The Truth about Yoga Teacher Training for ages 50 Plus

One day, when I was around 55 years old, I decided to pop in and enjoy a morning class with the yoga teacher trainees in Heartwood’s 200-hour program. It was a beautiful winter day in Florida with the sun shining bright, the temperature a perfect 75, and a teacher who had had tipped me off that she intended to deliver a mindful, nature-oriented practice. The class was being held outside to take advantage of the gentle breeze, the blooming flowers, and the peaceful ambience of Heartwood in November. I set my mat up in the back thinking I might pause and take a picture or two for the group to enjoy later. This kind of class was just what I needed today, and what a treat it was going to be to be a student rather than the teacher for that hour.

I was truly enjoying myself, but halfway through the practice, the flow got a bit more dynamic than anticipated and I dropped into child’s pose to take a break. A thought ran through my mind. Wow, I’m certainly glad I took my yoga teacher training at 48, because this is hard. I would have a hard time getting through the demands of a 200 program if I tried getting certified today.

After the practice, as I was sitting in the garden with a cup of tea watching a few students practice teaching sun salutations on the lawn, I began considering my yoga journey and all I have done and continue to do to contribute to the world through yoga. For the first few years after gaining my certification, I taught classes, but soon after, I opened a studio. Within a few years I opened another, then another. I eventually founded Heartwood Yoga Institute and began training teachers and developing what today is a 7-acre yoga facility that offers a profound healing and educational experience for hundreds of people yearly. As my career evolved, my involvement in yoga found its own cadence and purpose and in the last 15 years I have trained literally thousands of yoga teachers at the 200-, 300- and 800-hour yoga therapy level with a continually evolving career that fills me with purpose, meaning, and a respectable income. I’ve touched the lives of many people, both the students I teach directly and the students I teach indirectly as my graduates move on to create yoga communities of their own. I’ve also worked as a yoga therapist and had the honor of impacting the lives of many, many individuals whom fate had the foresight to bring to Heartwood at just the right time for us both.    

What a shame it would have been if I had avoided taking that step to formally gain a yoga certification at 48 because I didn’t want to be the “older student” in a course with mostly 30-somethings. What if I had listened to that voice that said I was too old to learn something new, and besides, what really am I going to do with yoga at this stage in life? Worse yet, what if I had waited until I was 54 to consider yoga training? At 48 I was still teaching dance and had energy, flexibility, and stamina. Little did I know what was to come just down the road, both physically and personally. I faced unexpected health challenges in my 50’s. I began having issues with arthritis, had both feet operated on, and was unprepared for the weight gain and other shifts that came with menopause. I had new personal challenges to maneuver, including a financial crash, a devastating divorce, my children leaving home, and the loss of beloved family members. Add a few more years to my maturing self and I had a massive heart attack to add to the mix.  Could I have possibly gotten through a 200-hour yoga teacher training during that decade? Probably not! Did yoga help me accept and move through that decade with grace and positivity. Absolutely! How much harder life would have been without my deeper relationship with yoga, gained thanks to a yoga certification program.

I felt good from the practice, albeit slightly frustrated that I struggled a bit, and I sat there considering my yoga journey, thankful I had done my training when I did, but also realizing that had I avoided taking that step for whatever excuses I made up, it would have been a huge loss to the world. Had I not become a yoga teacher at the ripe old age of 48 (or if I had waited longer) dozens and dozens of people whose lives I have changed would be in a very different place, not the least of which includes my own. Heartwood would not exist, and frankly, many other studios would have failed to manifest since so many of my graduates were inspired by my teaching and as result, opened businesses and forged careers and made waves of their own in the world. In my very own “It’s a Wonderful Life” moment I took stock of the measurable ways my becoming a yoga teacher was central to my service to the world.  I can say with absolute certainty that my involvement with yoga was the best decision I ever made, at any age, and my maturity has never held me back.  In fact, I believe my age and coming to yoga at midlife made my reinvented career a richer experience.        

It was in that moment, feeling my age, a little tired and sore from the yoga practice, but deeply aware of how important my yoga journey had been to both myself and others, that I decided Heartwood needed to offer a yoga teacher training for ages 50 and up. I imagined how many dynamic beautiful souls were out there with wisdom and compassion to share, who might miss the opportunity to embrace the role of yoga teacher due to perceived physical obstacles or doubt standing in the way.  Yoga teacher training shouldn’t be a physical hurdle we must get past. It should be an inspirational, positive beginning of a lifetime love affair with a practice that makes life ever more poignant and meaningful. I knew in that moment Heartwood needed to create a special program for ages 50 and up that took into account some of the challenges YTT presents to those who are not in their prime physically.

I got to work with the Heartwood staff planning Heartwood’s first RYS-200 program geared to mature students and a few months later we offered our first YTT for ages 50+ to seven enthusiastic teacher trainees. In the 8 years since, Heartwood has hosted dozens of successful RYS-200 programs for ages 50 & up in both a weekly program for local students in a course that spans months, and in a 16-day immersion format for students that choose to join us from all over the country and beyond offered twice a year. I can honestly say that some of the strongest and most successful teachers we’ve trained have come from the 50 plus program, including some of our own staff members. The graduates are in their 50’s, 60’s, even 70 and beyond. Some are extremely fit and others successfully complete the program despite MS, Parkinson’s, Autoimmune issues, Injuries, or just the lack of confidence that comes when you haven’t been in school for decades.

People often ask how the yoga program for age 50 and up differs from the Heartwood traditional 200-hour yoga program where all ages participate. To be honest, the syllabus is the same. All yoga teachers, regardless of age, must learn philosophy, anatomy, alignment, methodology, and take a deep dive into the 8 limbs of yoga. Yoga Alliance defines what a teacher must know to prove competency, and considering I’m older myself, I’ll be darned if I’m going to dummy down the program as if age narrows a person’s capacity in the area of yoga. I’m proof it doesn’t! In fact, at Heartwood we have noticed mature students are often more apt to study, practice, and connect because they are less attached to the expectation or attachment to instant gratification that often is a result of being raised in our complex society today with social media, the quicker pace of everything, and what seems to be endless options making focus and commitment to any one thing harder than it once was.

Since most mature students choose to work with others in their age group, and the teachers too must learn to take care of their own bodies as time will inevitably stress their joints, ligaments and bones regardless of how in-shape they may be, we do spend a bit more time on modifications and contraindications to provide safe and effective practices for aging bodies. We skip aggressive practices such as Ashtanga that they are less likely to use when they begin teaching, and opt to add a bonus training of Chair and Assessable yoga to round out their skillset.

But the real difference between the 50 plus program and the traditional 200 program is mostly the community that joins together to study. People who have been on this earth a little longer have shared experiences and a certain wisdom that comes from surviving life’s ups and down. Most everyone in the program has experienced loss, be it a divorce, financial problem, career change or retirement. Most everyone struggles with the complexity of aging, reinventing themselves as time and circumstance forces life in a new direction. They all wrestle with the complexities of aging parents, family dynamics, children leaving home (or not leaving home), career shifts, dealing with spouses, ex-spouses, and personal trauma. They have witnessed friends or family members pass, become caregivers, dealt with disappointment, addiction, or abuse. They have experienced firsthand the health problems that come with age, be it a torn ligament or bursitis in the shoulder, cancer, heart attack, weight gain, or some other challenge. They know without question that nothing is permanent in this life, and yet they sign up for a yoga training because they want to keep growing as an individual and they believe in the promise of endless possibilities still.

All of this makes an older practitioner uniquely qualified to be a truly remarkable yoga teacher. The empathy that comes with having suffered from and survived life’s slings and arrows opens a person to the full potential of yoga. Most importantly, maturity helps a student keep in perspective the limits of the physical practice in the greater scheme, and ego or romantic notions of being hailed the next big instafamous yoga star takes a backseat to earnest personal development and skill building to share this knowledge with others.   

