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Yoga Teaching Standards (by Mark Whitwell and Heart of Yoga) Proposed for Community-Wide Adoption

Overview

A wise elder in the yoga teaching community, Mark Whitwell, founder of Heart of Yoga, has kindly stepped up to offer teaching standards for widespread adoption.

I urge you to read the proposed Yoga Teaching Standards now and to consider your perspective on them. Perhaps you’ll agree with them wholeheartedly and want to implement them and spread them. Perhaps you’ll want to use them as a baseline and enact or suggest additions or changes. Perhaps you want to get involved with others engaged in such efforts.

It’s my opinion that there is nothing more important in the field of yoga teaching right now than our attention to standards and the upliftment of the yoga teaching field.

Now is the time for every teacher and trainer of integrity to educate themselves on the state of the field, clarify their own views, improve their own weaknesses, and come together to uplift the field as a whole.

Here you’ll find not only the proposed standards but also resources to support them.

It is our intention that the education standards outlined here will be adopted by all sincere Yoga teachers and institutions. There is no doubt that actual Yoga is extremely helpful to our lives. But it must include the principles of breath, bandha, etc that make it actually Yoga. There must be an education to do this. The attempt to create safety standards without understanding the systemic flaws is fruitless, and the hidden hierarchy of the teacher as the ‘knower’ and the student as the one trying to ‘know’, must be eliminated for Yoga to start. When the principles of Yoga, such as were brought through by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, are taken on, each person’s Yoga becomes entirely their own, powerful, efficient, and safe. Krishnamacharya was the origin point of so much of modern Yoga, but his teaching that Yoga must be adapted to the individual, not the individual to the Yoga is hardly available. When Yoga is adapted to individual, it becomes what it always was, each person’s direct intimacy with life. In this relationship, healing occurs in every way. May we get the job done together, and bring an actual yoga education to the world. – HeartofYoga.com  link


Introduction

In 2019, inspired yoga teacher trainers around the world began to collaborate in an effort to communicate and correct the wrongs in the field of yoga teaching and to discuss ideas for improving the competency level of yoga teachers as a whole.

As a result, all of us now have easy access to verifiable information and resources that we can use to help clearly bring truth to light and to correct the wrongs.

If you’re unfamiliar with the foundational facts regarding the state of the yoga teaching field (in terms of Yoga Alliance misperceptions, lack of competency standards and so on) please review the following material in The Teaching Field Now.

The Teaching Field Now

The following resource section offers factual, verifiable information on Yoga Alliance registry and alternatives. Select from these subjects:

  1. Registration, Certification, Accreditation — Yoga Alliance Misperceptions & Why You Don’t Need to Pay the Yoga Alliance Fees (you’re currently on this page)
  2. Who is Responsible for Teaching Competency Standards? — What Standards Must Be Met? + Widely Recognized & Influential Teachers Not Registered with YA
  3. Yoga Alliance Alternatives — Research Summaries on Other Registries & Certifications + Groups Developing New Programs
  4. Insurance Providers — Insurance options for Yoga Teachers and Teacher Trainers
  5. YA Truth & Reconciliation — Teacher & Trainer Reports About Yoga Alliance

Moving Teaching Forward

Once we have taken a clear-eyed look at where the field is now, we can more effectively decide what it needs and how we wish to respond.

There is no need for only one person, one style, one organization or one government to determine the fate of the field as a whole. As we can see, one organization was allowed to amass power and influence in a way that resulted in the severe issues detailed above.

Instead, it is through the wise and creative efforts of all people of integrity offering their gifts that we all then have access to the best of the best. And I am aware of many amazing efforts now arising that we may all utilize and share with our colleagues.

Here you’ll find a detailed discussion on a key component to the puzzle: how exactly might we articulate standards that yoga teachers need to meet?


Proposed Teaching Standards

The following is a word-for-word summary of the proposed standards and principles. See the Heart of Yoga: Yoga Teaching Standards for this information plus more commentary and a downloadable poster.

