Yoga was recently in the mainstream media (BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the Guardian, the Daily Mail and iNews) over a plan for national occupational standards for yoga teacher training in the UK. The media would not usually report something which sounds rather dry unless there was a controversy, but before I get onto all that, the basic facts are that a large UK yoga organisation (the British Wheel of Yoga) are working with Skills Active (a ‘sector skills council’) to create national occupational standards (NOS) for yoga teacher training. A week after the story hit the news, the BWY Chair Paul Fox produced a short video to answer some questions about it, and the BWY website has a statement from August about the plans and the process.
Initially I was rather undecided about this issue, partly as there isn’t much information about what exactly would be in the national occupational standards and who they would apply to. And so far no one from the BWY or Skills Active has contacted me as a general member of the BWY as part of the promised consultation. So what are national occupational standards (NOS)? Well, they are ‘benchmarks of performance’ and would ensure a level of competency among those teaching yoga for an ‘agreed core of fundamental skills’ for yoga. So far, relatively sensible. But the more I read and thought about it, the more I began to wonder what was really behind this, and was is the right thing for yoga, for all those attending classes and for yoga teachers?
The official statements from the BWY and Skills Active give a number of reasons why this initiative is happening, and these include:
- a request from the sector to set a benchmark for the teaching of yoga
- confusion of insurance providers regarding the standards for yoga practice and what could be insured
- confusion from training providers regarding the correct qualification required by the sector
- need for standards that set a minimum level of experience/skills that ensure safe practice in teaching yoga, preventing the risk of injury to participants
- request for consistency of standards for teaching yoga, across the UK to provide a clear benchmark for entry on to the SkillsActive Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs) [list taken from annotated letter in Peter Yates’ comments on the Independent Yoga Network newsletter website]
According to various blogs, several of these points can be dispensed with: the REP scheme already exists and has its own framework and standards for those who wish to join it, such as yoga teachers in gyms or other fitness settings; there are several insurance providers offering yoga teaching insurance at competitive rates, and little evidence of confusion of what’s covered; there is no ‘correct qualification’ required by the sector, because the scope of yoga is so broad. And, judging by the list of organisations against the NOS proposal, I would suggest that the ‘request from the sector for a benchmark’ is in fact, a request from one single organisation. In essence, I feel the debate boils down to:
- trying to eliminate all risks and injuries in a yoga class
- empire building and seeking to control others.
I’ll deal with risks and injuries first.
Injuries happen to humans when we’re doing physical things, from walking on pavements to cycling, running or playing sports. Injuries also occur in the office and at home when doing everyday activities. For example, someone could be sitting at a desk and twist round to reach something behind them, feel a muscle twinge and say “Oooh, I’ve pulled my back”*. The person is unlikely to think “Oh, that happened because I didn’t have someone with the necessary qualifications telling me how to reach behind me safely”. They just had a twinge in their back, possibly from prolonged poor posture, or a former injury or weakness etc. Now, if the same movement was attempted in a yoga class (e.g. a seated twist) and someone turns their upper body round and experiences a twinge, is this the fault of the yoga teacher? This injury could occur whether the teacher was qualified to NOS standards or not. It could occur with or without a teacher. We therefore cannot create a set of standards for yoga teacher training that will elminate the risk of all injury to those in yoga classes.
And let us not forgot that injuries don’t only happen to ‘the general public’. Injuries happen to yoga teachers themselves, and occur at all levels of fitness and capability, from the local judo club to elite sports people. There are hunderds of top sports people who have had injuries whilst working with qualified trainers and coaches. I doubt any of these top names would say that their injury was because their trainer wasn’t qualified with national occupational standards. Injuries happen because we have human bodies which are fallible. We all need to accept an element of risk and personal responsibility when doing anything physical. And we need to put the ‘risk of injury’ in yoga classes in perspective. There is research from Australia which suggests that yoga-related injuries are low at only 2.4% of respondents over 12 months.
I agree that it is sensible not to increase the risk of injury in a yoga class though, and there are ways teachers can teach to help reduce the risk of harm. Unless the yoga teacher training course is of very low quality, I would expect that all courses would cover modifications, understanding different body types and requirements, what’s suitable for beginners versus experienced yoga students etc. A teacher who is ignorant of these things and where students don’t feel safe is unlikely to maintain large class numbers – people do vote with their feet.
This links the discussion to the other element behind this which I refer to as empire building. The move has come from the British Wheel of Yoga (the body I’m trained with), and according to various blogs and websites, the same individual behind it this time, tried to implement this c.12 years ago. The current chair of the BWY has made public statements rubbishing other yoga teacher training courses. It is true that there is a huge variety of teacher training courses available, and it may be difficult to compare a course which can be completed full time in a month with one which takes place once a month for three years. However, there are umbrella organisations in the UK which have registers of courses, such as the Independent Yoga Network (which represents c.50+ yoga schools) and the Yoga Alliance UK, or the BWY Accredited Groups of yoga organisations.
What has really annoyed very many yoga teachers and organisations in the UK (at least 10 different ones including the Independent Yoga Network, Yoga Alliance UK, Yoga Scotland, Yoga Ireland, and others, see the Keep Yoga Free website), is that the BWY does not have a moral or special right to say what yoga is or isn’t, and for their view of how to be trained to be imposed on all others. And it transpires that the BWY has paid Skills Active £20,000 to undertake the work – this hasn’t gone down well with other yoga schools. Many articles against the NOS plan focus on the wide range of what ‘yoga’ is, which ranges from self enquiry to a religious Hindu practice which the BWY has no right to try to standardise.
