Kula's Commitment to Quality

 kula collective, zach towne smith

Think about the great yoga classes you've been to. What has the teacher done to support that experience? Is it possible to rate a Yoga Teacher? If so, what qualities are we seeking to develop as we certify new teachers? How will we be able to tell whether or not our graduates are embodying them? How can we ensure that our Yoga Teacher Trainings are constantly improving to ensure that anyone who has a certification has the potential to create these transformative experiences our world is so desperately in need of? How can we avoid people turning away from Yoga because of a negative experience with a teacher who doesn’t meet our standards of excellence?

At Kula Collective these are some of the questions we’ve been meditating on. We hope this blog will help to share some of what we’ve learned, and spread the movement toward highly rigorous yet flexible standards for Yoga Teacher assessments. Excellence is our only option!

 kula collective certification

As her eyes slowly blinked open the low angle of the morning sun blinded her for an instant. She was sitting in a cross-legged seat that had become comfortable over the last 25 days of immersive yoga teacher training. Slowly her eyes adjusted to the brightness and her attention was drawn to the bright pinks and yellows of freshly picked spring flowers placed lovingly on her yoga mat in front of her. As she noticed the cursive print of her own name that lay beneath the flowers, her broad smile was overcome with a wave of tears. There before her was what she had been dreaming of for so long. Her certificate read:

Jennifer Musick has completed Kula Collective’s 200hr Yoga Teacher Training at Seven Springs in Tennessee and has fulfilled 200 hours of coursework in the history, anatomy, philosophy, methodology, asana and discipline of Yoga as set forth by Yoga Alliance for a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT).

This moment will be one Jen remembers for the rest of her life, as she joined a quickly growing group of RYTs all over the world. 

 kula collective YTT

According to Yoga Alliance, there are currently 81,000 Registered Yoga Teachers (RYTs) and probably at least as many who have completed a Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) yet never officially registered. The Yoga Alliance is the internationally recognized certifying body that sets out clear standards for a school to receive accreditation. Given that there are over 5,000 Registered Yoga Schools (RYSs) with the Alliance and very little monitoring of what happens during a 200 hour YTT, it’s understandable that the nature of the experience can vary immensely in format, material covered, and the length of the course. Schools are certifying yoga teachers with little to no oversight other than ensuring that the lead teacher’s registration is up to date. As such the responsibility of content, assessment, and quality rests in each school’s hands.

The discussion of how we assess the quality of the experience is rarely explored in depth by yoga schools. While schools must follow the Yoga Alliance requirement that 20 hours be spent learning anatomy and physiology, what their student will know and be able to do upon graduation remains the responsibility of each school to determine. In many schools, there is little formal assessment before graduation of whether or not a student has achieved their learning goals. In fact, there is no consensus and very little understanding as to what these learning goals might be. This lack of clarity has meant that many schools never clearly express what knowledge and skills they expect their students to achieve.

While the openness of the yoga certification allows for a great deal of diversity in offerings, it can also lead to a watering down of the essence of Yoga, as evidenced by the proliferation of 17 day immersion programs that barely meet YA’s minimum required contact hours. As you can imagine, this model is considerably more financially advantageous both for the school and the students. While it may be a viable model for efficiently producing quality yoga teachers, without rigorous assessments or even clear standards it’s impossible to measure the quality of the RYTs who graduate from the program.

All this is why we at Kula Collective place a great deal of emphasis on establishing and effectively measuring a robust set of learning goals that adequately describe the kind of Yoga teachers we seek to graduate from our programs. When Jen found our training online, she was able to read through a detailed description of what we expect from our students in order to graduate. Then, when she arrived at the training she was given an extensive manual, including very clear indications of what she would be learning, and how her learning would be assessed. What follows is a summary of these indications, which we hope will inspire reflection and adaptation by other schools so that we may collectively support the improvement of our programs and the quality of Yoga Teachers going out into the world.

Leading Asana is a critical aspect of being a Yoga teacher. Although we have many other learning goals, this is one we spend a great deal of time and care to make sure it is done in a safe and authentic way. For most Yoga teachers, this is their opportunity to inspire others, and we’ve created a concise set of expectations which are clearly laid out in our manual:

  • Creating Sacred Space: Using appropriate tools to inspire students toward inward reflection.
  • Theme Weaving: Introducing and returning to an appropriate theme that can serve as a tool for individual reflection throughout the class.
  • Personal connection to students: Using creative methods to build respectful and trusting relationships.
  • Language, Vocal Projection, Inflection: Using the voice as a tool to clearly instruct, adjust, inspire and calm students.
  • Verbal Cueing: Asana, Pranayama & Meditation: Using clear and simple language to safely guide students through these practices.
  • Variations / Modifications: Suggesting appropriate ways for students to adjust and adapt Asana to their own personal practice.
  • Fluid Recovery: Gracefully recovering from misspoken cues modeling creative adaptation and self love.
  • Transitions: Safely and clearly guiding students from one Asana to the next.
  • Movement on & off mat: Moving around calmly and openly to engage students throughout the room.
  • Adjustments: Safely and respectfully using appropriate verbal, energetic, and physical cues to improve alignment and potentially deepen a pose.

