Throughout most of yoga’s 5,000-6,000 year history, its sacred teachings and rich traditions were transmitted through direct lineage, from guru to disciple, in secluded mountain caves and remote ashrams.
Now, you can receive your yoga education in just 200 hours—at the gym, in a hotel conference room, during a luxury retreat in paradise, or even take portions of it online.
Twenty-five years ago, the teacher training landscape in Los Angeles was centered around three Westside studios: YogaWorks (then a single space on Montana Avenue), Santa Monica Yoga, and Center for Yoga on Larchmont (later bought by YogaWorks). Trainings were led by a small sampling of master teachers; there were no set curriculum standards, no specific criteria for certification. Teachers disseminated the teachings of their teachers to their students, who in turn became teachers themselves. In all likelihood, nearly every yoga practitioner in LA today has been either taught or somehow touched by this lineage.
In 1999, Yoga Alliance was founded by a group of yogis from different lineages and traditions to develop a registry that recognized yoga schools and teachers whose training met the minimum curriculum standards that YA designed. The curricula for both the 200-hour and 500-hour teacher trainings includes asana practice, anatomy and physiology, teaching techniques and methods, practice teaching, philosophy, ethics, and the business of yoga. The 500-hour certification is met by taking an advanced 300-hour TT in addition to the basic 200.
Los Angeles is now a hotbed of yoga teacher training, with nearly 130 Registered Yoga Schools (RYSs) in the five-county LA region; the area is home to over 1,000 Registered Yoga Teachers (RYTs), according to Yoga Alliance’s President Richard Karpel. (He notes, however, there may be more schools operating without registry.)
For students interested in 200-hour TT, there are numerous options. One is the Weekends format. Usually led by two to three trainers, classes meet for 12 weekends. Groups range in size from 8 to 40; the average cost in LA is $2,850. Modular trainings are another variation of this, where students can register for individual weekend modules that together make up a full program. This allows trainees to move through a program at their own pace and work around their schedules and budgets. The country’s largest training outfit offers its program in modules – students can accumulate required hours by weaving together multiple evening sessions, day-long seminars, and weekend workshops, from $199-$1,000. Another option are intensives and residential intensives. Between two and six weeks long; classes meet every day, up to eight or nine hours per day. Intensives are slightly more expensive, about $3,200 on average – and usually led by big name, high-profile teachers. Residential trainings at centers such as the Sivananda Ashrams or White Lotus allow for an immersion experience with shared meals and meditations. Destination trainings are increasingly popular too, and offer another experience: part teacher training, part vacation. They’re often held at exotic resorts – with dining, housing, spa, and other activities (such as surfing, kayaking, native drumming, fire dancing, et cetera) included in the package, for about $5,000-$6,000, plus travel expenses.
Most schools offer payment plans; some provide scholarships. Some studios divide their trainings into two parts, taken and priced separately; the first module or level is for students who wish to deepen their practice while students who want to be credentialed continue with the second part for teacher training.
Because of YA’s standards and strong competition among schools, 200-hour teacher trainings in LA are fairly similar: they’re tightly structured, many have similar schedules and syllabi yet reflect the culture of the teacher or studio.
Just as there are countless ways to practice yoga and myriad options for training, students come to TT for different reasons. Some want to be teachers (full-time, part-time), others don’t. Many students train so that they can add yoga techniques to their existing professional portfolios; this is the case for personal trainers, bodyworkers, caregivers, therapists, and teachers in other disciplines. Trainings are attended about 80% by women; 20% men. Other students come to training more circuitously, often as an organic development of their personal practice. Yet, even with diverse backgrounds, ages, and body types, students’ stories share a remarkably common theme: people in TT find themselves at crossroads, when it is time for change. “I think people decide to go to teacher training when something critical is happening in their lives,” says Rosanna Tavarez, RYT 200. “For me, it was a ‘perfect storm’—I was separating from my husband, deciding to leave my career in television…I was facing a new life.”
Musician Kevin Hastings, son of an evangelical minister and new to yoga, was touring with Rhianna in 2012. “I was drained and depressed. I decided to pull myself off the road,” Kevin shared.,“I felt a disconnect in my life. I was missing a daily spiritual practice (albeit a different one that had been part of my childhood), and found yoga and a home studio.” After practicing for about 18 months, Kevin enrolled in teacher training. The decision, he explained, “was a call and response experience between me and my universe. I posed the question to the universe, ‘What’s the next phase for me?’ ‘What do you want from me?’”