Rarely does the 50 plus crowd care so much about mastering an advanced pose for their next social media post. They are less about documenting the yoga teacher training journey on Instagram and more about applying the teaching to their lives. As they grow stronger, physically, and mentally, they feel deeply inspired and called to help others gracefully maneuver through life’s challenges, the aging process, and shifts in the world. They see yoga not as a vehicle to make a killing in the wellness industry, but as a beautiful and powerful tool for acceptance, insight, and balance. And after years of sacrificing for others, mature students are ready to embrace their right to focus on themselves and to grow spiritually. And one of the greatest things I’ve witnessed in the 50 plus program is the support and acceptance the students show one another as lifetime friendships form, and the students support and empower one another to get past their obstacles and make the later chapters of life remarkable on so many levels.

These results can and should be found in any and all authentic yoga teacher training programs. But for some reasons, awareness and growth comes easier and with more lasting impact in a program where all the students share relatively the same energy, a bit of history, and a broader view of life gained from experience. The RYS-200 Yoga Teacher Training Program for ages 50 Plus at Heartwood is a good reminder that yoga is timeless, and so are we.

Ginny Shaddock is an ERYT-500 Yoga Teacher and IAYT Yoga Therapist and the founder of Heartwood Yoga Institute. Heartwood offers three RYS-200 Yoga Teacher Training Programs a year specifically for ages 50 plus; a 16 day immersion every fall and spring and a one day a week program for local students offered once a year starting in October.

Yoga and Cult Dynamics

Someone came into Heartwood Yoga Institute the other day for a tour and to get information on our yoga teacher training program. After the interview she heaved a big sigh and said, “You know, I went to another school and came close to signing up, but it just didn’t feel right. I felt like I was being encouraged to join the “Cult of Anna” (name changed out of respect to other schools and their directors). This potential student said the school she had visited adamantly proclaimed that only Anna could teach her authentic yoga as she happened to be the only true teacher in the area and beyond. Anna was made out to have almost superhuman powers with credentials that were so embellished they seemed impossible for her age.  Everyone who met or worked with Anna was in awe, not the least of whom was Anna herself. Anna was publishing books (self-published and promoted) and podcasting and healing the hearts and souls of all those who signed up for her programs. The student was told that if she signed up for training, Anna would also teach her important subjects beyond yoga, including life coaching and nutrition and other holistic concepts that could be integrated with yoga to make her an amazing teacher and therapist too.

Something about the self-proclaimed greatness and intensity of Anna’s followers didn’t sit right with this woman. “Isn’t it true that a yoga program should be teaching yoga and not all that other stuff? Isn’t it true that yoga does the healing, and not the leader of a course? And isn’t there more to becoming a yoga therapist than taking a basic yoga training course?”

My office staff just smiled at her inquiries, noncommittedly, and offered the woman information regarding our philosophy and program focus. Not only is the office staff at Heartwood trained in yoga and therefore careful not to pass judgement or try to influence people with a hard sell, but they have also attended the Heartwood Yoga for Mental Health concentrations, where cult dynamics is explored, and they understand the intricacies and varied levels of delusion this kind of adoration for a teacher or program can develop. Shifting the beliefs of anyone under the influence of cult dynamics wasn’t going to happen by blowing a big raspberry or naysaying, and it certainly wouldn’t help to proclaim you are the better solution to their quest.

Where does this loyalty to a yoga teacher begin? Often, a guru or yoga teacher begins their work with humility and best intentions, following their dharma to teach. But something happens when results are progressively positive and students start attributing their changed lives to the wisdom of the leader. Flattery and devotion develops, which certainly makes a teacher feel good at their job. As the teacher is giving lessons about non-attachment to identity and how healing comes from within, they are, at the same time, starting to believe their own story of just how good they are at helping people understand and embrace the power of yoga.  They start to identity with the exalted teacher identity thrust upon them by circumstance. Combine the expanding ego with the fact that a reputation for profound teaching does in fact increase revenue and reputation, and all the seeds of a cult dynamic have been planted. It is only a matter of time until this belief that you are more special than others takes root and blooms.

The yoga sutras warn us of this – how we must practice nonattachment to the fruits of our actions as well as nonattachment to our own desire to be more enlightened. But what we know theoretically, and what we recognize is happening in our subconscious, are very different realities.

The history of yoga in the West is filled with evidence of cult dynamics.  The very definition of a cult is a small group of very devoted supporters or fans for a person or non-mainstream ideology. Studies have revealed common denominators of why certain leaders are successful in rising to the top in all manner of groups, from political or cultural cults that we may not consider traditional cults (Check out articles on the cult of Trump or how the Ku Klux Clan is considered a cult) to religious or spiritual cults (examples to follow). The question to ask is, “What causes people to surrender themselves to others’ beliefs, suggestions and guidance unconditionally?”

People join cults because they’re looking for love and acceptance and because they want answers to the personal problems in their lives. When a magnetic person comes along with problem-solving strategies who also creates an environment of caring and community, many people are ready to give unto them whatever it takes to be included in their sphere. There is, of course, more to cult dynamics than that, but certain elements of cult mentality can be pinpointed.

  • Cults provide a feeling of comfort and inclusion for those who are uncomfortable and feel excluded from life or others.
  • People with low self-esteem are usually easily persuaded by someone with confidence who seems in charge. They want to turn over the challenge of changing their lives to anyone else.
  • New recruits are “love bombed” – meaning they are showered with acceptance and promises of how life will be so much better once they are in the community and are taught to adapt their thinking to align with the taught mentality.
  • Most people susceptible to cults are women (as studies show) and they are often people who have become disillusioned with traditional religion and therefore they are open to a new spiritual path or leader. They’ve tried other paths and are open to anything new they think might be the answer to their dissatisfaction.
  • The leader or community sells a certain logic that seems to make sense. The attitude is, “we know what you need and how the world works, and if you think like us, you too will have insight and find the answers you need.”  And this is followed by testimonials or evidence of their success.

The reasons people turn to yoga often, unfortunately, align with these bullet points. While we can all see the danger of cult dynamics in extreme ashrams and communities that slip into measurable abuse, such as sexual misconduct, controlling the money or personal choices of members and in some cases, even death pacts, we are less inclined to see behavior as “cult-like” when we are in the glow of acceptance and feel positive changes in our lives. When the manipulation of our thinking grows over time hidden behind a veil of habits that we perceive as healthy (like yoga) we fail to make a distinction between the leadership and the practice. And even if all these definitions of cult align, is it bad if it works and makes us healthier and happier? Isn’t a negative definition of the word “cult” the problem rather than the reality?

Yoga does teach us that “modification of the mind is yoga (1.2)”, and cult dynamics certainly is a modification of the mind, good or bad. But yoga also teaches us to shed our false identities and our cultural conditioning, to listen to our inner voice, and to surrender to our challenges and accept them as a karmic lesson rather than something we need outside help to conquer. This means that seeking external answers to our problems, answers that can only come through the guru or cult leader’s blessing, wisdom or attention, is the antithesis of an authentic yoga practice. The only real threat is when a yoga teacher passing on knowledge does so with inference that results can be attributed to their superiority as a mentor, rather than from the system of wholeness that is yoga. Yoga teaches us that a teacher is needed but not the answer.

Sometimes, cult dynamics form when interpretation of the teachings hint that we must trust the process (rather than our instincts) and that suffering is a part of purification. This leads a student to accept that abuse from a leader is a test of our discipline or devotion rather than what it is, abuse. When a student assumes the leader is further along the path than the student and therefore their methods have some purpose we can’t see or understand and should never question, we can develop a mindset that invites the potential for ego and opportunity to skew the healthy dynamic between a student and leader.

A little research reveals a common pattern of abuse and cult dynamics from spiritual leaders and all of us who love yoga should take note and learn from history. Netflix documentaries, such as Bikram, Yogi, Guru, Predator,  or Wild, Wild Country, about Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh point out huge abuses that seemed to develop with power.

A few insightful books I have found fascinating about yoga and cult dynamics that I encourage anyone who is inclined to adore certain yoga star teachers to read, includes:

Practice and All is Coming, Abuse, Cult Dynamics and Healing in Yoga and Beyond by Mathew Remski, an expose about Patabi Jois and Ashtanga Yoga.

