Va. yoga instructors sue state on plan to regulate training
Instructors sue over state's move to certify training classes

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009; B02

Virginia yogis are taking the state to the mat.

Three yoga instructors on Tuesday asked a federal judge to halt a state plan to regulate yoga instructor training. The Old Dominion, they say, has stretched too far into an ancient, spiritual practice.

"Yoga is the study of the self through direct experience," Suzanne Leitner-Wise, a plaintiff and president of U.S. 1 Yoga Teacher Training said outside federal court in Alexandria, where the lawsuit was filed. "You simply can't put regulations on that. It's just dumb."

Yoga enthusiasts were knocked off balance late last year when Virginia announced that yoga teacher training programs, which officials consider vocational classes that prepare students for a job, must be certified by the state. Officials say it will protect students who invest a few thousand dollars in the training.

But the teachers, who between them have more than four decades of experience practicing yoga (Leitner-Wise was Virginia Sen. Mark Warner's former private yoga instructor), say passing on the tradition to other teachers is tantamount to constitutionally protected free speech.

"Teaching, after all, is speech. Pure and simple," said Clark M. Neily, a lawyer with the Institute For Justice, an Arlington-based libertarian public-interest law firm handling the case.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia requires certification of all sorts of vocational training programs, including bartending schools, dog-grooming schools and the Ballroom Dance Teachers Academy. Certification requires a $2,500 fee, audits, annual charges of at least $500 and paperwork.

Yoga teacher training had long fallen below the council's radar. Then, late last year, a state employee conducting school audits noticed an advertisement for it.

Kirsten Nelson, a spokeswoman for the council, said officials haven't received the lawsuit. But she said the council maintains that certification is the right thing to do.

"We really think this is important for the protection of the students," Nelson said. "Their investment needs to be protected, and their safety needs to be protected."

As stressed-out professionals and others increasingly propel yoga into the mainstream, similar tussles have played out across the country. In New York, the state education department in June sent a letter to yoga instructor training programs saying that unlicensed schools faced a $50,000 fine. The state backed down after an outcry by instructors.

Jamin B. Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at American University and a Maryland state senator, said it will not be easy for the court to balance two competing interests.

"It's an extremely close and subtle case," Raskin said. "On one side, the state has traditionally regulated training programs. On the other side, people certainly do have a right to engage in private educational speech activities, like tutoring, without state interference."

Radka Dopitova, a student in U.S. 1 Yoga Teacher Training, said she signed on after a decade of practicing yoga, and the skills she is learning will help in her work as a personal fitness trainer. She worries that the studios will either shut down such programs because of the certification cost and paperwork, or raise student fees.

"With the amount of stress there is in D.C., I think we are going to need more yoga teachers, not less," Dopitova said. "Look how people live? It's stress, stress. Rushing, rushing."

No matter how the court case plays out, the state would not begin enforcement until at least March. Virginia Del. David Bulova (D-Fairfax), who said he expects that lawmakers will take up a bill to exempt yoga teacher training from the certification, has asked the council to hold off until the General Assembly weighs in.

Bulova said he's not flexible enough for yoga, but his wife enjoys it. He said he's not convinced that there has been a problem with yoga instructor training, and he worries the regulations would be too great a burden for small studios that rely on income from the months-long teacher training programs to stay afloat.

"I have a lot of constituents who use yoga studios and, by and large, most are mom-and-pop small businesses that are really just trying to squeeze by," Bulova said. "Especially in this economy, you don't regulate unless you have a defined problem."

Yoga instructors say many devotees enroll in instructor training to expand their knowledge. Many see teaching yoga as a quest for enlightenment, not a way to pay the bills.

"It has been passed down for thousands of years by sages to their students," said Beverly Brown, a plaintiff. "To me, teaching yoga is a statement of my purpose, or dharma."

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