During the entire training, these aspects are consistently modeled by our facilitation teams. Students also have multiple opportunities to practice leading Asana, and they receive extensive peer and facilitator FeedForward based on these same criteria. Because we are clear on what we want them to learn and how we’re going to assess their progress, we are able to design a curriculum that consciously and creatively moves the group toward these goals while ensuring plenty of flexibility in the implementation to inspire creativity in the facilitators while accommodating individual student’s needs.

Anatomy and Physiology is another important body of knowledge required by the YA with no clear expectations of what students should know. At Kula we’ve decided that our graduates will be able to apply basic concepts of anatomy and physiology to safely lead themselves and their students through various Yoga practices. To measure this ability we observe them during our daily asana practice, during their multiple teaching practicums, and with a simple Asana presentation that gives them the opportunity to share in depth knowledge about a pose. This presentation includes the following aspects:

  • Sanskrit Name
  • Teaching / Breath Cues
  • Anatomical Alignment
  • Muscular Activity
  • Drishti
  • Energetic Alignments Chakras, Bandas, & Energetic Lines
  • Preparatory Poses
  • Variations
  • Modifications
  • Health Benefits
  • Contra-Indications
  • Adjustments / Assists

As you can see, we’re quite serious about the technical aspects of teaching Asana - graduating teachers who are able to safely and confidently lead others through an exploration of their own bodies and their limits is one of our highest priorities.

Yet, all of this knowledge and these skills are useless if the graduate has not attained a clearer understanding of their (big S) Self and a deeper connection to the roots of Yoga. These aspects are harder to measure through assessments, though just as, important. To do this we commit to one-on-one check ins with our students throughout the course to provide mentorship and insight on these topics. We create space for daily group check ins and daily facilitator meetings to be sure we are always current on what student needs may be. We also ask our students at the completion of the course to self reflect and share with us how they feel they’ve developed within these ten categories.

Through analyzing our students’ responses, we’ve been able to improve our curriculum and the flow of our programming to maximize the impact we have on our students, and that which our students have on the world. We have a similar evaluation process for our 300 hour advanced YTT as well as for those interested in joining the Kula Path to become a facilitator of these transformational experiences.  As we grow, this allows us to ensure the quality of the teachers we’re graduating into the world, and at the same time allows us to improve our own systems to ensure that we’re supporting this level of quality for all.

 Kula Collective Karma

One of our most important learnings thus far has been the impact of maintaining supportive relationships with and between our graduates. This has become clear through their reflections on their final assignment, which is a 90 day personal practice plan in which they creatively combine tools and knowledge they’ve learned to actively overcome their own personal challenges. When we’re able to extend the closeness that is developed over these 25 days of immersive learning, students are not only more likely to share with us their accomplishments and challenges - they’re more likely to overcome them.

 kula collective graduate

Unfortunately this level of intentional assessment and planning is quite rare in the YTT world. In traditional academic settings, organizations such as Understanding By Design and Project Zero have made huge advances in the ways in which teachers can design creative learning experiences both appropriately and efficiently. Perhaps because of a resistance to the old models of standardized testing, most yogis reject the idea of assessment. I’ve heard many say that because of the deeply emotional nature of the experience, it would be devastating for someone to fail. Although we’ve never had to fail anyone, we are clear that we can’t graduate everyone. Rather, we have spent time and energy developing dynamic and creative ways of assessment that do not follow the traditional testing model.

We are growing our Kula Collective family the way a crystal expands: each successive layer depends upon the structural integrity of the layer beneath to maintain its beauty. This is why we evaluate. This is why we make it clear to students even before they sign up what will be expected of them: so that they are empowered to succeed.

Today Jen is already sharing her Yoga with the world, and we have no doubt that she’s doing it in a way that is safe, appropriate and inspirational for her students. Through some of the experiences we shared in her training, she’s also been able to tackle some major fears in her life and is practicing tools to become a better mom, a better wife and a better person. We are infinitely grateful for the trust that Jen and people like her place in us every day when they sign up for one of our trainings. The least we can do is provide a robust learning environment that supports their process as effectively as possible. This is how we ensure quality. This is how we grow toward the compassionate world of shared abundance we're all dreaming of. This is why we evaluate.


 Zachary Towne Smith

Zachary Towne-Smith (RYT 200hr) is a passionate connector.  His innate creativity, flexible perspective, and quick smile make him a natural leader, inspiring participation and thoughtful consensus in the wide array of groups he works with.  He has dedicated his life to the study and development of intercultural relations and the facilitation of innovative solutions for sustainable well-being.  

His Cum Laude B.A. from Harvard College led him to explore issues of privilege and work for justice from his hometown of Philadelphia to the Guatemala City garbage dump.  This work has taken him throughout the Americas engaging diverse stakeholders in strategic planning through the development of creative and critical thinking in fields such as education, public health, business, creative industries, and entrepreneurship. 

Learn more about Zach and his offerings here.