Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Yoga certifications, consumer demand, and the will to systematize: A little analysis of a phenomenon in the yoga community

"I mistrust all systemizers and avoid them; the will to systematize is a lack of integrity."

Friedrich Nietzsche

I have been reading with great interest Claudia's recent post on yoga therapy. In her post, she voices her concerns about the increasingly high costs of yoga therapist training, and the increasing amount of government enforcement and licensing of yoga therapists. She sums up her concerns very nicely when she writes:

'my fear is that it [the International Association of Yoga Therapists] could turn out to create rules so that for anyone to do yoga therapy, he or she would have to go into a university program that would charge 30K/year which, at least in the United States, where the cost of college has risen 10% higher than inflation since 1977, seems to be the standard for "specialty qualifications".'

I greatly sympathize with Claudia's concerns. In my opinion, this noticeable trend towards greater formal professional specialization in yoga therapy (and the accompanying rise in costs and the creation of a rigid hierarchical structure) has a lot in common with the parallel trend towards a greater emphasis on formal certification among yoga teachers in the fitness and wellness industries. In both cases, there seems to be a movement towards greater emphasis on creating a systematic structure of certified recognition of individuals who work in these areas. The worry that Claudia and many others (including me) have is that this greater emphasis on system and structure may create a situation in which people will come to see certification as the be-all and end-all of becoming a yoga therapist or yoga teacher. Inadvertently, this may also eventually result in the formation of a hierarchy in which those who lack these certifications are automatically seem as less qualified or inadequate to teach or practice yoga therapy, whereas those who have these certifications will automatically be seen as qualified or competent, regardless of their actual level of skill or experience.

I do not have any solutions to this quandary (if I do, I will be out there doing something about this, and not just sitting here blogging :-)). But I would like to offer a little analysis of this issue, and hopefully, say something illuminating in so doing. In my opinion, there are two factors that have contributed to this quandary:

(1) The demand for some form of formal certification on the part of the general public: Having lived in this country for 10 years, I observe that American consumers love formal certification and recognition. I suspect that this is probably true of all developed/industrialized countries, but I generally try as far as possible to speak only from experience, and since I have lived in this one industrialized country for the last ten years, I'll limit my claims to this country. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing to love. If you are shopping for organic food, for example, you would want to have some kind of guarantee that the food you are buying is indeed organic, and you may not have the time or the resources to actually physically track the food from the place where it was grown all the way to the grocery store. The "USDA Certified Organic" label comes in handy here: It serves as a guarantee given by a (hopefully) qualified agency that your food is indeed organically grown.

Here's another example: If you are new in town, and are looking for a mechanic to do some work on your car, you would also want to have some kind of guarantee that the mechanic possesses a certain level of competence in working with cars. Hence finding an ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certified mechanic is usually a good place to start: All other things being equal, the ASE certification serves as a guarantee given by a (again, hopefully) qualified agency that the mechanic you are dealing with has the expertise to competently work with your car.

I can go on and multiply examples infinitely, but I think you get the picture (if you neither buy organic nor own a car, just invent an example on your own: I'm too lazy to come up with more examples :-)). Let us now shift our attention to the new yoga student (the "consumer" of yoga, if you will) who is looking for a good yoga teacher to teach her yoga. She has heard much about the wonderful mind/body benefits of yoga, but knows nothing about yoga otherwise. Where is she to begin? If she is a typical American consumer, she will probably be thinking: Is there some kind of official guarantee that the yoga teacher/s I encounter will have the expertise to give me competent yoga instruction? If everything that she knows about yoga comes only from sports and fitness magazines or from "official" yoga publications like Yoga Journal, she will most likely come to the conclusion that only Yoga Alliance certified teachers have the expertise to give competent yoga instruction. I know this, because I have read more than one fitness magazine which explicitly tell the reader that in looking for a "good" yoga teacher, one should first ask to see the teacher's Yoga Alliance certification.

If you have been following the recent conversations in the blogosphere about yoga teacher trainings and certification, you will know the problems and issues in this area. So I won't rehash them here (if you haven't... well, at the risk of being very immodest, you can start by reading my recent post on this issue :-)). What I'm trying to say is that, for better or for worse, American consumers often use official certifications as their starting point for finding reliable goods (including "reliable" yoga teaching). And my theory is that Yoga Alliance stepped in to fill this demand on the part of the consumer. Of course, if you have practiced yoga for any length of time, you will know that yoga teaching is not a simple consumer product whose production can be monitored and/or quantified by such official mechanisms. But we can't blame the consumer for not knowing this. (Or can we? :-))

So far, I have only been talking about yoga teacher certification. But I am quite sure that the same issues also apply to yoga therapist certification. I'm too lazy to spell it out here (had a long day at work), but I think if you substitute "yoga therapist" for "yoga teacher" in everything I just said above, you will get what I am saying.      

