Online Teacher Training – Is it any good?

Denver Clark, C-IAYT, ERYT-500

In the large picture of yoga, I am just a baby. Having taught Yoga for the last 14 years, my time studying, and learning is a drop in the bucket of the vastness of the ancient wisdom of yoga. And even in this short time, I have witnessed a generous shift in the yoga community from what was previously a western preoccupation with physique to the new frontier of Yoga as a therapeutic healing modality, in the same realm of chiropractic care and acupuncture.

The world is in desperate need of healing and the yoga community is primed and ready to step in and help. In January of 2020, Yoga Alliance of America and the International Yoga Therapy Association were cracking down on fly by night online certifications and exotic training retreats that were much more about ziplining and vacation time than they were about yoga and so many of us were ready for it.

And then – COVID.

Now, we exist in a world where we’ve seen the outreach that online learning and telehealth have provided to underserved, underreached populations of people and we’ve been forced to take a hard look at the view of teaching and experiencing yoga from a distance.

For the last 3 years, the main topic of discussion at conventions and meetings of Yoga Therapy Accredited schools is this:

Online learning is not going anywhere any time soon. So how do we offer quality Yoga instruction and guidance for our students and clients from a distance?

At Heartwood Yoga Institute, the faculty is constantly searching for answers to this question, and this has left us a bit behind other schools as we struggle to offer desired distance learning that meets our high standards of quality in education. Here is what I have learned about learning, teaching, and providing yoga therapy online to clients:

 Live, real time, face to face interaction is necessary. Effective Learning is never only Passive – Prior to my yoga teaching life, I owned a dance studio and have spent my life surrounded by teachers. One thing I have learned is that students must be actively engaged to process and remember information and many studies provide more information on the matter, such as one from the National Library of Medicine published in 2019 which states:

“The process of encoding, storing, and retrieving is enhanced by emotional arousal (Crowley et al., 2019). Arousal will help to construct stronger and larger schemas during initial learning, which makes it easier to retrieve the learned information from long‐term memory (van Kesteren et al., 2012). Active learning methods try to arouse the learner by giving them the opportunity to control the information that is experienced (Markant et al., 2016). In contrast, when new information is taught with a passive learning method, this information is stored with less connections to the existing schemas, and hence retrieval becomes more cumbersome. “

When a school makes it mandatory to show up in person for a portion of learning time, they are offering students a chance to connect emotionally with one another for processing. Their questions can be answered in real time and the container of learning that comes from meeting in a shared space with a common goal can be created, even if it is done through a screen. This requires the teacher and students to be present, with their cameras on, faces visible, sitting alert just as they would in a classroom setting.

It is not the same when watching a recording, or multitasking with other devices or activities such as eating, scrolling your phone etc. The very nature of yoga is a lesson in mindfulness and self-discipline (Tapas, in Sanskrit). Bringing these lessons into the virtual classroom is imperative if we claim to teach true yoga.

When looking for an online teacher training program or yoga teacher, I highly recommend one that utilizes and requires real time, live, face to face interaction throughout the journey to activate the emotional learning portion of your brain.

Repetition begets understanding. Lessons, slides, and lectures that students can re-visit more than once allow them to process information in a new way through repetition. Remember when you learned to tie your shoes? How many hundreds of times does it take to learn a new skill? It’s easy to forget this as we age, especially in the current climate of “instant gratification.” An effective school or teacher will provide opportunities for repetition and it’s important for students to understand this is not busywork or wasting time but rather a planned and studied teaching tool for our brains to contain more information over time.

I am wary of any school that limits how many times a student can revisit their online material or even worse, only allows it to be seen once. I would search for a school that offers repetition throughout the lessons (repeating slides) and allows you to revisit your course for at least 6- 12 months following your training.

