By Pamela Moskie
Registered Psychologist, Registered Yoga Teacher
Yogaland is saturated. The explosion of teacher training programs over the last 20 years has left unestablished, new yoga teachers scrambling for scraps in a market where there’s more supply of yoga teachers than there is demand for them. It has also left long established teachers and teacher trainers indulging in more and more competition in an effort to stay relevant and viable. Part of this effort seems to be about offering new and unique yoga experiences – about niching in a way that sets a teacher apart from the crowd. Offerings like goat yoga, rage yoga or beer yoga abound and opinions about the effects (good or bad) of them are as varied as the offerings themselves. As a Registered Psychologist, however, there is only one trend that I have authority to speak to and believe deserves genuine consideration by any serious yoga student or teacher.
One of the niching strategies of late seems to be to offer classes for psychological health, yoga psychology, yoga for anxiety, depression or trauma – you name it – psychological focus in yoga seems to be trending and we may or may not be the better for it.
What I offer below is a discernment tool. Not all yoga related to psychological health is created equal and we as a community must learn to sort out the chaff from the wheat. Without a system of formal regulation we must act as our own accountability body – questioning, discerning and making informed choices is key to the future integrity of modern yoga as a whole. The following can act as a guide for deciding whether to spend time, money and energy with a yoga teacher who is claiming to teach psychology as it pertains to yoga. Please consider the following:
- Interest does not equal expertise – a yoga teacher may be curious about the way that traditional psychology intersects with yoga. They may have a grasp on some of the mechanisms by which yoga works on our psychology or some feasible ideas about how to help with anxiety or depression. Having a few ideas or a basic grasp on main psychological concepts does not qualify anyone to teach it. I could basically understand the physics behind air travel and have significant interest in it but that does not qualify me to fly a plane nor teach someone to do so. The question to ask is: “Does the person trying to teach me psychology simply have an interest or actual expertise in this field?
- Formal training and education matters – to register as a Psychologist in Alberta, Canada at least a Master’s level degree in psychology is required with completion of a full roster of undergraduate psychology courses as well. Most other places in North America require a PhD. In Alberta the exam required to register is standardized for PhD level knowledge so even if we are only required a Master’s degree to practice psychology, we still must have PhD level knowledge to pass the exam. Ask “What amount of formal education does this person have?”
- Standards and accountability matter – there is a canon of expectations of anyone practicing clinical psychology. Beyond a Master’s or PhD one must be under the supervision of a senior level Registered Psychologist for 1500 clinical hours. We must undergo an oral exam on ethics in front of a panel of experienced Psychologists. We must also pass the Examination for the Professional Practice in Psychology which took me over 700 hours of study to pass. It is similar in rigor to the Bar exam for lawyers. Out of a 100 people who may take the exam in a sitting, 45 will fail it. Many of my colleagues have failed multiple times before passing. Ask: “What rigorous processes has this person endured in order to make sure the information they are giving/selling me is sound, researched, up to date and widely accepted?”
- Regulation matters – it is an expectation in the profession of psychology that we will abide by very strict policy set in place by the Health Act of Alberta and secondly by the policies of, in Alberta, the College of Alberta Psychologists. Each state and province has its own regulatory body for ensuring the best possible services to the population as a whole. There are disciplinary tribunals for practitioners who have had complaints filed against them and a protocol and process for dealing with them. In Alberta we also have a psychological association which offers ongoing training opportunities and a forum for sharing best practices for advancing the discipline and our services. Ask “Who regulates this person? How is what this person is claiming about yoga and psychology held accountable? What binds this person ethically to teaching the most sound principles of psychology as it pertains to yoga? “
- Colleague supervision should be expected – as Registered Psychologists we are expected to have ongoing contact with other professionals in our field to ensure that we are maintaining integrity in client care. If a conflict of interest, a road block to advancing a client’s well-being or other issues surface we are required to seek consultation with one or more colleagues to sort out the best course of action or determine any blind spot through which we may be operating. Ask “Is this person collaborating with experts and experienced practitioners in the field or are they operating in a self-congratulatory vacuum? “
- Experience with humans is key – knowing the mechanisms of regulation and how brain chemistry works is a far cry from seeing them embodied in people who are struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma and other mental illnesses. Understanding mechanisms does not mean a person has an understanding of how they manifest in humans. Ask “How many years in the field of human services has this person put in? How much variety in nervous system functioning have they been exposed to in others?”
- Self-Awareness is a must – Registered Psychologists are required to monitor their own mental health and take time off from clinical and teaching practices if they are experiencing extreme stress or reduction in psychological wellness. Ask “Does this person consistently exhibit good self-awareness about their own limitations? Do they participate in self-care?”
- Beware the bandwagon jumpers – people who have enough knowledge and experience to teach psychology do not come to the discipline overnight. Those people that I would trust to be taught by have a long relationship with the field of psychology, both in education and experience. Yoga psychology is a trend, and to stay relevant people jump on that trend wagon. Ask “How long has this person been involved and interested in psychology? Does their overnight interest speak to an authentic investment in the field or a desire to garner more yoga “territory”?”
- Regurgitating data is not integrated knowledge – Here’s an analogy to illustrate: I have an interest in learning guitar. I’ve learned a handful of chords over the last year, I’ve taken a few lessons, I have watched a few tutorials. If I turned around and said I’m now a guitar teacher and regurgitated to my students the few things I’ve learned a few things might happen. Some people might buy my self-aggrandizement not knowing any better, a few people might humor me, but a large percentage of people would have genuine doubt about my ability to offer something substantial. We need institute the same doubt in Yogaland. A skilled guitar teacher can exhibit the ability to improvise with music, understand both the minutiae of playing and the big picture of music more generally. A skilled practitioner of psychology can do the same. Someone with genuinely integrated psychology knowledge can apply the minutiae of psychological knowledge to actual people, and also understand where a person or data set fits in the larger scheme of the discipline. These people can adapt and improvise in the context of teaching and most importantly with a whole range of people and their experiences. Ask “Does this person likely have integrated knowledge of the field of psychology? How have I seen them display this ability in diverse populations?” Just because a person has taken a handful of Paint Nights does not make them an artist.
- Not everyone can do everything – So called “experts” are cropping up everywhere in the world of yoga. The more we buy what they sell, the more that this will happen. As teachers we must ask “What is authentic to who I am versus what is my attempt to not fail or become irrelevant in yoga? What do I have the education and experience in to offer with integrity?” As students of yoga we must ask “Can I be discerning about where I place my money and energy in the yoga machine? Can I seek depth rather than scramble for “fast food” consumption of unintegrated knowledge?”
The global yoga scene is at a turning point. We have the ability to perpetuate its dysfunction or seek new paradigms for operating within it. In my opinion, part of this new paradigm requires a mature look at systems of accountability and clear discernment about what we are offering, what we are blindly following and why.
Pamela Moskie is a Registered Psychologist in Alberta, Canada. She has worked in human services for the past 20 years as a therapist, group facilitator and program director. Her work has been with diverse populations such as Indigenous peoples, the acute and chronically mentally ill, trauma survivors, domestic violence victims and perpetrators and those experiencing literacy struggles. She has a thriving private practice and currently teaches psychology and sociology at the University of Alberta, Augustana Campus as a sessional professor. She has taught yoga in Alberta for over 15 years with a particular focus on emotional intelligence, nervous system regulation and mental health. She co-facilitates retreats, teacher trainings and workshops dedicated psychological wellness and trauma with Tiffany Rose of Lacombe Yoga. More information about her can be found at www.pamelamoskie.com.