The explosion of yoga’s popularity has resulted in a concurrent explosion of teacher training programs—currently the only widespread way to deepen a personal practice, even if someone doesn’t intend on teaching.
In 2016, the most recent year for which official data was available, there were an estimated 70,000 yoga teachers and 4,300 yoga schools registered with Yoga Alliance. (There are yoga teachers in the field who are not registered with YA, which makes it hard to know exactly many teacher training programs are out there, and how many teachers they are producing.)
Many in the yoga community worry that the prevalence of training has created an abundance of inexperienced teachers whose knowledge may never have been individually assessed. One of the founding reasons for Yoga Unify was to up-level the profession of yoga, by holding teachers accountable for the quality of their class, and honoring the tradition of transmission over transaction. We sat down with senior teachers and community leaders Greg Nardi and Selena Isles to discuss.
Greg Nardi has been practicing yoga since 1996. He is a 500-hour E-RYT with Yoga Alliance. He is currently director of Ashtanga Yoga Worldwide, where he teaches workshops in yoga practice and theory internationally, and co-director of Grassroots Yoga, where he teaches in his home of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, engaging in self-study of academic research in contemporary and traditional yoga. Since resigning his authorization from the KPJAYI, he works with his colleagues at Amāyu Yoga, developing an organization and learning pathway for ashtanga teachers that is consent-driven, practitioner-centered, and based in practitioner empowerment.
Selena Isles is a yoga and meditation steward, speaker, physiotherapist, and international DJ Seriousblack. Having lived with monks in Thailand, she has studied both Hatha and Ashtanga Vinyasa, in the lineage of Sri Vidya. She’s the co-creatrix at Legendary Yoga & Wellness, and both her teaching and DJing have led her to stages from Lole to BCorp summits. She sits on the Yoga Unify Governing Council on Education and Qualification.
Yoga Unify (YU): What are each of your personal experiences with teacher training?
Greg Nardi (GN): I started practicing yoga in 1996, and began my first teacher training (a year-long program) a few months later. TT [teacher training] was just kind of becoming a thing at that time.
I’ve done four different teacher trainings in the West: two year-long programs and two month-long immersions. Additionally, I traveled to Mysore, India 12 times between 1999–2015, studying between 1–4 months on each trip. The authorization process to become a teacher in Mysore is much different from a Western TT. I was authorized Level 1 in 2004 and Level 2 in 2009. There weren’t specific teacher training hours, but rather parameters for practice and attendance that needed to be met for K. Pattabhi Jois and then Sharath Jois to authorize me to teach. It was more of an assessment of competency than fulfillment of a particular curriculum.
It’s been interesting to watch so many more people get certified. In the West, teacher training has basically gotten to the point where everyone runs a yoga teacher training as part of their business model.
In India, I actually saw yoga become more accessible for certain groups as it became possible to travel to India for extended stays due to technology. In some ways, this accessibility came at the cost of depth of experience: people can study in Mysore and have less interaction with the local culture except in transactional relationships like landlords, restaurant owners, rickshaw drivers, etc. An entire cottage industry grew up to cater to the needs of Western yoga students.
Selena Isles (SI): My mom is the OG yogi. I grew up with it. I left Canada in 1999 for for Southeast Asia and was a monk, and I always stayed on that Hatha yoga track. I came at yoga from a cultural perspective, but in the early aughts it became “cool.” Studios started to spring up outside of artist communities and marginalized areas where the rent was cheaper. I saw this in Montreal around 2004–2005, but yoga really BOOMED in 2007. The NYC scene exploded in roughly 2002.
As a tantric monk, I understood that the world needed yoga, but I was worried [by the trainings I saw]. You can’t really put a way of life into a set number of hours. There are a couple of versions to this story, but my research points to the fact that the 200-hour model was set by a small handful of people in 1999 before Yoga Alliance fully formed. That number was set after Dean Ornish, MD, wrote a peer-reviewed study that showed yoga and meditation greatly helped in reversing heart disease. It was meant to set a standard for medical clinics wanting to add yoga to their skill set. It was supposed to be a bare requirement as an elective for medical professionals, who would have already had years of training in understanding the human body.
