If you've done any research on your yoga contraindication, or on yoga safety in general, then you've been advised to practice only with a "qualified yoga teacher." But what does that mean exactly? How do you evaluate your teacher based on your specific needs? And what the heck do all those different letters behind his or her name mean? Read on to understand a little about the kinds of yoga teachers that are out there, how they're certified, what they learn and how to make sure you're working with someone who fits and understands your specific needs.
1) The Yoga Industry Self Regulates 
The first thing that's important for the context of evaluation, is to understand that state governments do not regulate or license yoga teachers or studios in the United States. There are passionate advocates and arguments on both sides of the licensing/regulation debate that I'll save for a future post. Regardless of whether it's a good or a bad idea, what it means for you is that you don't have the same kind of consumer protection or peace of mind that you might with your masseuse, personal trainer, therapist or even your hair stylist - all of which must be licensed and meet credentialing requirements in most states prior to offering services to the public. 

You have to take responsibility for your own yoga safety, and to do that, you need to understand the industry landscape and where to go for information. There are two main standards and self-regulating bodies within the yoga industry: Yoga Alliance & the International Association of Yoga Therapists. Most teachers today have trained with schools that are certified by one or the other or both.
2) Credentialing is Done via Honor System
Yoga Alliance certifies schools and teachers who have earned a certificate of completion from one of the schools they certify. They have been in business since 1999 and recently went through a soul search and leadership change aimed at professionalizing their own organization and deciding what they should actually be providing to teachers and the industry based on inputs from yoga teachers nationwide. They confer two main designations, along with additional designations for experience and specialties. Here's what they actually mean:
  • RYS = Registered Yoga School: To become a RYS, a program applies to Yoga Alliance outlining the intended curriculum and showing it meets the minimum standards established for teacher training. Besides curriculum, the only hard requirement is that the primary teacher(s) be experienced registered yoga teachers (E-RYT) with Yoga Alliance. Check out the RYS application. YA is a small operation and there is no physical visit to the training program applicant by YA staff to verify the information submitted. Changes to curriculum are accomplished via a self-reporting honor system.  Training quality and content can vary widely among schools.
  • RYT200 = Registered Yoga Teacher with at least 200hrs of training. Minimum curriculum standards.
  • E-RYT200 = Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher with at least 200hrs of training + 1,000hrs of teaching experience. Minimum standards are same as above, these teachers have just been in business longer.
  • RYT500 = Registered Yoga Teacher with at least 500hrs of training. Minimum curriculum/experience standards
  • E-RYT500 = Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher with at least 500hrs of training + at least 1,000hrs of teaching experience
  • RCYT = Registered Children's Yoga Teacher has 200hr RYT certification + 95hrs of specialized training in children's yoga. RCYT minimum standards link
  • RPYT = Registered PreNatal Yoga Teacher has 200hr RYT certification + 85hrs of specialized training in prenatal yoga. RPYT minimum standards link
Yoga Alliance allows its members to list their credentials publicly on their website. A final plus is that each of their designations requires various hours of continuing education to maintain over time. So, a listing on YA means that your teacher has completed some formal training and is dedicated to continuing education and improving or expanding their yoga skill set. It's definitely worth having a look to make sure your teacher is listed, just don't base your decision on a YA listing alone.

The other major standards organization is called the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT). Its was formed in 1989, rolled into another organization in 1999, and then became independent again in 2004. The organization has reportedly experienced controversy in its history(1), but its reputation is improving as its leadership seek to further professionalize and develop credentialing standards for yoga therapists. 

Yoga therapy is the practice of applying yoga techniques (postures, breathing, diet, etc) to treat or relieve a specific ailment or medical condition. The field of yoga therapy is still somewhat of a free for all. There are lots of teachers out there who interpret their Yoga Alliance bestowed "RYT" designation as teacher or therapist, interchangeably. In fact, there is no such thing as a "Registered Yoga Therapist", so a healthy bit of skepticism should be employed when evaluating any teacher who claims to be one. There are many well known and respected yoga therapists practicing today, many of whom have medical degrees in addition to their yoga training. If you're unsure whether the yoga therapist you've found is really qualified, a suggested best practice for students who want to use yoga for treatment is to seek out a yoga therapist who is also an MD (medical doctor), PT (physical therapist), RN (registered nurse) or other medical professional. All such individuals would have completed medical training at an accredited university and hold some sort of license to practice in the medical field, in addition to their yoga therapy training. 

There are efforts to professionalize yoga therapy training with minimum standards, that at some point, may manifest into a standardized credentialing system. This summer, the IAYT released The Educational Standards for the Training of Yoga Therapists. I've read it, and I think it's a fantastic step forward. They call for teachers who want to designate as yoga therapists to undertake a minimum of 800hrs of training over a minimum of two years, on top of a 200hr RYT and one year of experience prerequisite.
3) Evaluating a Teacher with Your Instincts
So, what's the best way to evaluate a teacher, who reported her credentials via honor system to an organization that doesn't yet have the capacity or resources  to verify teacher training quality first hand, in an industry that self regulates? That question is not meant to be a poke at anyone, it's simply the state of affairs in the yoga industry, like it or not. At the end of the day, you just have to trust your gut. If you experience any of the situations below on a regular basis, it's a good idea to consider looking for a new guru.

•   Serious Ego - One of the main things you're supposed to be learning in yoga is how to let go of self and ego and connect with source. Be wary of anyone who self-designates as a guru, chastises your lifestyle choices or motives for pursuing yoga, is unavailable or unwilling to make time for you before or after class or is generally unfriendly or unapproachable. If your teacher displays serious ego, then he or she clearly has a lot more to learn and might not be the best person guide your journey. 

•   Seriously Flakey - If your teacher's mantra is "everything is perfect" when it's clearly not, you may have a problem. Is he often late? Is the studio dirty? Does he want you to describe your very personal and potentially embarrassing contraindication in front of the entire class? Does he not ask about injuries or contraindications at all? Letting go of self does not mean letting go of consideration for others and it leaves you wondering what other corners are being cut (intentionally or not).

•   Seriously Spiritual, like, seriously - Spirituality without substance is another red flag. Often a quote, anecdote or spiritual reference can be the perfect thing to take your mind off that grocery list and into your practice. But if every question you ask your teacher is seemingly dodged with some vapid spiritual reference, then be careful. Masking inexperience or lack of knowledge with a veil of spiritual superiority is unfortunately common in the industry. A good teacher knows what she doesn’t know and is not afraid to make that admission or connect you with a teacher who can help. 

Many students come to yoga because they are seeking or want to fix something, and that attitude can put a student in a vulnerable position in which the inherent authority of the teacher might cause second guessing of his or her own instincts. There are amazing yoga teachers out there, mediocre ones and probably a few bad apples - just like in every other profession and practice. 

The biggest thing I hope you’ll take away from this article is that there are no rules in yoga – and that is both a good and bad thing. The most important way to evaluate the quality of your teacher is by educating yourself on yoga basics, knowing yourself, what you want or expect out of your practice and listening to your body. Find a teacher who makes you feel comfortable. 

Are there other ways to ensure you're working with a "qualified yoga teacher"? Please share them in the comments section!

UPDATE: (1) Source: William J. Broad, "The Science of Yoga"

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