Understanding Yoga Alliance’s Policy on Yoga Therapy

July 13, 2016    BY Beth Spindler

None of us enjoy being told what to do. It’s not surprising, then, that many yoga teachers who are working in the field of yoga therapy—and often taking advanced teacher trainings, refining their understanding of the body, and teaching in an informed therapeutic way—are angry that they are no longer allowed to refer to themselves as yoga therapists in publications and advertising that also identify them as members of Yoga Alliance. Even if they are credentialed through another organization (e.g., the International Association of Yoga Therapists, or IAYT), teachers must now include the disclaimer that words like “therapy,” “ therapist,” “ therapeutics” and “healing” are not associated with their certification or registration with Yoga Alliance. Yoga therapist and founder of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, Michael Lee, gives a succinct explanation of the policy: “What they are saying is this. Don’t refer to yourself as a yoga therapist on our Yoga Alliance Registry website, and if you are both a yoga therapist and a yoga teacher, clearly state where you got the credentials to call yourself a yoga therapist, while disclaiming it has any connection with Yoga Alliance Registry.”

Some very respected teachers have left YA and IAYT in the dust (or simply decided not to join) because they prefer their work to avoid regulations imposed by a professional organization, while others see membership as necessary for their credentials in order to promote their work in the fields. Many teachers went into the field of yoga, in part to free themselves from the restrictions of a typical workplace, only now to find that regulation has entered the yoga scene— dictating what they can and cannot call themselves when citing their credentials. On the other hand, many teachers see the distinct definitions as a good way to differentiate yoga therapy standards from those of classroom yoga, and the better-defined boundaries as progress toward making yoga therapy more respected in the medical world.

Yoga Alliance legal advisors determined that many states were seeking to tax and regulate yoga and yoga studios (including certification programs, schools, and studios) in order to protect the public who receive treatment from yoga therapists. So Yoga Alliance brought in Attorney Kristi Kung to head their legal team. Her clearly written legal statement on behalf of Yoga Alliance asserts that yoga’s therapeutic benefits have become increasingly accepted by the public as well as health professionals, while no clear definition or scope of practice exists. Therefore, a therapist’s lack of training or understanding in physiology, anatomy, pathology, or mental health could possibly cause more harm than good to clients. According to Kung, those receiving therapy may also make assumptions about the medical qualifications and education of their therapists. There are always risks when offering prescriptive practices, and lawsuits involving malpractice and practicing medicine without a license are inevitable. Therefore, state governments have an interest in investigating and regulating the new field of yoga therapy.

But what does the policy mean to us as yoga teachers and therapists? Here, in part, is the YA policy from January 25, 2016: 

Yoga Alliance Registry’s Code of Conduct includes the following commitment, binding on all registrants: each registrant agrees to “acknowledge the limitations of my skills and scope of practice and where appropriate, refer students to seek alternative instruction, advice, treatment, or direction.”

While some members of the yoga community have chosen to advertise themselves as offering “yoga therapy” services or training in “yoga therapy” techniques, Yoga Alliance Registry’s standards for Registered Yoga Schools do not include any instruction in yoga therapy techniques or other methods of diagnosing or treating a mental or physical injury or illness. Therefore, no Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga School or Registered Yoga Teacher may rely on or use their RYS or RYT designations to hold themselves out as qualified to work as a “yoga therapist” or to train others in “yoga therapy” methods.

Failure to identify a credential or qualification related to the RYT’s or RYS’s “yoga therapy” work or training activities would create the incorrect impression that the Yoga Alliance Registry provides the foundation for the claimed “yoga therapy” expertise.

Consistent with the procedures in the Code of Conduct, Yoga Alliance Registry will revoke a registrant’s right to use the RYS and RYT Registry Marks for violating this policy. Prior to revoking a registrant’s right to use the Registry Mark, Yoga Alliance Registry will provide the registrant notice of the basis for the potential revocation and an opportunity to respond in writing. Any registrant currently using “yoga therapy” references in violation of this policy must remove all such references from their websites, advertisements, directory listings, and other public materials by October 1, 2016.

Much of the confusion around this policy stems from the lack of agreed-upon definitions around the ancient healing arts of yoga therapy and hatha yoga, as we know them today. While teachers from classical Indian traditions would often embark upon decades of study with a master teacher before offering “prescriptive yoga,” many students now complete as few as 200 hours in a yoga school (RYS), using that training as carte blanche to establish private “therapy” clients or offer courses in the therapeutic aspects of yoga. We can see how Yoga Alliance might be concerned about the potential of litigation by association.

Much of the confusion around this policy stems from the lack of agreed-upon definitions around the ancient healing arts of yoga therapy and hatha yoga, as we know them today.

Yoga Alliance’s legal team also did not see IAYT’s 2012 definition of yoga therapy as providing sufficient differentiation between yoga teaching and the use of yoga techniques in specific healing modalities. ”Yoga therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga.” The YA holds that this definition could apply to classroom teaching or private yoga classes, allowing too much leeway for malpractice.

Partially in response to the Yoga Alliance insistence on clarification, the IAYT has created a code of ethics and also detailed six pages of scope-of-practice guidelines for yoga therapists which give shape to exactly what yoga therapy is and is not. 

John Kepner, IAYT Executive Director, offered these words to the membership of the 25+-year-old organization dedicated to establish yoga therapy as a profession:

“We at IAYT were as surprised as everyone else to learn that Yoga Alliance (YA) had taken a formal organizational position on yoga therapy, following the publication of a legal analysis of the practice of yoga therapy in the U.S. that was financed by YA. Upon reflection, however, it makes sense for the YA to distinguish what they do from what IAYT does, since neither YA’s standards nor their mission are designed to support yoga therapy as an emerging field distinct from yoga teaching. Yoga therapy is here to stay, however, with widespread and growing acceptance as an adjunctive therapy in an integrative approach to health, so it is timely to more carefully identify the distinguishing characteristics and develop distinct credentials.”

Many noted yoga therapists have stepped forward to express the opinion that the division is one more positive step toward ensuring that hatha yoga and yoga therapy are being offered with clear and concise boundaries, and that those offering these services are well trained and credentialed. 

For more information and opinions on the decision, there is much information at yogaalliance.org and IAYT.org. In the meantime, you may want to look at your publications, websites, and resumes to determine whether they comply with the newly established guidelines.

Assessing The Legal Risk Of Unregulated Yoga Therapy, Law 360

Background on the Yoga Therapy Decision, Yoga Alliance 

Beth Spindler
Beth Spinder C-IAYT, ERYT500 is a yoga therapist, teacher, and published writer on yoga related subjects. A frequent contributor to YogaInternational.com, she has offered yoga therapy in hospitals, clinics, and schools and has been on staff as a yoga therapist at the Himalayan Institute, Omega Institute, and in centers for addiction and recovery. Beth travels worldwide offering inspiring retreats and trainings at Sivananda Ashrams and private retreat centers. She has studied and taught yoga... Read more>>

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