The proliferation of 200-hour yoga teacher trainings may be good for business, but is it keeping the practice safe and true to tradition?
In 2015, Mandy Unanski Enright decided this was the year she’d become a yoga teacher. The practice had helped the nutritionist and fitness instructor maintain peace of mind for years, and more recently it had helped her recover from ACL surgery. She asked the yoga teachers at her local studio on the New Jersey Shore where to go for teacher training. They all recommended a well-known NYC studio.
Enright read the studio’s 200-hour yoga teacher training (YTT) curriculum and talked to graduates and some one on staff. She felt confident in the recommendations and that having a high-profile teacher training on her résumé would help her stand out among the thousands of other YTT grads looking for work. (A 200-hour YTT is often the baseline requirement for teaching jobs at studios and gyms.) So she plunked down $4,000 and showed up for her first day, ready to learn how to teach yoga. But things didn’t go according to plan.
“It was an amazing retreat experience, with hours and hours of practice, but the ‘teacher training’ part was a big, expensive joke,” says Enright. “We learned two specific sequences and were expected to emulate the teacher’s voice, down to his inflection. We learned very little about anatomy and adjustments, and even less about what it means to be a teacher.” When her 200 hours were complete, Enright says she had no idea how to hold a safe space for students or cue asana outside of the two sequences she’d learned. She was terrified of adjusting students for fear of making them uncomfortable. So she decided not to teach.
Enright is one of 100,000-plus yogis worldwide investing an average of $3,000 each in 200-hour YTTs a year, according to 2016 estimates from Andrew Tanner, a spokesperson for Yoga Alliance (YA)—the yoga community’s primary advocacy organization and yoga school and teacher registry, as well as the creator of the most commonly used 200-hour YTT standards. While some students go into training simply to deepen their own practice, many expect to teach upon graduation. But, like Enright, they sometimes reach the end of their 200 hours without feeling like they’ve cultivated the skills to develop and lead classes, read bodies, and help students instead of confusing, disappointing, or, even worse, injuring them.
Yoga is a complex practice with thousands of years of history and the ability to transform lives. Yet many of today’s YTT programs suggest that after just 200 hours of training— the equivalent of 10 to 12 weekends—you’ll be able to transmit this ancient wisdom to a roomful of strangers suffering from any number of diverse issues, including knee pain, trauma, and depression, some unable to touch their toes while others twist like pretzels, all with varying levels of experience on the mat. For instance, a search on marketing material from YA-registered 200-hour YTT programs turned up promises like graduates will learn pose modifications that are “safe and effective for every body,” will learn how to “heal ourselves, our students, and the culture at large,” and will be able to “register with Yoga Alliance and teach anywhere in the world,” with “no further training required.”
Broad declarations like these, along with the recent proliferation of YTT programs, have fueled a growing concern among teachers with decades of experience that yoga is losing its integrity. So how did 200 hours become the widely adhered-to standard for what qualifies someone to teach yoga? And is it enough?
Yoga Teacher Training: From 0 to 200
Most master teachers in the West—yogis with 30-plus years experience you’d seek out for advanced training, such as Richard Freeman, Mary Taylor, Gary Kraftsow, and Patricia Walden—became teachers the old-fashioned way: by studying for years with a mentor or guru. They didn’t keep a timesheet or checklist of anatomy training hours. Nor did they abandon a topic like philosophy after fulfilling the requisite hours of study. Rather, many devoted themselves to the practice month after month, absorbing all they could before their teachers deemed them ready to take over a class. “You had to really want to learn,” says Taylor, who was introduced to yoga 35 years ago and practiced daily for years before her teacher, K. Pattabhi Jois, said she was ready to teach. She believes the old way allowed enough time to experience the ups and equally important downs of yoga. “You used to have time to mature in the practice and the opportunity to cultivate compassion through the process,” says Taylor.
This generation of teachers witnessed the start of the fitness craze in the ‘80s, followed by yoga’s ascendance in the West in the ‘90s. More physical practices from the Ashtanga vinyasa tradition began to pop up in classes at gyms in major US cities, along with YTTs that graduated teachers from weekend programs. Around that same time, yoga as an alternative health care modality was gaining traction.
Dean Ornish, MD—a student of Swami Satchidananda and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco—released a peer-reviewed study showing heart disease could be reversed through diet, meditation, group support, aerobic exercise, and yoga. His work caught the attention of hospitals, and a few started implementing his yoga programs. All of this created the perfect storm: skyrocketing demand for teachers, and the ability to become one in just days.
