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Yoga Teacher-Training Schools Facing Licensure

Yoga teacher-training schools have been subject to state licensure under statutes regulating vocational schools in a few states for some time, but this year has seen a spate of new licensing activity in various states across the country. This growing trend, which has sparked lively debate in the yoga community, reached critical mass recently in New York.

State education boards typically govern the licensing requirements, which affect for-profit schools that train people for a vocation, irrespective of whether the vocation is for full- or part-time employment. “Education is a state’s responsibility and grows up in a state’s political culture. No two states or their approach[es] are the same. The statute and the cultural framework in each state are just different,” says Patrick Sweeney, school administration consultant at the Wisconsin Educational Approval Board in Madison, Wisconsin.

“The issue is about [yoga teacher-training schools] registering under the existing states’ private occupational school guidelines. This is not about studios or teachers being licensed,” adds Hansa Knox, owner of PranaYoga and Ayurveda Mandala, a private occupational school registered with the State of Colorado Private Occupational School Board in Denver, Colorado.

“We’re a state agency that is primarily [concerned with] consumer protection,” Sweeney says. “We regulate a wide range of for-profit schools, including massage therapy, truck drivers, taxidermists, even scuba diving instructors. We’re careful about what [industry] we get into. We wait until there is a national recognizable industry standard, such as what the Yoga Alliance provides regarding minimum hours of training and curriculum standards. We require schools to be financially stable, to be bonded, to have health and safety standards, and to have clear contracts and refund policies. We’re not in the business of causing problems. We’re in the business of trying to make sure that consumers are protected.”

Because yoga has grown in popularity, there have been some unethical operators, observes R. Mark Davis, president and chief executive officer of Yoga Alliance. “The focus of these regulations is not to control yoga, but rather to regulate the business aspects of running a training program,” he says. “Every state so far that has undertaken licensing of yoga teacher training has adopted the standards set by the Yoga Alliance. Yoga Alliance was formed because we are a self-regulatory body and we believe that self-regulation is good.”

John Kepner, executive director of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, based in Prescott, Arizona, says, “My personal position is to listen carefully to what is going on in other parts of the country. Are people opposed to the principle or opposed to the execution? If I look from afar [at New York], it seems to be an example of especially heavy-handed regulation.”

In April, the State Education Department of New York sent a form letter to a number of yoga teacher-training schools. Liz Mandarano, owner of Yoga Effects, a midtown Manhattan yoga studio plus teacher-training program, and a member of both the legal and executive committees of the newly formed Yoga Association of New York, says, “New York is stating that, under the current statutes, yoga teacher-training schools are subject to licensing. Our position is that we are exempt from the statute. We are cautiously optimistic in light of the proposed Schneiderman bill that specifically exempts yoga teacher-training schools.”

New York State Senator Eric T. Schneiderman drafted legislation (S.5701) to amend section 5001 of the state education law to include licensing exemptions for the instruction of students who enroll in courses “for the purposes of leisure, hobby, or personal enrichment,” including yoga. It passed in the Senate Higher Education Committee in early June and was awaiting further action as of this writing in late July.

The cost associated with licensing is yet another dimension to this debate. Owners of yoga teacher-training schools have taken issue with the cost of application fees and bonds and with the bureaucratic burden of complying with administrative filings. According to Davis, fees range anywhere from $250 to $2,500 for the initial application, depending on the state. Schools are also required to post surety bonds to ensure that they are financially stable and can offer tuition refunds if required. Bonds usually can be bought for $10 for $1,000 of coverage. Each year, schools may need to pay annual fees of $150-$1,000 to maintain their license and may have to submit audited annual financial statements. Sweeney says, “We try to even things out between large and small schools. In Wisconsin, the annual fee is two-part. Everyone pays $500 per year for renewal, and then a set amount based on the school’s gross revenue. University of Phoenix [the online educator] pays probably one-quarter of our entire budget. The contribution from yoga schools is very small.”

Knox says, “Tuition will go up to cover the associated costs.” Mandarano notes that opponents of licensing in New York believe that the effort to license yoga teacher-training schools is merely a fee grab at a time when state revenues are low. “New York is cost-prohibitive to small businesses . . . and it’s not only the fee structure. It’s quite burdensome. We have to submit as much paperwork as any other educational institution.”

Others point out that some states have been regulating yoga schools for a number of years, independent of the current economic recession. Becca Hawes, owner of Yoga Life Studio and operator of a yoga teacher-training program in Norman, Oklahoma, says, “The issue is that these days you can charge anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 per student to get your RYT [registered yoga teacher] 200 hours. Some students have complaints against schools. This is where regulations come in.”

Leslie Kaminoff, founder of The Breathing Project in New York City, former vice president of Unity in Yoga and founder of The Independent Yoga Educators of America, advocates against any form of government regulation and has authored “A Declaration of Independence for Yoga Educators.” The declaration states, “Government enforcement of licensing and Yoga cannot co-exist. Yoga is about freedom and Yoga is about relationship, and force destroys both.”

Owners of teacher-training schools in other parts of the country have had different experiences with regulators than schools in New York. Some owners have found the licensing process beneficial for their business, as it has helped them focus on operational issues like refund and cancellation policies, written training contracts, program evaluation forms, complaint processes, review of fire emergency equipment, streamlining of accounting practices, and eligibility for participation in certain state-funded programs. The types of consumer complaints against teacher-training programs include situations where teacher-training dates were changed, additional classes and fees were requested before completion, or curriculums did not match what was initially promised.

Knox adds, “Being state-licensed requires teachers to ├ö├ç├┐show up’ and identify what they are teaching through outlining their syllabuses. They have to have refund policies and information on how they will operate. They have to have audits to show that they are financially solvent. The training programs have to become responsible to their students in a whole different way. Many feel that this will infringe on their teaching. I have found it gives me a different freedom in my teaching. I have a point and a road map. When I get sidetracked, I can bring the class back to focus. This is important, and until you have experienced it, you feel it is a control mechanism, not a freedom tool.”

For more on this topic, visit these websites:
http://eab.state.wi.us (to learn one state’s criteria for private schools)
www.nasasps.org (National Association of State Administrators and Supervisors of Private Schools)
www.yogaalliance.org (Yoga Alliance)
http://iyea.us (Independent Yoga Educators of America)
www.yogaforawareness.org/yogaregulation.htm (copy of letter sent by New York regulators)

Shirley Eichenberger-Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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