Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Word about Certification

(December 2012)

A prospective student called recently while I was busy at one of my other jobs, painting. By the time I was able to call her back later in the day, she had already found another studio. She said, almost apologetically, "I decided to go with them because their rates are MUCH lower and they are VERY qualified." I will discuss the "rates" part in another blog entry.  But let's talk about qualifications.  "They are very qualified" - the question is, qualified to do WHAT?  And furthermore, if you are not already educated in yoga, how would you KNOW?  On what basis would you be able to evaluate a teacher's qualifications?  Presumably, she made this assumption based on their having an RYT-500 certification from the Yoga Alliance.

The Yoga Alliance states on their website: "Voluntary registration with a recognized professional association that promotes and maintains standards for training and practice has become a benchmark for distinguishing skillful practitioners."

That is, after all, the ostensible purpose of yoga "certification":  To assure the students that they are in good hands, that the teacher has received sufficient training and passed exams with certain standards and is therefore qualified to safely and competently teach yoga.  We all know how well such "certification" has worked in other fields, such as medicine, where according to JAMA, fully "qualified" doctors kill more people every year than auto accidents and guns.*  But that is another topic for another time.

YA does not call their credentials "certification," however.  Certification implies government licensing which is not currently required, but if the Alliance has their way, it soon will be.  They explain, "The teacher registry is not a certification program but a listing of teachers whose training and teaching experience meet our minimum standards. Yoga teachers that graduated from Registered Yoga Schools (RYSs) can receive varying levels of designation based on the amount of training and teaching experience they have."

And what are those "minimum standards"?  The Yoga Alliance offers RYT credentials via 200- and 500-hour courses given by YA-registered (RYS) schools.  A 200-hour credential can be obtained by attending 10 weekend courses of 20 hours each, which can be accomplished in less than 3 months, or a single 3-week course.  No prior yoga experience or training is required; any person who has the money and time to attend the 200-hour course can suddenly become a "qualified" yoga teacher.  And after another 300 hours you can become "VERY qualified."  Really?!  Wow.

I began studying and practicing yoga in 1976 at age 13.  My first teachers were on t.v. - Lilias Folan and Richard Hittleman, and in books, especially The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Swami Vishnudevananda, Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda and of course, the Bhagavad Gita.  As a teenager I read everything by Ram Dass, and was thrilled to attend several of his seminars during college and I received shaktipat from him.  We read lots of books back then; this was "in the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth," before we had the internet or personal computers and in fact, a computer often occupied an entire building.  I took the Self Realization Fellowship correspondence course (yes, by "snail-mail"!) and received my first kriya yoga certification from SRF.  In college I practiced hatha yoga with other students and we all learned from each other.  I learned tantra and kundalini yoga from an older graduate student who had studied in Tibet.  I learned bhakti yoga from the Hare Krishnas on campus.  After college I spent a couple of years of intense study and practice with Ananda Yoga Fellowship in California where I obtained my second kriya yoga certification.  I studied with various yoga masters over the years, some well-known and others obscure.  I even had the incredible privilege of attendng a weekend seminar with the Dalai Lama when I received from him an initiation called "The Empowerment of Padmasambhava."

In the early 1980s I began teaching yoga.  That's what we did in those days: share what we had learned.  We were not trained to be "yoga teachers," we were trained to be yogis, and part of that is to pass on the gift of yoga to others.  At first I taught for free.  Then in 1988 I was spending my lunch breaks from my "real job" at the New Age/ Crystal shop across the street, doing asana and meditating on their sunny back patio.  People asked me to teach them.  Nobody ever asked, "What are your credentials?"  There was no "certification" back then.  They just felt the Love and said, "I want what you have!  Can you teach me?"  I was offered $20/hour per student.  I felt really wierd accepting money for yoga, like being paid to pray, but they insisted.

I've taught off and on over the years and it had never occurred to me to become "certified," but then again, the Yoga Alliance did not even exist until 1999.  When I opened my studio in 2009 I learned about the RYT certification which the other teachers in town had, and figured I might as well obtain it also, to give my studio credibility.  I applied to the Alliance, assuming that with my many years of experience, training and teaching, I would easily be "grandmothered" in, perhaps after taking some tests.  They sent me the paperwork, which I had difficulty interpreting because it required me to list all the "classes consistent with the RYT curriculum" that I had attended over the years and to document all the hours, as well as the names and addresses of all my teachers.  But, since the Yoga Alliance did not even exist back when I received most of my training in the 1970s and 80s, there WERE no "RYT classes" at that time.  In addition, I had not kept documentation of my courses and to be honest, I never knew the real names (never mind addresses!) of some of my teachers, e.g. one elderly yogini I had met through a rock star friend, I knew only as "Ma."  In addition, YA required that all of the coursework be from ONE school!  So, the fact that I had studied with SRF as well as Ananda, Ram Dass, and the Dalai Lama, etc., actually counted against me.