Businesswoman and mom, Dixie Davis, recently completed her 200 hour TT. Her only previous experience with yoga was Kundalini, many years ago. Feeling out of shape and wanting to do something for herself, Dixie decided to join only 24 hours before her program with rigorous asana began. “I had no doubt…but when I got in there and people were younger and more advanced. I didn’t have a practice. I thought ‘I’m 53, and I’m just starting.’”
A yoga practitioner on and off for 10 years, Susanna Lee, also recently graduated from TT. She moved to SoCal from the Midwest to pursue her career as a comedian; she also dances in nightclubs. “Since moving to LA in 2011, I haven’t been able to find a job to supplement my comedian’s income that doesn’t involve a pole,” she said. “I’ve always toyed with the dream of becoming a yoga teacher, but it felt like taking TT was accepting a backup plan, thus conceding that I’d never ‘make it’ as a comic.” She felt conflicted about the program, but “decided to go for it” because “the desire to not die in stripper shoes was stronger.”
A mother of yoga student recently inquired about TT on her daughter’s behalf; she didn’t care about the quality or cost, but thought it might be a good idea for her daughter to take the summer after graduating from law school this month to do TT. She thought it help “pad” and “pop” her resume for a job next Fall at a law firm. Another student who said she applied for training because she wanted to learn arm balancing later admitted she’d practiced yoga only five or six times in her life; she spent 12 weeks working to simply straighten her arms.
Most 200 hour programs today are accessible to students who are newer to yoga, with fewer than five years experience on the mat. Most trainers agree that YA’s standards provide the outline for “a good basic training,” says longtime teacher and current trainer, Sigrid Matthews. The 200 is “an overview of yoga” says Rosanna. Veteran teacher Scott Lewicki, who’s studied extensively in a variety of asana systems, as well as in anatomy, philosophy and literature, calls the 200 is a “survey.”
Others say that’s not enough. “The standard that [YA] set for yoga teacher training is nowhere near adequate” in preparing students to teach yoga publicly, wrote seasoned trainer James Brown in a January blog post blasting Yoga Alliance’s new efforts to boost credentialing.
Therefore, many believe that the 200 hour is “more about your own practice.” Sara Fuehrer, E-RYT 500 says, “For so many people, it’s about going a little deeper into yoga…for the first time.” Thus, some trainers feel there should be a higher threshold for entry; some programs require one, two, or more years of yoga experience, while others have no restrictions. “There should be a period of time that you have a practice under your belt before you start a 200,” Sara believes. Senior teacher and trainer Jeanne Heileman says it more strongly. “We should not be taking people into our trainings who can’t sustain downward facing dog…because we know that they won’t be safe in inversions later on,” she said. “It holds the rest of the group back…because trainers end up fighting fires rather than deepening the experience for those who are ready.”
Ready or not, LA trainers expressed a profound sense of responsibility, not only to their trainees but to the class-taking public, the future students of these new yoga teachers. “There are very specific things that have to be passed down,” said Sigrid. “We have to teach them the most basic things, the basic rules of alignment for Trikonasana. Students just have to know how to do that.”
Yet, as students will tell you, they get a whole lot more out of TT than triangle pose.
Chrissie Endler, who recently completed her second TT (her first 200-hour focused on yoga philosophy and Ayurveda, with very little asana instruction), learned how to take care of herself in practice. “I don’t want to get caught in a Vinyasa somewhere and have my knee explode. I have the knowledge now that can allow me to heal myself,” said Chrissie. New teacher Erin Hoein said, “the most valuable thing I got was understanding myself and my body. You come face to face with your habits. You are able to make the choice to make a change—or not,” Erin added. Dixie said, “I finally stepped into who I am and accepted myself. I’m not a size six and the irony is that I lost 12 pounds in TT,” she joked. And Kevin said, “I found clarity and comfort with myself in my world. I feel clearer in the way that I look through my eyes.” Dixie added, “What was most meaningful and important to me is I got my power. I’ve always thought about it, I’ve contemplated it, but I never felt it before. I’ve always thought that once I could accept my power, I could change my world,” she said.
Teacher training can be intimidating. “You always think you’re going to be surrounded by a bunch of small, thin, young women,” said Dixie. “I wanted to hide. But there’s nowhere to hide when you’re doing yoga. There were several times I left the classroom and went into the bathroom and cried.”