Student participation is necessary to learn. To teach is to learn. By sharing information with others and completing assignments such as papers, videos and live teaching of peers the student’s brain must transfer the information they’ve learned and turn it over into a new understanding to teach it to someone else. This is what we call “practicum” in our courses at Heartwood and stretches the students understanding of the material into a new place where they must effectively communicate the information to someone new.

An online class that presents information alone is simply producing content. A course that requires you to share knowledge in your own words is truly one designed by teachers, for teachers. You’ll get so much more knowledge and a much deeper understanding if you re-teach what you learn to someone new as soon as possible and your brain will retain this information much more easily.

Look for a program that requires you to share what you’re learning and holds you accountable as a teacher with feedback and growth opportunities.

You get what you pay for. To offer true student/teacher live interaction, feedback and notes from a qualified faculty member and the additional time it takes to support students in their online learning journey, a school must make a significant investment of tools and staffing. This cost then gets naturally passed down to the enrolled student to ensure the quality of the programming.

At Heartwood, our online courses include pre-recorded lectures with lifetime access that are professionally edited, printable notes that can be re-printed as many times as needed, online quizzes that are graded by our faculty, live meetings with our most qualified faculty members and 24-7 support when students have questions or concerns throughout the process. In order to offer this in addition to the high quality in person programs we continue to facilitate, we must train and utilize our most qualified staff.

A “cheap” program is different than an “affordable” program. When considering the depth of offerings in the course you are considering, make sure you understand the qualifications of the school and its teachers (just because a school says they can train you as a yoga therapist doesn’t mean they are accredited with the correct organizations) If you think the cost is fair for all the elements included that’s a good sign. If you think the price is “a steal,” you are very likely to walk away missing the quality you desire.

Great schools come with happy graduates. Check out reviews on Google, Yoga Alliance and ask the school for references of graduates they have produced. The best way to judge if a school is for you is to go right to the people who have walked in your shoes. Ask what they have done with their education and what kind of support they have after graduation for job guidance, references, and continuing support.

If online learning was designed to provide us with a global community, then the mark of a good online school is keeping that community connected.

If you’re considering online learning for Yoga, Teacher Training or continuing education in Yoga take your time and find the school that gives you the right feelings of support, community, career longevity and quality. And if you’re interested in certification through Heartwood Yoga Institute, please feel free to reach out to us any time at www.rytcertification.com

Good luck on your Yoga Journey!

The gift of pages to be filled.

As a new year crests, I find myself preparing for upcoming programs and new students, wondering how I might enhance the yoga experience to make each individual’s personal journey at Heartwood more poignant and everlasting.  While the programs evolve and get better and better, I can’t help but notice that the students still wrestle with obstacles and mental obstructions that keep them interacting with yoga on the surface level, rather than really soaking themselves in the deeper dimensions of the practice. Perhaps I am too ambitious with what I hope to accomplish in only 200 or 300 hours, but I can’t help but notice that eager students arrive for formal yoga trainings with a preconceived idea of what yoga is, how they will implement a YA certification into their lives, and a huge attachment to yoga as practiced in the standard one hour class. This very understandable enthusiasm makes introducing a new perspective difficult as I attempt to shift the trajectory of their studies to a more authentic version of yoga.

Leading eager yogis in a new direction without snuffing out their passion for the practice is difficult, because frankly, growing stronger as you master arm balances or complicated sequences feels like such an accomplishment. The non-performance part of yoga is dull and unsatisfactory compared to the gratification of mastering physical challenges and feeling so alive in your skin as you practice. That said, somehow students must learn that the uneventful archaic approaches to yoga is what sets the stage for really remarkable things to happen. Looking at life under the surface and facing yourself be scary and sad, but liberation begins here.

In a world of instant feedback, short attention spans and life unfolding quickly, how does one sell the importance of putting off short term “yoga advancement” and the fun stuff for a painfully slow unfolding relationship with our spiritual potential that can only be found in stillness, solitude & honest contemplation?

