A yoga class takes places in Tempelhof, Berlin.
Image: © Maurizio Gambarini DPA/PA Images

Should the government be allowed to regulate yoga?

Yoga has transformed from an Eastern spiritual practice in a multi-billion dollar industry. Is it time for governments to step in and set some rules? Kimberley Poff investigates

I am a yoga teacher. Every week, students come to my class ready to learn how to stand on one hand or twist themselves into complicated contortions. It’s not as easy as it looks on Instagram – and now that what began as a spiritual practice has morphed into an $80 billion industry, people have begun calling for regulation. Here are the ins and outs of the debate

Are there any rules to becoming a yoga teacher at the moment?

Currently the industry of yoga is largely self-regulated. Certain forms of yoga require a teacher to move to an ashram and study under their guru for years – but some people take a few classes and call themselves teachers. In India, the birthplace of yoga, the Indian Yoga Association certifies teachers. In the UK, the British Wheel of Yoga gives an official stamp of approval. In the US, is mainly focused on financial security of yoga studios than actual quality of teaching. In my case, I did a 200 hour program at a local studio.

With the exception of India, these programs are mostly paid for by licensing fees. Becoming a yoga teacher cost me $5,000 for a Yoga Alliance certified 200 hour training program. But crucially, participation in most of these credentials is voluntary.

Why would yoga need to be regulated in the first place?

The biggest point is injuries: about 3.5 people in every 10,000 people practicing yoga experienced an injury they had treated by a doctor in 2010. Though this is much lower than the injury rate of other sports, yoga is often understood as a low impact activity for the elderly, injured, and disabled, so a lack of understanding around its risks is more of a problem.

The second issue with yoga is its tendency to promote a cult of personality. Popular teachers are treated like infallible spiritual leaders – and this can lead to abuses. Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga, is currently battling several rape and sexual assault allegations in court. The documentary 'Kumaré' follows an American of Indian origin who created a fake identity as a spiritual leader, making up yoga poses and spiritual guidance, to highlight the illegitimacy of the industry – only to amass a huge following himself. The dangers of people making significant life decisions based on unqualified, self-declared gurus with a cult following is a pretty convincing argument that someone needs to check who these people really are.

Self-declared yogi Kumare leads a class.
Vikram Gandhi built up an image of himself as the yogi Kumaré. Here he is leading a class

What’s the argument against?

A big consideration against regulating yoga is who would finance the regulation. While yoga has made a few like Bikram fabulously wealthy, most yoga teachers, like myself, cannot pursue it full time. Teachers often make between $20 and $50 per class, not nearly enough to cover costs of transportation, liability insurance, and training, let alone supporting yourself. The cost of regulation would presumably be transferred to students in the form of higher prices, which would lower demand, or out of the teacher’s pockets, which they couldn’t afford.

The second concern is whether the government is qualified to determine what is and is not yoga. “To allow regulations to dilute the core of the teachings in order to meet some arbitrary standards set by governing bodies unfamiliar with the practice is dangerous territory,” writes yoga student Kelly Golden on YogaBasics, a popular yoga site.

A final issue is what’s known as ‘cultural appropriation’. Some aren’t comfortable with the fact that the fitness-focused West has monetized what was a fundamentally spiritual Eastern practice, not to mention chanting chants and holding sacred objects in ways that don’t necessarily reflect their original purpose. Regulations designed by Western governments on what is and isn’t allowed in yoga would step right in the middle of this debate.

So what's the verdict?

The debate comes down to a question of consumer choice vs public safety, and of what is and isn’t a ‘product’ that governments should set standards for. For now, consumers will remain left to navigate the complex world of yoga styles and certifications themselves.

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