality yoga teacher training courses, and if it does that, it will attract more people to train on its courses. It doesn’t need NOS to do that, just high quality BWY courses. Trying to shut down other courses isn’t necessarily the best approach. Especially as the BWY also claims that BWY teachers never cause harm in any of their classes – which is simply not the case. See my point above about injuries happening despite the skills or qualification of the teacher.

Somebody posted a link to a yoga teaching training course, which appears to be approved by Skills Active, and which can be completed in 8 days, mostly online. This sounds quite bad initially. But, let’s say there are two people who take this course. One has being going to classes for six months with one teacher. After getting the qualification I suspect their yoga classes are not necessarily going to be fantastic and they may struggle to maintain good class numbers. The second person has gone to yoga classes for 10 years, they have experienced many different teachers, have gone on various week or weekend courses, and are looking for a relatively straight forward qualification to validate their personal experience before teaching. Their personal background is likely to mean that after qualifying, their classes are going to be better thought out and a higher quality than the other person. Likewise, an experienced, but unqualified, yoga student, who has attended a huge variety of yoga classes for years, has been to different teachers and has their own personal practice, is likely to deliver a much better yoga class, than a teacher who has the NOS piece of paper but no real understanding or feeling for what yoga is. The issue isn’t, therefore, so much about the qualification, but about the teacher.

The quality of a teacher, of any subject, is not just from their qualification, but in their whole approach. In yoga you can’t teach someone certain things such as empathising with people, reading people’s bodies, picking up on energy and moods of people or a class, thinking creatively on your feet if someone walks into your class with a specific condition and you need to accomodate them into your plan for that class etc. And with such a diverse concept as yoga, with vastly different approaches, there is no consensus on what yoga is, what a ‘good’ training course ‘should’ cover etc. Because that requires definitions, and then it becomes a case of whose definitions, and that’s when we move into the sticky world of empire building (and cultural appropriation), and why this is seen as an attempt by the BWY to to assess, define, standardise and approve 5000 year old traditions that don’t belong to them.

Person sitting

Image CC0 from Pixabay

And let’s also think about the people coming to a yoga class. What are they looking for? Why do they choose one particular class over another? Are they interested in the qualifications of the yoga teacher? In my experience most people attend a particular class because it’s the most convenient one for them to attend, either for the day, time or location. And most people in the UK attend yoga classes because they know it’s good for learning how to manage stress, to improve or maintain fitness or to help with certain conditions e.g. back problems. And, in my experience, virtually no one will ask about the teacher’s qualifications. I think the only people who have asked me, in my not-quite 10 years of teaching, have been those who are interested in teaching themsleves one day.

So how to fix this mess? Could the BWY yoga have their own NOS, and leave everyone else to carry on as they are? I read that yoga teachers would have to pay Skills Active an annual fee to be registered, and that the scheme would not be compulsory, which rather undermines the whole point. Others have questioned what is it that the BWY would standardise? What is the “agreed core of fundamental skills”? There are only about 15 physical postures in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali refer to asana only about three times in the 195 short statements of the Sutras. If the NOS only applies to hatha yoga, would other yoga taught by other schools be exempt? (For more on this, see Swami Ambikananda Saraswati’s open letter on the IYN website.) What about meditation or pranayama? What about newer approaches to yoga such as acro yoga?

I don’t know how the sorry saga is going to end (but here’s a timetable of the plans), and I haven’t even addressed some angles of the debate, but if you’re interested in it, here are some links to other discussion points about it:

What do you think?

[Later] Update – since first posting this, it seems the controversy is getting more and more fractious, and much of the debate is being carried out on various Facebook pages and posts, for want of any other open forum for everyone. The debate is moving from ‘concerns about poor quality yoga teacher training courses which produce teachers who injure people’ to arguments that the REP scheme is broken and so this NOS will make that better (yet REPs wasn’t even mentioned in the NOS article in the BWY magazine Spectrum, Autumn issue, p.31) and to arguments about yoga’s history and links with Hinduism. Here are some more links:

This is turning into a debacle.

*I use this phrase colloqually, as that’s what most people say, even if it’s not anatomically accurate.

6 thoughts on “Standards for yoga teaching or empire building?

  1. I’ve had experience of standardisation in a few sectors, including as a practitioner/teacher of martial arts. It struck me as a limiting thing that added to costs and bureaucracy and leads to nonsense (at one point my non-competitive martial art in Wales fell under the remit of … Sport England. A double misnomer.).

    On the other hand, I don’t mind when someone invents a thing then sets standards for it. If they own it, fine. But no-one invented yoga. It grew out of many people expanding on it, changing it, pushing it in new and sometimes contradictory directions. That’s fine, it’s how culture works. As such it is wrong for any person or organisation to try and define or control what it should involve, or how it should be done. That’s appropriation of something that doesn’t belong to you (don’t even get me started on the horrible way the word and practice of the olympics has been stolen and monetised, when it should belong to everyone). It is a conservative attempt to grip a greasy thing and stop it changing, even though continuous change is part of it. Let it go.

    If the BWY want to standardise a thing called “BWY yoga” fine. Up to them. But don’t try and say what other people’s yoga is or should be. Yoga came about because of sharing and openness, not due to restrictions and organisational standards. I think your approach to the issue seems balanced, and you’re right to be cautious.

    • Thanks for your views. Yes, I didn’t even get into the issue that the BWY says it’s the governing body authorised by Sports England, but where does that leave us in Wales, and, as you say, the concept of yoga as a sport and therefore competitive?

  2. Well, as someone who has vague thoughts of getting a yoga qualification one day, this definitely puts me off the BWY!

    • Thanks for your comment. There are a lot of different yoga teacher training courses out there, and whilst having some sort of commonality sounds relatively sensible, I don’t know how it would work in practice. I hope you find a suitable course!

  3. Wow, I just read this all properly now.
    Well done Aly on a very comprehensive look at the debate from all angles.
    I’m impressed with how much you have researched and how much you explore it.
    I also think you reach a conclusion that I can agree with, which is reassuring.
    Good work and good writing – I can just imagine how long that took by the way

    • That’s for your comment Catriona, yes, it did take quite a while to read the other articles and to write it up, and to think through what I actually think about this topic. Glad it has been interesting to others too!

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