Longtime teachers and practitioners began to worry: What if gyms, hospitals, insurance companies, or government entities tried to impose their own, misinformed teacher standards on this ancient tradition? “We wanted to be the ones who came up with the standards,” says Leslie Kaminoff, founder of the Breathing Project, and a student of the Sivananda lineage and T.K.V. Desikachar. Kaminoff was at the table when discussions about standards started bubbling to the surface in the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s at Unity in Yoga, a nonprofit whose primary mission was to organize yoga conferences. “We had an intense desire to make yoga all-inclusive and put standards in place that wouldn’t prefer one style over another,” says Kaminoff.
By 1998, that conversation had resurfaced, and about a dozen old-school yogis from various lineages came together to discuss it, calling themselves the “Ad Hoc Yoga Alliance.” They delivered a presentation on yoga teacher standards to a receptive crowd at the Yoga Journal conference in Estes Park, Colorado. Shortly thereafter, Unity in Yoga decided to hand over its nonprofit status to the Ad Hoc Yoga Alliance, which changed its name to Yoga Alliance. After months of deliberating, negotiating, and compromising, in 1999 YA members reached consensus on the minimum amount of time it takes a would-be teacher to keep students safe: 200 hours, based, in part, on month-long residency programs that had existed at ashrams for decades. Those 200 hours were earmarked for various aspects of study and haven’t changed much since: 100 hours of training, techniques, and practice; 20 (now 25) hours of teaching methodology; 20 hours of anatomy and physiology; 20 (now 30) hours of yoga philosophy, lifestyle, and ethics; a 10-hour practicum; and 30 (now 15) additional hours spread across the above categories. “The parameters seemed broad and flexible enough that everyone could say, ‘OK,’ even if no one could say, ‘Yes, this is the way I want it done,’” says Nayaswami Gyandev McCord, director of Ananda Yoga and an original Ad Hoc member who still sits on YA’s board of directors.
Under the new standards and the leadership of Swami Nirmalananda Saraswati, the founder of Svaroopa Yoga, YA started its official registry of yoga schools and teachers. It required schools seeking registration to submit paperwork showing they met the requirements, and to pay a $200 annual fee; students seeking registered-teacher status had to show a certificate of graduation and pay around $55 (now there is an application fee for both, too).
Today, there are more than 5,500 YA-registered yoga schools and more than 60,000 YA-registered yoga teachers. “The 200-hour standard essentially created an entire industry,” says YA’s Tanner. YTT programs generally aren’t subject to government oversight—a fact that’s become a point of contention both within and outside the yoga community. Take Sandy Kline, a yoga teacher in Denver, who was alarmed by advanced yoga trainings taught by instructors she believes are unqualified. In late 2014, she reported more than 80 yoga schools to the Colorado Division of Private Occupational Schools (DPOS) for not being approved to operate by the state. This division of the Colorado Department of Higher Education had been mandated by law to regulate all private occupational training schools, including yoga schools, since 1981. But out of dozens of YTT schools in the state, only 13 had applied and paid a $1,750 licensing fee.
“When it comes to yoga-teaching programs, there are a lot of well-intentioned people who don’t always do the best job,” says Kline. She argues that YA standards have no teeth; they aren’t enough to keep practitioners safe. But as Tanner points out, YA has never claimed to be a licensing, accreditation, certification, or regulatory body (although many schools claim to be certified or accredited by Yoga Alliance as a marketing hook). Rather, YA’s mission all along has been “to promote and support the integrity and diversity of the teaching of yoga,” says Tanner. “Yoga is about relationships; we don’t want to get between teachers and students. And there are too many different styles. How do you compare Kundalini to vinyasa?
How Do You Decide Whose Yoga Is ‘Good’?
YA maintains that the community can police itself, and has, says McCord, spent a lot of resources in recent years fighting government oversight of teacher training programs. In fact, YA asserts it has helped pass laws in seven states—Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri— that protect yoga from regulation. For instance, the Colorado State Legislature voted in the spring of 2015 to exempt yoga teacher training schools from DPOS oversight, arguing that teaching yoga could not be considered an occupation since instructors rarely make a living on their salaries, according to DPOS. (Less than 30 percent of yoga teachers report yoga as their primary source of income, according to YA.)
Yoga Alliance is the first to admit the system’s shortcomings: “The fact is, not all Yoga Alliance Registered 200-hour trainings are created equal,” says Tanner. He can rattle off all the major criticisms: that the current registry allows for bad teachers to lead trainings, and for students with zero yoga experience to become teachers after just a month. That 200 hours isn’t enough time to teach people how to lead a class, understand the emotional and physical needs of a potpourri of students, or honor the ancient traditions of yoga. That most 200-hour YTTs don’t cover enough anatomy to keep students safe. That YA has no power to audit, nor does it enforce, its standards. And that, given all of the above, a growing number in the yoga community say registering with YA is a waste of money.
