Regulation, Appropriation & Gatekeepers of the NHS | Articles | Keep Yoga Free


Regulation, Appropriation & Gatekeepers of the NHS

All has been quiet on the NOS front these past few months and many of us had assumed that the unpopular move to create a minimal yoga teaching qualification had come to no avail. The government have now dropped their funding and support for Skills Active (SA), the organisation responsible for implementing the qualification, and the company looks likely to become obsolete in the near future.

From the beginning of the NOS project, we’d all been told repeatedly that the NOS was all about ‘raising standards of yoga teaching in the UK’. However, those who attended NOS ‘steering group’ meetings over the summer, noticed an interesting development: a number of attendees were told that the NHS have requested the NOS so that yoga can be made accessible to patients using the National Health Service. At a NOS focus group in Falkirk on the 16th June, those present were told by Caroline Larissey, the Head of Standards and Qualifications at SA, that the NHS wants to be able to refer to yoga teachers and that they can't do that without an NOS. The implication thereof is that Skills Active have been given a mandate by the NHS and that those who support and sign up for NOS accreditation will benefit from access to bringing yoga into the NHS - a dream for many yoga teachers. Suddenly the creation of the NOS seemed to have a new purpose and focus.

At the time, those of us who have trained and work in the field of yoga therapy were skeptical. Given that this is a highly specialised area requiring many years of training and experience, it seems unlikely that the NHS would open its doors and expose its patients to yoga teachers (not yoga therapists) with a minimal level of expertise and training. When it was pointed out to Ms Larissey that there is already an NOS specifically for Yoga Therapy, it was not made clear why this is insufficient for the NHS.

As far as we know, there has been no formal statement from the NHS or from Jeremy Hunt the secretary of state for health on this issue, so we can only take Caroline Larissey’s word for it that the NOS has been requested by the NHS.

This in itself may not amount to much and most of us assumed it was a last ditch effort from a floundering project trying to attract supporters to its cause. However it has recently come to light that two prominent members of the NOS steering group: Heather Mason, the head of the ‘BWY Recognized Centre' named 'The Minded Institute' and Paul Fox, (Chair of the BWY) are both joint directors of a recently formed limited company called 'Yoga In Healthcare Alliance' which describes itself as ‘a council of experts devoted to integrating therapeutic yoga practice into health care systems.’

When I looked at the ‘Yoga in healthcare Alliance’ website I was stunned to find presented on its board of directors - the photo and biography of none other than Caroline Larissey of Skills Active.

There are clearly a number of disturbing implications and possible conflicts of interest here - for Caroline Larissey in her position as the head of Skills Active Qualifications, Heather Mason in her position on the NOS steering committee and also for Paul Fox, who in his role as chair of the charity British Wheel of Yoga, has been highly influential in actively pursuing the funding and development of the NOS. Whilst under Mr Fox’s chairmanship, the BWY donated funds to the tune of £20,000 to Skills Active to create the NOS. We were told repeatedly by both Paul Fox and Caroline Larissey that the purpose of the NOS qualification was to raise standards of yoga teaching in the UK. However, the NOS has subsequently been promoted by Ms Larissey as a requirement and springboard for teachers who want to work in the NHS. And now both Paul Fox and Caroline Larissey have become board members of a separate non-charitable, non-government organisation who’s mission statement includes:

‘deciding which forms of yoga are deemed therapeutic’
‘to liaise with all schools of yoga in the UK to bring yoga to the NHS’
‘conducting economic analysis on the inclusion of yoga into healthcare.’

I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Perhaps the time has come for us to hold these self-appointed regulators and gatekeepers to account? If they were politicians we would have the right to an explanation or some form of public scrutiny - but then isn’t that the point, that they are unelected? Under whose authority do they pursue their current agenda? Although Paul Fox was elected by members of the British Wheel of Yoga - the Wheel do not form a majority in the UK yoga community or hold a superior status to other organisations such as the IYN, Yoga Alliance or the hundreds of independent Yoga teachers working autonomously.

Leaving aside the question marks around conflicts of interest and opportunism, I’d like to share something unrelated yet quite telling from the Yoga in HealthCare Alliance website. This is from a page entitled ‘Yoga Research:’

“Scholars believe that the seeds of yoga emerged over 5 000 years ago with the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley. From yoga’s very beginnings it was shared with other civilizations and transport across Asian nations adapting to various ways of life.Yoga is an ever-changing spiritual discipline that continually evolves in order to meet the cultural needs and belief systems of both the country and era it finds itself within. It is believed that Alexander the Great took the wisdom of yoga through the Middle East and beyond disseminating its message far and wide. Since the late 19th century the international interest in yoga has been growing, gaining greater and greater momentum. In our age of instant and global communication and with the need for healthy and relaxing practices ever growing; the practice of yoga is being spread more widely than ever, and as this process reaches a critical mass the nations of the world are stopping to take notice and inquire how yoga can help improve the health and well-being of their societies."

Theres a terrible irony and hypocrisy here given that Paul Fox has publicly and unequivocally denied the links between Hinduism and Yoga and that in the preliminary draft of the NOS (p39), Skills Active went to great lengths to distance their modern secularist, postural version of yoga from the so called ‘classical yoga’ of ancient India. (Note: the word ‘Hindu’ was originally employed as a term to denote inhabitants of the ‘Indus Valley.’ ) And yet here we find a clichéd appeal to tradition, no doubt intended to shore up authority and credibility for whichever version of yoga this group intend to sell to the good folks at the NHS. As for Alexander the Great? Whilst its true that there are accounts from members of Alexander the Great's entourage that they encountered Tapasyin yogis, to say that Alexander the Great disseminated yoga far and wide is pure fantasy. In light of the growing conversation in the yoga community about cultural appropriation & neocolonialism, the total lack of awareness or acknowledgement of those issues here is astounding. Alexander the Great (who was the the original coloniser, invader and would-be conquerer of India) is cast in the benevolent role as the first great disseminator of yoga. The universality of yoga and its global popularity are framed purely in the context of a western, colonising viewpoint, that denies the voice and agency of indigenous people in the evolution and development of their own culture. ‘Yoga’ is presented as some kind of unwitting entity that somehow just 'finds itself' in a country or time and then adapts accordingly. Clearly yoga here is viewed as there for the taking, in the same vein as the campaign of Alexander ‘the Great’. This white-washed version of yoga history bypasses centuries of British subjugation and legitimises, even endorses colonialism and cultural appropriation. I can only hope that their ‘yoga research’ of yoga therapy is more thorough and culturally sensitive than their research of history.

It would seem that the people who have appointed themselves as regulators and gatekeepers of yoga, pick, choose and create whichever interpretation of yoga history best suits their purposes. The internet is filled with these kind of yoga fantasies and is also filled with private individuals and companies who (no doubt with the best of intentions) wish to bring yoga into medicine and the NHS. However, when such individuals take it upon themselves to act at a national level to influence the implementation of policy and regulation with the potential to effect the entire yoga community then it is not unreasonable for that community to scrutinise their business interests and to demand complete transparency and accountability.

Hari OM Tat Sat
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