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Yoga Unify (YŪ), a new nonprofit organization that launched in September, aims to set new standards for yoga teachers, prioritize ethics, provide educational resources to students, and unify the community in ways that Yoga Alliance (YA) has not, says Heather Shereé Titus, co-founder of YŪ.
Titus, who is also the director of the Sedona Yoga Festival and—small detail—the daughter of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, says that YŪ will serve both teachers and students and will have a governing body that represents the yoga community from the ground up. She says that while at a first glance it may appear YŪ is reinventing the wheel, the organization is, in fact, an entirely new vehicle. “I don’t want to replicate—I want to be a resource,” she says.
Two of YŪ’s key principles are fostering pathways to becoming a yoga teacher outside of the 200-, 300- and 500-hour teacher training models, and acknowledging that not everyone can or should be a teacher. “If every student who begins a serious practice of yoga is guided to a teacher training, then we naturally have an imbalance,” explains Titus. It’s become common practice in the industry for studios to churn out teacher trainings not just for profit, but for survival. What’s resulted is an oversaturation of teachers (for every one student, there are two teachers in training), many of whom graduate with the bare minimum qualifications and lead teacher trainings on their own, according to Titus. The issue is only exacerbated by a proliferation of COVID-era teacher trainings being offered online. “This is why we support the lifelong student journey as something to be honored on its own merits.” YŪ will do this through course offerings at various levels for myriad styles and specialities that chart a clear course for education—similar to 100-, 200-, and 300-level college courses.
“We see yoga as a field of study and practice, rather than a commercial industry, and we seek to move yoga in that direction,” Titus says. “We don’t buy into the idea that ‘X’ number of hours makes a yoga teacher.”
Yoga Unify intends to credential yoga teachers and schools through ongoing assessment and peer review, identifying their level of professional experience and specialization in a public directory. The new credentials will be determined by YŪ governing councils, made up of member teachers and leaders nominated by the YŪ community. Each time a teacher wants to apply for another qualification, or step up a level, Yoga Unify advisors will support that teacher with a clear pathway of study to prepare them for that advanced competency, Titus explains. YŪ will recognize yoga teacher certifications from yoga studios and schools, but will reevaluate teachers based on YŪ standards that assess a teacher’s current experience and competency, giving them YŪ ratings and rankings that go beyond the standard Yoga Alliance 200-, 300-, and 500-hour requirements.
The YŪ directory is designed to highlight teacher credentials and experience. Professionals can upload videos, articles, and other promotional and educational material. And students of all levels can search for the type of class, training, or mentorship they are looking for. For example, someone with a back injury whose doctor says “yoga helps” will be able to identify a teacher near them, or online, that has the capacity to work with spinal or muscular misalignments, rather than finding themselves in an unknown studio with a new 200-hour graduate who may not know how to serve them. Or, you may be a new teacher looking for someone to study prenatal yoga or Yoga Nidra with. With YŪ’s course catalog and teacher directory, a member can follow their interests, Titus adds.
Beyond the directory, the incentives for both students and teachers to join YŪ are access to mentorship, scholarships for continuing education, and grants supporting yoga service and other programs that preserve the tradition of yoga and foster its evolution. For example, you could get funding to translate a root text from Sanskrit, make a studio Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant, or cultivate increased diversity in your yoga classes. Membership is $108 annually with sliding scale options from $54 per year. There are also Pay It Forward community pricing options. Yoga Unify will also offer a discounted rate on professional liability insurance and group rates for dental and vision insurance, as well as access to telemedicine.
Yoga Alliance leaders say they feel that their organization already covers much of this ground. “Yoga Alliance serves yoga; no one governs yoga,” says Yoga Alliance President and CEO Shannon Roche. “Our association seeks to support and be in active relationship with the entire yoga community, in the hopes that more support and resources for yoga professionals will allow more people to have more access to high-quality, safe, and equitable yoga.” The organization’s new engagement platform, YA CommUnity, launched last month to create “a welcoming space for members to connect around the world and share resources, experiences, knowledge, and support,” Roche says.