YOGA TEACHING STANDARDS

  1. Teachers are themselves guided by a competent teacher. Teachers have given themselves to the conditions of actual and mutual relationship with their own teacher.
  2. Teachers are practicing Yoga themselves on a daily basis in an actual, natural and non-obsessive way.
  3. Teachers understand that for it to be Yoga, breath participation must be the central feature and purpose of the asana.
  4. Teachers understand that alignment in asana is created and guided by the breath movement and by the student’s participation in the union of the inhalation with the exhalation as a whole-body integrated activity.
  5. Alongside the breath-centric asana, teachers offer their guidance on the intelligent cooperation of muscle groups known as bandha in the upper and lower body. The enagagement of bandha keeps the muscular and skeletal system safe and well-aligned. Bandha are easefully applied and released within the practice of asana.
  6. Teachers have studied the practical ways to adapt asana to individual needs, according to body type, age, health, and cultural background. The teacher adapts Yoga to the student, not the student to the Yoga.
  7. Strength in asana is taught with equal emphasis on receptivity. This is achieved through teaching participation in the inhalation and exhalation. This is the most essential empowerment and therapeutic means offered to students.
  8. Teachers respect the student. The teacher has through their own practice developed attitudes of caring for students, embodied in tolerance, non-reactivity, patience, courtesy, and friendliness in all circumstances.
  9. There is no need for teachers to adjust or touch students in any way, aside from very light directional indication occasionally. Teachers do not interfere with students’ physical or energetic process. Physical assists deny students their own intimacy with breath, bandha, and energy. Students need to be carefully instructed on the principles of practice using words and, if necessary, gestures or moderate demonstrations can be made.
  10. Any demonstrations a teacher makes of asana and pranayama avoid creating any idealisms for the student to emulate or pattern themselves upon, as this distracts the student from their own process of Yoga.
  11. The teacher-student relationship is equal, negotiable, and non-hierarchical. Social assumptions of a teachers’ seniority or authority are actively dismantled in the understanding that ‘hidden hierarchy’ is the main problem in Yoga. Hidden hierarchy makes a student feel inadequate and causes them to inappropriately strive for external ideals rather than simply participate in their own inherent perfection as Life. The teacher takes responsibility for dismantling the ideas of hierarchy that students bring to class from the cultural conditioning of wider society.
  12. Teachers understand that teacher-student relationships are always, in all ways, equal. The teacher shares Yoga from their own experience, and carefully adapts it to individual needs. The mood of teaching is always friendship. Not necessarily personal friendship, but friendship as Life. The method of teaching is always respect, equality, and caring.

Furthermore, teachers are informed of the principles of Yoga practice that make it Yoga, rather than gymnastics or stretching. These are:

  1. The body movement is the breath movement. The movement of the body is consciously linked to the movement of the breath, so that body, breath and mind are felt to be a unitary movement.
  2. The breath envelops the movement. Breath starts slightly before and finishes slightly after the movement. The breath initiates the body movement.
  3. The inhalation is from above as receptivity, the exhalation is from below as strength. On inhale, the principle activity is the expansion of the lung cavity, the ribcage, expanding the front and the back with the diaphragm moving down and the abdominals expanding secondarily of their own accord. The exhalation is from below as strength. The principle activity is the abdominals moving inward, lifting the diaphragm, with the chest settling secondarily of its own accord. The entire range of asana—forward bends, backbends, twists, lateral movements and inversions—all serve this breath process.
  4. Asana creates bandha (the intelligent co-operation of muscle groups in the polarity of the breath). Bandha are approximated during the breath, and engaged gently and naturally in the kumbhaka (pause) after both inhale and exhale.
  5. Asana, pranayama, meditation and life are a seamless process.Asana allows for pranayama, and pranayama allows for meditation. Meditation (clarity of mind and connection to life) occurs naturally as a result of asana, pranayama and intimate connection to all ordinary conditions. Without these, attempts at meditation practice cause dissociation and are dangerous.
  6. All asana are threaded on a general template, whereby there is an appropriate inversion in the mid-point of the sequence. Teachers should have education in the importance of preparation for inversion, the inversion, counter-poses after inversions, and the conclusion of the practice sequence.
  7. Physical practices are essentially about free participation in the breath. To be with the breath is to be with that which is breathing you. The body remains soft and structured around the breath movement and the moving anatomy services the breath process. The body movement is the breath movement and vice versa. The mind naturally participates in this process and becomes clear as it links to the whole body, the intelligence of Life. This may be a challenge but not a struggle. The challenge is within the breath limits, not in the musculature. Practices are designed for the individual and real Yoga is within everyone’s capability.

