Proposed National Occupational Standards for Yoga

Keith ap Own is very much a scholar and a gentleman. A true yogi of the 60s but one wearing a blazer not a kaftan. His love of (and training in) Yoga started and continues with mental well-being; I believe to a spiritual level. His open letter to the Skills Active Group regarding the “Proposed National Occupational Standards for Yoga” should be read carefully by everyone within the yoga community.

Dear Ms Larissey,

Re: Proposed National Occupational Standards for Yoga

This open letter is not intended as a personal criticism, nor does it question your professional integrity. Neither is it directed at Skillsactive with whom I had a very pleasant exchange of views over a similar issue in the past. The purpose of this letter is to bring to your attention a matter which is not as straight forward as it looks, the proposed standardisation and regulation, under whatever guise, of Yoga.

My assumption is that you were requested to act in your professional capacity as Head of Standards and Qualifications employed by Skillsactive, in what is a truly complicated and sensitive matter with many ramifications. Are you aware that a similar attempt has been made before?

I noted in your review of National Occupations Standards for Yoga, that the imposition of NOS in Yoga was practically a foregone conclusion, a mere formality; so my letter is partly to apprise you of some of the aspects of past events.

Using your example, may I take this opportunity of introducing myself. My name is Keith ap Owen and I have practised Yoga daily for around fifty five years. Currently I am the honorary president of the Sunbury Yoga Society which I helped form in 1997.

The society was founded in order to offer an alternative to the current ‘post sixties’ version of that into which Yoga had been transmogrified, based on what has become referred to as the ‘Mysore Legacy’. Although historically challenged, this interpretation of Yoga is almost entirely preoccupied with physical exercise and keep fit. (1). Many of the problems concerning the regulation of Yoga today stems from this divide.

Over the last forty years, and since 1997 in conjunction with my mentoring commitments, I have worked in voluntary partnerships with sufferers of various illnesses. This work still continues.

However, this way of life was to be interrupted when in 2004 a similar initiative to the one you are proposing now was introduced by Skillsactive in the form of REPs (Register of Exercise Professions).  This proposal, like now, was made on an extremely narrow and naive view of and posed a potential threat to Yoga in general and to the Sunbury Yoga Society (SYS) in particular. It resulted in my joining the Independent Yoga Network (IYN) in 2006, where by default, I was to become its honorary, albeit temporary, liaison officer.

All of this was a major departure from my own practices and life style. I was surprised to learn the names of some of the organisations involved with Skillsactive, some of whom antithetically claimed to be yoga based were in fact consorting with non-yoga bodies in a blatant attempt to control, what they saw, as the Yoga market.

The Independent Yoga Network (IYN), was created by a number of Yoga Teacher Training Schools and independent Yoga practitioners and teachers in reaction to the Skillsactive initiative. The original raison d’etre of the IYN was to protect and keep Yoga free of all external and imposed regulation.

Interestingly enough, Skillsactive, the British Wheel of Yoga and Sport England were among some of the major players then. I have retained a personal record of much of the interchange of letters, emails, and minutes of meetings and articles of that time; which as current events unfold, may become relevant and of interest.

Considering the great turmoil and distress caused then, it appears insensitive, vindictive and a little cruel to run a repeat. Although if indications pointing to who may be involved prove correct – it is not so surprising!

I am surprised that there has been so little advance publicity made by Skillsactive on such a vastly important issue which could potentially affects thousands, even millions of lives. It is imperative that as many people of the vast Yoga Community as possible be informed and consulted. On receiving the ‘NOS Pack’ I took the opportunity to contact many highly respected and recognised practitioners of Yoga, all of whom were totally unaware of the attempt which is now being made in their name to resurrect   a previously discredited scheme.

Generally, many in the Yoga Community are opposed to any action that attempts governance or regulation of Yoga, especially any that is supported and orchestrated from outside agencies. There are of course notable exceptions to this rule, in particular organisations craving power who have turned Yoga into businesses based on a keep- fit culture and have little regard to its non-secular and venerable past.

It would appear to be unlikely that Skillsactive would have initiated such a highly controversial proposal without some kind of prompting from a self-interested third party. It would be a valuable and important contribution to the debate as a whole if these organisations along with their representatives be publically identified as part of your campaign.

The reason it did not work before was the elusive nature of Yoga itself. It is not a subject and therefore cannot be defined. The global diversity of its practice demonstrates the infinite quality of its power, a power of equality of practice for all, but by implication, not a right for one section to prevail over another. Unity in diversity.

A totally agreed definition as to the nature and practice of Yoga would be an absolute imperative prior to any attempt being made at the standardisation, regulation, including NOS of Yoga. Not one exists! There is no central authority governing Yoga, (nationally or globally) despite the groundless ‘non-protected’ claims made by certain organisations. Nor can Yoga be resolved by democratic means as it is the work of the individual and not of the masses.

