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Yoga training schools fight state regulation bid

by Nikki Wentling | October 13, 2014 at 3:40 a.m.

Andrea Fournet, owner of Arkansas Yoga Center in Fayetteville, has churned out new yoga teachers since 1998, when there were few similar programs.

During the past 16 years, the number of yoga teacher-training schools in Arkansas has grown to 12. As their numbers grew, so did their visibility.

The state learned about the schools in July and sent a letter to each school notifying it that under Arkansas law, it needs to be licensed and regulated.

For school owners, government oversight means all of their instructors will have to meet standards set by the state, and the schools will have to do away with their current method of self-regulation.

It also means undergoing inspections, filling out paperwork and paying licensing fees, which could be anywhere from $900 to $3,800 for schools that offer year-long training, depending on what each school charges for its services.

"This is going to end up closing a lot of the little schools," said Fournet, adding that she would be required to pay about $2,200 in licensing fees each year. "I don't want the state involved."

Fournet and owners of some competing schools gathered Wednesday and Thursday to unite in opposition to the mandate that their schools be regulated by the state Board of Private Career Education, which oversees private postsecondary career schools for fields such as real estate, bail bonds, and tattooing and body piercing.

The letters sent to yoga teacher-training schools in July stipulated that they become licensed by Sept. 1. Since then, the state agency has backed off from that deadline and is now asking owners to "work with them" to have their licenses by the end of the year, said Brenda Germann, director of the Private Career Education Board.

"They're going to fight it, but we're going to move forward," Germann said. "Our law says that they have to be licensed."

State: Self-regulation isn't enough

Germann said the state's call to regulate yoga teacher-training schools is for consumer protection. Right now, she said, no one is holding them accountable.

Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit organization that establishes yoga teacher-training standards in an effort to have the industry regulate itself, disagrees.

All 12 Arkansas schools are registered with Yoga Alliance, which lays out requirements for instructors at yoga teacher-training schools and uses a social credentialing system to oversee the 3,200 schools registered with the organization. The system requires each school to post its syllabus and names of lead trainers to the Yoga Alliance website, where students write feedback that can be viewed publicly.

Richard Karpel, president of Yoga Alliance, said the credentialing system is all the oversight that yoga teacher-training schools -- a "small" industry -- need.

"The state shouldn't regulate yoga for the simple reason that government regulations create burdens on individuals, on organizations, on businesses," Karpel said. "I don't think anyone is against all government regulation, but the burden is on the people who are for regulation to show a compelling state interest. And I don't think there's a compelling state interest."

Karpel headed Wednesday's meeting in Little Rock and Thursday's in Fayetteville.

Not all yoga teacher-training school owners are onboard with Yoga Alliance's standards.

Courtney Butler, owner of Balance Yoga and Wellness Registered Yoga School in Hot Springs, said heightened standards or more oversight is needed if Yoga Alliance continues to regulate state schools.

"I knew when I went through that process to be a school that I had earned it, and I mean earned it," Butler said. "Now, the scale is so large, and you're adding more people and schools each month. Is it about sheer numbers or the quality of these yoga programs?

"If people can check a box, and there's not verification and everything's on the honor system, how does that keep the quality and the integrity, and how does it not bastardize the rest of us who worked our tails off?"

Although yoga teacher-training schools have fought regulation in several other states, this is the first time Yoga Alliance has stepped forward to help, Karpel said.

New York was the first state to attempt regulation of yoga teacher-training schools. In 2009, New York's education department ordered the schools to stop their programs or face fines of up to $50,000. Owners of the schools answered by hiring a lobbying firm and recruiting yoga-practicing state legislators to their side.

In March 2010, then-New York Gov. David Paterson signed a bill exempting yoga teacher-training programs from state regulation.

Since then, at least two other states, Virginia and Texas, have passed similar legislation.

"That doesn't mean that will happen here," Karpel said. "But it does show that there are other states that understood."

Industry: State rules not needed

Karpel sent a letter to the Arkansas Board of Private Career Education on Sept. 24 that outlines Yoga Alliance's arguments, and he met with Germann on Wednesday. Karpel told school owners that they face a "friendly disagreement" with the state.

Germann said regulation is necessary to protect the consumer -- in this case those looking to become yoga teachers -- but a complaint about yoga teacher-training schools has not been issued to the state agency.

"You don't create the burden of government regulation just because there might someday be someone who has some problem," Karpel said. "You do it because there's a real need to do it."

Karpel and owners of the state's 12 schools plan to present their case first to the Private Career Education Board during a public hearing, and, if needed, to the state Legislature.

The Legislature gave the board the authority and obligation to regulate "any person, firm, partnership, association, corporation, or other form of business organization" that "leads to or enhances occupational qualifications," according to Arkansas code.

Karpel argues that this does not give the agency the authority to regulate yoga teacher-training schools because those who graduate from the programs do not make their livings by teaching yoga.

Germann said it doesn't matter whether someone teaches part time or full time, the state is still required to regulate the activity.

When the school owners first found out about the state's intention to regulate them, one of the main sources of contention was the set of requirements for instructors.

The Board of Private Career Education held meetings with school owners in September to come up with requirements specific to yoga teacher trainers; however, after disagreements among owners on what those should be, Germann decided to use the default requirements for private, postsecondary instructors under Arkansas law.

These requirements require postsecondary career instructors to have one of the following: a bachelor's degree in the field; an associate degree in the field and one year of on-the-job training; a high school diploma or GED and completion of an instruction program, along with three years of on-the-job training; a high school diploma or GED and seven years of on-the-job training.

Some school owners said Wednesday that those requirements are not specific enough to yoga teacher-training schools, and Yoga Alliance's standards are more fitting.

According to its website, Yoga Alliance requires a lead instructor to complete a 200-hour registered yoga training program, then wait two years and log 1,000 hours before training yoga teachers.

"Yoga Alliance has been in existence since 1999, so why can we not continue following these requirements?" Fournet said. "This is mucking up the waters."

The Private Career Education Board will host a private hearing on the issue in coming months, Germann said. After that, it will be taken to the state Legislature for approval at the beginning of 2015.

Metro on 10/13/2014

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