A Rough Draft of Yoga Alliance's History

The practice of self-study, or svadyaya, is always compelling at the turn of a new year. However, as an organization, Yoga Alliance has often found it difficult to reflect on the past because our history has been so poorly recorded. Who started the organization? How were the standards developed? When and why were key decisions made? 

As a standards-setting organization, it’s helpful to know our history to understand why we chose to adopt our current policies and procedures, and how they may have changed over the years. 

So, we set out to research and better understand our past, to better steer the way forward for our community. Working with a reporter, we’ve begun to uncover the story behind Yoga Alliance.

We present to you this working draft of our history. While it’s a more comprehensive story than we’ve ever published before, there are still some gaps. And we invite you to help us with that effort. If you took part in some of these early activities of Yoga Alliance, we welcome your information, corrections or a conversation. You can email us at news(at)yogaalliance.org to contribute.

History of Yoga Alliance

Sometimes, you've just got to do it yourself.

1997

American yogis spent years debating whether there should be national standards for training yoga teachers that would apply across all yoga disciplines in the United States. Yet it wasn't until a Yoga Journal Conference in May 1997 that yogis from across the country finally turned talk into action and started developing non-binding guidelines for teachers and schools.

 

The Founding

At a conference in San Francisco, California, hosted by Yoga Journal, yogis from a variety of lineages and traditions began to discuss the idea of developing standards for yoga teacher trainings. Some of those attendees began exchanging emails and phone calls, putting together a loosely affiliated group called the Yoga Dialogue, facilitated by Christopher Baxter and initially comprised of about two dozen people.

In the fall of 1997, group members dubbed themselves the Ad Hoc Yoga Alliance and later held its first in-person meeting at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. They delivered a presentation about standards, at an October 1998 Yoga Journal conference in Estes Park, Colorado, which included Nayaswami Gyandev McCord.

1999

Some members of the Unity in Yoga board of directors attended that same conference and saw the presentation. After a January 1999 meeting between the two groups, Unity in Yoga offered to roll its 10-year-old charity, organized as a 501(c)(3), completely over to the Ad Hoc Yoga Alliance. 


Yoga Alliance also established its first board of directors and elected their first president Rama Berch, who is now known as Swami Nirmalananda. Other original board members include McCord, Pat Hansen, Sharon Shanti Behl, Swami Ramananda, Hair Kaur Khalsa, Gloria Goldberg, Martin Pincus and John Willey. 

Rama Vernon, the founder and president of Unity in Yoga prior to Yoga Alliance, recalled in a 2009 letter, "I was sitting at my altar meditating and chanting. Suddenly I heard an inner voice and it said - it was like a command - 'Bring the teachers together for if those who teach in the name of union cannot come together in the spirit of that union, who can?' 

Now a full-fledged nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting yoga, Yoga Alliance developed a registry to recognize yoga teachers and schools whose training met the designed minimum standards.

2004-2008

Yoga Alliance officially set up its first office in Reading, Pennsylvania, which was the home of the organization's only salaried employee, where it stayed until 2004 before relocating to Clinton, Maryland, where the staff grew to seven members. 

"Our significant growth, now serving 9,700 RYTs and 380 RYSs, necessitates we expand our space," wrote then-executive director Sandra VanOosten in an October 27 "Yoga Matters" newsletter, citing the Washington, D.C.-area's large, non-profit-experienced labor pool as a main factor in relocating.

2006-2009

"The office had four suites within the office and only two people could fit into each of the suites," recalled Meetings and Special Projects Manager Jackie Gray, who joined the organization in 2006 and is our longest-serving employee. "And our file room outgrew us... That file room started to grow from a corner, to the hallways; we could barely pass up and down the hall." 

In 2006, a "good month" would include seven school applications and about 20 to 30 teacher applications, according to Gray. "After that, applications started doubling and tripling." It took four staffers to review the daily work load before the company moved to its current address in Arlington, Virginia in 2009.

2010-2014

Those numbers began escalating in October 2010, with the advent of online teacher registrations. Today, Yoga Alliance receives about 1,000 teacher and 75 school applications every month. A nine-member board of directors and 30 team members now manage Yoga Alliance along with six committees focused on compensation, conference, governance, member benefits, schools and studios, and standards.

 

Developing Standards

A constant source for debate in the yoga community centers around why Yoga Alliance opted to set numerical standards for the number of hours of training it takes for a yoga teacher or school to be credentialed. 

According to McCord, those attending the Yoga Dialogue believed the 200-hour number "had served yoga well enough in the U.S. as a starting point for teaching yoga. Not a finishing point, but a starting point." 

Board members also researched how other countries developed yoga training standards and how other physical practices, like massage, set up their training guidelines. 

In fact, a 200-hour criteria was established as a common practice in the U.S. as it represented the number of hours one completed by taking a four-week residential training program. Yoga Alliance decided to start with that number as a minimum standard in September 1999. Anyone who completed such a course could be registered as a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT). 

However, the board also decided that more advanced teachers who completed 500 hours of training should have their own recognition, and they developed the RYT 500 classification. 

While the number of hours served as a suitable baseline, board members next had to determine a consistent framework for training content. 

Challenges abounded, as yoga has been around for more than 5,000 years, and the system and practice are still evolving. There are many different disciplines of yoga, each with a particular emphasis or approach. So, the challenge was to determine commonalities among the different yoga disciplines. 