Comparatively, to become a naturopath, you need four to seven years of graduate-level study to become licensed. A homeopath requires three to seven years of full-time study at an accredited school. Certification to be a massage therapist varies by state and province, but the average is 1,000 hours of training and practice, plus an exam to obtain licensure.
YU: How have teacher trainings changed in the past 10 years?
GN: A lot of my formative years were in Manhattan. Back then, yoga was this kind of alternative, kind of punk rock thing. Then in the mid-2000s, social media was a massive game changer in shifting the culture. Like Selena said, I think there was a concern in those early days to get this practice out there. But that drive started a lot of the issues that we’re reckoning with now—there was not a lot of diversity, we were dealing with ableism, etc.
I’ve always been aware that while going to India or devoting time and resources to TT was a sacrifice, it was also a privilege. Many committed and capable teachers and practitioners were not able to go to India or devote themselves to a training because they had obligations to work and family, or because they didn’t have the resources needed to take extended time off.
You can’t really talk about privilege without also talking about race and class. By and large, the majority of people in both India and the West that I encountered in yoga classes were white, able-bodied, and had discretionary income. Over time, as yoga became more globalized, there were also large groups of East Asian and more and more Latin American students traveling to India, but they were typically still able-bodied and from privileged classes.
SI: Greg is right on with that assessment. I think a major change I’ve seen is the prevalence of students who show up expecting the social media version of yoga, rather than the transmission of an ancient practice. I never claimed to teach exercise yoga, or to tell students how to put their leg behind their head. I was teaching straight-up Hatha. And I’d get students who’d just seen photos on Facebook, come in and be like, “I hate this, this isn’t yoga.” And I’d feel like, “Well, I don’t know what acrobatics class you’re going to, but the sitting and breathing—this is actually yoga.”
YU: So yoga’s commercialization in the West was the catalyst for the over-saturation of teacher training programs?
GN: It’s more complicated than that, because there was a commercialization of yoga in India as well. Pattabhi Jois was primarily teaching white Western students, which created this perception in many of us that what we were doing was somehow more pure or more legitimate than if we’d only trained in the West. There is certainly something beautiful about visiting the country of yoga’s origins that can change your relationship to the practice, but yoga is not bound by location. Going to India was an important part of my personal journey that I cherish, but doing the work to understand and embody the practice is what makes a practice legitimate or authentic.
SI: The intent of the person offering the training matters, too. This intent is often what attracts the people who are going to respond or react to that. [Many] teacher trainings create competition and sensationalism around the individual.
The syllabus for a TT should spend equal time on anatomy and philosophy, as well as Ayurveda, yoga’s sister science, to accompany the physical practice. A training that focuses on one linegate being better than another or that promises specific results (be taller, fitter, faster, stronger!) raises red flags that the deeply personal journey of yoga education is being turned into a product.
That’s why I’m excited about what Yoga Unify is building, because it’s more about the individual’s trajectory as a person becoming an acolyte, actual yoga—the understanding that you have to deal with mind, and then body.
GN: I agree with Selena that I just don’t think most teacher trainings serve the profession the way they’re currently taught. They are marketed as X—and tied to a certain number of hours—and geared toward hobbyists. I’ve heard many people who sign up for a TT say, “Oh, I don’t even know if I want to teach when this is over?” It’s so common.
A training that focuses on one linegate being better than another or that promises specific results (be taller, fitter, faster, stronger!) raises red flags that the deeply personal journey of yoga education is being turned into a product.
YU: In 2016, a Yoga Alliance x Yoga Journal study found that there were two people interested in doing a teacher training for every one person who was already a teacher. Do you think the disproportionate number of people interested in becoming a teacher changes the way that we think about teacher training?
SI: Absolutely.There’s a misperception that being a yoga teacher is all avocado toast and Wanderlust Festivals and palo santo. It’s not. You better hold onto your day job. Yoga isn’t a job, per se, it’s a lifestyle. And it’s tough to make a living.