Premka, White Bird in a Golden Cage. My Life with Yoga Bhajan by Pamela Saharah Dyson, a memoir about abuse and delusion in becoming the 2nd hand man to the leader of Kundalini in the West.

Into the Heart of Yoga, One Woman’s Journey by Danna Faulds, a memoir of the rise and fall of Kripalu as an ashram under the leadership of Amarit Desai and the school’s transformation to a more corporate yoga institution without a guru in the interest of following the teachings of yoga without hypocrisy.

But do these extreme cases have anything to teach us about a local yoga teacher who has a huge ego and likes to sell their services by pushing a story that they are the one and only brilliant mentor who will be highly effective at the job of teaching them self-awareness? What harm is there is loving your yoga teacher? What about all those lovely video clips on Facebook where people insist that their lives were changed thanks to this wonderful teacher so we should sign up today? Are we being naive and susceptible to marketing if we feel inspired by success stories designed to encourage us to sign up if we benefit from the experience?

I believe the best way to avoid slipping into a cult mentality and falling for a leader’s personification or a story rather than reality is to see things clearly, and the best way to do that is to educate yourself – both in what yoga actually teaches and by learning what a cult dynamic looks and feels like. (Reading the books recommended here is a great start to understanding how yoga training can sometimes fall into unhealthy patterns.)

Having a charismatic leader is wonderful. Such a person keeps us engaged and inspired and holds our attention when we might otherwise wander off the path. But when your healing or your education is attributed to the person teaching rather than the process of yoga, it is time to pause and take a step back. We just need to keep things in perspective – both our potential for healing and the importance of whomever is leading the way.

No one can take credit for your spiritual growth or enlightenment. That is a personal journey. A good teacher can help you see the path, but you must walk it yourself. The true meaning of the wisdom teachings of yoga will vary depending on each individual’s interpretation and a strong mentor knows this and invites you to question their interpretations and world view  as you form your own. Those trying to convince you that they are going to be the solution to your problems and that they have the answers you need to be whole, are likely not as far along the spiritual path as they make out.  After all, humility is the first and strongest sign of someone who understands the deepest dimensions of yoga.

Respect is one thing. Adoration and unwavering devotion for a teacher is another. Like all things in yoga, we must maintain a healthy balance.

Ginny Shaddock is an IAYT Yoga therapist and ERYT-500 Yoga teacher. She teaches Yoga for Mental Health as well as Cult Dynamics and Yoga in the 800 hour Yoga Therapy Certification Program at Heartwood Yoga Institute.

The Dilemma of Poor Yoga Training

Recently, I’ve had several students join Heartwood to repeat their 200-hour training after taking a certification program elsewhere. Repeating a program and paying tuition to a second school is an expensive choice to make, but one they felt was necessary. A few students have also signed up for our advanced 300-hour training, but not without first voicing concerns and expressing worry that their prerequisite foundational education (200-hour training) was inadequate.

“I just didn’t learn anything,” or “I didn’t know enough at the end to teach anyone anything,” they lament.  They claim they wasted time and money; sorry they didn’t seek out a more comprehensive program with qualified mentors from the beginning. Often the problem was that they selected a program because it was convenient or inexpensive or they couldn’t resist a hard sell from their local yoga school. They began the journey unaware of just how involved the subject of yoga would turn out to be or what other options they could have pursued. The pandemic provided new provisions to the rules of certification that opened the doorway to many fly-by-night programs flooding the ranks with “certified” yoga teachers who are inadequately prepared to mentor others. These programs, sometimes only consisting of prerecorded content and/or huge numbers of participants with little supervision and little or no actual mentorship, were a disservice to individuals who wanted to learn yoga, but also a disservice to yoga itself. It will take years for the ripple effect of unqualified teachers misrepresenting yoga to subside, if ever.

That said, the more you know about yoga, the more you realize you don’t know, and awareness of how expansive yoga is can be overwhelming. The students who came to me participated in a 200-hour program with best intentions, not expecting to be left with a nagging sensation that there had to be more to the practice than what was offered. This left them feeling inauthentic, but luckily their desire to learn more about yoga was still intact.

I can’t help but admire a student who is repeating their training or coming in with humility admitting they have a bit of catching up to do. Such is the act of someone who cares and wants to be the best yogi and teacher they can be. The student’s willingness to take a step backwards and start over is the best sign I know that a remarkable yogi is in the making, because their journey is not about ego or career goals.

In cases like this I always want to acknowledge the students’ earnest desire to learn, reminding them that moving forward is much more important than looking backwards. No good comes from criticizing or being frustrated with whatever program didn’t prepare you as you had hoped. Yes, it is annoying when people take your money for a quick sell and it can be disheartening to see so many people enter programs, do the work, and come out with a watered down, superficial understanding of the practice. But yoga teaches us that no effort is really wasted, and process is far more important than measurable achievement, so perhaps the long, winding journey they took, which included the cumbersome detour of participation in a less authentic program, will be important to their deeper understanding of yoga in the end.

One thing is for sure: these disappointed students became aware of what yoga isn’t, and that can be valuable information. One of the yoga sutras (1:14 – Sa Tu Dirgha Kala Nairantary Satkarasevito Drdhabhumih) says that yoga takes a long time, over many years, in small incremental doses, (practice with all earnestness) to work. Nowhere in the yoga sutras does it say that in 200 hours you will be enlightened and know everything you need to know. Our arrogance in believing that we will be qualified to lead others and have all the information we might need about yoga after an RYS-200 program, even a wonderfully comprehensive one, is rather silly.

Many people with inadequate training don’t care about the deeper dimensions of yoga as long as they can claim to be certified and can begin the work of teaching or “selling yoga classes.” People don’t know what they don’t know, and sadly, their evolution halts due to false confidence, misinformation, or the assumption that they have achieved their goal of becoming a yoga teacher because they have the credential to prove it. They then pass on this innocent ignorance to their students with claims that all that other stuff they don’t know or teach is unnecessary for practitioners today. They’ve done fine without the additional information and yoga works for them, so their students will do fine too.

Yoga has evolved and developed over thousands of years, and the system of wholeness which is the real yoga is carefully outlined in both the Bhagavad Gita and the yoga sutras. Asana, the physical practice, is only mentioned in 2% of the 196 Patanjali sutra teachings. So, when a program puts postures in a position of such importance, or a teacher claims that classic yoga is outdated and the practice is overdue to evolve and change to better conform to the needs of contemporary society, they are, in effect, claiming that one can omit 98% of yoga’s core to make the practice more palatable for our fast-paced, goal-oriented society. That huge an adjustment isn’t evolution so much as a total reinvention, one where everything that defines authentic yoga is being ignored or tossed out to make the practice appealing to instant gratification-oriented people today. One can argue that old school yoga is exactly what our contemporary practitioners need most, and that our desire to make the practice more commercially appealing and “Westernized” is proof of how desperately we need the personal discipline and patience that classical yoga delivers.

Yoga is not a religion, exercise, or means of entertainment. Yoga is a system to open one’s heart and mind to bring us back to wholeness and connect with our spirituality. The yoga sutras teach us how to explore our way of thinking and interacting with the world to get past our obstacles, which are defined as Kleshas: ego, attachment, diversions, fears, and ignorance. The pursuit of pleasure and desire for quick satisfaction can be powerful motivation for wanting to make yoga more palatable and contemporary. Teachers who have not taken time to contemplate and understand the teachings lead the charge in professing how and why old school yoga studies are obsolete, which contributes to a classic case of the blind leading the blind.

Let me point out that I see the value of making the practice palatable and fun, for that is a great way to bring new practitioners to the altar of yoga. But when spiritual entertainment is the goal, rather than the means to invite people to move beyond initial entertainment to awaken one’s spiritual core, then the potential of yoga falls short.

“1.1 -Atha Yoganusasanam” means now the exposition of yoga is being made.

