Ask any ten yoga teachers in New York City how they feel about Yoga Alliance (YA) and you'll find a pretty narrow set of opinions ranging from indifference to frustration.
Since its founding in 1999, Yoga Alliance has set baseline standards for teacher trainings and run a profitable registry of teachers who have graduated from certified training programs. Outsiders saw a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) as the equivalent of an MD or DPT - it meant that you’d been properly educated, trained, and knew what you were doing. But yoga teachers knew that those three letters were irrelevant when it came to enforcing educational standards of professionalism. Even worse, YA didn’t seem to care about the interests of the community they represented.
Then, two years ago, things went from bad to worse in New York City when it became apparent that the studios who’d ponied up to be part of YA were specifically getting targeted for licensing and tax issues by the government – while studios who hadn’t bothered to join were not having any trouble at all. When organizations like YogaCity NYC put in calls to find out what the heck was going on, a brick wall was thrown up.
In July, a new president and CEO, Richard Karpel, a lawyer with a strong background in the not-for profit world, stepped in to attempt to right the floundering organization. Alex Phelan sat down with Karpel to talk about the past and his vision for the future.
Alex Phelan: What are the biggest things that you are hoping to change about the way Yoga Alliance operates?
Richard Karpel: Two things are important to me: customer service and transparency. The credentialing system is really all Yoga Alliance has done since it was formed in 1999. The biggest opportunity is to be the association for yoga teachers, yoga studios and teacher training programs. It's a pretty amazing thing that yoga does not have an association to represent it. This job is the best job I've ever had and it's because of the huge opportunity to do great things for the yoga community. We've got the resources to do it, I've got a great staff, and financially we've got a healthy balance sheet. And also, the bar has been set incredibly low.
AP: That must make your job pretty challenging.
RK: YA has stumbled in the past, but what I'm finding is that people are pretty forgiving. All we can do is be transparent and answer questions and respond when necessary. I was joking with people this weekend in DC, that expectations are so low that when I return phone calls or emails it's already a surprising improvement.
AP: That’s funny. It's been argued that your finances have been opaque. Do you intend to make them more transparent?
RK: Transparency is really important to me. It's an issue that YA has had real problems with. I saw that even when I was interviewing for the job, trying to get information about the organization, going online and just being a little disturbed about how the organization didn't provide it.
AP: What services do you hope to offer through YA?
RK: At the beginning of the year, we announced a bunch of new benefits. Throughout the year, we’re going to be rolling out more – some for teachers and some for studio owners.
We've also formed a business development department, whose job is to create benefits for teachers and studios. We've already announced some smaller things like discounts on cellular service, Zipcar, etc. These were sort of low hanging fruit that was easy to put together. The harder ones are liability insurance, health insurance, discounts on yoga related products; that's what we're working on now. We hope to announce something before the end of the quarter on liability insurance. Health insurance may take a little longer, but we will have a program at some point so that teachers will be able to get rates lower than they could on their own in the market.
AP: How is YA working to improve its role as keeper of standards?
RK: In terms of credentialing, we need to add more rigor to it. There are limits to what an organization like this can do in the credentialing arena, especially in regard to yoga because there is so much diversity and there are so many different ideas about what it is and what it isn't, what's proper and what's correct. But there are lots of things that we can do to make sure that we are operating the system with as much integrity as possible.
AP: Will there be changes in the way schools or individual teachers are credentialed?
RK: There are registries, there is certification and there is accreditation. The registry is the least intrusive, the least rigorous. I think that’s what people could agree to back in 1999. I'm not talking about adding more to that, at this point. I'm saying in terms of the registry itself, YA itself hasn't been doing the kind of things it needs to do. We don't always know what the schools are doing, we don't know how to respond to complaints all the time, it's hard for us to deal with people who may be qualified but don't fit into our normal credentialing processes. There's a lot of work to be done in this area.
AP: How can Yoga Alliance do a better job of guaranteeing that a registration mark from YA carries a promise of quality?
RK: We've got a lot of members who are interested in helping us sort things out so we're optimistic. Technology can help, through websites we can do things like crowd sourcing. We don't have the resources to send the yoga police around, but if we can get help from people who attend the teacher trainings I think that's going to help us in the credentialing area. That's an intermediate range goal, to build a new website that will work better than the one we have now – it’s really sub-par - and create a great directory that drives traffic to teachers and teacher training programs and ultimately to studios. That's really the focus, let's do what we are already doing as best we can and then look at how technology can help us to do even more.
AP: Given how Yoga Alliance mishandled the issues facing New York teacher trainings in the licensing debates, how can you repair the damage with New York?
RK: I don't know exactly what happened, but I know that YA was working against the interests of the teachers in New York. This is not a position you want to be in, working against the interests of the members of your organization. All I can really do is talk to people and lead the organization in a way that ultimately people will be able to begin to trust.
AP: How is Yoga Alliance reaching out to other yoga communities across the country?
RK: I think the negative feelings are throughout the country about Yoga Alliance, and it was definitely something I knew I was getting into. All I can do is talk about transparency and customer orientation and I will because I really believe it, but at the end of the day people will believe it when they see it.
We're also doing a conference in August in Washington, DC on the profession of yoga. YA had been doing conferences but the model was wrong, because the programming was about the practice of yoga so it wasn't a whole lot different from what other people, like Yoga Journal were already doing. Where people need help is with their businesses, so the profession of yoga is important and that's where we'll be focused. There are two tracks, one for teachers, and one for owners and managers of studios and teacher training programs. The other thing that is really important is forming the community so that people can get together and talk to each other. It's hard to get those conversations going because there's no national organization doing that kind of thing. We are really providing a forum for communication. And we're hoping to provide a safe space for business owners to learn from each other.
Alex Phelan teaches anatomically influenced and alignment conscious yoga in New York City.