A controversy is raging in the world of yoga – and many people are getting their yoga pants in a twist over it. The British Wheel of Yoga, appointed by Sports England as the governing group for mind-body workouts, is setting out to offer a minimum benchmark of competence and knowledge for yoga teachers. This won’t be compulsory, but Paul Fox, Chairman of the BWY, says he hopes this will “help to protect the public from injury in yoga classes”.
And it has angered many yogis, upset at the idea of benchmarking the ancient spiritual practice. They argue that this makes yoga teaching comparative to other sports, rather than staying true to its roots. I am part of the current wave of thousands of people who have undergone a 200-hour training, and am qualified to teach yoga. There are estimated to be more than 10,000 active yoga teachers in the country – and I suspect, many more who don’t teach. I spent a full-on couple of months learning heaps, including how to watch the chatter of my mind as I was struggling with grief after my dad died.
But 200 hours doesn’t start to scratch the surface when it comes to understanding this ancient tradition; to finding out about the eight limbs of yoga of which physical postures – or asanas – are only one; of beginning to understand the anatomy and physiology of the human body. And in my case, I’m still searching for the elusive perfect downward facing dog, the inverted v-shape that forms one of the most basic yoga poses, and my nemesis. Not all downward facing dogs – or yoga courses – are equal And not all downward facing dogs are equal: courses such as those run by Triyoga require an application that is as involved as applying for a PGCE. The training is rigorous and attendees have to cover 16 modules, including yoga philosophy, anatomy and physiology.
Others require little more than an interest in the practice, and there are distance-learning courses too. On some courses, I’m yet to hear of a yogi who completed their teacher training but was told to come back for resits before they take to a class (though perhaps they just keep it quiet). Fox has previously said that if he had the hypothetical power to go into training institutions across the country (something he’s not seeking) he would most probably close down 75 per cent of them. I agree with a drive to ensure courses are of a high level – and make sure that the 460,000 people who are estimated to practise yoga across the country aren’t being short changed. But the BWY initiative with Skills Active may not prevent these problems.
Many people argue that there’s a direct conflict of interest. Reverend Padma Devi Sumananda, chair of Integral Yoga UK and their head trainer, says: “The BWY should certainly not be the regulating body for yoga teacher training in the UK because it runs its own teacher training courses. They cannot possibly work impartially for all yoga schools and be one of their own customers at the same time.” Fox is clear that the BWY holds no regulatory role and is simply supporting the initiative, including partly funding the administration costs. Many yogis feel that any form of benchmarking should involve independent accreditors including the Yoga Alliance, the Independent Yoga Network and Traditional Yoga Association. Dylan Ayaloo, founder of Hot Power Yoga, doesn’t believe benchmarking offers answers but would like to see more collaboration between different yoga styles.
“In the yoga industry there seems to be so much ego,” he says. “We could really bring in a more collaborative and united approach as teachers and yoga organisations to evolve yoga even further then it has come.” And there’s a second problem, which for some disciplines of yoga is far more serious. Skills Active regulates the fitness industry, but who can benchmark spirituality? Can you benchmark spirituality? Satish Sharma, General Secretary of the National Council of Hindu Temple wrote to Skills Active, saying: “Unless you can first establish that Yoga and the religion of my ancestors are separate, you cannot legally proceed.”
There are many strands of yoga and different styles of practice, some focusing more on the physical, others that see chanting, meditation and breathing exercises as being equally important. In the West, overall, we place more emphasis on the physical than in India, the birthplace of the tradition. BKS Iyengar, credited with bringing the practise to the West in the 1960s, said in an interview about Westerners: “They all want sexual pleasures, sensual pleasures, happiness, joy. So I gave certain postures which triggers such things. And then later I told them, so you want this or do you want something more? And this was the turning point where people started getting interest on the spiritual aspect of life.”
Some forms of yoga have little emphasis on movement; others are close to a Pilates class. And that variation is brilliant: people can find a style that suits them. But it’s really not about making postures look beautiful because you’re bendy, but to help balance strength and flexibility. As yoga has boomed in popularity, so has the industry, currently estimated to be worth £790m a year according to business analysts from Ibis, around it. And that has led to both dubious and brilliant training. Reverend Padma Devi Sumananda says: “I do believe that harmful, discreditable, unqualified yoga teaching schools should be prevented.
And to my knowledge, they are prevented by consumer awareness – anyone taking a teacher training course should always ask, ‘Is it accredited and by whom’?” ‘Con men soon find out that it’s not actually a money spinner’ Dr Pete Yates, Independent Yoga Network Secretary and co-founder of Parkdale Yoga Centre teaches students who have three to four years of assiduous practice. He is categorically against the BWY’s move and believes the industry self-regulates. “Under-trained teachers don’t last very long and con men soon find out that it’s not actually a money spinner,” he says.
Ultimately, while spirituality cannot be assessed I do think that the physical side of yoga teacher training should be of the highest standard possible to protect people in class – though with a training standard that involves all the independent accreditation bodies, not just one. Every teacher should be trained in first aid, and 200 hours seen as the very minimum qualification – many experienced teachers go on to take a 500-hours course. Yoga and Pilates teacher Vivienne Lesley says: “Teachers should be regulated if they are teaching physical exercise. Perhaps the spiritual teachings should be separated from that. People doing exercise should be protected. I have seen many injuries and problems caused by bad teaching in Yoga classes, where teachers have no knowledge of certain conditions.”