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Ramaa Reddy Raghavan

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Yoga In The U.S.: Should There Be Stricter Licensing Standards?

Posted: 03/12/11 05:12 AM ET

On a bright Monday morning at New York Yoga, 14 students in sweatpants and t-shirts sit on technicolored yoga mats, waiting for Michael Gilbert, a 25-year yoga veteran, to begin their weekly vinyasa class. After a few minutes of chanting "ohm," he instructs students in surya-namaskar -- the time-honored practice of sun salutation that leads the body through a whole range of motions.

Similar scenes replay daily in thousands of studios across the country. Over the past decade, yoga practitioners and schools have mushroomed; endorsed by celebrities and athletes, it's being taught in churches and gyms and even over the Internet. In 2008 it drew 16 million practitioners, according to Yoga Journal and Harris Interactive. Last year it became a $6 billion industry, but standards regulating the industry are minimal or non-existent.

In 2009 New York State's Department of Education, flirted with the licensing idea. It sent a letter to yoga studios, asking them to suspend their teacher training programs unless they were licensed, which required a certificate of occupancy and a curriculum review. The licensing idea sparked a huge outcry from the yoga community.

Lea Kraemer, a seasoned teacher who owns Prana Mandir studio on 43rd Street at Fifth Avenue, was outraged. "Their licensing defined yoga as a vocational or technical school, which it's not. It's something for your mind and totality," she says. "But the greater issue is, does New York State know what makes a qualified yoga school?"

Most yogis agree with Kraemer's definition. But as in vocational schools, aren't yoga teacher training programs instilling skills that eventually lead to a career?

In March 2010, after a year's ardent opposition to licensing, the yogis won. Governor Paterson signed a bill exempting New York State yoga studios from licensing requirements. Yogis across the country rejoiced.

Yoga has been around for 5,000 years, its mastery requiring many years of training. Swami Ramananda, president of Integral Yoga Institute in the West Village, believes that a proper yoga practice involves living in harmony with one's true nature.

But not all practitioners see things like Kraemer and Ramananda. Most pursue yoga for athletic, recreational and social purposes. In health clubs, yoga is taught with what Ramananda calls a "just do it" American mentality.

Why shouldn't there be certification to rein in these teachers? After all, physical therapists, personal trainers and Pilates instructors must be certified. Practitioners of Alexander technique, for instance, undergo 1,600 hours of training over a three-year period to become certified. Unless yoga prescribes similar standards, the practice can be dangerous.

In 2007 about 6,000 yoga-related injuries were treated in doctor's offices, clinics and emergency rooms, costing about $108 million, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Common yoga injuries include repetitive strain and over-stretching of necks, shoulders, spines, legs and knees.

Sara Bertin, one of yoga's casualties, was seriously incapacitated after she took a class in January at the Health and Racquet club in Union Square. "At the beginning of the class, while warming up, I did a twist to the left side. Suddenly I felt unbearable pain in my back, shooting down to my right leg," she says. Her doctor, after an M.R.I., found that her pain was being caused by a herniated disc pushing on a nerve. Her treatment included a heavy dose of steroids. She has so far avoided surgery.

Such injuries are becoming commonplace. One might argue that people should know how to set their own limits. That's not simple, however, especially in a class of 20 or 30, where individual attention is often lacking.

Realizing these issues, the yoga community in 1999 created its own self-policing non-profit organization:Yoga Alliance. It registers teacher training studios that have completed 200 or 500 training hours. This month, Yoga Alliance's website listed about 25,000 registered teachers and about 1,100 registered schools across America.

Yet this length of training is inadequate, and some of these registered schools still have inherent flaws. "A lot of these are a watered down, mediocre, bottom of the barrel scenario of licensing where they'll graduate everybody," Gilbert says. "Regarding teachers, there is no guarantee they are well-trained."

Gilbert, who studied yoga under B.K.S. Iyengar (founder of Iyengar yoga), supports a longer training period. "Iyengar has many well trained students, with huge depth of knowledge. They have no licensing, but they have a clear understanding of how the body works. He established a clear, extreme course that takes two years to complete."

Hansa Knox, ex-president of Yoga Alliance and director of Prana Yoga and Ayurveda Mandala in Colorado, says that the government should promote a licensing policy, as Yoga Alliance has not fulfilled its role. "I believe schools should be licensed. Yoga Alliance has not stepped up to maintain yoga's integrity and protect students," she says. In addition, a continuing system of education is important: "We don't stop teaching at 500 hours. Teachers who work with seniors, children or in medical centers need specific tools to deal with this population."

Kraemer is also critical of Yoga Alliance. According to Kraemer, Yoga Alliance's website doesn't specify which variety of yoga practitioners have studied. Such disclosures would help students pick qualified teachers, ultimately producing students knowledgeable in the totality of yoga.

And since registration with Yoga Alliance is voluntary, many yoga teachers remain unlicensed and uncertified. Since yoga has become an industry, someone needs to protect the consumer. If the yoga community opposes government intervention, let teacher training institutes become licensing agencies, and Yoga Alliance a regulatory body that insists on stricter licensing standards, creates a national registry of all yoga teachers and functions as a sounding board for grievances.

As Bertin says, "Yoga is supposed to be good for you, is healthy. We trust it. Nobody tells you to be extremely careful."