To fulfill its mission of supporting yoga’s integrity, Yoga Alliance has taken steps to address the issue of unqualified teacher trainers, namely by introducing the concept of Experienced Registered Yoga Teachers (E-RYT) in 2005. “It was becoming abundantly clear that people were following the letter of the standards, but not the spirit,” says McCord, who recalls that brand-new 200-hour certified teachers were opening up their own schools of yoga or cobbling together various workshops and calling it a teaching training. So, in order to share teaching techniques and methodology at a YA Registered Yoga School, you have to be an E-RYT—a 200-hour Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) with 1,000 hours of documented teaching experience within two years of becoming a 200-hour RYT. (You still can teach philosophy and anatomy without being an RYT.)
And, in 2014, to address the yoga community’s request for more oversight, Yoga Alliance introduced a social-credentialing system that requires new teacher-training grads to rate their teacher training program if they want their RYT designation—a mandatory, but non-anonymous, Yelp of sorts for Registered Yoga Schools. To date, the site has collected more than 50,000 reviews. “Our answer was to give the community transparency,” says Tanner. “If a training is truly failing—for example, it isn’t organized or it omits anatomy or philosophy instruction—we see it through social credentialing.” If a school gets consistently low ratings, YA investigates and tries to help; if it can’t, YA removes it from the registry. Tanner reports that a “couple handfuls” of schools have been taken off the registry. “Social credentialing is our best hope for maintaining the integrity of the standards,” he says.
But some teachers question the efficacy of a system without outside auditors. “Many students who do a teacher training with their beloved teacher at their beloved studio are going to have a biased view on whether their education prepares them to teach,” says Gina Caputo, founder and director of the Colorado School of Yoga and an organizer of an effort called Colorado Yogis Against DPOS Regulation. She doesn’t see a straightforward solution: “There has to be a better way to check compliance, but true regulation would be exceedingly difficult given how broadly we interpret yoga,” says Caputo.
One thing YA’s fixes definitely don’t address is a student’s amount of experience before entering a teacher training—which can be as little as none. To get around that, teachers like Caputo are enforcing their own prerequisites: She requires two years of consistent asana practice and a letter of recommendation from a teacher before accepting students into her teacher-training programs. Annie Carpenter, creator of SmartFlow Yoga, agrees that experience is key to guiding students in poses. Carpenter began her studies with Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga, in the 1980s and has studied with teachers in both the Ashtanga and Iyengar traditions. She believes a good yoga teacher can teach embodiment, encouraging students to inquire in every pose, “What is the best expression for me?”—an ability that comes from years of practice, not necessarily training. Which is why Carpenter now views her 200-hour programs primarily as a way for students to dive deeper into yoga and determine if they want to teach, and for her to assess whether they should. If they have potential, there’s more training to come: “You shouldn’t teach unless you have done a 500-hour training,” says Carpenter. “Yoga Alliance has set up complications for teacher trainings by having no standards for who you can let into the room.”
Carpenter requires anyone who wants to call themselves a SmartFlow teacher to complete her 500-hour training as well as an assisting mentorship with her. She’s not alone in promoting mentorship, with others like master teacher and Yoga Journal co-founder Judith Hanson Lasater and next-generation teacher Alexandria Crow, creator of Yoga Physics and a YogaWorks teacher trainer, encouraging long-term relationships with students through in-person mentoring and online sessions. Crow offers a mentorship program that focuses on body mechanics, modifications, and philosophy, among other topics. “Mentoring’s not as popular and doesn’t sell as well as workshops on how to get your Handstand on,” she admits. But Crow says she’s willing to take the financial risk to turn out teachers she feels good about.
Specialization models that encourage aspiring teachers to go deeper in studying a specific area of practice are also cropping up around the country, including at Yoga Tree, a well-established studio in San Francisco, where Teaching Training Director Darren Main sees 200 hours as a mere stepping-stone. In order to get a job at Yoga Tree, you have to continue with 300 hours of specialized in-depth study, in topics like philosophy, prenatal yoga, and yoga psychology. Main says that 200 hours is enough to teach a stretching class at a gym once a week. “But if you consider teaching yoga to be more than that, 500 hours is a minimum; 1,000 hours is even better,” says Main. “Yoga Alliance has tried hard to thread a difficult needle but has set the bar too low.”