This, the first sutra, reminds us that every day, every hour, every moment we must begin again, leaving behind our attachments, our assumptions, what we think we know, our conditioning and our expectations. We must nurture our beginner’s mind and be open to new personal insight and deeper understanding as we explore our own interpretation of the teachings as they relate to our ever-expanding life experience. Yoga has withstood thousands of years of people either honoring or questioning the teachings as well as the practice. It has been a mainstay spiritual endeavor not just for Vedic cultures and our contemporary society, but for many, many generations in between, in India and on different continents. 

Some say, “people change and so too must yoga,” but most historians and philosophers will point out that people really don’t change. The environment we live in may change, but we are all, at the core, still creatures of instinct, conditioning, and karma, motivated by a drive to be loved, to love and to live our purpose. Contemporary practitioners aren’t the only ones who’ve been impatient with the teachings. Mankind has always balked at the hard work involved with true spiritual growth. There is even a sutra referencing this, (2.1 Tapah Svadhyayesvara Pranidhanani Kriya Yogah) that warns us that purification is going to be difficult and painful, so this path is not for the lazy or weak of heart.

Yoga’s classic teachings help us connect to our best nature, teaching us step by step how to awaken the witness and see life more honestly.  Self-love, healing, compassion, and tolerance is an inevitable result. These outcomes are what everyone is trying to sell today, so perhaps instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, we should all go back to Yoga’s roots and start our yoga education over from the beginning, just as those brave students have done by registering for our 200-hour YTT program, despite the fact that they have a piece of paper claiming they are certified from an online program already.

What would be easier, of course, would be for students to do research before taking an RYS-200 program to be sure that all 8 limbs will be addressed with equal importance and a sense of the sacred. One on one interaction with a teacher is not just nice, but vital. The discussions, questions and answers, and connections formed through personal interaction with a mentor is the only way to develop a heart knowing, rather than an intellectual understanding. The sutra (1:26 Sa Purvesam Api guruh Kalenanavacchedat) tells us we all need a teacher or guru for guidance, and the role of this teacher is to build our relationship with the ultimate teacher; the transcendent essence within us.   

At Heartwood, we try to make graduations from our 200-hour program special, as we believe completing the program is a wonderful, personal achievement. But being certified is not the crowning glory of yoga education. Formal training, be it a 200, 300 or yoga therapy program, is just the doorway into a lifetime of more poignant, insightful understanding about life, self and yoga.  

Yoga is so much more than physical practices we can memorize and then regurgitate to others, and any quality program will make that ultimately clear. So, if your yoga education so far hasn’t gone deep enough, chalk it up to a karmic test of your fortitude as a student. Put ego aside, proceed with humility and beginner’s mind, and do what it takes to get on the right path.  

How to Learn the Yoga Sutras

In my early years as a Western born and bred yoga teacher, I felt somewhat intimidated by what I viewed as the mystical, unfamiliar, Indian philosophy element of yoga. I sincerely wanted to understand the teachings and so I read a multitude of books, sat through lectures, and pursued the spiritual view of yoga with best intent. Still, my understanding was surface level at best. I believed Eastern philosophy was a “big subject” and therefore assumed someone more advanced than I was necessary to capture and explain the wisdom, and so I hired others who claimed to have a grasp on the concepts to teach the philosophy portion of yoga teacher training at my school. The problem was, while I hired several different individuals to cover this competency, there still wasn’t clarification for me or my students, and we were often left more confused than when we began. These philosophy teachers did indeed explain the meaning of certain concepts, such as the Yamas and Niyamas, but something was definitely missing. Memorization and definitions just failed to transfer the feeling of spirituality that I believed would be a part of deeper knowledge. I knew the teachings were meant to aid transformation and spiritual development, but the way they were being presented continued to portray the meaning in a theoretical way rather than something more sacred. Yes, the conversations about the Yamas and Niyamas were impactful, but I couldn’t help but be aware that our humanity kept us slipping backwards when we weren’t in that yoga frame of mind. The philosophy teachers I employed delivered a cohesive lecture on how a yogi should interact with the world, but I would occasionally look at their Facebook posts and couldn’t help but wonder if they knew this stuff so well, why they didn’t seem to “live” the philosophy in ways that honored one’s true potential as a yogi.  

I have always believed that sometimes, if you want something done right, you just may have to do it yourself. So, I determined that if I wanted this subject taught differently, I would have to be the philosophy teacher at Heartwood. The fact that I was still quite unsure of how all the information integrated was a moot point. I would figure it out, not just for my benefit, but for all the students yet to come. So, I plunged into yoga philosophy for a period of five years or so before I felt even the initial inklings of competency. I continued to teach what I knew, but I also knew I needed to know more.  I read books, listened to famous gurus, and took online classes with schools I admired and trusted. I gained an academic view from college level courses that combined historical & cultural explanations with intended meaning and tried to combine that with spiritual approaches that included meditating on the teachings and humbly listening to older, more experienced teachers with authentic ties to Indian culture in some odd hope that just being in a guru’s presence would bring insight because being Indian makes a teacher more authentic. (Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.)

All this seeking certainly gave me information to share. I knew the yoga sutras by number, could share the story and themes of the Bhagavad Gita, and had broken down the important concepts of the 13 primary Upanishads. But what forced me to deepen my understanding was less my studies and more a result of teaching yoga philosophy to others. To teach is to learn and each time I sat with a circle of students, their inquiries forced me to question the meaning and intention of each sutra. As I struggled to find the words to explain what was really a felt sense of meaning, I progressively deepened my relationship with a worldview that provided a new understanding of life, the mind, and our place in the world. Devotion to the teachings doesn’t come from blind faith or being enamored with the idea of Eastern studies. That is more infatuation with Indian concepts. I found real life application and questioning the yoga sutras, only to find their wisdom impossible to deny, set the stage for embracing them earnestly.

Still, I found it impossible to transfer a sense of the sacred to newer yoga students in the 40 hours allocated to philosophy and history in a yoga teacher training course. I did my best to set a great foundation for my students and many have proclaimed that the philosophy portions of YTT have changed their worlds. But I also was aware that my lectures, however well-intentioned and heartfelt, had only opened the doorway to each individual’s relationship with these teachings. The possibility that my mostly-American yoga students would walk through that yoga door and go on their own intimate journey with the teachings seemed remote. People are just too busy in modern society to wander into the forest for 14 years to meditate and contemplate the teachings as they did in ancient times. In the modern world, our short attention span and determination to have measurable outcomes to validate our investment of time and energy into anything has us wanting to quickly mark a subject as complete so we can move on to learning more stuff.

How could I possibly teach my yoga students, (all of whom I respect and believe to be well intentioned seekers) to do more than sit and listen to my lectures as one more necessary endeavor or “assignment” they had to do to become certified so they could lead others along the path? How could I awaken their humility, so they understood that what they believe they had grasped wasn’t true knowledge, but only intellectual understanding? Were my students worthy of teaching others if their relationship with the yoga sutras was little more than memorizing the meaning to package up and pass the information on, just as they planned to apply the information about alignment or sequencing to future classes?

I don’t mean to sound sarcastic, but I know what a barrier the practical mindset creates for new yogis. I commonly get asked, “How do I use this when I’m teaching?” as if all the information they receive in YTT is designed to be utilitarian in their career. I thought the same way when I was a newer yoga teacher, dreaming of a fulfilling career helping others as I aspired to share the amazing practice that I loved.

I was lucky. The dissatisfaction I felt over the hired teachers’ outcomes and a nagging need “to know” forced me on a personal journey of yoga philosophy far beyond what I ever had use for as a teacher or YTT trainer.  I became a believer in the deeper dimensions of yoga beyond the intellect, and the quest to know became a personal practice rather than part of my career skillset. As I came to rest in the teachings and develop a richer, profound heart knowing, I began wrestling with the problem of how to teach philosophy in a way that encourages students to channel their energies and tackle the obstacles standing in the way in respect to our shorter attention spans and the belief that we must have measurable utility for anything we bother to devote time to.

