Yoga teacher training programs have been expanding at a rapid rate and they have become an important profit center for many yoga studios. However, as a result, I am now getting lots of calls about conflicts between students and the schools.
There have been disputes among students, teachers and studio owners, complaints to state regulatory agencies, harsh attacks in social media and blogs, and lawsuits. Students have accused schools and their teachers of engaging in unethical conduct. These conflicts have become inflamed because students have accused yoga schools of bias, discrimination and unfairness when the schools try to defend or to explain their actions.
These situations can be deeply distressing, time consuming, expensive and damaging to your business.
The fundamental causes of these problems are twofold. The first is that many students are very attached to becoming a yoga teacher. Sometimes this attachment is for the wrong reasons: yoga may be viewed as a life raft, a way out of a difficult life situation or as a way to build a meaningful new career. Some students think teaching yoga is an easy way to make great money and have lots of personal freedom. If a student who wants to be a teacher for these types of reasons does not graduate -regardless of the cause- the result is often a strong emotional reaction. Frankly, some students are attracted to teaching yoga because yoga has healed their personal traumas. However, the deep work involved in training programs may bring these traumas to the forefront and lead to emotional instability. If these students are denied graduation, the result can be explosive. The school is usually blamed for the situation.
The second cause is that many yoga schools are young businesses and do not have experience in putting procedures in place to prevent these problems from occurring in the first place. They do not have experience in managing the difficult issues that the intense experience of yoga teacher training tends to create. Professional agreements are not used or agreements are not used at all. Some schools are launching their first programs and learning as they go.
Three Common Scenarios That Breed Trouble
These conflicts evolve from three common scenarios: (i) the student cannot master the material, fails the program and does not graduate; (ii) the student voluntarily withdraws from the school; or (iii) the student is involuntarily withdrawn from the school.
Students Who Fail The Program
Unfortunately, there are some students who are not capable of mastering the material necessary to become a competent yoga teacher. Some students become paralyzed with fear at the thought of standing in front of a class and teaching. Other students may have a learning disability or are not able to master the substantive information necessary to graduate. They may not be able to grasp anatomy, basic Sanskrit, the asanas or yoga philosophy. They underestimate the rigor of the teacher training process. Still others do not have the emotional and personal maturity or stability to teach yoga. I have seen very delicate situations when a student cannot graduate due to pregnancy or physical disability.
The school may be forced to conclude that the student did not fulfill the requirements of the program. The student is devastated and this can easily lead to a dispute.
Sometimes students may need to voluntarily withdraw from a program for a good reason. The reasons are varied: sometimes it is work or family related, health, financial or other similar reasons. Sometimes students realize that they cannot accept the basic system of yogic beliefs due to cultural or religious reasons and wish to withdraw. In other cases, a student may just arbitrarily quit the program.
Some students may become so disruptive that the school may is forced to remove the student from the program.
I have personally seen situations where a student was so aggressive and adversarial in class that she effectively shut down the entire class so that she could vent or express her feelings. I know of other situations where students have emotionally “melted down” as a result of the deep work they were doing in the program. This has led to emotional outbursts, erratic and abnormal behavior, and conflicts with the other students and teachers.
In other situations students may find that they intellectually or emotionally reject the basic yogic belief system. Others may find that their cultural or religious beliefs conflict with yoga. These situations may lead to problems in class and result in the program terminating the student.
These situations are dangerous and often lead to disputes that are difficult to resolve.
Strategies to Prevent Trouble
What should yoga schools do to prevent such situations from occurring in the first place? How should schools react when they are faced with one of these situations? How can schools position themselves legally so that they will be in a strong position as they manage their way through these problems?
Only Admit Qualified Students
Yoga schools should carefully screen students before they admit them into their programs. This can be done by adopting meaningful admittance requirements. All schools should use a questionnaire that solicits information about the candidate’s practice and motivations for wanting to become a teacher. A personal statement can also provide insight into the motivations of the student.
It is a best practice for the school to personally interview every student who wishes to enter the program to make sure the student is emotionally mature and stable. Schools should ensure that the candidates have a dedicated and substantial yoga practice. If students are not serious practitioners of yoga, how can they hope to teach?
Some schools are very cautious about admitting students who are on medication for psychiatric issues because they have found that these students may not be stable enough to handle the rigors of the training program or to become a yoga teacher.
Some schools seem to think that the only requirement for acceptance is a credit card application. This practice can lead to admitting unqualified students and to problems managing students. The end result may be the graduation of unqualified teachers. This may damage the brand of your school.
It seems to me that your school’s brand will be stronger if graduates from your school are competent and inspired teachers. We should remember that yoga was originally transmitted directly from guru to student but only when the student was ready!
During the evaluation process, it is a good idea to understand whether the student wishes to teach or to deepen his or her practice. The student’s intentions should be clear and the options that are available to the student should be discussed. Some schools freely admit students into programs to deepen their personal practice and then allow those with the interest and the aptitude to continue in the program if they decide to teach.
