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A 'national occupational standard' for yoga teachers?

There has been a lot of noise in the UK yoga community recently (and the press more widely) around creating a 'national standard' for yoga teacher training. The British Wheel of Yoga*, the organisation I trained under, are pushing for this change, with the aim to 'safeguard' students from 'dangerous' teachers.

Disappointingly, what is essentially a healthy debate about inexperience and potential injuries has centred around anecdotal evidence and inflammatory language quoted in tabloid articles. So far, I'm failing to see how this approach can serve to do anything but encourage people to be scared of yoga, scared of yoga teachers, as well as making yoga teachers themselves, scared to teach.

The headstand: a cause for controversy

An example of ‘dangerous’ teaching that has been employed on more than one occasion, is how some students have been taught a headstand in their first class. To use an acronym more commonly fostered by the world's academic elite in order to pinpoint the desired reaction here: OMFG. Yet at no stage has it been explained why encouraging a student to do a headstand in their first class might be detrimental, and when practising a headstand might indeed pose a risk. The example itself has also not been extended to describe any adverse results experienced by those-that-will-remain-vague-and-nameless, upon who the claims are based - so perhaps it is not unreasonable to conclude (on the evidence given) that beyond being instructed to do a headstand during their first yoga class, no negative effects were experienced by the people/person in question. I’m going to take this as an opportunity to be a bit more specific.

WARNING: The following paragraphs may contain content that is not suitable for some readers. Using your own judgement is advised.  

I would definitely teach a student how to do a headstand in their first yoga class (with me physically supporting their weight, standing against a wall) if they met the following criteria:

a) the student wanted to
b) the student was healthy and fit
c) I observed the student had the necessary strength to do so

Now, and this might make you wobbly at the knees, but I would even support a pregnant woman’s decision to practice a headstand in my class, albeit on the conditions that:

a) she understood the risks and still wanted to
b) I knew she had already been practising headstand regularly prior to her pregnancy
c) she felt safe in her body to do so

Whether it was their first or hundredth class, I would not advise a student to practice headstand if they had any neck problems, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heavy colds, sinus problems, ruptured eardrums, or detached retinas - to name some of the major contraindications. 

Now, reading that list, how many students coming to a yoga class with these conditions (regardless of whether they have disclosed this information to their teacher) do you think would instinctively want to go upside down? Based on my experience, I would put this at less than 1%. I would then dutifully advise that 1% why practising a headstand is really not a good idea for them at this time. Students falling outside of the ‘fit, healthy and strong’, and 'really shouldn't be doing headstand' categories would simply be encouraged to build up the necessary strength to support practising the posture over time (again, if they wanted to).  

Whereas it is my role as a yoga teacher to offer a student challenges (on both a physical and a mental level), I would never presume to know my students better than they know themselves. Why do we underestimate a student's ability to say, "I don't fancy doing that today, thanks very much!", or, "That doesn't feel right for me at the moment"?, or, "What you're telling me sounds like absolute BS." Why do we overestimate a teacher's power of persuasion and ability to force people to do (or believe) something against their will? Unfortunately, no amount of training regulation will stop the minority of maniacs in this world abusing the vulnerable, just as no teacher can reasonably force a student not to try something they thought could do them harm, if the student was determined to do the opposite. Injury sustained from incorrectly judging our limitations and over-shooting the mark is, after all, a part of the learning process. 

A defence against the 'competition'?

This is not an argument to abolish training, just a note in favour of not judging a yoga teacher solely on what certificate they possess (just like a yoga student shouldn't be judged on what asana they can practice, and how long it took for them to get there).  Whilst there may be good intentions behind the support for this move towards a national standard, paternalistic attitudes by governing bodies, for me anyway, seem driven by ego: our training is better than yours; I am a better teacher than you. 

An ever growing population of yoga teachers has been cited as one of the motives behind increasing regulation, alongside concerns about 'low-quality' training, such as qualifications being awarded after completion of a 5 day online course, or similarly short teacher training intensive. We certainly can't deny that more and more people are training to become yoga teachers, but I can't help but suspect that the real motivation behind this move is a pervading fear from an existing yoga organisation seeking to get behind a differentiating ‘quality’ mark, in order to withstand the encroaching competition.   

Personally, I couldn't care less how long my teacher took to obtain a piece of paper (or where that piece of paper came from) if I felt they were sincere, had an established personal practice, and were honest about their teaching experience; I would pay them the going rate and at no point would I consider myself to be in danger. It might present an uncomfortable reality, but good teachers transcend assessment - we will probably each remember just one or two really good teachers from school, despite a minimum standard of training being met. 

For the most part, teaching standards are self-regulating - which is not to say that 'bad' teachers won't be successful, or that 'good' teachers won't fail - just that the yoga you choose to practice is, quite simply, what it is. Ultimately, teachers will attract the students they deserve, and students will get the teachers they deserve (and this will change over time): students who care about what yoga leggings they should be wearing, will find a teacher who cares about what yoga leggings they are wearing; students who are only interested in yoga as a form of exercise, will find a teacher who is only interested in yoga as a form of exercise and students who are only interested in yoga as a spiritual practice will find a teacher who is only interested in yoga as a spiritual practice. 

If someone wants to train as a yoga teacher because it is their most recent fad, it follows that they won't be teaching for very long should their interest remain that way – I imagine, that after a short career in voga, or goat yoga, they'll choose to do something else and get on with the rest of their lives. On the other hand, if someone has been practising for a short while and is interested enough to want to train to become a yoga teacher, and they continue to be interested, well then, it surely follows that they have joined the ranks of all the other 'bona fide' yoga teachers out there by continuing to practise and learn every day. 

What to look for in a yoga teacher

From my perspective, the most important thing you should look for in a teacher is whether you like them and whether you feel you are getting something out of the classes they teach. If you don't like your yoga teacher, and you're not learning anything from them but continue to pay for their service on a regular basis, I would question the reasons you keep going to their class.  

Similarly, I would pay heed to any yoga teacher that didn't create a safe setting for you to question, debate and experiment; someone that overly focused on how you are doing things 'right' or doing things 'wrong'; or someone who strictly led you down their path, closing any opportunity that would allow for you to deviate.

Whereas I have been practising yoga for nearly 15 years, I have only been teaching for 2 and wouldn’t presume myself an expert in either. Looking towards a more experienced teacher and practitioner, I will leave you with the words of Matthew Sweeney, who, in his book, Vinyasa Krama (The Yoga Temple, 2011), writes:
One of the highest aspects of teaching is to wean the student from the need to constantly seek expert advice. No external source can ever replace or exceed this personal knowledge. My job as a teacher is often a simple inquiry to aid the student to come up with his or her own answers... A method is to be used rather than followed blindly. Absorb and learn everything you can, but also learn to discard the parts that are not supportive or beneficial to you (p.14).

NB: despite making my current stance on this debate very clear, please feel free to express your opinion in the comments below. Equally, your questions are welcome.

 *The British Wheel of Yoga is a 'governing body' as elected by Sport England. 

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