YTT Standards Town Hall

On September 30th I went to the Yoga Community Toronto (YOCOTO) open meeting about standards and sustainability in Yoga Teacher Training. It was a wonderful evening chaired by Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie at Renaissance Yoga.

So many topics were brought up, and many insights shared amongst a diverse group of yoga practitioners. I appreciated having the opportunity to discuss the challenges and benefits of having accepted standards. There was a lot of support for the idea that we do need some formal association or associations helping to guide, educate and chair groups of teachers should ethical issues arise. Scott mentioned a trajectory for such an association: public education, support of teachers, ombudsman for ethical issues and discipline, and standards for YTT and YTT trainers. I thought that sounded wonderful! Some of it sounds similar to what the Yoga Alliance has been trying to accomplish, particularly the public education and the YTT standards. Certainly it reminds me of the Federation of Ontario Yoga Teachers, an organization that had existed for some 30 years, and helped to connect yoga teachers through a newsletter, and regular retreats, as well as providing the vehicle for observing teachers and giving feedback on the safety of their teaching. FOYT closed last year, partly due to the difficulty of filling volunteer board positions. I believe this may also have been due to the challenge of adapting to the exponential growth of the yoga teaching community, and the diversity that has come with that. So how can a non-profit yoga teachers association run effectively and reliably with some continuity of board members, and yet still represent the diversity and the growing needs of the yoga teaching community in Canada? Our small group discussions showed us that to make progress we would need to have consultation sessions followed by working groups with very, very specific areas for discussion of both big picture concerns and concrete options to be taken back to the collective. I think this would be an incredibly valuable process in itself even if it did not lead us to the specific end of mounting a unified, city, province or nation-wide body, but if it served as a model for discussion and a few concrete steps in the listed directions.

I contributed a few thoughts, the first being that there are so many layers of yoga teaching that we need to be clearer on. What is the scope of the essential holistic course on yoga teaching, now called the YTT 200? Could advanced studies be divided up into disciplines such as structural yoga therapy, holistic yoga therapy and ayurveda yoga therapy, for example? While a structural yoga therapist requires an in depth education in anatomy and injury remediation from a physiological point of view, an Ayurvedic yoga therapist requires an in depth education in the diagnostic and healing modalities from breathwork and movement to lifestyle and herbal supplements. Initially a teacher requires a bit of both of these to be able to teach a movement modality whose basis is in physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. In my view, though a general yoga teacher does need to understand the basics of body mechanics and the contraindications and modifications of postures for injury of other limitation, they do NOT need to be akin to a physiotherapist. Imagine the aspect of yoga that is akin to Tai Chi – basic movements that help to maintain physical agility, promote proper flow of body fluids, move, increase and sustain subtle energy et cetera. Essentially we need to better understand what the scope of a holistic yoga teacher might be, and the further education required to move into yoga as a therapy, whether structural or Ayurvedic.

On another note, many people took issue with the concept of hours as being the determiner for a YTT. I feel curricular content with essential components, and optional components for YTTs to choose from would be one method of organizing the YTT standards. What is essential for any YTT, and what other elements are there that would make up the optional components of an entry level YTT. There was a lot of hesitation about the idea of a curriculum, I believe because different traditions feel that their yoga content is so vastly different from another school’s essential content. While I agree there is variation, I think if we cannot come up with at least a general outline for a first level of YTT with lots of room for choice amongst lineages and trainees, with some guidelines for teaching approach of YTT, then we are as good as being without any collective standards, meaning we are not in any way a cohesive profession, or even a cohesive discipline. I do not think the case is this grave. I believe if we had ample time and incentive to sit down as a collective of senior trainers from various disciplines (i.e. if the government mandated it), we could come up with a basic curriculum, say half of which was mandatory, and half of which was from a selection of topics.

