Monday, November 7, 2011

Yoga Standards

There has been a lot of online kerfuffling (yes, I made that word up), over the seemingly sudden departure of three senior Anusara yoga teachers from the ranks of the Anusara certified. Now, I know very little about Anusara, so I don't really have anything to say about the merit or lack of merit of what these folks are teaching. Nor do I really have any interest in trying to unearth some seedy details that might lead us all to some sort of scandal.

It seems to me only natural that after a certain amount of time and practice, some students will evolve beyond the forms and methods they were given by their teachers. This tends to be encouraged in Zen circles. In fact, most of the old Zen koans are, in part, demonstrations of transcending the roles of student/teacher, and of moving beyond one's training. Entire new schools of practice have developed precisely because someone stepped beyond the bounds, and illuminated spiritual life in a different manner. Hell, Anusara itself is founder John Friend's offering of a different direction, which manifested from the years of practice and teaching he has done.

So instead, this post will focus on the broader issues raised in this comment by John Friend from the following interview, which seems to be making the rounds:

There is a licensing of the Anusara yoga name for teachers who met a certain level of standard in their teaching. The essential reason for any licensing of a tradename is to help maintain integrity and quality control in the marketplace. Anyone taking a class from a certified Anusara yoga teacher anywhere in the world can expect a certain high standard. Because of licensing the name of Anusara over the last 14 years, it has greatly helped to give students confidence in the name on a global level.

The near obsession these days with "standards" is deeply troubling to me. While there have always been teachers and groups who have broken off and formed their own variations on the theme, this focus on standardization, uniform curriculum, and the rest - in part driven by groups like Yoga Alliance, but in greater part driven by what I view as a trend in education towards a focus on maximizing results and measurable outputs above all else. I'm near the end of a 230 hour yoga teacher training program which has been a good experience in many respects, but leaves me seriously questioning whether this kind of model develops anything remotely close to excellent teachers. In some ways, when I look around at my fellow students, I see some people who already are gifted and have honed themselves enough through practice to offer something to others. Others seem barely able to do their own personal practice, let alone teach. And still others simply don't have the skills to teach, even if they might be wise in other ways. Yet, in the end, anyone who finishes will have that certificate and be regarded in higher esteem by the general public, regardless of their abilities and understanding.

Honestly, even if Anusara training is more rigorous than the average teacher training program, I really don't see these kinds of issues disappearing. Simply put, the more teachers and teaching candidates you have around, the harder it is to maintain quality control and integrity. And within a capitalist framework, where there's both implicit and explicit pressure to "produce" - in order to stay afloat financially, but also as a means of demonstrating success - it's likely that methods designed to support quantity of teachers over quality of teachers will be employed. My own studio's teacher training program, which I feel is of fairly good quality, has expanded probably twofold in numbers of candidates over the past few years. And why? Because people really like what they hear from others, and the studio is attracted to the financial stability from all that money the training brings in.

This is all so much different, for the most part, from what it's like in Zen communities. Buddhist teachers tend to be steeped in years of practice before anyone calls them a teacher. Most of them have also spent years studying with the same teacher, or small number of teachers, usually within a larger community of practitioners, at least for some significant stretch of time. And while we have plenty of scandals and our share of mediocre teachers, there seems to be more checks and balances available to, at the very least, support and aid any given teacher's spiritual growth.

In other words, if someone is designated as a Zen teacher and has a connection with a specific teacher lineage, it's reasonable to assume that this person has been practicing for awhile. They have some experience to share, and perhaps some wisdom as well. This is true even for lay teachers and most novice priests in training. You can't just plunk down a few thousand dollars, say you've been practicing Zen for X number of months or years, and after several months or a few years, be suddenly deemed "certified" to teach.

Obviously, a fair amount of this issue in yoga is tied to the muddled nature of what is being marketed as "yoga" these days. Everything from busting a move in a gym to deep level tantric meditation practices can be found under the label yoga, and because of that, there are a plethora of teachers, coming from a plethora of teacher trainings. The whole standards push has been a response to this muddled environment, but to be honest, I think it offers more of a false sense of security and trust than anything else.

Which isn't to say the trainings are worthless - like I've said in other posts, I have learned a lot in my training program. But it's hard for me to imagine what it might be like had I done this 10 years ago, when I was an excited yoga newbie like a few of my classmates. Occasionally, people with little formal experience are just blessed with the ability to plunge in and then offer gifts to others. But for the vast majority, nothing beats experience and practice.


Brikoleur said...

Lately, I've been struck by the diversity of roles there are in traditional monastic communities following the Vinaya. Everybody wears the same robe, but they don't do the same thing. Those who are good at meditating, meditate. Those who are good at scholarship, read and write. Those who are good at cooking, cook. Those who are good at teaching, teach. And so on.

Perhaps one of the problems with yoga is that there's a much more limited menu of directions to grow, or roles to take within the community. There seem to be just two roles—personal practitioner/student, and teacher. Could this channel people who really shouldn't be teachers into the teacher role?

Nathan said...

"Could this channel people who really shouldn't be teachers into the teacher role?"

This is a really excellent question. And even when I think about my own sangha, there's a diversity of leadership roles that students have moved into. And not just by default - we have enough people around so that anyone in a leadership role has practiced for a significant period of time, and has demonstrated commitment at the very least.

One of the challenges with yoga is that it never really had a major "sangha" component - at least from the histories I have studied. The focus seems to have been mostly on the student/teacher relationship, and I'm not sure how often larger groups of students actually stuck around together to study for long periods of time.

The only other major role I can think of that is common is the "studio owner." However, I don't know how many of these folks actually treat this role as a spiritual practice, and so many of them are also active teachers anyway.

J. Brown said...

Your insights here are greatly appreciated. You touch on what, I think, is the most important issue facing the standardization of yoga teacher training to satisfy a desire for "objective metrics." It does come down to pedagogy and different ways that people learn.

You are also right to point out that yoga is based on student/teacher relationship. Up until like 50 years ago, there was no such thing as yoga teacher training.

Students who learn and utilize effectively for themselves tend to naturally begin teaching what they do to others.

Creating arbitrary time requirements and pseudo-accreditation is great for business models but horribly counterproductive when it comes to learning Yoga.

Nathan said...

"Creating arbitrary time requirements and pseudo-accreditation is great for business models but horribly counterproductive when it comes to learning Yoga."

Yes, I totally agree.

Grace said...

I am out of the loop as I had not heard about the Anusara teachers.

How you compare becoming a yoga teacher vs how one becomeing a Buddhist teacher is interesting. I've often thought about this difference myself, but I am not a Buddhist so I didn't really know how it worked.

Petteri Sulonen's final comment rings true to me. It speaks to the lack of community (sangha) in yoga--in many ways yoga is deeply impersonal--so when a student is ready for more there is no place for them and maybe they end up taking teacher training because there's no where else to go. Whereas in a Buddhist community there seems to be many roles (because there is ritual involved?). And quite frankly (and this is from an outsider's perspective), it's a heck of a lot cheaper to be part of a Buddhist community (meditation is free at my local centre--but financial support is appreciated:)) Whereas with yoga now, it just costs a lot to get your foot in the door so my face isn't going to be a regular on the scene!.

Nathan said...

Grace, it's definitely true that the lack of sangha is a major issue in all of this. And I agree that being a regular in a yoga community usually means forking out a lot of money for classes. Because of my own financial situation, I doubt I'll be very "active" in a yoga community next year - unless I'm hired to teach somewhere. I just can't afford it. As such, I feel deeply fortunate to be a part of a Zen sangha where money is much less of a requirement.