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How to choose a yoga teacher and avoid injury (or worse)

How to choose a yoga teacher and avoid injury (or worse)

With the founder of hot yoga, Brikram Choudhury facing six lawsuits for alleged rape and sexual assault and the American peak yoga body, the Yoga Alliance, fending off accusations of lax standards, yoga is at a reputational turning point.

Should yoga students trust the claims that yoga teachers make about themselves? If not, what are the right questions to ask to make the necessary checks?

In years gone by, when there were fewer types of yoga and fewer teachers, imposters were quickly ousted by accredited and long-term yoga teachers.

Today, there are 75 different types of yoga represented among the peak body Yoga Australia’s 2,500 members.

In addition to the traditions of Iyengar yoga (taught at Griffins Hill) and Hatha yoga, many new arms of yoga have emerged in recent years including Dru, Bikram, anti-gravity, shadow, Gita, Ashtanga, vinyasa, pre-natal yoga, Kundalini, Anusara to name just a few.

One of the latest entries, Power Living, offers an online yoga option, capitalising on a growing number of yoga students who do not attend classes at all but teach themselves via classes online or on DVD.

What’s the problem?

Yoga is shifting from a boutique business to a mature industry. Revenue from yoga and Pilates studios reached nearly $1 billion in 2012-13 according to research company, IBISworld.

But yoga is not a risk-free practice. Despite its many benefits to health, strength, fitness, and mental equalibrium, students face physical risks when the posture are inexpertly taught. These can range from simple sprains and strains to dislocations and serious neck and spinal injuries.

The injury rate in yoga is low compared to running, for example, where about 70% of recreational and competitive runners sustain overuse injuries during any 12-month period.

However, injuries do occur. In the largest study of yoga in Australia – by former president of Yoga Australia Stephen Penman, in 2006, with RMIT University – more than 4000 participants were asked about  injuries incurred during yoga practice. In the 10 years between 2000 and 2010, 84 people were admitted to Victorian emergency departments for yoga-related injuries, according to the Monash Research Institute. The most frequent injuries were sprains or strains (51 per cent), fractures (13 per cent), injury to muscle or tendon (12 per cent) and dislocation (11 per cent). Knees and shoulders were the most frequently affected areas.

The controversy surrounding Bikram Choudhury – six women have filed lawsuits with allegations from sexual harassment to rape – suggests that there are also emotional and psychological risks involved in selecting the right yoga teacher, type of practice, and yoga school.

Teachers need training in ethical standards to make sure they are up to date with acceptable standards and practices, such as requesting permission before touching students to adjust their posture and ensuring that people with injuries don’t exacerbate them in yoga classes.

What are the Australian standards in yoga practice?

Yoga is a self-regulated service sector, as are most other services in Australia. This means that it is up to the industry participants to agree on the standards and to find a mechanism to enforce them.

Self-regulation often results in a mishmash of oversight (peak) organisations: the accounting profession, for example, has three different bodies governing their activities.

For yoga, the peak body with the most clout and largest membership is Yoga Australia which has 2,500 members. About 85% of Yoga Australia’s members are registered as teachers, which mean that they update their training every year. Yoga Australia current president, Leigh Blaski, started the association in 1999 as a means of establishing standards that are both reasonable and practical. “In 1999 did a graduate diploma leading to Masters, my topic was “what are the standards of yoga teaching in Australia.”

Blaski then developed a two-year yoga studies course with the CAE. “The yoga community saw what I was doing and said, ‘Wow someone is raising the bar.” So people set up the association and said let’s create agreed on standards for teacher to be members.”

Iyengar teachers are registered with the BKS Iyengar Association of Australia and the levels of certification are set out on the association’s website. Each level requires a certain number of hours of personal and teaching practice as well as mastery of a syllabus of certain poses. There are 293 registered teacher; 27 of these have reached the designation of Senior Teacher, the highest qualification available (among them Griffins Hill teacher, Frank Jesse).

Seven months ago, a new registration body, Yoga Alliance Australia and New Zealand, opened its doors. Its president, Cris Chi, says the organisation has no affiliation with the American or the British bodies, also called Yoga Alliances, but it is a member of the International Yoga Federation, which describes itself the worldwide governing body of yoga. “We are not in any way claiming to be governing body,” Chi says. “It is like the fitness industry in Australia, which has a registry of instructors.”

Chi says disagrees with Yoga Australia’s requirement that students have 350 hours of teacher training over 12 months, saying that 200 hours is enough and effective training can be done in a shorter period of time (see comparison chart below). Blaski does not agree with this assessment.


Students who run into problems will find that peak bodies are limited in their ability to handle complaints. This is because members have to be willing to comply with disciplinary procedures, and there is a conflict of interest for the peak body – if it revokes a membership, it loses the member’s annual fees.

The Yoga Alliance does not claim to arbitrate on complaints. BKS Iyengar trains students in grievance procedures, but does not provide a process on its website for the general public to complain.

Yoga Australia does have a complaints procedure and it has applied it in four cases. In two of these, membership was revoked.

Six essential questions to ask your new yoga teacher or yoga school

1.    1.  Do you have a current first aid certificate?

2.     2. Where did you train? How long was the training and is there a published syllabus?

3.     3. Are you registered with any yoga organisation? Can I have those details?

4.    4. Can I speak to one of your current students about your services?

5.     5. Are you governed by a code of conduct? Is it on your website?

6.     6. Do you (or does this school) have a grievance procedure if I have a problem?

Compare the various standards: Minimum teacher registration standards in Australia

Peak body

Minimum hours required to be a registered teacher

Minimum course period

Minimum hours of personal practice

Handle complaints from public

Teach complaints/griev-ance procedure

Teach code of conduct/ethics

Publishes training syllabus

BKS Iyengar Association of Australia

300 (teacher-in-training level)

Not specified but generally between two and three years.

Three years

Not via website



The Association’s Teachers’ Certification Handbook is available to teachers and teacher trainers  on request.

Yoga Alliance Australia


No minimum period

Not specified for yoga teachers registration.Teachers within registered schools are requipred to have 12 months.





Yoga Australia


12 months

Two years


Does not provide training, but registers over 60 training providers.As part of good governance when registering training courses.

Does not provide training, but registers over 60 training providers.As part of good governance when registering training courses.

Does not provide training, but registers over 60 training providers

Source: BKS Iyengar Association of Australia, Yoga Alliance Australia, Yoga Australia



Frank Jesse – one of only 27 Senior Iyengar Teachers in Australia – has completed over 40,000 hours of teaching and practice in the past 25 years. 


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