Some thoughts for Yoga Alliance UK
As most of you know, I teach yoga as my primary occupation in rural Wiltshire, and have done since my first teacher training in 2008. My previous career was in community development. I am also about to begin a doctoral research project into yoga in informal environments, ethics, embodiment and animism.
I have been a member of Yoga Alliance UK since 2010, as soon as my Anusara probationary period was up and I was granted YA200 status. At the time, I joined because I believed in independence and diversity in yoga teaching, something I felt the British Wheel of Yoga was not providing. I still believe this is vital – that we maintain standards, without standardising training.
I have never been more concerned for the future of yoga in the UK. We risk losing our centre, our heart, and what drew most of us to yoga in the first place. To be honest, I think the ‘Om’ Yoga Show is the perfect example of the worst excesses of our community’s commercialisation, exploitation and obsession with glamour and body image over heart-centred embodiment and serving our communities. In talking to other teachers, I can assure you I am not alone. Since I left Anusara, risking my professional achievements to take a stand against ethical abuse, I choose where I can to give my time, money and validation only to those yoga organisations and businesses that I feel provide a positive alternative. I have recently joined the Independent Yoga Network. I was this year on the verge of leaving YAUK. This is for a number of reasons:
- I am alarmed by how much insurance in particular now costs, and there are unsettling rumours among members that YAUK is making a lot of money from teacher members in one form or another. (I have no idea how much this is true, of course.)
- I am aware that YAUK has underwritten and vouched for me as a teacher, through the YA200 accreditation and insurance, without ever asking for more evidence of my competencies than copies of certificates. In contrast, my IYN application involved referees and essays to complete on a number of key topics attesting to my teaching style, knowledge, standards of behaviour and dedication.
- I feel YAUK as an organisation serves members who live and work in the major metropolitan centres, and deal with a lot of competition, commercial pressure and multiple opportunities for networking and travel. It serves them best if their projected path is that of a full-time teacher, running a large number of classes, who goes on to run foreign retreats, traveling workshops and other high cost events. Those of us who will never, and might never want this path to commercial success, are much less well served. Yet we may be taking our careers as teachers just as seriously, and be just as dedicated to the paths we have chosen as, for example, specialists in palliative care.
- Overall, I am concerned about how much YAUK now privileges branding and commercialisation over ethics, community and standards. This issue is so important for yoga as a whole right now, it risks splitting our community in two. What yoga is evolving to become is a live, volatile question, and the world is watching.
In the end, I joined the IYN because I wanted to join an organisation that felt like it was run as a community endeavour: by teachers, for teachers.
When I informed YAUK that I was leaving, I was unexpectedly called by a staff member who works specifically with membership. We began a conversation about how the organisation could better serve its members, in my opinion. She generously offered me a year’s further membership if I would give some thought to how I felt the organisation could improve matters. Taking her at her word, I put together some thoughts and ideas, gathered from my own contemplation, and that of a few colleagues. This is an edited version of that conversation, because I think every yoga member – student and teacher – has a right to hear it.
Peer networking and support
- We need a mentoring programme, especially for new teachers, who can be very isolated after training. Ongoing peer to peer, and mentoring support is vital to our development as a profession. Teaching organisations are not up to the task, but YAUK could help: it has the structure and members to do it, on a volunteer basis.
- Area representation is non-existent. Area co-ordinators, again on a volunteer basis, could run local support networks, regular meet ups and other group ideas, with your help to organise them. This would provide much needed support particularly in more isolated teaching environments. A number of the people I initially trained with are local to me, and we make an effort to meet once a month or so, share practice, inspiration and advice. Many teachers are not as lucky.
- Nationally the YAUK could run conferences or festivals each year to bring us together to share our experiences, learn about new research and so on. As the age of gurus is ending, and fewer and fewer teachers are connected to ashram communities, we must embrace peer to peer training, networking and support to evolve sustainably. Bring members together however and whenever you can, don’t overcharge for the opportunity, give them access to inspiration and questions to ponder and the rest will take care of itself. As a point of principle, try and avoid having everything in London. For those of us who live outside the capital, travel costs are extortionate, and there are so many lovely retreat centres across the country where you could bring people together for a fraction of the costs.
Information, research and representation
- As well as conferences, advice, articles, research and blogs can all be shared online, and this is an area I’d love to see YAUK develop even further. Members could be polled on subjects they’d like advice on. The only yoga print publications available are aimed squarely at practitioners, and even then, their subject matter is shallow and light. I’d love to see debate and articles from long-time teachers on handling touch consent with students, or containing difficult behaviours safely and effectively, or working sustainably avoiding injury.
- There is a wealth of new research of all kinds into yoga and other bodywork practices. The much-shared medical research on the effectiveness of yogic techniques with different client groups: children with special needs, people living with cancer, and so on, increases daily, and should be celebrated. You can help do that so well.
