Yoga participation is booming, but so is teacher training. Is it a concern or a benefit to have so many students on the teaching track?
Yoga participation in the United States is at an all-time high. There are now 36.7 million American adults practicing yoga, up from 20.4 million in 2012 (Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance 2016). That’s an 80% increase!
Today, yoga is offered in almost any setting where people gather. For example, Yoga Across America®, a nonprofit organization based in Sacramento, California, declares that its mission includes bringing yoga to “schools, military bases, parks, low-income communities, homeless shelters, children’s hospitals and many other locations where people don’t have access to the practice, or can’t afford it.”
Alongside the steep rise in class participants, teacher-training programs have become hugely popular. “More than 14,700 new teachers registered last year with Yoga Alliance (YA),” says Stacy McCarthy, founder of Yoga Namastacy, in Rancho Santa Fe, California. “And many industry leaders estimate that just as many people as registered with YA completed a teacher training, but didn’t register as teachers.” Last December, 52,746 teachers and over 18,000 yoga schools were registered with the Alliance. And there are currently two people interested in becoming a yoga teacher for every one teacher in the U.S. (Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance 2016).
Multiple factors are contributing to this exponential increase. Is the expansion good, bad or neutral? A number of industry veterans weigh in.
What Is Fueling the Boom in Yoga Teacher Training?
Growth in yoga teacher trainings (YTTs) reflects the yoga studio business model, increased practitioner interest in yogic studies, and growth in branded programs that offer YTTs.
Studio Business Model
Experts interviewed for this article note that most yoga studios offer a YTT program as an important revenue stream, to supplement income from classes, private trainings and workshops. “Even with popular studios, without a YTT it would be difficult to make [the business] work,” says Michele Hébert, E-RYT®, master yoga and meditation guide, speaker and author based in La Jolla, California. And with more studios opening in communities, competition limits the ability to increase class fees.
McCarthy observes, “Many ‘mom and pop’ studios are founded by teachers who love yoga, but who don’t have business skills. Teacher training is one way they are keeping the doors open. But what happens after everyone takes a YTT? What will those studio owners do to continue to generate revenues?” Many experts we spoke to agree that a better business model is needed to help boutique studio owners stay in business.
Increased Practitioner Interest in Yogic Studies
Further fueling YTT enrollment are the many yoga enthusiasts who take teacher training to deepen their practice. Zachary Armstrong, RYT®, CPT, program manager for Yoga Six, in San Diego, says, “I’ve taken three separate 200-hour YTTs, and they were each completely different. What was similar—and what surprised me—was that only about 10% of the people who were in those trainings with me ever actually teach.”
There is no hard data documenting how many people who complete a 200-hour YTT actually become instructors, but anecdotally most experts agree that not more than 50% of trainees actually want to teach and even fewer are successful at becoming professional instructors.
Stephanie Adams, E-RYT 500, owner of Flow Yoga Studio in Hood River, Oregon, says, “I’ve been training teachers for 15 years. I think YTT is a great option for sincere students who want to learn the deeper aspects of yoga but are not truly interested in teaching.” Nayaswami Gyandev McCord, director of Ananda Yoga® in Nevada City, California, points out, “Studio owners offer YTTs to those who are interested, but who don’t intend to become instructors, because there aren’t enough people in the enthusiast market to make it cost-effective to offer an in-between training. Combining people who are simply interested in learning with those who genuinely want to become instructors makes the YTT program work.”
Los Angeles–based Beth Shaw, E-RYT 500, founder of YogaFit®, the largest teacher training school in North America and an international company in business since 1994, says, “We encourage anyone who loves yoga to continue to educate themselves. If this leads to them teaching—great; if this simply provides them with new information and tools to deepen their practice—great. We don’t judge people and their choices. . . . Many people do attend our classes to deepen their practice; however, we often find that because we require [them to do some] community service to get their certificate, many people continue on and take additional classes—and end up on the teacher-training track.”
Growth in Branded Programs That Offer YTT
A third stimulus for YTT program growth is the emergence of branded yoga programs. Numerous providers now offer trainings nationwide, and some extend their reach internationally. Bikram Yoga, CorePower® Yoga, YogaWorks® and exhale® are examples of branded yoga programs that not only provide consumer goods and services but also offer branded teacher-training programs to enthusiasts and, as an employment prerequisite, to prospective instructors. Management consultants note that this turns employee training—typically a cost incurred to insure consistency across a brand—into a revenue generator and a strategic asset (Grosshandler 2015). CorePower Yoga reported in a 2013 press release that it graduates over 2,000 teachers annually from its 200-hour Level One training. It’s reasonable to assume that only a limited number of those graduates go on to become CorePower Yoga instructors.
Benefits and Challenges of YTTs Everywhere
The widespread availability of YTTs has both pros and cons, say our experts. On the positive side, it reflects the growing interest in yoga and the strength of the yoga education market. Some experts think the “glut” of YTT graduates is in major urban centers and is not geographically distributed nationwide. Shaw, however, notes that YogaFit students come from cities nationwide, including many small communities, and that, in 2016, trainings will be offered in more than 350 locations.