We spoke about testing, and standardized testing across the industry. I am much more comfortable with structuring a curriculum around topics and experiences offered in the classroom and having each YTT entity be responsible for their own testing subject to checks and observation by a board, than I am with standardized testing for the reason that no teacher likes to ‘teach to the test’. This would make YTT even less experiential, and more like hoop jumping. Rather than a standardized test, essays on a selection of topics could be submitted perhaps to a third party body, and a student could be required to give a practical class for a third party organization before final certification. This would help to avoid the issue of standardized testing and teaching to testing which involves asking questions for specific answers. Such tests are limiting in evaluating a teacher’s true understanding of a subject in a textured way, and do not evaluate their strengths or weaknesses as teachers. They may simply point out small gaps in formal knowledge (i.e. the stuff you memorize).

Of course no discussion of content is complete without discussing how it is imparted. Since we are talking about yoga teaching, I wanted to address the issue of teaching methodology as part of the YTT curriculum which is often misunderstood or omitted. As proof of this almost, some of the other participants in the forum did not seem to understand what is meant by teaching methodology, or the vast scope of it. There had been a portion of the discussion about injuries and knowing more about our students before they attend a class, and how we get that information in an authentic and safe way. And so I wanted to highlight that this type of subject is part of what could be discussed under the teaching methodology portion of teacher training.

Teaching methodology includes a vast array of considerations related to teaching, from basic needs assessments and intake forms, to the way in which we demonstrate, teach and adjust or assist in postures. It includes consideration of the venues we choose to teach in; the length of the classes and class series, and the planning or organization of their content; considerations of the benefits of pre-registered class sessions as opposed to drop-in classes; how we use voice, and how we use touch; how we engage with students before and after class to how we feel about the role of students in our classrooms. It is everything from facilitation style to options for mat configuration.

One of the members mentioned that students learn this by watching their own teachers. While this is true, I wanted to make the case for both implicit and explicit learning about how we can be as teachers. Of course in YTT the trainers are likely trying to model this throughout the training in how they teach asana classes, how they interact with trainees, how they moderate discussions, if there are any discussions or it is all sit-and-listen lecture format. But, if we do not open up an explicit discussion in YTT of the rationale behind our teaching approach, we are leaving it up to the students – new teachers or teachers-to-be — to have noticed all of what we were modeling, and then to take it on hook line and sinker. We are not offering the opportunity to sit in dialogue with other teachers-to-be and trainers and discuss the benefits and shortcomings of various approaches to managing a group of people, a classroom, an asana/pranayama practice. I feel these discussions about our pedagogy as yoga teachers are incredibly valuable – mostly because there is no ONE recipe. But if we are encouraged to consider such things, we are given the tools to grow into our own unique teacher, and to continue growing as an educator/facilitator, as opposed to just imitating what we think we’ve seen others doing, and perhaps not clearly even knowing why they were doing it that way. This is why the explicit discussion of pedagogy is as important as the implicit lessons we learn by observing excellent facilitators.

I have seen many teachers who mistakenly believe that they need to control a class, to be a master and be able to answer every question. This leads them to disempowering their students, and causing themselves anxiety. In fact one of the most important concepts to come out of studies into adult education, and a halmark of the post-modern educational approach, is that teachers facilitate a space for learning that happens through the group coming together. We as teachers don’t have to know everything about every physical condition, for example. The students are the experts in their own bodies, and we are in dialogue with them. As facilitators of a learning space and a transformational space, we find ways to create safety, explorations and dialogue around the experiences we provide in asana or pranayama or other yoga activities. I believe that YTT students are liberated by discussions of ‘post-modern education’, and the idea of moderating or facilitating groups as opposed to ‘getting students to do what we say’.

YTT is a great place to begin reflecting on and discussing our pedagogy with our peers and colleagues. In a way it sets us up to continue on this path of ‘reflective educator/facilitator’. I don’t think this is a process which ever ends. I think most of us are always honing or tweeking how we use language in class, or the balance between asana, pranayama, relaxation and discussion in our classes, for example. Maybe that is the yoga of teaching – we are mindful of it as a process on ever deepening levels. Here’s hoping that the vast array of aspects of teaching methodology and how they can be explored in YTT are a significant part of any discussion of YTT standards.

Hari Om!

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