Encouraging students to sit with the teachings was of foremost importance. So, I began gifting my students with a beautiful journal from India, encouraging my students to meditate on the sutras not only through sitting in stillness, but through writing. I created dozens of journaling prompts which I hoped would instigate an internal conversation with self, allowing the writer to apply the concepts of the yoga sutras to their own life experience. I next added a broken bowl project ceremony to my training where students would hopefully reflect on their lives in the breaking of a bowl, and then create art from reconstructing the shattered pieces. This was followed by intention setting (which in my YTT is always a review of the yoga philosophy teachings as they can be applied to bringing us back to wholeness) so the broken bowl art project served as a symbolic opportunity to see the sutras’ value in the complex story of our own lives.

But the technique I have loved most of all has been a project I designed for my advanced 300 students: to begin a yoga sutra art journal. While very few of them finish the project to its full potential (my art journal took over three years to complete and I’ve recently begun revisiting each page and adding to it, so my journal will never be done) my students must do at least 10 pages to graduate, which invites them to spend a bit more time with at least ten of the individual sutras as a sampling of what it is to “sit with” a teaching and be absorbed with finding the meaning for a longer period. The art journal is a way of teaching process, not production.

Art journaling is the process of layering. You begin by putting gesso on a page to make paper into a canvas. When that dries, you cover the page with color or inks. That too must dry before you add additional paint with stencils, leaves or other textured items, such as mandalas or other designs. This layer must dry before you can add markers, text, Sanskrit, pictures, or anything else. I won’t get into the details and techniques of art journaling here but to say that to complete a page in your art journal requires revisiting the page 8 or more times if you are not just rushing through the process without thought. And each time the artist returns to a page, they read and consider the meaning of the sutra to contemplate how they might visually capture the essence on the page. This quiet work, striving to capture the meaning of the sutra as per your own interpretation, is a meditation of its own.  And with each page demanding continued thought and time, it invites the artist to sit with the teaching much longer than they might without the project to keep them engaged. Even the small joy that comes from watching the visual interpretation take shape becomes inspiration to keep with the page – and as result, the sutra.

Students do have to get past any issues they have with attachment – such as the avoidance syndrome that comes from not feeling good at art or wanting perfection on the page. Detaching from any desire to create beautiful art is important if they want to actually get lost in discovery and honoring the sutra. I myself am often intimidated by art and don’t feel gifted when it comes to painting or drawing, and yet, I’ve learned that creativity can be a tantric endeavor, and working on my sutra journal isn’t about art at all and is actually about sitting with the teachings and using creativity to see the sutra in a new way. My finished art journal sparks reflection and meditation and I use it as a teaching tool as well, often putting the colorful visual pages on an altar to create ambiance and spark curiosity for sutra discussions.

Creating a yoga sutra art journal is a big commitment, and not for everyone. Doing so takes time and materials and most of all, patience. But for those who respond to a more entertaining, engaging act of study, this project can be a powerful instrument for learning and developing a deep relationship with the wisdom of yoga. Just as mantras or mudras and other forms of tantra can be an instrument for “crossing over” to deeper dimensions of spirituality, so too can the yoga sutra art journal take you to a new level of understanding.

Ginny Shaddock is the owner and spiritual teacher at Heartwood Yoga Institute. She is an ERYT-500 Yoga Teacher and C-IAYT Yoga Therapist.

Our latest podcast!

14 – The Five Koshas and Yoga Therapy Yoga Perspectives

In this episode, Denver Clark, ERYT-500 and IAYT Yoga Therapist, discusses the five Koshas and how they can be integrated into yoga classes and yoga therapy sessions. She offers theory and practice insight as well as exercises that can be integrated with asana to increase a student's awareness and open channels of understanding. 
  1. 14 – The Five Koshas and Yoga Therapy
  2. 013: Ahimsa and the Gunas
  3. 012: How to Learn the Yoga Sutras
  4. 011 – Yoga is not diet culture
  5. 010 – Setting Boundaries

A New Podcast. Heartwood is Taking to the Air!

About a year ago, after a series of morning philosophy lectures, a student turned to me and said, “I wish you had a podcast. I could listen to these conversations forever.” As someone with more on my plate than I have time for already I kind of chuckled and said , “Someday maybe . . .”

Of course, all it takes is an idea or intention for set off the spark of creation, or so that is yoga’s theory about how all things come into being. This led to many conversations with the staff that ended with “and one of these days we really should get around to . . .”

During Covid we were inundated with the task of developing online programs and the thought of adding one more project to our aspirations was quickly filed in the “future” basket. But recently, we found we had not only caught up to our to-do list but had time and space to begin considering what would be the most helpful and supportive way to move forward and support our students while also expanding our relationship with teaching. And the podcast idea came up again.

Now, in theory I was all for our starting a podcast. In reality, the concept was quite intimidating. I am not technology savvy, and while I had no difficulty making extensive lists of subject matter I’l love to cover in a Podcast, the actual steps I’d have to take to learn how to record, edit, publish, get listed on various platforms etc. was overwhelming. Podcasting is a new generation thing, and I am a baby-boomer who still has trouble figuring out my I-phone.

But I am, if nothing else, a good student who loves learning new things. So I took a course on how to Podcast. For a month or so, I worked with my online mentor, fascinated and excited at embarking on a new form of communication to do the thing I love most – teach.

So here it is, the New Heartwood Podcast, Yoga Perspectives. Denver and I, as directors of Heartwood, are the primary hosts, but many people will be invited to join us – people who have information, insight, and inspiration to share. We are lucky to have such a vibrant community of authentic yogis visiting Heartwood often for trainings or yoga experiences, and much of the content of our podcast is inspired by heartfelt questions, shared insight, and the recognition of a lack of understanding when our industry shifts. The podcast is valuable to anyone who wants to learn the deeper dimensions of yoga; however, our slant will be towards material for yoga teachers since our work circles around supporting and educating instructors and mentors.

In the first month of podcasting, I enjoyed a few remarkable interviews with students we have trained, but who I knew had their own wisdom and experience to share as yoga teachers. For example, Jim Dant is a Baptist Minister and after a fascinating conversation we shared where he explained the remarkable similarities between the yoga sutras he was studying with us and his Christian teachings I asked him if he’d like to be featured in our podcast. His insight and references are powerful and clear up many assumptions that often interfere with Westerners fully embracing yoga’s teachings. Cody Mcneeley, another graduate of Heartwood, is developing a program for LGBTQ youth, a subject that explores not just the meaning of yoga for LGBTQ, but the challenges this community faces and why they are attracted to yoga as a path to healing, and he joined me to explain why it is important for a yoga teacher to develop awareness and how and why to create safe spaces for this community.

Our podcasts are exploring issues such as how a Yoga teacher can and should set boundaries, Whether or not joining Yoga Alliance is important to one’s career and involvement in the industry, The perils of Spiritual Materialism (or immaturity) and how a yoga teacher can remain true to the teachings while also establishing a sustainable business (Yoga teaching and money). With a list 5 pages long of subjects we can’t wait to discuss, I see our podcast covering a great deal of ground in a way that sparks thought, action and brings clarity to yoga teachers who long to grow and deepen their authenticity as well as their practice.

We hope everyone will give Yoga Perspectives a listen. Subscribe so you never miss a post. Like us and send us your thoughts or suggestions for future broadcasts. The more people who join the conversation the broader awareness develops not just for the listener, but for everyone he or she teaches as well.

You can find Yoga Perspectives on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, Podcast Addict and several other forums. We hope you will join us!

14 – The Five Koshas and Yoga Therapy Yoga Perspectives

In this episode, Denver Clark, ERYT-500 and IAYT Yoga Therapist, discusses the five Koshas and how they can be integrated into yoga classes and yoga therapy sessions. She offers theory and practice insight as well as exercises that can be integrated with asana to increase a student's awareness and open channels of understanding. 
  1. 14 – The Five Koshas and Yoga Therapy
  2. 013: Ahimsa and the Gunas
  3. 012: How to Learn the Yoga Sutras
  4. 011 – Yoga is not diet culture
  5. 010 – Setting Boundaries

RCYT- the designation that makes a registered children’s yoga teacher trustworthy.