In the following sections, we pull out the standards by topic and provide considerations, lessons and resources that support the contemplation, meeting, and teaching of these standards.


The Teacher’s Personal Practice

The first two standards speak to the fundamental and vital importance of the teacher’s personal practice:

    • Standard #1Teachers are themselves guided by a competent teacher. Teachers have given themselves to the conditions of actual and mutual relationship with their own teacher.
    • Standard #2Teachers are practicing Yoga themselves on a daily basis in an actual, natural and non-obsessive way.

Considerations

There are innumerable ways the importance of these standards can be discussed. Here are a few:

    1. In what field would it ever be considered appropriate and ethical for a person who has taken a course but doesn’t consistently work with the material themselves to be called a teacher?
    2. When we are exposed to something as a beginner, the most basic assumptions and tools will be eye-opening and powerful. This is particularly so with yoga where a person new to the practice might experience life-changing improvements in their emotional, physical or spiritual well-being. If the beginner then takes an immersion after which they are told that the hours of study (200) now make them qualified to take on the title of teacher, it may be understandable that their tremendous personal growth from the practice might make them believe this inappropriate designation. But as she continues to engage with the practice and learn from her teachers, she comes to realize many assumptions she never knew she was making and incorrect perceptions she didn’t know she had. She begins to taste more and more union with that which is greater. She never stops learning. She begins having new ideas of how to share the practice with others. In other words, over time, her study and practice bring her to a state of being that naturally invites teaching.
    3. How tremendously insightful it is that the standards caution against obsession in practice. This is a subtle topic that requires care to explain well. For now, we’ll highlight the importance of understanding the true purpose of practice, the role of attachment in all aspects of life, the lure of addictive and compulsive behaviors and the potential psychological issues that manifest as perfection, seeking pain and so on.

Resources

The following lessons and resources in our member library support the contemplation, meeting, and teaching of these standards.

Personal Practice, Study & Self-Care
Trauma-Informed Teaching
Attachment
Beliefs & Unconscious

Asana in Service of the Breath

Standards 3 and 4 make it clear that asana is to be practiced in service of, and in conjunction with, the breath.

    • Standard #3Teachers understand that for it to be Yoga, breath participation must be the central feature and purpose of the asana.
    • Standard #4Teachers understand that alignment in asana is created and guided by the breath movement and by the student’s participation in the union of the inhalation with the exhalation as a whole-body integrated activity.

Considerations

To practice asana without a central focus on the breath is to practice stretching or calisthenics — not yoga. A more subtle issue is the many unprepared teachers who will speak excessively about the breath, but who are not teaching about it and how students can learn to honor and consciously utilize their breath.

Resources

The following lessons and resources in our member library support the contemplation, meeting, and teaching of these standards.

Asana
  1. Yoga Philosophy & Theory: Definition & Purpose of Asana
  2. Asana as One of Eight Limbs
  3. Maintaining Inner Attention / Self-Awareness
  4. Mindful Asana Transitions
  5. Asana Hub
The Breath

We offer a comprehensive and organized curriculum to support training, research and study on the subjects of the breath, breathing practices and pranayama. The curriculum is broken into these modules:

  1. Anatomy, Physiology & The Basics of Breathing
  2. Teaching Fundamentals
  3. Yoga Philosophy Underlying the Practice of Pranayama
  4. Teaching Traditional Pranayama Techniques

