The Battle to Regulate Yoga

By Lawrence, Stewart J. | The World and I, November 2010 | Go to article overview

The Battle to Regulate Yoga


Lawrence, Stewart J., The World and I


Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell signed into law a bill that would exempt the state's yoga teachers from the need to be licensed to teach. His gesture, which preceded a similar move by New York Governor David Paterson, has led to rejoicing among yoga enthusiasts.

But is the exemption movement--12 other states, including Wisconsin and Massachusetts, still have laws regulating yoga teaching--really in the interest of consumers?

Exemption supporters say that yoga--an ancient meditative practice based on body stretching and breathing techniques--poses no risk. They also charge that states aren't qualified to impose training guidelines on a spiritual practice like yoga and are simply trying to exploit its enormous popularity to capture a new source of tax revenue.

So, hands off, they say.

It is true that state regulators aren't steeped in Hinduism, or even fitness, and couldn't tell a "downward-facing dog" from a "dolphin" pose. But it's also true that yoga is no longer a quiet esoteric practice. It's become a bustling big business, grossing $6 billion in 2009 alone. And attendant with rapid commercialization are real risks to consumers. These need to be addressed.

Take the issue of injuries, which plagues any fitness-related industry. It turns out that a surprisingly large number of yoga students are still getting hurt in class, sometimes severely, with some 4,500 Americans receiving treatment for serious neck, knee, elbow, and wrist injuries annually.

Dr. Jeffrey Halbrecht, former medical director of the Women's pro Ski Tour, says the yoga injuries he's treated are on par with those suffered by practitioners of extreme sports--but less well known.

Part of the problem is that the yoga industry is deliberately catering to the traditional fitness market to woo hard- core exercise junkies. And in their rush to expand, some yoga teachers are filling their classes to the brim with students who are difficult to monitor, let alone supervise, further increasing the risk of injury.

In fact, many of these teachers aren't actually yogis; they're fitness instructors seeking to boost their clientele by cashing in on a lucrative niche market. Even those serious yoga teachers who receive special training are not required to learn that much--and the training "standards," such that they are, vary widely. For a mere $3,000, a promising yogi can graduate from a 200-hour "teacher training" program in less than a year.

Most of the teaching focuses on mastering the traditional yoga postures, known as "asanas," with some pigeon-anatomy and yoga "ethics" thrown in. It's not a full-fledged training program by any modern professional standard. And it's a far cry from the patient, one-on-one training that was the standard norm in yoga for centuries, and still is, in India, where the practice was born.

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