State Politics

Gently but firmly, yoga lovers push back against proposed Idaho regulation

Participants in a paddleboard yoga class at the Treasure Valley West YMCA in February 2014.
Participants in a paddleboard yoga class at the Treasure Valley West YMCA in February 2014. Idaho Statesman file

Yoga enthusiasts were aghast when state officials in both Idaho and Washington suggested that those training yoga teachers should be regulated just like for-profit vocational schools that train students in truck driving, power line repair or welding.

“Yoga teacher training is really where people would go to deepen their practice in a group setting,” said Barb Dobberthien, executive director of the Yoga Alliance, a group that represents 80,000 members around the world, most of them in the United States. “It’s really about taking their practice of yoga farther – very few people make a real living, earning a living wage, at teaching yoga.”

Despite its members’ calm mien, the yoga group is vigilant about regulatory incursions into their search for balance, flexibility and relaxation. The alliance has hired lobbyists in both states, and legislation is advancing in both states’ legislatures to exempt yoga instruction from the type of state registration requirements applied to “proprietary schools” like the Pooch Parlor Pet Grooming Academy in Ponderay or the Sage Technical Services Truck Driving School in Coeur d’Alene.

Dobberthien said most of the people running yoga businesses aren’t really about business. “They love yoga, and they want to share yoga with people,” she said.

Blake Youde, spokesman for the Idaho State Board of Education, which oversees the state’s proprietary schools registry, said, “The issue has been that some of the yoga studios were advertising that they offered a course that allowed you to become a certified yoga instructor. By making that assertion, that would place them under the proprietary schools act,” which covers for-profit education that “actually certifies you to do something.”

Dobberthien won’t go so far as to say there’s no such thing as a certified yoga instructor. She did say, however, that she’s been unable to find the advertising in question. “We don’t certify anyone,” she said, instead maintaining a “voluntary registry” of members.

She compared standards for yoga instructors to those for the martial arts, where enthusiasts earn belts of differing colors before they achieve a black belt. At that point, she said, “You are then recognized by the Taekwondo community as being eligible to teach others Taekwondo. This is much like that. … You are recognized by the community as being able to share your knowledge with others.”

In multiple states in recent years, the Yoga Alliance has pushed back – gently, of course – against state efforts to regulate its instructors as vocational schools. “We believe it’s expensive and burdensome regulation that’s really not necessary – it’s not adding anything to the protection of consumers,” Dobberthien said. Rather than being comparable to vocational, technical or professional training, she said, “Yoga is more avocational or recreational in nature.”

“We believe it should be exempt from regulation,” she said.

Youde, of the Idaho state Board of Education, said the “board is neutral” on the issue, and is “in a bit of a holding pattern” for now. “Whatever the statute is at the end of the legislative session, we’ll follow,” he said.

The Idaho bill, introduced on Thursday by unanimous vote of the House Education Committee, adds yoga instruction or practice to a list of exemptions from Idaho’s proprietary schools registration law that already includes, among others, workshops or seminars of three days or less; free courses offered by an employer to its employees; and bar exam review courses.

Similar legislation in Washington has cleared a Senate committee and is awaiting a vote in the full Senate, while a companion measure is awaiting consideration in a House committee.

The lobbyist who presented the bill to the Idaho committee was Jason Kreizenbeck, who is well-known to legislators as Gov. Butch Otter’s former chief of staff. Dobberthien said modestly, “We’re selecting lobbyists that are right for the job.”

“Teaching yoga is not a licensed profession in Idaho, Washington or anywhere in the country,” she said. “Yogis host advanced yoga classes that the community refers to as teacher training programs,” but they’re really, she said, “intended by people to deepen their own practice. This doesn’t really belong in the same bucket as HVAC repairs.” And, she added, “No one’s doing this with martial arts.”

In the past three years, the Yoga Alliance has quietly persuaded seven state legislatures to enact legislation to ward off what it views as inappropriate regulation of yoga instruction. Dobberthien, invoking a metaphor better suited to the noise of a baseball stadium than the soothing quiet of a yoga studio, said, “We’re batting 1,000.”