Use State of the Art Agreements
It is critical that all yoga schools use a professional agreement for their teaching programs. This will accomplish several things:
(i) you can include the questionnaire and personal statement so that you can determine if the student is qualified to enter your program;
(ii) you can set the ground rules for student behavior in class;
(iii) you can make it clear that graduation is not automatic; i.e., students must pass all of the components of the program to the satisfaction of the school in order to graduate;
(iv) you can make it clear that the school has the absolute discretion to determine whether a student has met the requirements to graduate from the program;
(v) you can set forth your refund policy in three common situations: you expel a student, the student fails the curriculum or a student voluntarily withdraws;
(vi) you can set clear rules around students who wish to deepen their practice and those who want to teach;
(vii) you can require the student to follow an appeal process to your Ethics and Teaching Committee if the student has a grievance with the school;
(viii) you can limit your liability for personal injury and for liability for economic damages (such as tuition fees and loss of potential earnings from teaching yoga);
(ix) you can protect your intellectual property such as teacher training manuals and other materials and impose restrictions on the use of your materials;
(x) you can require that the student follow a Code of Ethics (and revocation of your teaching certification if that is your business model); and
(xi) you can include provisions that will discourage any student from filing a lawsuit or a regulatory complaint.
As a service to the yoga community, I am happy to provide you with a free copy of my template agreement for yoga teacher training programs. If you would like a copy, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Set Up A Teaching Committee
I recommend that all yoga schools establish a Teaching and Ethics Committee (the “Committee”). This Committee may be comprised of owners, senior teachers and respected members of your yoga community. I recommend three people. The Committee can be quite informal and the members do not need to do anything until a problem arises.
The purpose of the Committee is twofold: (i) to administer your teacher training program and to respond to complaints and problems with students; and (ii) to resolve any ethical problems that may arise in your yoga school or studio (and to administer your studio’s Code of Conduct if you have one).
The Committee establishes a clear mechanism for dealing with teacher training and ethical issues in a structured and objective way. These problems are often delicate and complicated and may have conflicts of interest due to personal relationships between students, teachers and owners.
Many yoga schools do not have a process in place and, when a problem does occur, the owners try to address the situation on a “one off” basis. It is a best practice to already have a Committee in place. A formal complaint and resolution process gives students comfort that their problem will be handled in a professional and objective way.
If you do not have a Committee and a student brings an ethical problem to your attention, it will weaken your legal position. Regardless of the decision that you make on the matter, the student may feel your decision was the result of favoritism, bias or discrimination. Moreover, if you know the persons who are involved, then it is even more difficult for you to make an objective decision due to a conflict of interest.
On the other hand, if your studio has a Committee and it has objectively evaluated the circumstances and made a fair decision, your decision is much more defensible legally and emotionally. It is much easier for a Committee to make a decision and then communicate that decision to the people who are involved, rather than being in the position of having to do that yourself.
I have seen cases where the head of a program determined that a student did not meet the requirements for graduation but the student disagreed and wanted to protest the decision to the studio. There was a conflict among the student, the head of the program and the owners of the studio. If you have a Committee in place, it can resolve the situation based upon an objective review of the facts. Otherwise, you may end up in paralysis between the school and the student and a dispute.
In my experience, students tend to respect the decision of a Committee more that that of a single person. Moreover, the decision of a Committee can be used to rebut any feeling of the student that the decision was based upon favoritism, bias or discrimination.
Consider the case where a student has an emotional meltdown, finds that he or she is not ready to teach or is struggling to master the material. The school has decided that the student should continue in the program but the student just needs more time. I have had success in recommending that the student be given a “time out.” This means that the student leaves the program for six months or a year in order to resolve the problem and then comes back to the school for an evaluation. If the school decides that the student is ready to continue, the student is re-admitted.
This solution also works with very “sticky” problems with no clear resolution: sometimes the person moves away during “time out” and the problem resolves itself over time.
Refunds For Peace
In many situations, the student simply wants a refund of tuition. Sometimes they just want their money and other times the refund represents vindication that they were right. I typically recommend that the school provide the refund. In my experience, this can be a relatively cheap way to buy the peace. This may be the right thing to do if the student must withdraw due to health or career reasons or some other valid reason.
If there is a dispute, the student can launch assaults against the school and teachers on social media and there is little that can be done to stop this. The student may continue to harass the school, get a lawyer or file a claim in small claims court.
All of these situations will ultimately cause you more time and expense and anxiety than the refund is worth. Even though you know that you are right and the student is wrong, it may be more efficient to give the refund. Lingering disputes can be draining and some students who feel wronged may feed on the conflict.
If possible, it is a good idea to get a release from the student so the problem is finally put to bed.. The release can also include an agreement that neither the student or the school will make any public statements concerning the situation.
Don’t Try To Graduate The Problem Away
I have seen cases where schools have decided to graduate the problem student just to make the problem “go away.” Although I understand the thinking behind this, I do not feel that this approach is healthy for your school, the students who may encounter this teacher in the future or the greater yoga community. It is better to take the path of “right action” even if it is hard.