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Yoga Education, Schools and Career Overview

It is no coincidence that “union” and “conjunction” are included among the many meanings of the word "yoga," which was originally derived from Hindu Sanskrit, but which has also been made a part of Buddhist and Jainist philosophical traditions. In the west, the vast multi-disciplinary practice of yoga has become synonymous with just one of its many facets: physical yoga, known as Hatha Yoga. Yoga actually encompasses several disciplinary paths: Jnana Yoga, the discipline of acquiring knowledge; Raja Yoga, the discipline of meditation; Karma Yoga, the discipline of work without attachment; and Bakti Yoga, the discipline of devotion.

For the sake of this article, we shall be addressing the western perception of Hatha Yoga, and calling it "yoga" for the sake of simplicity. However, if you are interested in some of these other yoga paths, be aware that there are many excellent in-depth resources that can help you understand these forms of physical and mental exercise.

Benefits of Yoga

The correlation between physical, emotional and mental health is central to the practice of yoga. Yoga calls for those who practice it to exercise the mind as well as the body, by bringing an intense level of focused concentration to each pose (or "asana"). When performing yoga, the goal is for the consciousness to bear on the body itself such that the practitioner becomes intensely aware of her or his physical self, and then by extension other aspects of the self come into focus. Many who practice the art have described how the demanding mental exercise, coupled with the intensity of the physical exercise, can lead to a heightened state of awareness that remains with them throughout the day.

Yoga is known widely for its holistic benefits, both physiological and psychological. Through practicing yoga, the muscular, skeletal, and fascia systems of connective tissues throughout the body can become stronger, more limber, and more flexible. This art has also become instrumental in therapeutic injury rehabilitation as a safe and effective exercise that contributes to the flexibility and elasticity of joints, muscles, and connective tissue, which can become tight and atrophied during the recovery phase following a sports injury or car accident.

The distance between physical and psychological health is shrinking as it becomes clearer how the body’s chemical endocrine systems directly impact a person’s disposition and general outlook. With this understanding, yoga has actually been used to help people deal with common psychological and emotional conditions like depression, anger and social anxiety. Yoga has also been shown to be useful in helping people with addictive and compulsive inclinations feel a greater sense of personal mastery, and in turn demonstrate more control over their compulsive behavior.

Specializations

For many, the first step in the journey to becoming a yoga teacher begins by determining which method of practice holds the greatest personal appeal. Iyengar and Ashtanga represent the classical forms of yoga. In keeping with the open and reverential nature of this healing art, yoga is ever evolving and has sprouted offshoots in recent decades as practitioners combine ancient wisdom with a modern understanding of the physical condition. Such specialties as Bikram or Hot Yoga, Vinyasa or Flow Yoga, ISHTA, and Sivananda yoga draw from the classic methods, but have either been refined in the west or have been somewhat westernized in their presentation so as to make them more accessible to Europeans and North Americans.

Certain medically recognized methods like Therapeutic Yoga and Prenatal Yoga have been developed to accommodate different people looking to address specific needs like injury rehabilitation or prenatal care. Training programs for yoga teachers will very often be specific to one of these various methods. The following are some of the more popular methods that most yoga teacher courses are built upon:

  • Ashtanga Yoga: Ashtanga is a flowing and highly physical form of yoga that places great focus on "pranayama," or "patterned breathing." The goal of this form of yoga is to promote spinal alignment, detoxification of the body, flexibility and stamina.
  • Power Yoga: This form of yoga is quite influenced by western culture, and was in fact established in the United States. Power Yoga has no set series of poses, but rather incorporates poses of the instructor’s choosing to create a vigorous routine emphasizing strength and flexibility.
  • Kundalini Yoga: Kundalini Yoga (named for the energy within the body located at the base of the spine) deals more with the spiritual side of physical yoga. Kundalini Yoga is performed to channel the body's energy upward through the seven chakras. The goal is to promote health and well being on both a physical and spiritual level.
  • Iyengar Yoga: This more aesthetic form of yoga emphasizes bodily alignment and involves holding poses for a longer span of time than other forms of yoga. Iyengar is set apart from other forms of yoga by incorporating props, i.e. blocks, straps, or a yoga blanket, to aid in achieving proper alignment of the body.
  • Hot Yoga (Bikram Yoga): This new style of yoga has become quite popular in the west. As its name implies, Hot Yoga is performed in studios in which temperatures have been elevated as high as 100 degrees. Not only does the heat promote sweating -- helping to purge the body of toxins -- but it also allows for greater flexibility, as muscles and connective tissues are far more supple when warm.
  • Flow Yoga (Vinyasa Yoga): The translation of the Sanskrit word "vinyasa" is “breath-synchronized movement.” Vinyasa yoga encapsulates several sub-specialties, but in general, it involves performing graceful, flowing movements in sync with the inhalation and exhalation of breath.

How to Become a Yoga Teacher

  1. The more time spent in preparation for a career teaching yoga the better. If yoga is part of your exercise regimen, take full advantage of the yoga class you’re currently attending, and seek more advanced classes to improve your mastery and expand your repertoire of asanas, or poses.
  2. Attend a training program to refine your skills. Formal training programs do considerably more than just enhance your ability to perform yoga; they also train aspiring yoga teachers in how to assess clients, establish a routine, and how to effectively and safely conduct a class.
  3. After successfully completing a formal training program, consider becoming a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) through the Yoga Alliance, or receive a similar certification through another respected organization. A credential like RYT helps denote competency as yoga teacher.
  4. Get your career started by looking for employment through a local health club, gym, or yoga studio. Consider the benefits of an independent practice of your own, and take advantage of all experiences as an employee as means by which to learn how to operate your own yoga studio if you choose to do so.