“Everyone cries at least once during teacher training,” Rosanna recalls, with a knowing smile. “Everyone has at least one breakdown along the way.”
Teacher training is a commitment and takes “a sense of readiness, openness, for the entire unfolding,” Rosanna says. “And you’d better be ready, because the process opens you up in ways you don’t expect.”
While the benefits of training may be as profound as the practice itself, most trainers and graduates feel that the 200 doesn’t truly prepare people to teach. Scott remembers that his first training left him “feeling like I needed more; I wasn’t ready to authentically embody my own voice as a teacher.”
“The world, by natural selection, will tell you whether you’re ready. If you’re not ready, no one will show up for your classes, and [teaching] is not going to be a happy experience,” says Sara. “The 200 doesn’t really teach us how to be teachers… that’s why there’s a market for 500.”
The 500 hour “is not for your practice,” says practitioner, teacher and trainer, Patty Pierce, “It’s for you to be a better teacher.”
Compared to the 200 hour, the 500 allows for teachers to work more independently, “developing and refining their individual interests, skills and voice,” says Sarah Ezrin, who teaches public classes and trains 200 hour TTs. In contrast to the 200’s set standards, 500 hour programs ideally allow more freedom and specialization, helping teachers to develop “their voices, their authenticity and their uniqueness,” says Sigrid.
After about five years of teaching, Rosanna intends to complete her 500 hours next year. “I’m seeking refinement—different ways of articulating instruction, feedback on my sequencing,” she explains. “Most importantly, I want a strong philosophical component.”
Longtime instructor and sought-after teacher trainer Jeanne Heilemann likens yoga teacher training to other higher educational endeavors. “The 200 hour is a BA. The 500 is a Masters,” she says. “Anything after that is a PhD.”
“When push comes to shove, the most important thing is for teachers to develop their uniqueness,” insists Sigrid. As trainers at the 500-hour level, we should be pushing students to answer questions for themselves. “Who are you? What’s your bhav? What’s your vision for yourself as a teacher?”
“Teaching can’t be given to you; you have to own it,” Sigrid says, somewhat admonishingly. She adds, “Just because a teacher cannot pop up into a handstand in the middle of the room doesn’t mean they can’t be a great teacher. The opposite is also true: it doesn’t mean if you can pop up into handstand, that you can actually teach.” Ultimately, says Patty, “These teachers need to be able to go out, step into the room, and not hurt anyone.” Experience and working with a strong mentor, who has experience teaching and training teachers, is an important part of this process.
Despite the insider controversies and criticisms of teacher trainings, almost universally everyone who goes through a TT—whether the goal is to become a teacher or a more learned student—says it is one of the best things they have done for themselves. Whether one is ready (or not), everyone gets something out of it. Because, as Sarah says, “teacher trainings are transformative for so many people on so many levels,” she believes that all interested students, even yoga newbies, should be welcome and encouraged to do it. “Life is short. I’m a firm believer in saying ‘yes’ to everything.”
In the weeks since her training ended, Dixie recounts, “Teacher training was hard—but it was right for me. It made me stronger. I’m feeling it in all aspects of my life,” she said. “It’ll be part of my life, for the rest of my life.”
Recent grad Susanna said, “For the 12 weeks of the 200 hour training, I felt productive, intellectually and emotionally stimulated, valued, and safe.” She’s considering a 500, she says, because “I wouldn’t pass up the chance to continue my education in that environment.”
For many, the experience of TT also provides a sense of continued community. “We created this space together by learning to let go of blockages, emotions, and thought patterns that don’t serve us anymore,” says ongoing student and non-teacher, Melanie Wagor. “Being immersed in community of like-mined people focused on bettering themselves and their lives is powerful. Deepening these relationships with teachers and fellow students is a major part of my practice today,” she added.
Kevin says, “I’m left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the teachers/mentors and the other 19 people in the group who over the course of 12 weeks led me to say, ‘I’m a yoga teacher.’”
So, to folks still sitting on the TT fence, Kevin feels compelled to say, “Forget the fears and what-ifs – something is bound to happen.” And concluded, “I’d be a fool not to have gone.”
Julie Buckner is a yogini, writer, mom, public affairs and marketing consultant, and owner and CEO of InYoga. She recently attended Annie Carpenter’s teacher training program: inyogacenter.com.