Challenges related to the proliferation of YTTs include lack of clarity regarding their purpose (e.g., vocational training aspects may be diluted when students without teaching aspirations are in the mix); difficulty for YTT grads trying to enter the job market; potential depression of teacher wages; and lack of consistency among trainings.
Nicole DeAvilla, E-RYT 500, master trainer of yoga teachers, based in Kentfield, California, says, “Some historical perspective is needed because the original 200- and 500-hour training standards came from a time when the practice of yoga was much different. More young, fit and athletic people are pushing movements toward more extreme postures that require in-depth teacher training to offer correctly, and the environments are also different. Simply putting yoga in a gym or health club creates a more competitive atmosphere.” In addition, a more diverse range of people at various ages and ability levels want to practice yoga.
Lack of Clarity Regarding the Purpose of YTTs
While everyone agrees it is positive that nonteachers want to deepen their yogic understanding, challenges arise when a training is not clearly defined as being for professionals or for enthusiasts—is it intended primarily as vocational training, spiritual discipline or vacation? The answer may not be clear to applicants.
“The expectation for many is that [YTT] is being marketed as a vocation,” suggests DeAvilla. “People are graduating thinking that they should be able to support themselves after they’ve made this investment, but often this isn’t the case. Historically, these programs were designed more for those who wanted to lead sadhana (a spiritual discipline) for personal development. They were not looking to deepen their yoga practice for professional reasons.” And while many people today do take YTT for personal reasons, those who are taking it with professional objectives need a slightly different curriculum.
“For example,” McCarthy says, “sometimes you see trainings offered as retreats. Those who offer these retreats are not providing the more in-depth education, since many retreat participants are not interested in that.” In other words, while some participants may want vocational education, others are seeking a wellness vacation, and it’s difficult for educational providers to please both groups.
Difficulty Entering the Job Market
The experts interviewed agree that since many trainings are not focused on professional aspects of teaching, graduates tend to lack a basic understanding of teaching and business skills. Armstrong thinks many participants in YTTs have an unrealistic idea of what it means to be a yoga teacher. “Once potential teachers are faced with the trials and unique situations each class has to offer, it becomes overwhelming and discouraging for most.” And with so many YTT graduates out there, job competition is high.
Depression of Teaching Wages
Good data regarding yoga teaching salaries over the past decade is lacking. The perception by many, however, is that teaching wages are going down. DeAvilla says, “You have a glut of underexperienced teachers who are willing to work for next to nothing.” McCarthy agrees, noting that she has also observed that small studios are leaning more and more toward letting less experienced teachers lead YTTs in order to keep training costs lower.
Adams thinks yoga teacher wages are driven down by gender inequality in income, since most instructors are female, and by teachers inadvertently misrepresenting yoga to the public in a way that drives down the value. In other words, when teachers present yoga as only a physical discipline and don’t promote the integrative whole-life benefits that it offers, rates must compete with those of other fitness classes.
Lack of Consistency Among Trainings
With so many YTT programs available, most experts are concerned over lack of consistency regarding what it means to be a graduate of a YTT. Yoga Alliance says it has no current plans to change standards and is committed to representing the broader yoga community’s interest and not one particular school or area of yoga teaching or standards. McCord, who is chairman of the Alliance’s Standards Committee, explains, “YA does not have uniform competency-based criteria. The diversity of yoga would suffer if YA went to competency-based [criteria], because the yoga community includes so many different styles. Presumably, it is ‘competency based’ coming out of the school itself.”
Lawrence Biscontini, MA, recipient of the 2010 Inner IDEA Inspiration Award and a registered yoga teacher, says, “I find it very interesting that, in the USA alone, we take a discipline as old as yoga and hold no major standards, yet the Pilates Method Alliance exists with its stringent, respected standards for the much younger Pilates movement. That said, there are many, many credentialed and valued authentic Pilates teacher trainings in addition to PMA, but there is that gold standard, unlike in yoga.”
A Delicate Balance
As yoga continues to grow in popularity, it’s likely the market will require more self-regulation to ensure that schools produce instructors who teach safely and effectively. Claudia Micco, E-RYT 500, wellness coordinator for the Ritz-Carlton Resort in Kapalua, Hawaii, says, “I’m a fan of all styles of yoga. I have tried many, and each has merit. As far as registered yoga schools go, however, more emphasis could be placed on research and current science—biomechanics, anatomy and physiology—and less on the esoteric in the initial stages of training.”
At the same time, others are concerned that we may lose the essence or “heart” of yoga by putting too much emphasis on the physical. Hébert observes that many graduates of 200-hour YTTs are not learning how to develop a personal meditation practice. “The attention is primarily on physical postures and not on the mental and spiritual focus.”
The industry is still finding the balance that will ensure that teachers can offer safe, effective instruction to diverse populations while being grounded in the mental and spiritual roots of the yoga tradition.