About 1/3 of the way into my 200 hour yoga teacher certification, I’ve already learned more than I have in my year of casually dropping into yoga classes. The amount of work I have put into my Adho Mukha Svanasana or downward facing dog, has been a workout in and of itself. Prior to IHA yoga, I had very little body awareness. I used to think of downward facing dog as a resting position and just hang out upside down. I have kyphosis, an abnormal curve of the upper spine which gives me a slight hunchback. Therefore, to get into the correct position, my body really has to work. I have to lengthen, lift, and push my body into that perfect, upside down V shape. Hips have to be turned toward the ceiling, while the head is reaching for the floor. I must remind myself to depress the shoulders away from the ears, turn elbows slightly towards the back of the room, and keep lengthening the spine.
As a hopeful graduate and future instructor, I looked into yoga certification regulation in the US because I have heard that initiatives to regulate have failed in many states. There is no broadly accepted official certification process although many studios and schools do seek accreditation from the Yoga Alliance. The Yoga Alliance is a non-profit membership trade and professional organization for yoga teachers. It was created in 1997 to bring some consistency and set guidelines for teacher training programs. Graduates of Yoga Alliance Approved Trainings can register themselves as Registered Yoga Teachers or RYT.
However, because there is no standard regulation, some employers care about RYT and some do not. There are some yoga instructors out there that may not be registered or certified at all. There are a healthy number of sites that offer you the ability to become a yoga instructor just through online testing and/or training. I found a site online that upon completion, awards you an “expert rating” yoga instructor certification. You too can become a yoga teacher for $69.99 on one site or after following 21 hours of video on another site.
This is problematic. Even though yoga doesn’t require you to work on machines or lift heavy weights, it for sure isn’t risk-free. Just like any other exercise, it can be quite dangerous if approached haphazardly and without understanding proper alignment or appreciating how much study there is to practice safely.
Inexperienced yogis need detailed instruction to understand how to get into a posture and make sure they are holding a pose correctly. An experienced teacher keeps you safe and can adjust you so that you don’t risk moving the body in a way that can cause injury. Intermediate or advanced yogis can risk injury as well if their alignment is not corrected or if there is improper warm up. Prior to IHA, the number of times I ever warmed up my joints before a yoga practice was zero. It was eye-opening how many teachers skipped this step because it is essential. The amount of pressure we put on our joints when we hold asanas is tremendous. Plus, warms ups are necessary to strengthen the joints and increase their mobility. For example, without joint strength in your wrists, it will be easy to injure yourself when you practice inversions or hold your body weight in positions like astavakrasana (eight angle side angle) and bakasana (crow). The likely injuries from yoga are quite serious and can take a very long time to heal.
Even the non-physical part of yoga, like meditation and pranayamas may seem relatively straightforward, but are far from basic. Many people believe that breath work is a completely safe part of yoga. However, pranayamas can be dangerous if you are not correctly educated. Who knew that doing more than 120 breaths of kapalbhati breathing could deplete your love hormone? I don’t think my boyfriend wants to find out what would happen if I went over the maximum suggested amount daily. There are some breathing techniques that are dangerous for those pregnant (kapalbhati can cause you to miscarriage) or those with a cold or cancer (nadi shodhana can move active virus or cancer cells throughout the body). Those with hypertension should avoid suryabhedan as it will increase your blood pressure while those with low blood pressure should avoid chandrabhedan as it will lower it even further and put you at risk of passing out.
So do yourself a favor, the next time you take a yoga class, read the little bio of your yoga instructor on the website. Many who complete a training like one that is registered with Yoga Alliance will say so, and if not, look to see how many hours and where they have honed their practice. Yoga is a beautiful workout that strengthens your body and mind but is far from simple.
Practice safe and practice smart.
Lillian Cheng (200 Hour Hatha Vinyasa YTT)