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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, April 19, 2014

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Larrissa Beckenbaugh and PJ Heffernan from PJ's Yoga Shala.
Larrissa Beckenbaugh and PJ Heffernan from PJ's Yoga Shala.
Shayne Broadwell from Core Essence.
Shayne Broadwell from Core Essence.

Yoga "teacher training" is big business

September was the official National Yoga Month, celebrating the Eastern tradition that the West and the rest of the world has enthusiastically embraced for its fitness, health and spiritual benefits.

Yoga "teachers" do not need to be certified, credentialed or attend any special "training" to instruct yoga. This may come as a surprise even to yoga teachers, who, when looking for a job, may be faced with the stipulation of "must be an RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher) through the Yoga Alliance." Often, these studios looking for teachers are "RYS – Registered Yoga Schools" through the Yoga Alliance.

So, eager yoga students passionate about their practice and wanting to progress to teaching are almost forced to take (expensive) "teacher trainings" to qualify to be "certified" as a yoga teacher. They then have to register with the Yoga Alliance, paying a fee to maintain their "RYT" teacher status.

And the Yoga Alliance (a non-profit organization) is doing pretty well because of it, as their website financials state: "Yoga Alliance and YA+ have released their 2011 financials by posting them on this website. The combined organizations reported revenue of approximately $3.25 million in 2011, which represents a 37-percent increase over the $2.37 million generated in 2010. They also ended the year with a surplus of $78,806, which was down from $364,188 in 2010."

Wow. Looks like yoga is one of the only businesses thriving in this economy. (Yoga as a business. This, in and of itself, gets some yogis' mats all up in a bunch.)

On the other hand, how many yoga teachers do you know whose "revenue is up in the last year"? Yoga teachers are typically paid per class, from my experience, starting around $25 per class. This fluctuates where you are in the country, at gyms versus yoga studios and by the teacher's experience. Some studios pay per student in class (again, from my experience) around $5 per student.

Private yoga sessions can be anywhere from $35-$150 per session – again depending on so many variables. Yoga teacher celebrities, of course, command much more. But, let's face it – your average yogi taking a teacher training has a long way to go before they are "ommming" Sting and Madonna for hundreds of bucks per session.

There's money being made, but it may not be by your favorite yoga teacher – unless that teacher owns a studio and is offering these "teacher trainings."

In the Milwaukee area, here are some fees for teacher trainings I pulled directly off their websites:

Yoga One, Cedarburg: RYT 200-Hour Teacher Training Program: $2,800

Kanyakumari, Glendale: $3,500

YogAsylum, Brookfield: $3,800

Yama Yoga, Third Ward: $3,150

Haleybird Studios, Wauwatosa: $3,000

Core Essence, East Side: $3,200-$3,500

Let's say 10 students sign up for one of these studio's training programs. You do the math. That's a nice chunk of change for the studio. With drop-in class rates averaging between $10 and $20 and "monthly unlimiteds" hovering around $100, teacher trainings (and retail products) are driving most studios' revenue these days.

Now, I'm not saying that these studios are not entitled or unqualified to offer these study opportunities, or that people wishing to embark on a career teaching yoga cannot benefit from these trainings. I have not taken a yoga teacher training from any of these studios, but I would think it is safe to say I would come out of it with a deeper understanding of something (whether it be yoga, yoga philosophy, anatomy or just myself) and hopefully some sort of capacity to lead a class.

One studio that is not offering teacher trainings is PJ's Yoga Shala* in Waukesha. This particular studio is very unique in the area, as it is home to Wisconsin's only "authorized" Ashtanga teachers, PJ Heffernan, Larissa Beckenbaugh and Monica Gullickson.

Ashtanga is a vigorous style of yoga and is the basis of most vinyasa, flow and power practices. Ashtanga was brought to the West in the '70s by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. He taught the prescribed sequences in a direct teacher-to-student method in which the teacher imparts one posture in the sequence at a time to the student, who memorizes the order and performs it independently, without the teacher calling out the poses. Ashtanga yoga practiced in this self-motivated way has come to be known as a "Mysore"-style class, as a nod to where Jois is from – and the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (KPJAYI) is – to this day.