So back to the fundamental obstacle to standardisation, the absence of any general consensus expressing a more fully comprehensive meaning of Yoga. To be relevant any such consensus would need to extend from the deeply religious devotee to the more recent phenomenon of the keep fit enthusiast.

There’s the rub, with some areas more markedly separated than others. An example of this is a saying among senior Yoga practitioners, whose training and experiences are more heuristically based,  laughingly describing the present teaching methods of today’s post sixties keep fit Yoga, “The unqualified qualifying the non-qualified.”

It was also noted the enormous growth in Yoga Teachers proportionate to Yoga practitioners. Everyone wanted to teach Yoga, and to meet this demand, it seemed ‘nearly everyone else wanted to train Yoga teachers.

Traditionally and in practice, the lure of Yoga has proven too much to resist for many people, consequently it has become open to much interpretation and sadly, much abuse and exploitation! Yoga is not an easy practice and to the religious devotee, the mystic, the ascetic, and the humble practitioner it is hard repetitive work on the part of the participating individual, it is not the stuff of organisations, bodies and agencies.

Recent events have illustrated this only too well, with the demise of a number of high status organisations.  Historically sages have often referred to Yoga as the one last great hope of individual freedom left to Mankind.

Today’s popular version of Yoga ignores the vast role that Yoga has always played in some of the world’s greatest religions. This includes the devotees of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and more, plus the internal musings of the mystic, the ascetic and the esoteric.

And so for this reason should any person known for their published views that Yoga is not a religion be a fit person to be involved in these forthcoming highly sensitive negotiations? And in parallel, should any organisations, who for their own purposes and gain, agreed to the redefinition of Yoga as a sport, (and in the process offended thousands) be considered suitable to serve on such a committee.

Towards the end of what was a sad event in the history of modern Yoga in the UK, we sought informal legal advice, and were advised that any attempt to introduce any form of regulation of Yoga tout court, including NOS, may be interpreted as a possible breach of the Human Rights Act. Fortunately common sense prevailed at that time and we were not pressed to seek a more formal ruling.

If I have made any case at all it would be to highlight the problem of the word Yoga and all that it encompasses; to regulate any part of Yoga without reference to the whole, would certainly prove detrimental to other disciplines of Yoga practice. This would inevitably end up marginalising other sections of the Yoga community. Such a result would be the very antithesis to the meaning of the word Yoga, about which strangely enough, there is a general agreement… Union.

 For my own part, I have watched the growth of other recently formed organisations reshaping their view of Yoga and moving further away from my own practices and traditions. It is not without an occasional twinge of sadness, especially the loss (as I see it), of Yoga’s long spiritual legacy, which to me is the very heart and essence of its practice.

People will of course disagree and that is their right. I have remained respectful of their new found positions even in my disagreement of them, and would never attempt to impose my will on to their beliefs and practices.

In fact some years ago, as has been previously stated, I joined an organisation giving much time and energy in helping to protect the rights of its members against a similar incursion, even though their practices differed very greatly from my own.

So I make this plea on behalf of myself and all those people not represented on your steering committee. When making your deliberations please show respect and consideration for all those people who either cannot attend, or whose vision of Yoga does not concur with your own.

Further, for the few who continue to insist on appropriating the word Yoga for their own purposes, either by title or under its banner, please give honour and recognition to those who came before by emulating their examples of humility and grace. This does not mean exerting power over others, but rather exerting power over ourselves. Namaste.

So it is for these reasons that I will not be applying for a place on the steering committee, which I believe is ill conceived, narrow and without position or authority. Further, to do so would be to consort with those people who carry their own agendas, which I believe, if implemented, would be detrimental to the ongoing free participation of Yoga, without imposition, let or hindrance.

However, I wish you all well and hope that a solution can be found that at least will serve Yoga universally and not just the power hungry market of the few.

Yours sincerely,

Keith ap Owen

Honorary President  Sunbury Yoga Society

If I may summarise:
  1. ‘Yoga’ is a composite term for a very broad and disparate range of physical, mental and spiritual philosophies and disciplines. ‘Yoga’ is not, therefore, an activity capable of being standardised or regulated. ‘Yoga’ is no more capable of being standardised or regulated than, say, ‘religious belief’ or ‘religious practice’ – or, for that matter, ‘the pursuit of well- being’. Yoga is none of these things, but it is like them all in its breadth and in the range of human activities and dispositions which it covers both today and historically.
  1. It is thus entirely inappropriate for a body whose remit relates to ‘standards of performance individuals must achieve when carrying out functions in the workplace’ to take ‘Yoga’ as a subject for its deliberations