Why Yoga Credentials Do Not Matter

Content advisory: some of the content on this website, and on the websites it links to, contain stories of abuse in yoga and other spiritual communities, some contain specific and graphic details of these encounters. Please practice self-care as you read these materials.

Yoga Credentials. Do. Not. Matter.

I recently received an email from one of the yoga teachers I follow with the subject “Why Credentials Don’t Matter and How to Create Equity in Person and Online”. For the first part, I know all too well why credentials don’t matter.

Yoga teachers are not certified or licensed by any type of governing body that has the authority to prevent people who behave inappropriately from teaching again. In fact, Yoga Alliance, one of the most popular and wide spread yoga credentialing organizations in the world, actively lobbies against it (6). Some yoga traditions have their own credentialing systems, in addition to, or instead of Yoga Alliance. They are also powerless to stop unethical and dangerous teachers from teaching. Yoga Alliance and similar organizations can “decertify” or revoke their credentialing of that person, or even a whole studio, but there is nothing that would stop a person or studio from continuing to teach yoga.

I was a Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher from 2016 – 2020. During that time, a senior Iyengar yoga teacher from the United States was decertified by the Iyengar Yoga Association of the United States (IYNAUS), for sex abuse, but he still kept on teaching. Six people had officially come forward in a private investigation into the allegations of sex abuse that were initially reported by KQED Los Angeles (1). The private investigation was conducted by a renowned lawyer in the field. Her conclusion was that, while she was aiming for “clear and compelling evidence” for the purposes of a private investigation, she felt the evidence was strong enough to stand up to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for criminal court (2). Unfortunately, most of the cases had already gone beyond the statutory time limits for filing criminal charges. While the investigation was ongoing, and when the investigative report was published, more people came forward with similar stories of sex abuse and molestation by this teacher(3). Some people read the report and then shared that he had done the same things to them but they “didn’t know it was sex abuse” because the teacher was calling it a “yoga adjustment”. 🤮

As an Iyengar yoga teacher at the time, in Oregon, I thought I was teaching far enough away from the turmoil to not be affected. But, even I received an abuse disclosure about this teacher when the KQED story broke in the fall of 2018. I realized, this teacher’s abuse spanned decades and almost the entire method in the United States was groomed to accept his verbal, physical, and sex abuse, and the abuse of other teachers(4).

The survivors and advocates knew this teacher was still teaching, long after the “grace period” the Iyengar family had given him to wrap up his affairs and finish out his teaching schedule had ended. Some of his long-time students, who were teachers and studio owners themselves, refused to believe the abuse reports, or worse, were accepting of his “adjustments”. They were arranging workshops for him to teach and were recruiting their students to these workshops.

I was incredulous and wrote an email to the IYNAUS board about what was going to be done about it. At about the same time, I had been in a car crash and a whiplash-induced concussion was developing in my brain (which is a different story, I will get to later). When I read their response, I turned to my spouse and said, “Wow, I guess my concussion is getting worse because it sounds like IYNAUS is saying that it’s ok to study with a known sex offender and to recruit your students to his workshops, and that they aren’t going to contact the Iyengar family about it.” My spouse replied, “Your concussion is getting worse, however, that is what they are saying in that email.”

It was physically painful to be working on a computer and my vision was very blurry, but I couldn’t sit by and do nothing. I was supposed to be resting, but I couldn’t rest as unanswerable questions swirled in my head. How many more people was this guy going to hurt? What if my own child, who was in high school at the time, left home, decided to try yoga, and ran into this? If I didn’t say or do anything, my own child might have thought that I meant for it to happen. I couldn’t live with that possibility, concussion or not.

I got in touch with the survivors and fellow advocates and we decided enough was enough. I did not want to be affiliated with an organization that thought that it was not an ethics violation to host workshops with, and recruit students to, a known sex offender (someone they themselves had spent a lot of time and money proving was a sex offender in the private investigation). There were about 6-10 others who felt the same way. Along with them, I got ready to let go of my Iyengar yoga certification. This was not a light or easy decision. It takes years of study, practice, and dedication to become an Iyengar yoga teacher. I thought I could be the change I wanted to see, but I had to face the reality that I was getting sucked into the “pedagogy of abuse” undertow instead (4). Each of us chose a platform where we felt most comfortable speaking out. I chose Medium.com and wrote “Why I Am Not Renewing My Iyengar Yoga Teacher Certification in 2020″(5). Other teachers wrote similar testimonials or shared their abuse disclosures on Facebook, their own blogs, and other social media platforms. We all shared each other’s stories on social media. We went viral in our own little bubble. IYNAUS finally had to contact the Iyengar family for guidance.

When they did, it turned out that the Iyengar family agreed with us, the whistleblowers. It was not acceptable to study with, or recruit students to, a known sex offender, someone they had already expelled from their method.(3, ibid)

Yoga credentials don’t matter because when things go wrong, we have to rely on the survivors and their advocates to be whistleblowers, for their efforts to be effective, and to be visible for a long time to come. That is not a solid system to rely on.

In the case above, we had to fight and give up our credentials, just to be able to get help all the way from India. There was nothing and no one in the United States who had the authority to resolve the situation within our current yoga teacher credentialing system. Yoga Alliance still insists that licensure would be harmful to the yoga industry(6, ibid). Shortly after my article on Medium.com went viral, I wrote a follow-up article called “Free Range Yoga: Take The Chain Off” about why we don’t need credentials: “Yoga teachers are not licensed. Everything else is just a window dressing or sales gimmick. And it’s such a huge sales gimmick everyone is now convinced that they need it.“(7)

My personal opinion, is that, in the United States, yoga teachers should be licensed in the same way that massage therapists are licensed. The yoga industry is not able to “police itself” as Yoga Alliance would have us believe. In fact, IYNAUS was literally saying “we are not the yoga police” in defense of their position of doing nothing. When people are being harmed, they can’t do anything and they don’t do anything.

On the other hand, the governing bodies that are already set up to license massage therapists could be replicated or expanded to do the same for yoga. In the same way that the massage therapy industry is kept safe and held accountable, we would be able to address misconduct when it happens and stop it from happening again.

It would be a massive undertaking, I don’t deny that, but I honestly don’t feel safe in yoga without a safety net such as state or board licensing. I know too well that yoga credentialing doesn’t matter and if something were to happen again, it would be all of the above, all over again, with no guarantee of the same or similar outcome.

References & further reading: (again, please be mindful and practice self care when following these links and reading these materials)

Because many of the original testimonials and references are difficult to access on social media anymore, or have been archived by the authors, I have kept my own electronic copies of the above. For now, I feel that viewing these materials in the places and context where they were originally posted is a more powerful argument. However, if you find that any of the links are no longer working and you wish to review the materials, please contact me at hello@yogawellspring.com ~Thank you.

Note: If you are currently experiencing abuse (verbal, physical, psychological, sexual or other) by a yoga teacher, yoga studio or other spiritual community, and need help, please contact someone you can trust who is geographically close to you. General examples can include a friend, neighbor or family member. In the United States you might contact a licensed psychologist or social worker, Adult Protective Services, Child Protective Services, your county health department or even the police if you are in immediate danger of being harmed. Abusive yoga teachers, studios, and even entire methods of yoga, are a serious issue that needs to be brought into the light. In the meantime, keep yourself safe. In the United States, you can visit the RAINN.org website for resources and hotline numbers.