(2) The will to systematize: As I just mentioned, Yoga Alliance stepped into the economic vacuum created by consumer demand for official certification. In order to create a credible (or at least credible-looking) certification system, the people who come up with the certification standards need to present these standards in the form of a coherent hierarchical system: Jump through such-and-such hoops, and you will be certified at the 200-hour level. Jump through another set of hoops, and you will be certified at the 500-hour level. At this rate, I really won't be surprised if a few years down the road, we have a new level in the structure (Jump through such-and-such hoops, and you will be certified at the 1000-hour level...).

The trouble is that people who are good are jumping through Yoga Teacher certification hoops aren't necessarily good yoga teachers (again, the reasons for this are many, and have been treated at great length in recent blogosphere discussions, so I won't rehash them here). The trouble, also, is that like many of the people on the board of directors of the IAYT (as Claudia pointed out in her post), many of the people who are on the board of directors of Yoga Alliance have the words "PhD", "M.D." and "MSW" after their names. Don't get me wrong; there is nothing inherently wrong with having these titles after your name (I, for one, have the words "PhD" after my name in my professional capacity). But as somebody who actually has one of these titles after my name, I feel that I am in a position to point out a couple of tendencies that people with such titles tend to manifest:

(i) People with such titles have a penchant for creating systems and systematizing: I'm not saying that all such people have such a penchant. But in general, higher education in this country trains its graduates to put things neatly into categories and present them to the hoi polloi in a way that may or may not make sense to them (if it makes sense, great; if it doesn't... well, that's why they're the hoi polloi, right?). Hmm... I'm letting my cynical streak get the better of me again. But in any case, categorizing and systematizing isn't always a bad thing: I think a lot can be said for the presence of clear standards in many facets of our contemporary society. However, the danger arises when one tries to systematize a millenia-old body of knowledge like yoga, and attempt to quantify its various aspects into neat categories of one's own devising. In so doing, one runs the risk of watering down and possibly even distorting the integrity of this body of knowledge; I can't help feeling that this might be what Nietzsche had in mind when he says that "the will to systematize is a lack of integrity"... (I'm just speculating here, don't quote me on this; I'm no Nietzsche scholar.) 

(ii) The public in general tends to trust people with such titles after their names, whether or not these titles are actually relevant to what it is that they are purporting to do: In order to ascertain the truth of this claim, all you have to do is to go take a look at the credentials of the people who are on the board of directors of both YA and IAYT, and ask yourself whether their titles actually make them good certifiers of yoga teachers and therapists. Make your own judgment. I shall say no more in this regard.

But I do have a personal story to share. Years ago, when I was still in grad school, a fellow grad student who knew that I was a yoga teacher (he didn't know, of course, that I was actually a yoga teaching charlatan) told me half-jokingly over a few beers that if I couldn't succeed in getting an academic position after I graduate, I can always teach yoga; all I have to do is make sure that I include the fact that I have a PhD in all my fliers and promotional materials, and I would definitely make it big in the yoga world. After all, he added, most people, upon seeing the words "PhD", would automatically assume that the individual in question is an "expert", even if whatever he has a PhD in has absolutely nothing to do with whatever he is trying to do or teach.

Of course, we all know that things are not quite so straightforward in the "real" world. But it's significant to note that my friend was only half-joking, i.e. he was probably joking about the part about making it big as a yoga teacher, but was dead serious about the fact that people tend to almost unquestioningly trust people with fancy titles after their names... Well, as usual, I'm just telling a story; feel free to draw your own moral from it.

Gosh, this is a long post... as always, thank you for reading all this, if you made it this far :-) As I said earlier, I don't have any solutions to this quandary of yoga certification. But as always, I love writing and talking about things. So if you have anything to say, I'll love to hear from you. 



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi Nobel, thanks for pointing me to you article, indeed I have been slow at catching on blogs...

    I appreciate very much your exposition, I am even happily surprised that you actually see things the way I see them, and that you also conclude there is no easy answer.

    That let me to propose the alternative with the post on the 32 ways to create an efficient yoga teraphy practice that is EARNED rather than paid for... Krishnamacharya style,

    One last thing I want to point out is that the Yoga Alliance "registers" people, it does nor "certify" them... That is why we are RYT 200 or 500 or 1000.... the R is for registered.... Perhaps that will help to add a twist to jokes over beers ;-) all it is.... Is a list of names....

    Very interesting to read your perspective!

  3. Thanks for sharing, Claudia. Yes, I think that Krishnamacharya style is the way to go for yoga therapy. And yes, the "registered" vs. "certified" distinction would probably add to beer conversations :-)