Adventures in movement & mindfulness

 Instilling the values of kindness, respect for the environment, self-confidence and tolerance, are vital tools for living a responsible, enriching life in today’s fast paced world. Helping kids learn these mindsets has become ever more important to parents frustrated with the task of raising conscientious kids in a culture that leans more and more towards an instant gratification mentality.  Over-exposure to the media continues to set an ever-higher standard of perfection on young developing minds, so it’s no wonder kid’s today struggle with feelings of inadequacy and/or depression. Add to this the fact that children today have also become increasingly dependent upon technology to stay connected, a method of communication that enhances feelings of alienation while stunting the development of basic social skills, makes raising healthy and balanced children harder than ever . But rather than turning to therapy or medications to help children handle their confusion and stress, many parents are turning to yoga. The practice is non-competitive, gender neutral, and filled with positive benefits. Yoga gives children a sense of accomplishment, self-esteem, and worthiness. Thanks to the fact that yoga doesn’t require special clothes, shoes, or equipment, the classes are often more affordable than alternate afterschool enrichment activities too.

The problem is just any yoga class will not suffice. Yoga classes designed for adults require a certain maturity, and as such they are not appealing to younger students who come to the mat with shorter attention spans and excessive energy, nor do they address the unique challenges facing kids today. Youth orientated yoga needs to approach the subject differently, with yoga postures and principals taught through intriguing games, stories, and exercises designed to build self awareness, respect for others and the interconnectedness of all beings.  For this reason, franchised programs such as Radiant child, Yogakids, Karmakids and others, have experienced unprecedented growth as teachers and yoga professionals flock to seminars to learn how to introduce children appropriately and successfully to yoga to keep them engaged and excited by yoga’s poignant lessons.   

 For the last few years, youth yoga has been hovering on the outskirts of mainstream activities with classes popping up in preschools, gym classes, YMCA’s, daycares and at local yoga studios. Parents looking to find a yoga class for their child can begin by searching the internet for programs, but it is best to seek out Yoga Alliance Certified Children instructor’s with the RCYT designation.

To become a RCYT, a yoga teacher must first have an RYT-200 designation. The children’s training is considered continuing education and not a substitute for the formal training every yoga teacher is meant to have. The standards set by Yoga Alliance for RCYT prepares teachers to use games, creative movement, focused activities, art, and stories to teach not only the postures of yoga, but personal ethics, breath techniques, and compassion for the environment and more while also enhancing health and emotional balance.  RCYT programs (Registerd Children Yoga Teacher) also address trauma informed work for kids and how to address hyperactivity, ADD and more.   With themes such as recycling, endangered species, non-judgement and other key concepts, an RCYT instructor approaches each class as an opportunity for an enriched understanding of the individual’s role in connecting to the natural world, community, and personal spirit. A powerful youth yoga class will venture far beyond the teaching of postures named after animals or basic yoga games and address the full individual in a koshic (mind, body, spirit) context.     

 Heartwood Yoga Institute offers a RCYT program called Yoga for the Balanced Child. The course is designed by Ginny East Shaddock, not only the founder of Heartwood but also the creator of Kiddance, a nationally recognized children’s creative dance program that lead the way in children’s dance education for over 30 years. Yoga for the Balanced Child is appropriate for teachers, childcare givers, yoga teachers and anyone who is interested in engaging children in yoga in a manner that puts creativity and positive reinforcement at the heart of every lesson (but to earn the RCYT designation participants must also be an RYT-200. The two certifications can be attained in any order). Teachers learn creative approaches to teaching yoga by incorporating laughter yoga, cooperative partner games, music inspired movement games, imagination meditations and more. Traditional yoga techniques, such as Pranayama (breath techniques) are taught with pinwheels, feathers, and ping pong balls, while story-time yoga opens discussions on personal ethics and the teachings of the yoga sutras.  With a comprehensive syllabus filled with hours of yoga concepts, sequencing ideas, and class themes, the graduates learn to make classes as fun as they are educational. The training also includes lectures on youth anatomy and mental health issues facing young people today, enhancing a yoga teacher’s understanding and sensitivity to social issues, rauma informed youth classes, medications, and physical challenges children ages 3 to teen deal with.

 All yoga alliance certification programs include 95 hours of comprehensive training to prepare future yoga teachers with theme based and targeted material that will reinforce positive goals for young people while also addressing anatomy, physiology, methodology and appropriate postures for young students. This includes 42 hours of in-person training with qualified trainers and 30 hours of practicum teaching, and additional time devoted to mentorship and studies.

Heartwood schedules their one-week youth yoga camp overlapping this certification program, a creative way to provide RCYT teachers hands on experience working with kids as well as opportunities to fulfill their practicum hours as well.  Not only does this combined scheduling give new children’s yoga teachers a great platform to practice what they are learning under the guidance of mentors, but it results in an amazing summer camp experience for the kids too, who enjoy a ratio of 2 adult, certified teachers to every 4 or 5 kids.

Kids today face complex issues. They deserve teachers who understand and are willing to devote their own time and energy to being the best youth yoga mentors they can be. Whether a teacher takes a formal Yoga Alliance Children’s certification program locally, hops into an online offering (only available now for a short time due to Covid) or travels to one of the national franchise schools for their specialized education, the willingness of a yoga teacher to put in the effort, time, and financial investment that is part of earning an RCYT is a wonderful indication of their commitment to becoming a skilled mentor to a new generation of yogis.  

YTT: The road to someplace new

Yoga has a way of touching people in the deepest recesses of their heart and mind. It calls to individuals in need of internal peace, a softer way of living, and to those carrying the burden of unresolved issues. Many students begin a yoga practice hoping to conjure up a bit of health and fitness, and indeed gain some flexibility or a lighter body.   People don’t always know why yoga feels good, but they know there must be something special about the practice because in addition to the physical benefits, yoga leaves them feeling stirred up emotionally, deeply calm or surprisingly at peace. 

When yoga students begin to recognize the poignant side effects beyond the physical benefits of stretching, they become seekers. A seeker is someone who looks beyond the mat to understand the physiological, emotional and energetic benefits of yoga, elements which open doorways to deeper connections that forever shift the way one interacts with others, the environment and their own sense of self. 

Once a student discovers yoga as a path to personal growth and wellness, the typical hour long class on the mat can feel limiting. There is a sense that there is more to yoga, but what exactly and how does one learn the deeper elements of the practice?

The physical practice of yoga is a metaphor for life, but it takes a guru or powerful teacher to help a student see that and to understand how to use the tools of yoga to enhance their life and perhaps the lives of others. This, more than any other reason, is why so many people choose to enroll in RYS-200 yoga teacher training programs.  It is exciting to imagine a career as a yoga teacher (or even a part time job to pay for your own yoga classes and workshops if nothing else) but it is even more enticing to dive deeper into the self-discovery of yoga as a path to empowerment and self-actualization. 

Yoga teacher training does exactly that. It teaches people the hows and whys of sharing yoga with others, but more importantly, it unveils the less obvious elements of yoga that leads to transformation and personal enlightenment. Yoga Teacher Training is an unfolding that begins with the familiar – learning the correct way to do poses. Anatomy, sequencing, hands on adjustments and corrections are an important part of learning to be a teacher, but the physical practice of yoga is only one of the eight limbs that make up a viable yoga practice, so a great deal more must be introduced, explored and practiced to become an authentic yogi. RYS-200 courses venture beyond the mat to explore pranayama (breath work) meditation, concentration, philosophy and the difference between western attitudes and eastern approaches to health and wellness. Studying the energy systems, such as quantum healing, chakra theory, and marma points, opens a practioner’s eyes to a whole new level of physical, mental and spiritual understanding.  People who have studied yoga for years and years participate and most will agree – the more you learn about yoga, the more you realize you don’t know. That makes the entire YTT process a great adventure. Expanding awareness is like seeing the world anew. One should not worry about how much they don’t know, and instead be excited for all there is to learn.

At Heartwood the most important part of YTT comes after students have studied the basics of the eight limbs.  Students are guided through intention setting sessions where they begin exploring their own lives, experiences, and relationships in a yogic context. Applying the tools of yoga often leads to a softening of their outlooks and attitudes and they begin healing themselves.  This is not only important so that each individual feels more whole and enriched by yoga training, but so future teachers learn firsthand how deeply powerful yoga can be. When a teacher experiences the healing aspects of yoga personally, they become passionate healers themselves and they go on to teach with conviction and purpose.

