Yoga appears to be rarely out of the news these days, with stories in the national press and radio this week about proposed national occupational standards for yoga teachers. It’s a subject which has provoked robust exchanges on yoga teacher forums on social media for several weeks. The word yoga might mean union but there are sharp divisions of opinion in this case.
About two million people in the UK are believed to practise yoga. There are classes in pretty much every gym, leisure centre and village hall up and down the country as well as in specialist studios, but it is an unregulated industry. Anyone can call themselves a yoga teacher or set up a teacher training programme and some courses require little or nothing in the way of yoga experience.
For those in favour of national minimum standards, there are important reasons for regulation. It is believed most people in the UK who practice yoga do so for reasons of health and fitness. Teachers therefore must have some knowledge of anatomy and physiology. We need to be able to adapt and modify yoga asanas (postures) to make them safe for people with bad backs, dodgy knees, frozen shoulders and the myriad of other conditions that our students may have. It is not enough to be “good” at yoga yourself to be a good teacher.
I trained with the British Wheel of Yoga, Sport England’s appointed governing body for yoga. It is firmly behind the idea of national standards, as am I. Applicants for its diploma course need to have practised for at least two years before embarking on a training that usually lasts more than three years. At the end there is a final “pass or fail” exam, a bit like a driving test, teaching a class assessed by an independent examiner. Once qualified teachers are required to do CPD courses every year and there is always more to learn.
Other training programmes, for instance with Iyengar Yoga UK, are equally, if not more, rigourous, but there is a wide discrepancy in the quality of teacher training on offer. Some courses can last as little as two weeks, or be conducted solely online; so long as you can stump up the cash, you get to become a yoga teacher.
Many however are against the idea of national standards. One vocal opponent, Swami Ambikananda, claimed on Radio 4’s Today Programme that yoga cannot be regulated because it is a religion. To me this is not just inaccurate – yoga is really a philosophy – but disturbing. I suspect very few, if any, of those who do yoga in this country think it is a religion, but there are many who would not practise it if it was.
Others think it is just a box-ticking exercise, creating unnecessary red tape. They argue there is no single right way to teach yoga, which is a broad spectrum with many different styles and traditions. Teaching is partly an intuitive process and being properly qualified does not necessarily make you a good or empathetic teacher. In addition, there is understandable concern from those who fear their certificate might not be worth the paper it’s printed on (but there is another heated online debate in the yoga community about the glut of teachers being churned out by some of these fast-track courses).
But the main gripe is that the standards are being drawn up by Skills Active, which is the sector skills council for active learning, leisure and well-being. How can this body possibly understand the complexities and subtleties of yoga? I have some sympathy with this, but the intention is not to dictate how or what yoga should be taught, rather what key skills, knowledge and competencies are required. I also think if Skills Active are going ahead anyway, like it or not, we in the yoga community are better off getting involved and helping to draw up the standards, rather than protesting outside the room.
In the meantime, for yoga students, potential students and wannabe teachers it’s a case of caveat emptor. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – since I started teaching in 2008 only a handful of people have ever inquired about my qualifications or experience. And remember too that you are your own best teacher: listen to your body and if it doesn’t feel right for you, don’t do it.