After much questioning and discussion back and forth with YA, I was very surprised and, admittedly, somewhat offended to ultimately learn that despite my then 33 years of yoga training and 25+ years of teaching, I could not qualify for ANY credits whatsoever towards RYT!  I felt better after learning that the guru of a friend of mine, an elderly and well-respected yoga teacher from India, was initially denied RYT status and only after an extended battle did they award him the RYT-200, probably because they were embarrassed to reject someone of such high standing in India.**  As for me, the Alliance said my only option was to start over from scratch and take the 200-hour course from a YA-approved school.

I looked into doing this and discovered that it would require traveling out of town and missing a couple of days of work (Friday and Monday) for driving time each weekend, plus the cost of gas, food and lodging, plus tuition for the actual classes, all of which together would amount to approximately $5000, which was not even remotely possible.  Likewise the 3-week program was impossible since I could not afford to take any time off of work.

So, essentially, according to the Yoga Alliance, a person with zero previous yoga training, who had $5000 and the leisure to take time off of work for the 200-hour course (plus the yearly renewal course and fees), was a "qualified" teacher, whereas I, with 33 years of serious yoga training and practice, was not!  And the RYT-500 teachers?  Well, given that YA did not exist until 1999, many of them were still in diapers when I began teaching...

I ended up obtaining my certification online from a place in India which involved taking difficult exams designed for people who already knew what they were doing and simply needed the paperwork.  That certification, however, is not recognized by the Alliance and if they achieve their goal of mandatory RYT licensing in the U.S., it probably will not meet the government requirement, either.  This would be a great boon to the Alliance since it would reduce the number of legal yoga teachers in the U.S. and thereby increase the income of RYTs.

In 2011 I discovered Mark Whitwell and Heart of Yoga.  Everything Mark said made perfect sense and jived with what I had learned on my own yoga journey, and his technique of asana with pranayama complemented and finished the groundwork laid by my years of yoga practice, pulling everything together into one beautiful whole and literally changing my reality forever in a few minutes.  My husband and I scraped together every penny that we could manage to find/borrow and drove up to Omega in New York to spend a week of "intensive HOY teacher training" with Mark, whose course was very inexpensive.  I told him of my situation with YA, my profound experience with HOY technique and my desire to become a HOY teacher.  He interviewed me and the other students (all of whom were accomplished yogis, from various schools and backgrounds) in some depth, observed our practice and invited us to become HOY teachers.  Mark's teaching requirements are:  To have a good teacher, a commitment to a daily personal practice of your own, and a sincere desire to help people.  Period.

Around that same time I discovered Advanced Yoga Practices online and they likewise, after some discussion of my background and training, invited me to be part of their organization which (like HOY) teaches classical yoga in all its deepest aspects, far beyond the limited extent of the asana-based Alliance program.

Not too long ago I met a student who had also been studying with another teacher out at the beach.  As we are neighbors right around the corner from each other, she thought it would be nice and convenient to come to my studio as well.  She described the other teacher as, "VERY advanced, a real expert!  She has the RYT-500 and attends yoga conventions all over the world and everything!"  The student did seem quite familiar with some asanas, and on going over basic HOY technique with her, I asked if she knew ujjayi breath.  She said, "Yes!"  I asked her to demonstrate and could hear it on exhale but not on inhale (which is common among beginning students).  I encouraged her to try to make the inhale the same as the exhale and she got a confused look on her face and said, "My other teacher told us to do ujjayi ONLY on the exhale!"  I explained if it's only happening on the exhale it's not ujjayi, it's not a complete breath, and furthermore it could be quite unbalancing.

Oh, dear.  Is this really what the "advanced" RYT teaching looks like?  Is this the result of teaching by an expert, a "skillful practitioner" according to the Yoga Alliance?  Is the RYT certification really ensuring quality yoga teaching, or does it, perhaps, primarily exist to generate money for the Yoga Alliance and its members?  Don't ask me, apparently I'm not "qualified" to comment.

*  Journal of the American Medical Association, July 26, 2000;284(4):483-5

**  As far as I know, at this time YA no longer grandfathers anyone in from any non-RYS registered school.

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