Heartwood does not focus on one lineage or style of yoga, and instead exposes the students to a variety of the most popular yoga techniques in America today. By comparing, contrasting and considering yoga beyond its commercial form students uncover the authentic core of yoga beyond the ego, hype and preconceived assumptions associated to defined methods. A diverse foundation is vital to preparing teachers for a variety of employment opportunities too.  A broad-based approach also gives students a wider understanding of yoga’s endless diversity and helps them serve different populations while also discovering and evolving their own voice and style. Just as a college student often receives a liberal arts education before committing to a major in grad school, a broad-based yoga foundation prepares a student to consider the many directions they can take their career or future studies.  

A competent yoga teacher must learn more than how to guide a class through a series of postures. They must learn to integrate all the teachings into the practice. This is the difference between teaching authentic yoga and teaching calisthenics with yoga poses.

A competent yoga teacher must learn more than how to guide a class through a series of postures. They must learn to integrate all the teachings into the practice. this is the difference between teaching authentic yoga and At Heartwood, we encourage teachers to embrace their creativity, instinct, and draw on life experiences to teach people, not poses. A great teacher does more than regurgitate concepts or words that have been programed in by someone else. They must live their yoga and be an example for others.

At Heartwood, we encourage teachers to embrace their creativity, instinct, and draw on life experiences to teach people, not poses. A great teacher does more than regurgitate concepts or words that have been programed in by someone else. They must live their yoga and be an example for others.

Students’ come to yoga teacher training thinking they know exactly what they want from the course, but they often leave with an entirely different idea of yoga and their place in the bigger scheme.  That is what transformation is all about. You just have to begin the journey with non-attachment, because you never know what you will find or where yoga will lead. All you can be sure of is that a deeper study of yoga will lead you someplace new and different. That is the foundation of every great adventure.   

What defines a yoga therapist versus a skilled yoga teacher?

Many people assume yoga, in general, is therapeutic and therefore all yoga teachers with experience and training can call themselves a yoga therapist. But there is a big difference between teaching what might be an incredibly good yoga class or private lesson and being an authentic yoga therapist. In fact, the difference is so defined that any yoga teacher who is a member of Yoga Alliance must sign an affidavit that they will not call themselves a yoga therapist unless they have formal training in yoga therapy. Of course, that doesn’t stop many yoga teachers from claiming to be yoga therapists despite their agreement not to do so, even though, should they be turned in, the penalty is dismissal from the Yoga Alliance organization. So why do yoga teachers still claim to be yoga therapists even though they have agreed not to use the title? Usually, it is not because they are trying to pass themselves off as something they are not, but more a case where they themselves don’t know the difference between authentic yoga therapy and being a skilled yoga teacher.  Ignorant of the scope of a yoga therapist’s education and roles, they figure they deserve the title, with or without the training. Unfortunately, anyone claiming to be a yoga therapist who is not IAYT certified is most likely not aware of the intricacies of yoga therapy and are unlikely to be following the protocol or delivering authentic yoga therapy services.

A trained yoga therapist not only learns yoga asana, pranayama, meditation, philosophy, Ayurveda, and refined elements of classical yoga as all advanced yoga teachers do, but is trained to understand pathologies, common treatments and medications, psychological impacts, and have sensitivity training in many areas. They have spent hours reviewing case studies to learn how to approach health challenges in the most effective way, teaching them to see past the obvious injuries or disorders to recognize the complex issues that result from being in each particular state of ill health. It is almost as if a yoga therapist is a talk therapist, physical therapist, and occupational therapist rolled into one with the platform of yoga as their healing modality. In most cases, clients are working with one or more of the healing professionals mentioned above and the yoga therapist is not meant to replace any of these health professionals, but to support their work and be a part of a team assisting an individual on their healing journey. Because of this, a yoga therapist must also learn how to keep professional records which are maintained according to legal and ethical standards, ready to be shared with other health professionals at any time while protecting the client-therapist confidentiality.  This is why a certified yoga therapist can work in hospitals, health clinics, or care facilities, and the yoga therapy field is recognized by the medical community and many insurance providers. While many doctors will recommend yoga as a good option, the Mayo Clinic and other esteemed health clinics recommend yoga therapists (and they hire the same) on their site for people dealing with serious mental or physical ailments because, while the average person may not understand the difference between yoga classes and yoga therapy, health professionals recognize that these are indeed separate experiences. Yoga in general can be good for everyone, but yoga therapy is the better choice for someone dealing with serious or compound health issues.

This does not mean a seasoned yoga teacher can’t help people with a wide range of issues even if they are not an actual yoga therapist. A qualified yoga teacher with experience and expansive training may be able to help an individual with many ailments of body, mind, or spirit, such as depression, anxiety, a torn rotator cuff, hip or knee replacement, or cancer. But a yoga therapist is trained not to just understand pathology and pair yoga practices to the issue at hand to relieve pain or discomfort, but to treat the individual one on one with the aim not of “healing” the issue but helping to enhance the quality of life for someone living with debilitating diseases, ailments, or states of suffering.

For example, if a client named Betsy is dealing with cancer and seeking yoga privates to help her on a healing journey, a great yoga teacher can learn something about cancer and prepare a class that will be appropriate. But a yoga therapist will prepare a session not just for someone with cancer, but for Betsy, who happens to have cancer. Before the first session, the yoga therapist will do a full assessment that includes physical analysis, ayurvedic dosha test, and an interview that includes many questions about how Betsy is handling her cancer emotionally, physically, and spiritually. The treatment Betsy is going through, medications taken, how cancer is affecting her family life, work, and self-image will all be noted. The culmination of this diverse information is key to the development of a yoga treatment plan that will be truly effective.  The yoga therapist will know the different side effects and responses Betsy may have to radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, or medication therapy, and how these different treatment paths affect the body on every koshic level. Her sessions will be designed to help Betsy with the physical, mental and emotional issues connected to her particular cancer, including not only postures to address her physical pain or exhaustion, but other issues such as sleep disorders, fear for the future, loss of confidence in one’s body, anger, or a host of other issues that may result from living with cancer or going through treatment.  

While one person with cancer may have a feisty determination to “beat this thing,” and not want to be treated any differently than they were before their diagnosis, another may feel depression and fear. That said, depression manifests differently for different dosha types and as result must be addressed  in unique ways for each individual. Yoga for depression is not as simple as offering heart openers, restorative yoga, or self-love meditations. Yoga for depression is different for a kapha type for whom it manifests as lethargy verses a pitta who becomes angry or hyperactive or may be in denial. And inspiring a client to follow through and be committed to home practice or recommended exercises is a part of yoga therapy too. All of the factors which can be addressed with yoga are taken into consideration by a qualified yoga therapist, who would also be ready and able to discuss the treatment plan with Betsy’s oncologist, therapist, or anyone else involved with her healing journey.

As an accredited yoga training facility, Heartwood has students who often begin training with an eye toward becoming an IAYT certified yoga therapist even before they have a comprehensive understanding of what the field entails. Many students are  enthralled with the idea of becoming a yoga therapist because they assume the credential will separate them from the pack and assure they will be taken seriously. It is true that not all RYT-500 yoga teachers are equal and the title doesn’t guarantee a yoga teacher is qualified or even well educated, while an IAYT certification does guarantee a high standard of education and experience . Also, within the next year, there will be a standardized test worldwide that yoga therapists must take to validate their professional standing, just as chiropractors or massage therapists must pass a test to become licensed, further establishing a yoga therapist as a professional in the field of yoga.   But even with the qualifiers, yoga therapy is not the best path for all yoga teachers.