- But we also need to share the more challenging research, such as Mark Singleton’s “Yoga Body” and other works rigorously exploring the real history of yoga as a discipline, and the flawed, received wisdom we have all been taught about how yoga developed. There is a fascinating new study ongoing by Matthew Remski on long term yoga and injury stories which we should all be reading, especially if we teach many hours a week over many years. There is also academic-level debate beginning around social justice, inclusivity and the legacy of imperialism embedded in yoga. We are not isolated from history, nor should we seek to be ignorant of it. All this can be shared with members and more.
- Yoga has always ‘borrowed’ from other disciplines, from martial arts to Ayurveda. Perhaps it’s time we were more overt about that. Other bodywork and meditation disciplines have things we can learn too.
- The biggest opportunity here is for YAUK to start to conduct research itself. There is very, very little information in any arena or organisation over what teachers and students are actually doing in their day to day or weekly practices. A simple member survey gathering such data as:
o How many hours training have people had, and how much (approximately) did it cost? How many years have members been teaching?
o How many hours a week or month does each teacher member work? Do they work mostly in a studio, independently or for other organisations (such as schools or hospitals)?
o What is the average income per session? Does it differ away from the cities or in different environments?
o On average, how many students are in each class?
o What is the shape and time taken for members’ personal practice in a given week?
- You have the membership and the technology to answer these questions and much more, possibly uniquely among yoga organisations in this country. The results would serve not just the yoga community as a whole, but give you a much better idea of how to serve your members better. In recent years, direct democracy projects have begun to radically transform national and international politics through simple online polling and networking. (Think 38degrees.org.uk, sumofus.org, and avaaz.org.) The same kinds of technologies – fast, simple and cost effective – could make YAUK significantly more responsive to members.
Championing standards and ethics
You can be so much more than a commercial organisation. You are a membership network of professionals who are so passionate about yoga that they chose to teach it, despite the high financial and personal investment needed. Very few of your members chose to teach for commercial reasons. There are far easier ways for any of us to earn money. We serve our communities, we seek to help people with their health and wellbeing, we are isolated and we are vulnerable, often earning little money with less support.
What we really need is an organisation that takes a strong lead on ethics for us, and champions what matters to us.
- Construct ethical policies not just for teacher members, but your advertisers and your own day to day workings. Make them open and explicit. Put them at the heart of what you do. Base them on what members say is important, but the yamas and niyamas aren’t a bad place to start. Start a conversation with members on how they live and work ethically, and the kind of dilemmas and compromises that come up. Online fora would be a great place to do this. Treat ethics as we do in yoga: as an ongoing process of conversation and development, rather than an occasional policy update.
- Take a strong lead on such ethical issues as inclusivity, diversity and affordability. As a profession we do not always serve well those with special needs, different ethnicities or low incomes. Redressing this will take changes in everything from training costs to how we choose to portray ourselves in our marketing. This is at least as important an issue as helping every teacher to have a brand and a website.
- In particular, take a stand on body image and body positivity. We now know that people with eating disorders gravitate to yoga. I certainly did. Those with similar issues can find either a supportive practice to address the disorder, or confirmation of our worst tendencies. Every yoga teacher and yoga organisation is, in part, responsible for whether yoga helps or heals. Furthermore, yoga will not and should not survive if it is seen as the exclusive property of affluent, white, young, Western women whose bodies conform to the usual narrow standard of beauty. We all need to change that. Yoga Journal in the US recently contained a great article on the issue, which was seriously undermined by the advertising images found alongside. YAUK does not have the same level of advertising pressure, and can go even further. Find more information here:
- Champion not just those leaders in our community and your membership who have commercial success and fame, but also those who serve their community in other ways. Part of my work is leading yoga sessions and one to one yoga therapy for children with profound and multiple special needs. There are many of us, scattered across the country, and the work brings us great reward. But I know that most yoga teachers have no idea of what our work is like; or even that such a specialism is possible. Blogs and articles by teachers with a depth of experience of life as well as teaching, would be fascinating and affirming.
- Perhaps members themselves could nominate and tell the stories of their own inspirations – the first teacher who ever welcomed them into a class; the community that supported them through illness, and other, similar stories of more modest heroes and gurus.
Many of these ideas would build together over time to form a real social network of members. Most of them really just involve talking to people. Some of them are exciting opportunities to do things that no other organisation or publication serving the UK yoga community is doing.
But more than anything, none of these changes can work unless we as members believe in YAUK as an organisation that provides more than our professional validation and insurance. We have to believe that you care, and be shown that you care – about us and about yoga. In the end, when the policies are written and the forums set up, it’s your intention and actions that are key. How do you respond to challenges? Can you challenge other organisations, businesses and individuals? Are you prepared to really invest, even when it’s easier not to change? And beyond the idea to serve members better, do you have a real, coherent, shared vision of what kind of an organisation you want to become?
With blessings and thanks for the opportunity,