What It Means to Be a Teacher
Many yoga teachers agree that their field is saturated. “There are too many underqualified teachers who lack the resources and support to seek proper qualifications and uplevelling,” says teacher and musician Selena Isles (aka DJ Seriousblack). Isles, who is an early adopter of the YŪ platform, says that Yoga Unify has the potential to pivot the industry. “If YŪ can position themselves properly, they would be on the edge of providing a new wave of teachers with proper qualifications,” she says.
The YŪ initiative began last spring at Sedona Yoga Festival, when Titus organized a panel of senior teachers called “What It Means To Be A Teacher.” The lineup included Judy Weaver, a yoga therapist based in South Florida and co-founder of Connected Warriors (which provides free trauma-informed yoga to veterans, active-duty service members, and their families), and Kundalini yoga teacher and author Ravi Singh, who’s currently based in San Diego.
Weaver and Singh found they agreed on many things. For one, they both acknowledged that aside from the current teacher training model, the industry is devoid of any resources that bring yogis, as students, together. “I’m still a forever student and there’s nothing for us as a collective group,” Weaver says. “Ravi and I ended up talking to probably 100 different yoga teachers from all different lineages and traditions, and the one word that kept coming up was ‘community.’” Weaver and Singh looped Titus into their discussions and all three became the co-founders of Yoga Unify.
Creating Safe and Accessible Yoga
Aside from building a learning bridge for students and holding teachers accountable, Yoga Unify has larger goals related to the widespread systemic problems the industry faces, including addressing ethical misconduct and cultural appropriation, and nurturing inclusivity and accessibility. “The public perception of yoga is limited and causes people to hesitate about picking up a practice if they are not young, bendy, and female,” Titus says. “In fact, people of all shapes, sizes, colors, cultures, genders, and ages, practice yoga to tremendous benefit. YŪ is hoping to shine a light on this and aims to change the perception of yoga, while creating resources for those who become new students.”
Singh, whose Kundalini community is still reeling from the recent sexual misconduct allegations against Yogi Bhajan, says that far too many practitioners have been exploited, victimized, and marginalized. Of course, Bhajan has not been the only guru to abuse power. From Osho (Bagwan Shree Rajneesh) scandals and the fall of John Friend and Anusara to Bikram Choudhury, Greg Gumucio of Yoga to the People and the 300 plus #MeTooYoga stories that were collected by Rachel Brathen, countless students and teachers have fallen prey to sexual manipulation by yoga leaders for decades—if not longer.
“We (Yoga Unify) are committed to creating a safe space for the community,” Singh says, “The way to do that is to be accountable to one another and educate people about how it all happened.” As the platform continues its initial launch phase through the end of the year, the Governing Council on Ethics is soliciting input from early adopters, or Founding Circle Members, on strategies for making yoga a safer space. The organization is currently in partnership with #NotMe, a grievance app for the community to report unethical behavior. Eventually, the YŪ ethics council will determine a process for handling complaints about misconduct and will review reported behaviors in terms of repercussions or, in some cases, necessary legal action.
Yoga belongs to everyone—but we can all agree that it has also been appropriated from India. The mission of YŪ is to “preserve the tradition and steward the forward evolution of yoga.” Yoga Unify wants to remind all yoga practitioners that there’s much more to yoga than physical exercise; that the practice is rooted in tradition and philosophy. The organization wants to steer the community back to the original intent of the practice that’s been overshadowed by the commercialization of the industry. Members will have the opportunity to work with a mentor and delve into learning all the limbs of yoga.
YŪ also aims to address diversity and accessibility in yoga. Marsha Danzig, a yoga teacher, author, founder of the Yoga for Amputees training program, and a YŪ early adopter, says she has always had to take initiative in order to adapt to a studio, a style of yoga, or a teacher in order to meet her needs as a below-knee amputee. “I still think we have a way to go, which is why an organization like Yoga Unify can be so helpful,” says Danzig.
On its advisory board, YŪ has invited a number of diverse teachers, including Acharya Shunya, Kamini Desai, Rama Jyoti Vernon, Kim Bauman, Dianne Bondy, and Pamela Stokes Eggleston.
Reggie Hubbard, an activist, political strategist, yoga teacher, and YŪ advisory board member says he’s excited about how the platform will create connection across the yoga universe. “This broader cross-pollination, I believe, will have a synergistic effect in transforming accessibility and diversity in the yoga landscape,” he says.