NOS rumbles on

We have Jeremy Jones’ permission to publish his letter to Ms Caroline Larissey of Skillsactive. Particularly interesting as he used to be part of BWY who remain keen advocates of regulation.


Why Yoga Should Not Be Regulated.

An open letter to C Larissey Skillsactive by Jeremy Jones.

18th September 2016.

I am an (almost) retired yoga teacher with many years of experience under my belt.  My experience covers a great deal of “front line” work in adult education colleges, fitness/health centres, two prisons, a special needs school and my own self-managed classes.  I have also been involved in training the next generation of teachers. It has been a busy but hugely rewarding 23 years with few regrets.  We are all human however, so I do have two to own up to.  The first is volunteering to serve as a county representative with the British Wheel of Yoga (hereinafter the BWY) and the second is working in adult education (hereinafter AE).  Both these set ups have close, deeply ingrained, cultural similarities.  They are highly (and incorrigibly) bureaucratic, “control freak” in approach and therefore favour a highly structured, formalist approach to teaching and lesson planning, which is completely at odds with the essential nature of yoga.  Indeed, we could almost say that the words “yoga” and “organisation” are mutually incompatible.  In contrast, the fitness centres were like a breath of fresh air – I simply signed in and taught the usually well attended classes.  That should not imply an entirely uncritical attitude to the industry but this is about regulation and standards, not a “who should do what” exercise.  We should beware of being too proprietorial about yoga.  Adapting to the short format classes and drop-in culture was not easy, but I managed it without making too many compromises.  After nearly three very difficult years, I resigned from my job with the BWY, and later left the organisation in protest at this organisation’s culture.  For mainly the same reasons, I gradually phased out my AE commitments.  This was particularly painful, as I am a passionate believer in the ideal of affordable AE for all, regardless of age, social class, culture or any of the other artificial categories we all like to (mis)use.

However, this is not a vehicle for my personal grievances, however relevant to the subject.  What I must emphasise is that yoga is different.  Firstly, we have to define it.  That is almost impossible.  Some teachers will no doubt use the definition of the Indian sage Patanjali – “a stilling of the mind”, but Patanjali was writing around two thousand years ago and yoga has evolved into something he would probably hardly recognise and the world, inevitably, has moved on, like it or not, to where we are today.  Most yogis simply agree to disagree.  Yoga is more easily defined by what it isn’t, rather than what it is.  Two things that almost all yogis agree on is that firstly, it is not a sport and secondly, it is not competitive.  It is these two negatives that make yoga so effective as an instrument of personal well-being.  Anyone, regardless of age, ability or inclination, can find a style to practice safely.  Injuries and bad reactions are almost unknown. More importantly, perhaps, we now have a bewildering number of different styles, schools of thought and approaches.  This is another great strength, though it may not seem like it to the yoga “outsider”.  If the would be yogi doesn’t like my style and approach, they can vote with their feet and find another teacher with an entirely different style.  There is something for everyone and anyone.  It follows from this that a good yoga teacher has to be creative and adaptable.  This is simply not possible if he/she is constricted by arbitrary regulation by a sometimes ignorant “governing” body churning out “guidelines” and paperwork that are often conflicting, constricting and incomprehensible.  Assessment is another major issue and the despair of teachers in AE.  The benefits of yoga are largely felt by the yogi, rather than seen by the observer.  Over the years, I have seen many students whose posture work would make a purist weep, yet those very same students are the most delighted by their inner progress.  We simply cannot observe or assess these inner processes.  They are too subjective.  They have to be personally experienced (“experiential” is a yoga buzz word) and, if desired, reported to the teacher.  In yoga, the boundary between a good teacher and the student is a blurred one.  In a class, there is no instructor shouting out directions into a microphone, no referee blowing a whistle and no rules, other than sensible safety precautions.  In a way, yoga is slightly subversive, encouraging a healthy autonomy in the student, as well as the teacher.  How can the teacher be autonomous if he/she is shackled by regulation and conformity?  Rigidity can be imposed from without or self-imposed, of course but either way, a rigid personality cannot encourage autonomy, any more than a tone deaf person can teach music.

A couple of personal stories can illustrate my point a little better.  My teaching was once assessed by a BWY official.  She chided me (not too severely) for not insisting that my students stood in military style lines.  “Yoga is a discipline, you know”, was her comment.  Indeed it is, but the discipline must come from within, not imposed by external regulation or authority.  The same person also chided me for sipping water during the class and not discouraging the same practice among my students.  “Yoga should be practiced empty”, she insisted, “all the books say so”.  (Actually, they don’t, but that’s by the way).  A few months later a college assessor chided me because some of my students did not have water with them!  I have learned to ignore such conflicting advice and go with my own experience and intuition (and that of my students) while keeping an open mind about sensible suggestions.

If we wish to be pedantic about yoga, its roots actually lie in Indian philosophy.  It is one of several branches of an ancient philosophical system.  The other branches need not concern us here but we must ask any would be regulator or “standards cop” these pertinent questions.  Would they try to regulate philosophy?  Or religion?  Or almost any cultural activity?  Some would argue (I don’t, by the way) that yoga is all three of these. We regulate at our peril.

When an organisation or individual seeks to regulate, obstruct or ban any activity, we must at least ask the pertinent question, what are their motives?  Is there a hidden agenda?  I believe that the motives of so-called “governing bodies” are suspect and that they do have a hidden agenda.  Their hidden agenda is a crude desire for power, control and mindless conformity.  They will say that they are motivated by a desire for higher standards and better safety.  We all want improved standards, of course but diluting yoga’s magnificent diversity and placing it in a straightjacket is not the way forward – it will have a negative impact on standards. The frequently raised question of safety also needs looking with clear, unblinking eyes.  If there is an army of unsafe yoga teachers out there, causing injury and suffering to their students, where, in this age of complaint and litigation, are the complainants?  Where are the successful insurance claims?  Here in the UK, they are conspicuous by their absence. If there are one or two improbable needles in this particular haystack, would more regulation have prevented them?

One more important point.  The culture of any organisation, commercial or otherwise, has a “trickle down” effect.  For example, a dishonest company director, cheating his customers, will eventually find that his employees are cheating him, if they can get away with it.  An authoritarian governing body will eventually create an army of autocratic teachers, as the creative freethinkers leave in disgust.  The autocratic teacher has a most damaging and demoralising effect on his students.  Under pressure to deliver “results” and placate their overbearing tutor, they are likely to tackle over ambitious practices and risk harming themselves.  One organisation (not the BWY) is notorious in yoga circles for just such a culture.  The old joke comes to mind.  Be careful what you wish for – it might come true!

To summarise –

  • Regulation will not improve standards, it will diminish them.
  • Regulation will not improve safety, it will diminish it.
  • Regulation will not improve the personal autonomy of the student or teacher, it will destroy it.
  • Regulation is counter-productive, leading to a culture of avoidance, “ducking and diving” and concealment.