“Three or four years ago, something started to not feel right,” says Alanna Kaivalya, a yoga teacher-of-teachers and the founder of the Kaivalya Yoga Method. “I couldn’t put my finger on it, though. I had spent my life doing yoga. I teach yoga. I had practiced yoga almost to the exclusion of everything else in life for over a decade — but I started to feel a real discomfort with the practice and everything going on around me. My Pollyanna gaze prevented me from seeing some of the issues going on.”
Kaivalya soon identified social media as one of the sources of her angst.
“There was something going on with social media,” Kaivalya says. “So much popularization of yoga via social media, so many glossy photographs of people practicing yoga that I was never going to look like, the rise of the yoga celebrity. I was really confused, and it didn’t make sense to me. My goal had always been to work with and study with people who had decades of practice, years of tenure behind them. But the world was saying that those people who didn’t have that substantiation were the most popular yoga teachers.”
As she continued to dig in, Kaivalya became concerned that forces such as social media, companies like Lululemon pushing a certain idea of what the body of a yoga practitioner should look like, and the growing appeal and demand for yoga classes — and thus for yoga teachers — had led to an industry in which standards for training of instructors was inconsistent at best. As she says, the public was “being served images and pants that say you have to be a certain size and shape and income level to participate in yoga. And to me, this was wrong.”
Kaivalya decided that her way of being part of the solution and not the problem was to go to grad school; she recently earned her PhD in Mythological Studies after writing her dissertation on how to fix the broken yoga world she believes we’re facing in the United States and the Western world.
“I know this is yoga blasphemy, but yoga isn’t a silver bullet,” she says. “We want it to heal our knee injury and our depression, make us feel better about our bodies and make us not jealous of others, heal our headaches and make us skinnier. And as hard as we might try, not many of us can afford to be yogis meditating for 22 hours a day on a mountaintop. And if we could, maybe a meditation practice would be enough. But it’s not. To get the whole union — the real meaning of the word yoga — we need to integrate the physical, Western practice with psychology, the principles of alchemy, and ritual.”
After all, she says, the question she gets most often from her students “isn’t ‘How do I loosen my hamstring?’ but ‘How do I divorce my husband?’ People are looking to yoga teachers to be spiritual counselors, but the practice as it stands in the West isn’t built for that right now.”
Kaivalya points out that there is currently no oversight or governing body for yoga as an industry in the United States, and so there is no system of accountability for teachers or standardization of teacher training — and no real way for students to quickly ascertain the level of experience a teacher brings to the studio and what a given teacher might truly be qualified, or not qualified, to offer guidance on. Yoga Alliance, she explains, isn’t a governing body, as many people assume, but a trade organization that allows teachers to register and be listed as working yoga teachers.
“It’s just a registry,” says Kaivalya. “People are getting away with a lot. I have been a part of yoga teacher trainings for the past 14 years of my life, and I can tell you that 200 hours [of training for teacher certification] is not 200 hours everywhere.”
Kaivalya says that not all studios and programs test students to ensure that they have retained information, and teacher training programs are often offered over a series of weekends, so trainees often have to miss an occasional session because of life events like weddings or travel. Furthermore, she says, “A 200-hour training will let you teach a one-hour class at your local studio, but it doesn’t prepare you for the immense responsibility of what is being asked of yoga teachers these days. Yoga teachers are looked to as being able to heal everything: childbirth, back pain, depression, anxiety — it’s a tremendous amount of responsibility, but not every teacher is prepared for it. Yoga teachers are being asked to step up as spiritual guides, but not everyone has the training to offer that.”
To that end, Kaivalya has developed her own 200-hour teacher training available online through Yoga Download.
“People are resistant, but it allows me to give every single student individual feedback. That can’t happen in an in-studio training,” Kaivalya explains, “and it allows me to test students all the way through the process. If they don’t pass, they don’t move on. I want this to be a steppingstone — you can hold people accountable for their work and the material. This doesn’t take a corporate machine to do.”
Celebrity yoga teacher Tara Stiles has earned accolades from Jane Fonda and Deepak Chopra alike; she recently published her fourth book, Strala Yoga: Be Strong, Focused & Ridiculously Happy from the Inside Out, and is the founder of Strala Yoga, the name for both her studios and a style of yoga now taught in gyms and athletic clubs nationwide. Interestingly, Stiles began building her career in yoga through the emergence of YouTube, back when it was a newfangled digital channel.
“When YouTube began, I jumped on the platform, making easy-doing yoga videos, and everyone in yoga thought I was nuts to put yoga into something different other than an hour-and-a half-class, without the in-person studio and teacher element. It seemed obvious to me to bring yoga to people in a way that makes sense in their lives, and [to make] videos for targeted reasons in shorter lengths of time that people can do anywhere in time is wonderful,” Stiles says.