Of course, with all the lectures, slideshows, practices, visual aids, and formal building blocks of yoga education we squeeze into our trainings, its no wonder students get stuck in the intellect. There is so much information to grasp to feel competent sharing yoga with others.  They must worry about testing, and teaching, and being able to retain all this dense information. They have to consider the details of starting a business as an independent yoga teacher to pay off this yoga teacher training investment. They also want more of what inspired them to come in the first place – that great high you get when doing yoga asana class. Why would they want to take their yoga another direction, when physical yoga was the inspiration that brought them to teacher’s training in the first place?

I see huge transformations and a broadening of knowledge in every student after 200 hours of study. We all start the journey at the beginning, and these yoga practitioners are exactly where they are meant to be at this stage so I don’t mean to imply there is anything missing in the students. The problem is, I worry that when my graduates leave Heartwood, they may continue to add to their experience and understanding outwardly (more certifications, more workshops, more yoga retreat experiences) and not continue to grow inwardly (a deeper understanding of core concepts and a poignant self-knowing that comes with a commitment to exploring yoga’s full potential in quiet introspection.) They don’t know what they don’t know, and frankly, nether did I when I first completed my 200 hour certification. I keep trying to pinpoint how and why I evolved beyond those early stages of yoga infatuation, because the answer will no doubt help me guide others.

I find myself pondering the question: How can I respect a student’s understandable focus on the practical application of yoga education, such as who, what and where they will teach this stuff and at the same time instill a desire to sit with themselves in a quiet way to move towards a heart-based understanding of the element of yoga that can’t be measured or used to support a teaching career? True spiritual evolution isn’t Instagram worthy, and for some people, if something can’t be shared on social media, it never happened. In a world where people seem to need an audience for their lives, how can I encourage them to not be seduced by a yoga culture that is in some ways a distraction from yoga?

I suppose I can continue to lecture, bemoan the decline of commercialized yoga, and throw the gauntlet of “serious yoga” to their feet, hoping ego or a drive to be the real deal will get students to slow down and sit with themselves – not just as homework in meditation or formal practices to  “out-yoga” the next guy, but in a true state of curiosity and sincere desire to make space for a deeper sense of self-knowing. But you can’t force a student to embrace spirituality any more than you can force a flower to bloom.

Wait a minute. I am a gardener, and the fact is, when you create the right circumstances, you CAN get a flower to bloom – even out of season. All you need is the right environmental conditions, a little work and careful planning.

The fact is, there are no bad students – only bad teachers, and if I truly believe yoga students are missing something as we race to memorize the history, practices, theory, anatomy and technical elements of yoga , I dang well better figure out how to make the “non-doing” part of yoga interesting enough that aspiring yoga teachers will embrace the quiet, immeasurable, time consuming process of learning who they are and what makes them tick to unfold their relationship with self, earth, and God.

For me, writing has always been a way to deepen my awareness and learn personal truths. Writing is a conversation with self (or something higher than self) that is private, personal and deeply engaging. You sit with the blank page and let it speak to you and once that conversation begins, get lost in words that seem to come from a place of honesty and knowing.

Considering this, I recently ordered dozens of beautiful, hand tooled and hand bound leather journals from India embossed with symbols such as Om, Ganesh, Dancing Shiva, the Buddha and the Tree of Life on the cover. Each journal is filled with pages and pages of hand made paper infused with flower petals and natural fibers. No lines – just blank space. I plan to give these books to my students with writing prompts designed to help them process the yoga sutras and other concepts we introduce in our yoga trainings. Anyone who is “into yoga” will appreciate both the look and the representative utility of the journals, but my true hope is that these books will serve as an invitation to seek  introspection and bring joy to the process of Svadhyaya (self study). What begins as “homework” will hopefully become habit.

The gift from me will be a journal, but the gift each student can give themselves is actually the potential that lies within the blank pages.

If you’ve never tried journaling, perhaps you too should try writing as a yoga practice beyond the mat.