For many, being an advanced RYT-500 yoga teacher is enough to support their long-term career plans and for them to be an agent of healing and support for many, many people. For others, the path of yoga therapy is a calling. These teachers are likely suited to the professional demands of working with other health care professionals and often feel deeply inspired and committed to helping alleviate suffering at all levels. In many cases, people already in healing fields, such as therapists, nurses and counselors find yoga therapy a perfect complimentary service to add to their careers. There are also students who simply want to dive deeper and learn more about yoga as a healing path, and yoga therapy provides a deeper understanding and commitment to this process.  

At Heartwood, we try to guide students in career planning, reminding them their decisions should not be about having a fancy title or recognized credential, but about how they hope to be of service with their yoga. Whether one is simply a highly qualified yoga teacher with best intentions to help people heal and grow spiritually, or an IAYT yoga therapist who works one on one to enhance lives with yoga as the tool for personal transformation and healing, it is important that each student explore their personal dharma and spiritual calling to know what path they are meant to follow. Just as yoga therapy is highly individualized and based on the concept that there is no one size fits all practice or approach to healing, so does this mindset apply to yoga education. If you dream of being a yoga mentor and healer, the path of yoga education should unfold depending on your dharma, dosha, and dreams, not economics or perceived professional standing .  

It is the work that counts, not the title.  So if you are an ERYT-500 or skilled yoga teacher, be proud of your gifts, but please don’t call yourself a yoga therapist. If you have chosen the path of yoga therapy, do so with humility and a commitment to your purpose.  As yoga teachers, we must embody the concepts of honesty, truth, and lack of ego if we ever hope to mentor others in an authentic way. What we have printed on our business card has nothing at all to do with the job we each strive to accomplish or our service to the world. Evidence of a truly evolved yogi is seeing that they understand and present themselves correctly and with integrity.

Ginny Shaddock is an ERYT-500 and C-IAYT Yoga therapist. She is the director of Heartwood Yoga Institute in Bradenton Florida, which offers RYS-200, RYS-300 and 800 hour yoga therapy certification programs.

Saving Wishes

A few years ago, while reading about shamanism I saw reference to an Irish shamanic wishing tree. The concept reminded me of Tibetan prayer flags, where prayers are written on silk flags and hung outside so that, as the winds blow, the prayers are carried energetically to the universe. The prayers written on the flags eventually fade and slowly the entire cloth flag turns weathered and disintegrates, but this eventuality is simply an example of how all things are impermanent. The powerful prayer within the practice is believed to live on indefinitely. In the case of a wishing tree, an individual sets an intention or makes a private prayer while tying a ribbon around a tree branch. In the days, weeks or months that the ribbon fades and disintegrates, the intention is blown in the wind to the heavens and beyond.

Of course, I thought such a tree would be right at home at Heartwood. The problem was, all the trees on this property are straight pines with only a wide trunk, or huge, twisting, gnarly oaks, none with reachable branches conducive to this project. And while I considered planting a tree just for this purpose, it would be a few years until a new tree would be substantial enough to support an onslaught of ribbons.  

“If only . . .” I said to David.

David took a walk around the property and came back with a suggestion. There was a small tree to the side of our drive filled with dead branches and Spanish moss. An old vine seemed determined  to kill off its branches. David believed he could trim it up, clean off the moss, remove the vine and create a decent enough tree for hosting wishes.

I wasn’t totally thrilled with the location, nor the look of this Charlie Brown version of a Wishing tree, but I figured I might as well wait to see what was underneath that overgrown mess before giving up the idea.

David did a beautiful job making the tree presentable, and if a tree could look happy, this one certainly seemed so, thanks to his loving attention. He leveled the ground to install a bench too, creating a nice place for visitors to sit or meditate. I created a river rock boundary at the base, removed the grass and mulched underneath, then added a wind-chime and a statue of a goddess that seemed to be looking up with inspiration to the branches. For the final touch, I placed a big crystal in the base to begin the transformation of our old weed to a place of energetic offering.

About this time, David and I took a vacation to Ireland, and one day while hiking, low and behold we came across a wishing tree. Dozens of small ribbons of all shapes and sizes were scattered over a wide area of the trail, left there by fellow walkers, I suppose. I loved witnessing an authentic Irish Shamanic wishing tree in the land of its origin. We returned home even more enamored of our project.

Knowing people rarely visit Heartwood with ribbons they can pull from their hair or shoelaces they are willing to leave behind, I set up a container filled with ribbons for our guests. Every few months, I buy dozens of ribbon spools, cut a variety of lengths, and fill up the container for people to use should they want to set and intention and perhaps meditate at the wishing tree.

And they have. For a year or so, the tree’s been slowly filling up, becoming a welcoming sight of explosive leaves and colorful ribbons gently swaying with the wind.

When Hurricane Irma hit, our property was severely damaged. We had 8 huge oaks fall. Branches and moss covered our flooded property. The medicine wheel was ruined, walkways were covered in mud, and the garden demolished. But the wishing tree was intact and had only lost about 5 ribbons, which we found in the pasture. I carefully returned these wandering wishes to the tree. What amazing resilience that little tree had.

But a year later, I started noticing branches of the wishing tree were dying. Thinking that our once clean and happy tree looked a bit stressed and tired, I trimmed up the tree and sprinkled some fertilizer at the base. I even a gave the little tree a pep talk, encouraging the leaves and roots to flourish as an act of service for all the future visitors who’d find moments of peace under the branches.

The wishing tree continued to fade. More branches died. Finally, I had to admit that our little tree was crumbling under the stress of too many wishes. While I love having a place for people to meditate and set intention, I also love trees. Something had to be done.

The first order of the day was to remove the weaker branches, but these dried, sagging branches were filled with ribbons, creating a moral dilemma. Do I just cut away the branches and toss them into the burn pile WITH everyone’s hopes and dreams attached? Seemed like quite a callous act.

I could try taking off the ribbons, but where would I put them, considering the tree was laboring under so many heartfelt longings and personal intentions?  Perhaps a fence surrounding the area would be a great solution. The tree could remain a symbol of inspiration, but the fence could handle the brunt of people’s collective hopes and dreams.

David had some metal gates behind the barn that were left behind when we purchased the property. He volunteered to clean them up, paint the bars a lovely copper and anchor them in place. We even added some colorful peace poles to establish a feeling of unity and soon the wishing tree area was more of a beacon of energetic promise than ever.

As I pruned the weak and dying branches, I carefully untied the knots of almost 300 ribbons and transplanted these wishes to the new fence. I added Tibetan prayer flags to the fence as well since we now had more space. The area was looking colorful and inviting again, and the tree seemed happy to know the burden of handling everyone’s deepest secrets and dreams would now be shared with the fence.

But try as I might to save wishes, there were many ribbons I just couldn’t get undone from the rotting branches. Apparently, people fervently committed to their wish had tied complicated knots to be sure their symbolic ribbon would stay on those branches for life, as if this would make their wishes more likely to come true. There was no way to rescue those wishes. I felt badly, carrying dead branches with lone wishes clinging to the bark to their fiery grave.

Luckily my studies of shamanism and ceremony had also taught me about the Peru shaman tradition of Despacho. I’ve made a few Despacho packets with students in Yoga Therapy, which is a tradition of creating a mandala of a variety of symbolic materials, such as sugar for sweetness, flowers for beauty, seeds & grain for sustenance, and a seashell and a cross for spirituality, and tying the packet in beautiful cloth or paper and burying or burning this offering to carry the prayers to the spirit world.

So, in the spirit of Despacho, I stood by and watched the ribboned branches burn, imagining those dozens of wishes not being destroyed, but being transformed as they rose in smoke to meld with the positive energy of the universe.

Our little wishing tree has a lovely little border now, and a container of ribbons is always at the ready for any visitor who is seeking an answer to their problems or has a silent prayer to share with the spirit world. A healthy, happy tree stands by, an ever-present witness to the complex lives of others.  Considering all that is going on in the world with the current pandemic, I will do my meditation out there today, and tie a ribbon on the fence for those who need protection or peace. The tree will hear my prayers, but not be burdened by them.

I think the Heartwood Wishing tree has a message for us all. While it is important to be present for those who depend on us for assurance and support in challenging times, we must remember there are limits to how much weight any individual can carry before health is compromised. So it goes a little tree, and so it goes for each of us.