Part 1: Anatomy, Physiology & The Basics of Breathing
  1. Energy & Subtle Body Anatomy
  2. Eight Limbs: Pranayama
Part 4: Teaching Traditional Pranayama Techniques
  1. Teaching Foundations
  2. Nadi Shodhana
  3. Kapalabhati & Bhastrika
  4. Kundalini Breath of Fire
  5. Agni Sara
  6. Cooling Techniques
  7. Brahmari
  8. Ujjayi
  9. More Heating Techniques
  10. Pranayama for Conditions

Easeful Muscular Engagement & Release

Standard 5 speaks to the importance of guiding students to subtle and easeful muscular engagement and release that promote safe and well-aligned asana practice.

    • Standard #5Alongside the breath-centric asana, teachers offer their guidance on the intelligent cooperation of muscle groups known as bandha in the upper and lower body. The enagagement of bandha keeps the muscular and skeletal system safe and well-aligned. Bandha are easefully applied and released within the practice of asana.

Considerations

I wish this standard would have been written without use of the word bandha while still making the same points about easeful muscular engagement and release. Why? Because this is one of numerous examples where a subtle practice that is vital to effective practice has been misunderstood and misapplied and the term means different things to different people.

However, I deeply respect the profound knowledge and wisdom of Mark Whitwell and if he wants to help the field understand the term as he describes it, then I honor that and will help support this effort. Our existing resources offer clarity and expert guidance that can help trainers guide teachers toward a proper understanding and ability to teach this safely and effectively. And we will seek more clarity from Mark’s teachings to be sure we maximize our ability to honor the intention in this standard.

For example, here’s how our lesson on Defining & Teaching Alignment begins:

Resources

The following lessons and resources in our member library support the contemplation, meeting, and teaching of this standard.

Alignment
Bandhas
  • Bandhas Introduction – This is an excellent introduction and overview. It also includes an advisement to not teach bandhas in most public classes; this expert advisement is explained clearly and is due in part to the misapplication of this teaching and in part to a variation in how bandhas are taught vs. the explanation in the Teaching Standard which is specifically to teach easeful muscular contraction and release for safe asana alignment.
  • Jalandhara Bandha
  • Uddiyana Bandha
  • Mula Bandha
Muscular Anatomy
Anatomy of Stretching

Adaptation to Individual Needs

Standard 6 clearly explains that yoga practices must be adapted to the individual.

    • Standard #6Teachers have studied the practical ways to adapt asana to individual needs, according to body type, age, health, and cultural background. The teacher adapts Yoga to the student, not the student to the Yoga.

Considerations

This standard is vital and clear: yoga is absolutely not to be taught as one-size-fits-all and must be adapted to the individual. This in itself explains why 200 hours of training could never be adequate for proper teaching. So if you’re teaching with only 200 hours of training, it is recommended that you search out quality training in adaptation for individual needs.

Resources

The following lessons and resources in our member library support the contemplation, meeting, and teaching of this standard.

Teaching Foundations
Contraindications & Cautions at a Glance
Adapting for Particular Injuries & Conditions

See the Teaching to Various Student Types Hub for lessons on teaching Beginners, Intermediate / Advanced Students, Seniors and Students with Larger Bodies

See the Safety & Adaptations Hub for individual lessons on how to safely accommodate students with:

  • Conditions of the Spine, Back & Hips including Low Back Pain, SI Joint Issues, Sciatica, Hip Issues, Scoliosis, Spondy Conditions and OPLL
  • Other Joint Issues & Common Conditions includes Knee Injuries & Conditions, Wrist Issues and more
  • Pregnancy
  • Addiction & Mental Health including Anxiety and Depression
  • Trauma & PTSD
  • Immune System Issues including Autoimmune Disorders in general, Diabetes, IBS, Guillain-Barre Syndrome and more
  • Arthritis
  • Neurological / Brain-Related Conditions including Epilepsy and Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Asana Variations & Alternatives

Receptivity

Standard 7 speaks to balancing the teaching of strength in asana with receptivity though breath practice, specifically advising that this is “the most essential empowerment and therapeutic means offered to students.”