Ashtanga is unique in that you cannot buy your teacher certification. You cannot pay a couple thousand bucks, show up to class, study a book, learn a script and then walk away a few weeks or months later with a diploma allowing you to pay your registration fees with the Yoga Alliance. No, the process is much more abstract and focuses more on the student aspect of yoga.

Ashtangis must travel to Mysore, India to KPJAYI and commit to at least one month of study (which entails six days a week of practice). Yogis go with the intention to study, not to become teachers. Sometimes – rarely – the Jois family honors a student with the title of "authorized," after several months and sequential visits, which means that student has the blessing of the family to share the Ashtanga sequence and lineage with others. "Authorized" teachers may be additionally titled "certified" at some point, but again, this is not a title that is paid for, nor can it be asked for.

This recently became the subject of a bit of controversy in the Milwaukee yoga world on Facebook when Core Essence Yoga (which does not have Ashtanga-authorized teachers on staff) advertised a teacher training online as follows: "Core Essence Yoga's 200hr Teacher Training Program is a foundational program rooted in Ashtanga yoga (the eight limbs)."

This prompted Heffernan to post a public letter to Facebook declaring, "To all involved in the teacher training. Please reconsider your actions. My name is PJ Heffernan and I was authorized to teach Ashtanga yoga in 2009 by Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois. My guru taught me Astya, in the first limb of Ashtanga, means no stealing. I asked Guruji what I should do if unauthorized people start teacher trainings and charging others for classes. His eyes welled up a bit and he said to me 'You go there and ask them why they are doing this!' How do unauthorized teachers with no connection to this lineage certify others to teach a method they themselves have no right to be sharing? This is lying, stealing, greedy and it harms terribly. It is dangerous and unjust.

"India is now patenting its living cultural parampara traditions in reaction to this theft. You may be breaking international law and more importantly you are breaking 4 yamas all at once and charging ridiculous money to do it. I shake with sadness for what you are doing. I promised Guruji I would ask and his spirit compels me to do so. You have full legal right to make up your own yoga. You don't have the right to lie and steal. You dishonor the international Ashtanga community, you dishonor us, you dishonor my Guru and the Jois family. You dishonor Ashtanga yoga itself and its core teachings. You are capitalizing on people's ignorance and should be ashamed of yourselves. For what you are charging ($4,000!) students could fly to India, live, eat, train and study sanskrit and mantras at the AYRI for 3 months. I now have 2 students who also were authorized this year- Larissa Beckenbaugh and Monica Gullickson. We are in the process of raising money for another student Brian Nusslock to go. We are paying for him to go learn so he can come back and help us share the practice!

"I have sent word of this to my teachers in India and the international community. You may be facing a lawsuit if this is not rectified. I have posted on this and will blog, write articles and do everything in my power to hold you accountable for this. You know I am here. You could have reached out and contacted me out of good will. I don't care what kind of so-called yoga is being peddled out there. I only care if you try to pass it off as Ashtanga. It is my love, my life and my lineage. You still have time to do the right thing. You have hurt us deeply."

Shayne Broadwell from Core Essence responded by clarifying, "Thank you for your thoughts. First and foremost I would like to clarify that we are not teaching Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as taught by Shri K. Pattabhi Jois. Through our teacher training program students learn to teach a vinyasa style class. Any reference that you might have seen to Ashtanga is referring to the eight limb path as laid out in the sutras by Patanjali, and is stated as such. The students will learn who Pattabhi is, and how his system is the basis for most of the power yoga here in the west, as it is important for them to learn the history. The first of the Yamas being Ahimsa, we as yogis do our best to live our lives from a state of loving kindness, in words as well as actions.

"I do know you, and have been to your classes and supported you when people were looking for an Ashtanga Vinyasa practice. I have also extended invitations to you to join in larger community events; as I feel we as a yoga community together can create much growth in our community as a whole. Thus it would have been nice if you would have simply asked. Separation among us as teachers just leads to further separation in our community as a whole. I hope you have been comforted to know that we have no intention of teaching Ashtanga as taught by Shri K. Pattabhi Jois."