GN: I have to be honest—I’ve had a very different trajectory because I never had a day job other than being a teacher. I dropped out of college and went to India. But I can absolutely relate to the idea that it was a hustle and a sacrifice. I think that’s one of the things that professionalizing teacher trainings can address: Why shouldn’t people be able to come out of teacher trainings and earn a decent wage? The challenge is that when we have two people for every one teacher in the industry wanting to become yoga teachers, we end up with a labor market that is pretty easy to exploit.
YU: What’s the solution?
GN: In addition to offering pathways to learning for folks who just want to deepen their practice, one of the things we need to address is that if we’re calling it a teacher training—which means entree into the profession—there needs to be more assessment than simply the number of hours you’ve taken.
This is one thing Yoga Unify is looking to do: tie teaching to competency. One of my guiding principles in offering workshops and trainings has been prerequisites: I require students to have read or studied before they show up. Another is class sizes—I limit them. And a third is competency assessment that includes a written reflection on yoga philosophy, short quizzes to assess content retention in anatomy and philosophy, a demonstration that you can conduct a class according to the traditional method, and a demonstration that you can adapt the practice to individual needs.
I offer two tracks—one that’s not necessarily a professional track (for students simply looking to deepen their practice), and a second one that’s more of an apprenticeship, where students who want to teach are in the classroom with me and working under supervision.
SI: We’ve got to point out privilege and position on that. I have a PhD, and I still had to keep my day job in order to pay for trainings. A lot of people coming into trainings can’t throw down $2,000 and spend all their time apprenticing. That’s rent. That’s food.
GN: This is definitely one of the questions we’re asking right now. I try not to make money an issue—and offer scholarships. It’s also about the scheduling, and capping class sizes. If you have a smaller group, you can address a greater number of needs and be more flexible with people. I know that the system isn’t perfect yet; that’s why these conversations are so important.
We also need a greater acknowledgment that we need diversity not just in the student body, but among the people creating these programs. That’s one thing I love seeing in Yoga Unify, is the diversity of voices—people from the LGBTQIA+ community, people from the BIPOC community, people representing differently abled bodies. People who have been oppressed and marginalized are going to be the ones with the best ideas to solve these problems. That’s where we’re trying to get with the Qualification Council.
SI: As a Black woman studio owner, someone who’s really touting diversity and equity, I realized I had to go straight to the source. If I didn’t know how to serve someone who had cerebral palsy, I went to one of my students who had cerebral palsy. I just straight asked them, “Where am I missing the mark?” And sometimes the answers were enough to send me in a corner, but I realized that I had to be open to feedback, and criticism where it was warranted.
YU: How is Yoga Unify working to make teacher trainings less commercial, more about qualification over X-number of certified hours, and more inclusive and equitable?
GN: Yoga Unify is more interested in the assessment of the competency and skill of the teacher. Yoga is a path and a practice and a lifestyle. The process of qualification that Yoga Unify is setting up is much more individualized, in the sense that each person will receive guidance to become the best teacher they can be. We’re moving away from the standardization of education, and defining yoga much more broadly.
SI: When we do this, we’re truly investing in soul-care over self-care. And that’s just revolutionary and dynamic because it’s an opportunity to truly give people back their practice.
Yoga Unify is a new non-profit working to preserve the tradition and steward the forward evolution of yoga worldwide. We are a participatory organization built on the values of accountability, nurturance, and collaboration—an organization of yogis, for yogis in which all members have an opportunity to shepherd change. As such, we are committed to supporting the student of yoga in lifelong study, and the yoga teacher in successfully embodying the path of a teacher. We do this through qualifications based on peer-reviewed competency rather than hours studied, with an emphasis on creating equitable and accessible pathways to learning, establishing ethical standards and reporting mechanisms, and investing in the community we serve. Visit the Yoga Unify website to learn more, and be a part of the evolution of yoga, as it reaches more people than ever before.