The BWY should aim to offer comprehensive, high quality yoga teacher training courses, and if it does that, it will attract more people to train on its courses. It doesn’t need NOS to do that, just high quality BWY courses. Trying to shut down other courses isn’t necessarily the best approach. Especially as the BWY also claims that BWY teachers never cause harm in any of their classes – which is simply not the case. See my point above about injuries happening despite the skills or qualification of the teacher.
Somebody posted a link to a yoga teaching training course, which appears to be approved by Skills Active, and which can be completed in 8 days, mostly online. This sounds quite bad initially. But, let’s say there are two people who take this course. One has being going to classes for six months with one teacher. After getting the qualification I suspect their yoga classes are not necessarily going to be fantastic and they may struggle to maintain good class numbers. The second person has gone to yoga classes for 10 years, they have experienced many different teachers, have gone on various week or weekend courses, and are looking for a relatively straight forward qualification to validate their personal experience before teaching. Their personal background is likely to mean that after qualifying, their classes are going to be better thought out and a higher quality than the other person. Likewise, an experienced, but unqualified, yoga student, who has attended a huge variety of yoga classes for years, has been to different teachers and has their own personal practice, is likely to deliver a much better yoga class, than a teacher who has the NOS piece of paper but no real understanding or feeling for what yoga is. The issue isn’t, therefore, so much about the qualification, but about the teacher.
The quality of a teacher, of any subject, is not just from their qualification, but in their whole approach. In yoga you can’t teach someone certain things such as empathising with people, reading people’s bodies, picking up on energy and moods of people or a class, thinking creatively on your feet if someone walks into your class with a specific condition and you need to accomodate them into your plan for that class etc. And with such a diverse concept as yoga, with vastly different approaches, there is no consensus on what yoga is, what a ‘good’ training course ‘should’ cover etc. Because that requires definitions, and then it becomes a case of whose definitions, and that’s when we move into the sticky world of empire building (and cultural appropriation), and why this is seen as an attempt by the BWY to to assess, define, standardise and approve 5000 year old traditions that don’t belong to them.
And let’s also think about the people coming to a yoga class. What are they looking for? Why do they choose one particular class over another? Are they interested in the qualifications of the yoga teacher? In my experience most people attend a particular class because it’s the most convenient one for them to attend, either for the day, time or location. And most people in the UK attend yoga classes because they know it’s good for learning how to manage stress, to improve or maintain fitness or to help with certain conditions e.g. back problems. And, in my experience, virtually no one will ask about the teacher’s qualifications. I think the only people who have asked me, in my not-quite 10 years of teaching, have been those who are interested in teaching themsleves one day.
So how to fix this mess? Could the BWY yoga have their own NOS, and leave everyone else to carry on as they are? I read that yoga teachers would have to pay Skills Active an annual fee to be registered, and that the scheme would not be compulsory, which rather undermines the whole point. Others have questioned what is it that the BWY would standardise? What is the “agreed core of fundamental skills”? There are only about 15 physical postures in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali refer to asana only about three times in the 195 short statements of the Sutras. If the NOS only applies to hatha yoga, would other yoga taught by other schools be exempt? (For more on this, see Swami Ambikananda Saraswati’s open letter on the IYN website.) What about meditation or pranayama? What about newer approaches to yoga such as acro yoga?
I don’t know how the sorry saga is going to end (but here’s a timetable of the plans), and I haven’t even addressed some angles of the debate, but if you’re interested in it, here are some links to other discussion points about it:
- open letter to Skills Active from a very long-term yoga practitioner and teacher Keith ap Owen
- piece on yoga and exercise on the Independent Yoga Network’s online magazine website
- outline by Skills Active on the Friends of Yoga Society International website
- Independent Yoga Network blog post on regulation
- article on the BWY and the proposals, with many other articles by the same person
- a critique on the BWY’s training processes and current leadership
- new umbrella movement to keep yoga training as open as possible.
What do you think?
[Later] Update – since first posting this, it seems the controversy is getting more and more fractious, and much of the debate is being carried out on various Facebook pages and posts, for want of any other open forum for everyone. The debate is moving from ‘concerns about poor quality yoga teacher training courses which produce teachers who injure people’ to arguments that the REP scheme is broken and so this NOS will make that better (yet REPs wasn’t even mentioned in the NOS article in the BWY magazine Spectrum, Autumn issue, p.31) and to arguments about yoga’s history and links with Hinduism. Here are some more links:
- BWY News page with links to their videos, which are putting the BWY view
- New petition launched by BWY to defend their move for NOS, and states that “we reject attempts to assert a direct link to the Hindu religion” (which has, understandably, annoyed a lot of people including the National Council of Hindu Temples). No matter what you think of the NOS, there are Hindu texts taught on the BWY teacher training courses. And the BWY does not have the authority to state whether yoga is or isn’t linked to the Hindu religion. [Another update – the author of that petition has now removed that sentence from the petition as it wasn’t “helpful”]
- Statement by Paul Fox Chair of BWY on Facebook which highlights a number of issues including that there is no consultation on whether to have NOS or not, there will be NOS for yoga, the only consultation is what they will look like.
This is turning into a debacle.
*I use this phrase colloqually, as that’s what most people say, even if it’s not anatomically accurate.