This clarification appeased Heffernan, who wrote back, "The Core Essence people responded today explaining ... They were very respectful and equanimous in their reply. Much respect for that. I think shining a brighter light on all the teacher training madness is the issue. I am glad this happened though because it has a lot of people talking and it forces us to look at ourselves as a community and examine some of the greed and silliness being displayed. Short cuts and quick fixes. Quick cash does nothing for knowing and growing. Bless."

Broadwell added in an email to me, "I agree that many teacher training programs are in it just for the money, and even more are missing the "spirit" of yoga, and it is just about the asana. But this is not the case in all programs, mine included. It costs money to run a program; to be legally running in Wisconsin it costs over $2,000 and if you are affiliated with the Yoga Alliance that is $500. I do a silent meditation retreat in my training and that costs $2,000+ (depending on how many are in the program.). Then there are costs associated with any handouts/binders/etc. that are provided for students; the cost of the studio itself, any other teachers involved, etc. I am not in this for the money. I am here because yoga saved my life, it has profoundly transformed me, and I want others to have the same gift. I may do asana in a different sequence but that doesn't mean it isn't as meaningful and spiritual to/for me."

It seems semantics may have been to blame for this misunderstanding. Both studios are clearly unique, positive additions to the Milwaukee yoga community. One only has to glance around this isolated incident on their Facebook pages to see the enthusiastic postings from both teachers and students at both locations. This rare occurrence may have actually served as an educational opportunity for all involved, especially for prospective teacher training attendees.

But, this resolution does not take away from the bigger issue of the explosion of teacher trainings that may be taking advantage of aspiring teachers of yoga, and contributing great profits to the Yoga Alliance and to the studios that offer them.

The organizations behind the Yoga Alliance were originally formed to "create minimum standards for yoga teachers." These standards have resulted in lots of cash, which to some in the yoga community seems contradictory to the whole idea of yoga as a living cultural tradition. The "business of yoga" is a very Western concept and heck, everyone's gotta make a living! But, the longer I personally practice and cultivate an understanding of what yoga is to me, the more teacher trainings and some yoga classes leave me feeling like I'm being peddled packaged spirituality by charlatans selling snake oil.

Is this a problem? I personally see both sides of the issue. Studios have costs to cover and need to make a profit to exist. Classes, privates and retail all make sense to keep a business going. Perhaps it is my roots in Ashtanga that sour the whole expensive teacher training idea for me. There was a time I dreamed of being able to go to Mysore to study, but I couldn't make the time for even one visit, despite my dedicated practice. This has made me admire the commitment it takes to organize the trip to India, to leave family, a day job, to pick up and just go for an extended period of time with no expectations of an outcome.

Honestly, it's difficult for me to articulate the exact reason these trainings don't sit well with me. Maybe it's because the teachers I've had positive experiences with (in an array of styles) possess a certain, indescribable quality that cannot be taught. It's authentic. It emanates from within. It comes with experience. And it certainly cannot be paid for.

There are so many choices when it comes to taking a yoga class nowadays. Everybody gravitates to different styles and teaching methods. For me, the best yoga teachers are not necessarily those who took a training to become a teacher or who know the names of every bone and muscle. They are those who take class in general. Who continue to study both the physical and more esoteric elements of yoga. Who practice what they preach. Who hit their mat each and every day. It is really that understanding and experience that allows a person to make the transition from yoga student to someone who "shares their yoga practice with others."

And ultimately – hopefully – yoga teachers never stop doing the most important thing that keeps them humble and relevant – being students.

*Blogger's note: I am a longtime student and friend of both PJ Heffernan and Larissa Beckenbaugh, although I am not actively practicing Ashtanga at this time. I have never had the privilege of taking class from Shayne Broadwell or at Core Essence, although she graciously invited me to class when I approached her about this piece. I've enjoyed teachers from many styles of yoga including Ashtanga, Iyengar, Vinyasa, Anti-Gravity and more. I've also not grooved with some Ashtanga instructors. For now, I'm into Bikram – which, ironically, may be the most Westernized yoga of all. It's franchised, copyrighted and the teacher training (including accommodations) is $11,400!

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