The Yoga Alliance team ultimately created standards for training in five core areas: techniques, training and practice; teaching methodology; anatomy and physiology; yoga philosophy, lifestyle and ethics; and practicum or practice teaching.

 

Evolution

The set of standards established in 1999 were retained without significant revisions until 2005. 

Yoga Alliance eventually introduced Experienced Registered Yoga Teachers (E-RYT), a new classification for teachers that have at least 1,000 hours of teaching experience since graduating from a Registered Yoga School, and have taught for at least two years since completing their training. In order for a teacher to train other teachers, they would need to earn a designation at the E-RYT level equal to or above the one that they are teaching. That would help guarantee students learned from experienced teachers. After the changes were adopted in 2005, Registered Yoga Schools (RYS) were required to ensure that a minimum number of their students' training hours must be spent learning directly from E-RYTs (or “lead trainers”). 

Another major standards expansion came in 2010, when Yoga Alliance developed guidelines for teachers and schools to be credentialed in Children's Yoga and Prenatal Yoga.

 

Registry and Role

"Credentialing is at the core of everything we do at Yoga Alliance. When searching our registry, a potential student can trust that a Registered Yoga Teacher has a certain level of education and experience, in accordance with our standards,” said Manager of Standards Sarah Fishman. Yoga Alliance started small, with just a handful of registered teachers. Board members celebrated the 100th registrant and then the 1,000th but stopped after a while "because we were just trying to keep up," according to McCord. 

 

Throughout Yoga Alliance's history, more than 85,000 teachers have registered at some point, coming and going over time. Today, the Yoga Alliance registry claims more than 45,000 active teachers and 3,000 active schools, and continues to grow. 

In 2005, Yoga Alliance declared just over $602,000 in gross receipts at the end of the year. That number more than doubled by 2006 and has grown every year since then, with $3.34 million in total revenue in 2013. 

“With more people practicing yoga, the number of people earning a living as yoga teachers, teacher trainers or studio owners has expanded significantly,” said Richard Karpel, current president and CEO. 

For example, the "Yoga in America" study released by Yoga Journal on Feb. 26, 2008 showed that 15.8 million U.S. adults practiced yoga, down from 16.5 million in 2004. However, a follow-up study released on December 5, 2012 showed 20.4 million American adults (8.7 percent of all U.S. adults) practiced yoga in 2012, an increase of 4.6 million. Practitioners also nearly doubled their spending on yoga classes and products over four years, from $5.7 billion to $10.3 billion annually. 

So while the Yoga Alliance registry grew, so did questions from yogis about the organization's direction and proper role. 

Some yogis asked why Yoga Alliance did not offer anything other than the credential letters and numbers by a teacher or school's name. Others wanted to know whether Yoga Alliance would help with legal battles that could threaten the practice and teaching of yoga, and would affect their livelihood. 

The 2007 board of directors began discussing the expansion of Yoga Alliance's scope. Board member Lynn Bushnell traveled to Yoga Alliance to meet with each team member to determine how well operations ran, and began to discover the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities of the organization. 

All of that eventually led to Yoga Alliance broadening its scope from just a nonprofit dedicated to offering credentials to one that provides benefits and services to members, with the additional support of advocating on behalf of the yoga community. 

On the business side, former president and CEO John Matthews issued a directive in 2010 to hire yoga teachers as customer service and credentialing specialists to support members by responding to calls and emails. Yoga Alliance began to focus on education and held its first conference in Indian Wells, California in October 2011 and followed up with a second a year later in the same place. Close to 300 people attended each event.

2012 and Beyond

Recognizing the need for member programs and services that go beyond the scope of a 501(c)(3), Yoga Alliance in 2010 incorporated a separate 501(c)(6) organization to serve as an association for yoga teachers, schools and studios and later announced that current registrants would automatically become members of this new organization. Currently, the two organizations, Yoga Alliance and Yoga Alliance Registry, operate in partnership to support the yoga community. 

After the board of directors appointed Richard Karpel as president in July 2012, the former executive director of the American Society of News Editors focused on reforming Yoga Alliance, starting with establishing core values of transparency, service, excellence and learning. 

Karpel also oversaw the launch of the professional member association for yoga teachers and schools that provide members with education, representation, communications and member benefits. Karpel’s vision for education and outreach includes the annual Business of Yoga Conference, a series of online workshops and tutorials, and more. 

Yoga Alliance serves members through the website, bi-monthly newsletters, and daily engagement through social media. Yoga Alliance launched its member benefits program in 2013 for yoga teachers and yoga schools that includes discounted rates for liability and health insurance. Additional member perks include discounts on training, education, yoga apparel, travel, legal services and electronics. 

Today, the mission of Yoga Alliance is to spread the power of yoga, one person at a time, through our credentialing organization that promotes ideals of safe and competent yoga teaching.

Presidents/CEOs

Presidents who led Yoga Alliance include: 

Swami Nirmalanda Saraswati (formerly Rama Berch), founder, 1998-2005
Sandra VanOosten 2005-2007
Stephen Russell 2007
Shakta Kaur 2007-2008
Terri Kennedy 2008
David Lorms 2008-2009
Mark Davis 2008-2009
John Matthews 2010-2011
Richard Karpel 2012-present

Copyright 2014 by Yoga Alliance