There is, however, a new nonprofit trying to raise that bar: YogaNext. Founded by Arvind Chittumalla, who started studying yoga as a child in India and now teaches in Los Angeles, YogaNext has developed a basic 350-hour standard, as well as advanced 500- and 750-hour standards that require 5 to 10 years of teaching experience before you can register (around 100 people have, according to Chittumalla). In 2012, he brought together 35 senior teachers to review his proposed standards, then made them public in 2013. One of Chittumalla’s main assertions was that YA didn’t give adequate attention to all forms of the practice beyond asana. And so YogaNext standards include more specific hourly requirements and instruction on pranayama, bandhas, mudras, Sanskrit, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga, Ayurveda, and more. “If Yoga Alliance’s standards mentioned these things, more schools would be inclined to teach them,” says Chittumalla.
YogaNext also requires a minimum of 45 contact hours of anatomy and physiology instruction that includes both muscle-and-bone Western medicine and Eastern theories on the chakras and other subtle-body systems. In comparison, YA requires 20 hours of anatomy and physiology, with only 10 of those as contact hours.
“I’ve always thought that was a pretty crappy standard,” says Megan Davis, a yoga teacher and yoga therapist in Washington, DC. “A lot of people come to me saying, ‘My doctor said to practice yoga.’ These can be people with serious injuries. I know you can’t do an open-level vinyasa class with a shoulder separation, but not all teachers do.” Davis teaches the anatomy for trainings at studios in DC and abroad, where she tries to cover the most common injuries. “Twenty hours of anatomy is a horrible lightning round that sets up students and teachers to get hurt,” Davis says.
While medical experts in the yoga community say they know of no studies showing that greater numbers of students are getting injured in new teachers’ classes, Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine and Yoga Journal’s contributing medical editor, suspects the popularity of yoga and faster-paced classes and trainings are taking a physical toll, and that the lack of well-trained teachers is a factor. “Many people are loath to report injury,” says McCall. “They love their teachers and are gritting their teeth, saying they’re fine, but then quietly going to the orthopedic surgeon.” He acknowledges that some of this is beyond any teacher’s control: “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.”
Where to Next?
Despite all the questions around the safety and quality of 200-hour trainings, most teachers recognize that something is better than nothing. “My idea at the very beginning of the conversation about standards was to call a person with 200 hours of training an instructor—someone who can teach a predetermined sequence of physical poses—not a teacher, or someone who can walk into the room, assess the energy, and adapt yogic teachings to meet the physical and mental needs of the students,” says Kaminoff.
Plus, the current standards are working for some people. YA’s Tanner, also a yoga teacher and teacher trainer, is a little more encouraged by his 200-hour graduates. He says about half of his students are ready to go on to teach right away. Tanner has a rigorous application process, in which he requires students to essentially audition to see how embodied their yoga is. He acknowledges that he goes beyond YA’s 200-hour requirements, and sees the criticism of new 200-hour YTT programs as typical of any burgeoning industry facing increased competition.
And then there are the hundreds of students who graduate yearly from 200-hour trainings feeling empowered to teach. For example, Conor Byrnes, a 2015 200-hour grad, had a class a month after graduation. “While 200 hours is insufficient to teach the art of teaching, [in that time frame] almost anyone can learn the science of teaching yoga,” says Byrnes.
Indeed, the vast majority of newly YA-registered yoga teachers are 200-hour grads—and YA only registers about 30 to 50 percent of YTT grads estimates Tanner. It may be that those unregistered graduates don’t intend to teach. And then there are the working teachers who come up through a lineage and style that doesn’t subscribe to the 200-hour paradigm, such as Ashtanga or Iyengar Yoga. YA does have registered standards for 500-hour trainings, but Yoga Alliance’s McCord points out a couple of barriers to entry: “Some people can’t afford more,” he says. And it’s easier to pursue continuing-education workshops than to commit to 500 hours. YA uses the fees it collects from YTTs to support teachers, schools, and their businesses through scholarships, advocacy efforts, free online education, negotiating cheaper liability-insurance rates, and more, says Tanner. He adds that YA’s current priority is to fight potential costly state-government regulation of YTTs—“things that your yoga teacher, or their yoga teacher, never had to do.”
For now, 200-hour trainings remain the standard, and though there may not be a single clear or popular path that solves the issue that some students may be able to succeed as teachers with 200 hours of training while others fail with 2,000, many senior teachers agree that the deliberations should continue. In the interim, Kaminoff stresses two critical takeaways: keep learning and don’t pretend to know what you don’t know.
That’s exactly what 200-hour grad Enright did. Soon after her first YTT ended, she enrolled in a 300-hour one at another well-known NYC studio. But this time she took classes at the studio and got to know the teachers first. “I didn’t really know what I was looking for in a program the first time,” explains Enright. “When you read training agendas online, they all look the same—but they’re not. My advice is to go and see what feels right for you.” Now, as she finishes her 300-hour training, Enright finally feels like she is finding her own teaching voice, can safely sequence, and is starting to hold the room for students.