While Stiles says she recognizes that the democratization of yoga that the Internet has wrought has also changed what yoga may mean to different people, she says the fact that there is “gobs of yoga everywhere” now “is good and bad, I suppose, but I wouldn’t start to make the decision for everyone on what has integrity and what doesn’t. I have faith in people enough to decide what works for them.”
That said, she tells Yahoo Beauty, “The main problem I’ve seen with yoga’s evolution [in the U.S.] is we’re very good at packaging what we are already good at — and in the USA, it’s stressing ourselves out and getting the maximum workout. The magic of yoga is dropping tension and allowing the body to achieve radiant well-being. Americans have packaged stressful, rigid yoga in so many ways and exported it around the world.”
Stiles, too, has skepticism about the lack of any real governing bodies over yoga, as it exists in the U.S. “The current American yoga alliances are definitely broken and endorsing old systems and training that leave you with a 24-year-old first-year teacher teaching a 200-hour or 500-hour [teacher] training,” Stiles says. “Regulation is tough, and it’s important for individual programs to be accountable to their students. I’ve seen so many teachers who sit in a room for 500 hours and feel like they gained nothing because of this broken regulation system.”
Like Kaivalya, Stiles has also created her own form of teacher trainings through Strala. “We’ve prided ourselves on creating a very high level of training with Strala,” she says. “And our reputation is great, and our graduates are skilled and always have work and do great things in their communities.”
On the question of how to best prepare teachers to handle the immense psychological and spiritual questions their students might bring to them, Stiles says that she trains her teachers to be listeners first.
“Listening is the best thing we can do as teachers,” Stiles says. “It’s such a trend to be an expert in everything, and with the Internet how it is now, anyone can be a self-proclaimed expert.” But she says just as “when a good friend comes to you with their problems, the best thing you can do Is listen and be there for them and not to bombard them with advice,” Strala encourages teachers and students to recognize that “the act of listening is what provides the space, relief, and clarity for decision making. … Listening for days is the magic guidance. Also, when people come with problems that are out of your league of experience, it’s important to surround yourself with resources and experts. … It’s important not to pretend you know everything once you become a yoga teacher.”
Anna Conversano is in her first year of teaching yoga in Atlanta, Ga., and although she may by new to teaching yoga, she is nonetheless engaged with the questions about what the commercialization of yoga in the U.S. means for the practice, its students, and its teachers.
“Yoga, like all things that hit the mainstream in America, is going through growing pains,” she says. “Oversaturation always brings dilution. To find the original truth will require some digging. It’s like anything — the quick and easy fix is the most accessible, the most convenient, the easier choice but often the least authentic and original and heartfelt.”
And she says she speaks from firsthand experience, mentioning her own initial exposure to yoga “when power, hot yoga was the only form of yoga that I was interested in.” Likewise, she says, when she completed her own 200-hour teacher training, “I felt like I only skimmed the surface of what yoga is, how to practice it, and, most importantly, how to teach it to others. I didn’t feel ready to teach to others.”
Conversano then went to India, lived in an ashram, and studied for certification in yoga therapy.
“Yoga is what you make it,” Conversano says. “Yoga is what you want it to be, or rather what you want to understand. It is a metaphor for what amount of depth you are interested in looking at yourself and the way in which you move through your life. … Maybe you will want to go deeper. This will require a more knowledgeable and spiritually in-depth teacher rather than a solely physical instructor.”
“Maybe what it all comes down to — in terms of yoga teachers, and of yoga trainings, and of trying to find a set of rules and guidelines for a practice that has been going on for thousands of years — is authenticity to the truth of the practice of yoga,” Conversano says. “Two hundred-hour trainings may get you the certificate, but it is impossible for it to provide each person who goes through the course authenticity to the practice of yoga. A good teacher does her own work. A powerful and impactful teacher practices yoga off the mat, using it as a tool and a guide for living spiritually.”
And so she offers up the following advice to students in search of teachers in the wild world of what we know as yoga in the West: “When you’re looking for a teacher to take you deeper, be ready to go deeper yourself. … Depending on your personal interest, and by holding your own self accountable, you will be able to find a yoga teacher that mirrors your intentions behind practicing yoga. With this comes variety in knowledge, in the metaphysical, in spiritual, and also in the physical. …There are levels: levels of teachers, levels of practice, levels of understanding. The most important thing about yoga is understanding how personal it is. You are responsible for your own body. The safety of your body cannot reside in the hands of your teacher. They should do their best to protect you and guide you safely. But they are just the guide.”