Va. Yogis Seek Rapture, Not Regulation
Yogis Take Assertive Position Against State Certification Plan

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 2009

Some of Virginia's most flexible residents say the Old Dominion is forcing them to bend over backward. And not in a good way.

The tussle has pitted yoga enthusiasts against bureaucrats. At issue: Are yoga teacher training programs akin to vocational classes that should be regulated by the state? Or is Big Brother stretching too far into a centuries-old spiritual practice?

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia recently declared that studios offering yoga teacher instruction must be certified. That involves a $2,500 fee, audits, annual charges of at least $500 and a pile of paperwork.

Yogis, in an unlikely departure from their usual mission to foster harmony and balance, are pushing back. They launched a letter-writing campaign to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and state lawmakers and started a "Virginia Yoga Teachers" page on Facebook to organize it. Even Sen. Mark Warner's former private yoga instructor said she asked his office to back their effort.

"We are all teachers, and we are just trying to deepen the journey of yoga," said Maryam Ovissi, co-owner of Beloved Yoga in Northern Virginia, which trains about 15 teachers each year. "Maybe we shouldn't call it teacher training -- maybe it should be yoga immersion or an apprenticeship."

As yoga grows into a mainstream activity for stressed professionals and parents, similar dust-ups are playing out nationwide. In June, New York's State Education Department sent a letter to yoga instructor training programs telling them that those that aren't licensed faced a $50,000 fine. The state backed off after yoga instructors complained and the media covered the controversy. Michigan also started regulating the programs this year.

In Virginia, yoga teacher training first hit the state's radar late last year after a state employee conducting school audits happened upon an advertisement, said Linda Woodley, the higher education council's director of private and out-of-state postsecondary education.

Before that, Woodley said, "I was not aware they existed, and they were not aware we existed."

Studios can teach lotus poses to as many clients as they like, state officials said. But teacher training programs, which the state views as similar to dog grooming, massage therapy or other classes intended to prepare someone for a job, must be certified under state law. (For instance, Simply Ballroom Dance Teachers Academy, Danny Ward Horseshoeing School and Jiggers Bartending School are certified.)

"We're not looking at yoga classes. That itself is an avocation," said Woodley, who has been pondering enrolling in a hot yoga class. "But the teacher training is preparing people for a job. They can take the skills they learn and open up their own studio or just teach."

Woodley said it's also about ensuring that students who plunk down cash for training programs that can run a few thousand dollars are getting their money's worth. Plus, she said, being listed on the government registry will give schools a marketing tool, like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

But studio owners say most people who become yoga teachers are there for the enlightenment, not to boost their job prospects.

"I don't consider us higher education. I consider yoga to be a spiritual practice," said Susan Van Nuys, a burned-out computer programmer-turned-studio owner. "This is definitely an avocation. Most people aren't doing this as a way to support themselves."

One day last week, Van Nuys led advanced students through a tree pose, a half-moon pose and headstands at her Herndon studio. "See how your breath is flowing today," she told them. "What sensations it creates within your body."

Van Nuys employs 16 teachers at Health Advantage Yoga Center. Only one says that yoga teaching is his sole source of income, and he writes books on yoga and runs workshops across the country and internationally, she said.

Suzanne Leitner-Wise, co-owner of Little River Yoga in Alexandria and Warner's former personal yoga instructor, said that the state certification won't ensure a program's quality: "Twenty-five hundred dollars does not make a good teacher."

After an outcry from the yogis, the state agreed to give studio owners more flexibility, allowing them until December to complete the process. The state also scheduled a meeting in Richmond to explain the process to studio owners.

State Del. David E. Poisson (D-Loudoun), who said he aced a yoga course in college but hasn't stuck with it, said the effort is a "classic case of regulation run amuck." He said he's planning to introduce legislation to exempt yoga from the licensing requirement during the next session of the Virginia General Assembly in January.

"The public, and more broadly the economy, does not depend on making sure we regulate the yoga industry," Poisson said. He said most studios are small businesses that will be overburdened by licensing fees.

Anna Pittman, a former New York City dancer who teaches yoga from her Blacksburg-area home, trains about 15 would-be yoga teachers each year. Ministers, therapists and psychoanalysts have been among her clients. The income from the training program keeps her business, the Breathing Space, which also includes yoga classes, meditation and soul coaching, afloat.

Pittman pays dues to the Yoga Alliance, an international industry group. But she said she can't afford the state fees, plus the cost of putting together financial information and other details, tasks she thinks would require the help of a lawyer and accountant.

If the mandate sticks, Pittman said she will drop her training program. Still, she is Zen about the future of her business.

"I would have to morph it into something else," she said. "That's what life does -- it asks us to redefine what we are. I don't know what that would look like."

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