Preparation

The decision to become a yoga teacher usually begins by attending yoga classes for a number of months, or even years, in order to develop a basic physical aptitude for the art and an appreciation of its structure. Although there are no specific experiential requirements outlined for entrance into most yoga training programs, the general expectation is that those applying to these programs have some personal experience practicing yoga that has led them to a reasonable level of proficiency in performing the basic asana poses, as well as a fundamental understanding of the mechanics of these poses.

Degree Programs

While specific degree programs in yoga are not widely available, there are several academic subjects that offer a good starting place for learning the skills required for teaching this healing art. Here are a few subjects to consider earning a certificate, associate degree, or bachelor's degree in:

  • Teaching, in particular fitness education
  • Exercise science or kinesthiology
  • General health and wellness

Becoming Certified as a Yoga Teacher

Becoming nationally certified as a yoga teacher is completely elective. There are no specific licensing or yoga teacher certification requirements set by individual states, nor are there any mandated by the federal government. For those who wish to become a yoga teacher, the only requirement is adequate personal experience performing yoga and successful completion of a formal education program.

That being said, national certification is worth considering, as it can lend a level of assurance to prospective employers and clients regarding your education and reliability. Some health clubs and gyms that require national certification may still hire an uncertified applicant under the condition that the applicant become certified within the first year of teaching.

If you do wish to earn yoga certification, the Yoga Alliance has a few different designations:

  • Registered Yoga Teacher 200 (RYT 200) -- In order to earn this certification, you must enroll in a 200-hour yoga program that is affiliated with the Yoga Alliance. You must receive your training from the same school all the way through and cannot use any other hour to count toward the 200. There are no extra teaching hour requirements to earn this certification.
  • Registered Yoga Teacher 500 (RYT 500) -- Earning this certification requires that you complete a 500-hour training program. You can complete these hours all together, or complete a 300-hour program if you already hold the Registered Yoga Teacher 200 certification. You must also have completed 100 hours of teaching experience to earn this certification.

There are other certifications that can be earned. Please visit the Yoga Alliance for more information.

Training Programs

The training standards set by most yoga certification organizations are fairly consistent across the board. Most training programs designed to prepare the next generation of yoga teachers are 200 hours long in total, in line with the RYT 200 certification. Some people opt to pursue more comprehensive programs, usually after completing and showing proficiency in the initial 200-hour program. Even when augmented with additional levels of training, the total time invested in education for a yoga teacher career is rarely more than 500 hours. This can usually be completed in as few as three months when attending classes part-time.

These programs focus on teaching students to master the more common asana poses so that they are able to instruct others how to perform them properly. The asanas that are taught in a yoga teacher training program may differ from one program to the next, especially depending on which yoga method the class is centered on. Learning the basic 12 asanas is standard, but some courses teach a series of as many as 75 asanas.

In addition to practice and understanding of the asanas, yoga training programs have more informational components. Topics such as the principals and philosophy of yoga, routine development, anatomy specific to the particular asanas being taught, how to lead a group meditation, and how to assess clients based on their physical aptitude are also common in these programs.

Training programs for different yoga methods are likely to be structured differently, in accordance with the principals and practices of the respective method. For example, training in the Ashtanga method places a considerable amount of focus on the meditative aspects of yoga, while a training program for Iyangar should instruct students in the use of various props that can be incorporated into a routine.

It is worth noting that graduates of programs that haven’t yet been recognized by the Yoga Alliance can still become certified and gain RYT credentials after a more extensive application process, which would include demonstration of competency.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

While yoga was commonly considered a brief fad when it first became popular in America, the art has long since proven its longevity beyond other trends and fitness crazes. It seems that many people have come to realize that exercise and healthy living is an investment in their own health and future. This revolutionary shift in thinking bodes well for the collective health of our nation, as well as for those who are considering yoga teacher careers.

Much like there is more than one kind of yoga, there is also more than one way instructors can teach yoga. Teaching yoga in fitness facilities like health clubs, gyms, or yoga studios allows for exposure to different types of clientele with very different levels of ability. Such official classes are usually structured based on skill level. However, it is always the responsibility of the yoga instructor to read his or her students and assess their ability, so as to safely cater to their personal expectations of what they’d like to achieve in the class.

Meanwhile, yoga teachers who establish an independent practice have considerably more control over the type of client they work with. Some independent yoga instructors practice therapeutic yoga and work specifically with people who are recovering from car accidents or other injuries. Others study prenatal yoga and work exclusively with expectant mothers. Still others specialize in geriatrics and cater to the needs of the elderly.

Professional and Academic Resources

A number of national and international organizations exist that offer yoga teachers the opportunity to distinguish themselves through certification. The Yoga Alliance is perhaps one of the best-recognized organization of this kind. The stated mission of the Yoga Alliance is to promote quality instruction to yoga teachers so that instructors who are teaching yoga to the general public are well aware of yoga’s benefits and historical significance.

Other organizations include:

  • The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) -- This international organization is concerned with conducting research into the many-faceted benefits of yoga, while working with yoga teachers to help establish yoga as a recognized and respected form of physical, emotional and psychological therapy.
  • The International Association of Black Yoga Teachers (IABYT) -- Dedicated to increasing the presence of yoga within inner city communities, the IABYT works to bring black yoga teachers from around the world together to create a forum for mutual support, nurturing and inspiration. Their goal is to promote access to quality yoga instruction within inner city neighborhoods.

Sources:

  • Fitness Trainers and Instructors, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/fitness-trainers-and-instructors.htm#tab-1
  • Credentials for Registered Yoga Teachers, Yoga Alliance, https://www.yogaalliance.org/

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