    • Standard #7 — Strength in asana is taught with equal emphasis on receptivity. This is achieved through teaching participation in the inhalation and exhalation. This is the most essential empowerment and therapeutic means offered to students.

Considerations

While drive and persistence are key to progress, the whole point of disciplined practice is to awaken our dormant potentiality and receive the gifts of the Universe — to understand, feel and Be a higher version of ourselves. We can’t MAKE that happen. We have to OPEN to it and RECEIVE it.

Resources

The following lessons and resources in our member library support the contemplation, meeting, and teaching of this standard.

The Breath
  • See Resources under Asana in Service of the Breath above.
Themes & Philosophy

Respectful, Ethical Relationships with Students

Standards 8, 11 and 12 speak to the all-important teacher-student relationship as one of respect and equality.

    • Standard #8Teachers respect the student. The teacher has through their own practice developed attitudes of caring for students, embodied in tolerance, non-reactivity, patience, courtesy, and friendliness in all circumstances.
    • Standard #11The teacher-student relationship is equal, negotiable, and non-hierarchical. Social assumptions of a teachers’ seniority or authority are actively dismantled in the understanding that ‘hidden hierarchy’ is the main problem in Yoga. Hidden hierarchy makes a student feel inadequate and causes them to inappropriately strive for external ideals rather than simply participate in their own inherent perfection as Life. The teacher takes responsibility for dismantling the ideas of hierarchy that students bring to class from the cultural conditioning of wider society.
    • Standard #12Teachers understand that teacher-student relationships are always, in all ways, equal. The teacher shares Yoga from their own experience, and carefully adapts it to individual needs. The mood of teaching is always friendship. Not necessarily personal friendship, but friendship as Life. The method of teaching is always respect, equality, and caring.

Considerations

I believe these vital standards speak for themselves.

Resources

The following lessons and resources in our member library support the contemplation, meeting, and teaching of these standards.


A Default of No Touch

Standard 9 points out that touch is unnecessary and can be harmful.

    • Standard #9There is no need for teachers to adjust or touch students in any way, aside from very light directional indication occasionally. Teachers do not interfere with students’ physical or energetic process. Physical assists deny students their own intimacy with breath, bandha, and energy. Students need to be carefully instructed on the principles of practice using words and, if necessary, gestures or moderate demonstrations can be made.

Considerations

    1. Harm on many levels has been perpetrated by 1) unqualified people touching students’ bodies and 2) teachers using power dynamics in the touching of students.
    2. Trauma-sensitive teaching does not use touch for sound reasons which have been supported through research.
    3. As such, it’s sensible for the default to be no or minimal touch as proposed here.
    4. And it is also true that there are highly qualified people who use their knowledge of energy and therapeutic touch along with deep knowledge of poses and bodies to provide supportive touch in their teaching.
    5. I am in communication with many trainers and teachers of high integrity and exquisite skill who can serve as models and instructors for when and how touch can be a part of wise teaching. In addition, I respect a default position of no touch to prevent harm, unless the teacher has proven skill and wisdom.

Resources

The following lessons and resources in our member library support the contemplation, meeting, and teaching of this standard.


The Distraction of Idealism

Standard 10 points to the fact that asana demonstrations can easily be perceived as a need to focus on and mimic an external form or otherwise cause a student to attempt to emulate a physical feat, which is distracting and contrary to healthy practice.

    • Standard #10 — Any demonstrations a teacher makes of asana and pranayama avoid creating any idealisms for the student to emulate or pattern themselves upon, as this distracts the student from their own process of Yoga.

Considerations

While this issue is prolific among teachers who have unchecked ego issues, this standard also reminds self-aware teachers to be mindful of how they can prevent misinterpretations of demonstrations and teachings.

Resources

The following lessons and resources in our member library support the contemplation, meeting, and teaching of this standard.

Read more at Heart of Yoga.

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