ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The state of Virginia wants to make sure that if you learn to be a yoga instructor, the people who teach you the Half Moon, the Sleeping Vishnu and the Upward Facing Dog poses know what they're doing.
But three yoga instructors filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Virginia regulators, claiming that the state's plan to license yoga teacher-training programs is an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.
"It's just daft. It's just a ridiculous idea," said Suzanne Leitner-Wise, one of the plaintiffs and a yoga instructor who has provided training to U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. "It's the students who determine whether you're a competent teacher," not the state.
The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, a regulatory body, had planned to impose licensure requirements on yoga teacher-training programs by the end of the year, but has agreed to wait a few months at the request of state legislators.
The council does not want to regulate all yoga teaching, but says it has a duty to regulate the training of teachers.
"We consider it a student-protection measure," said Kirsten Nelson, SCHEV's spokeswoman.
She said state law requires the council to regulate vocational education programs, and that includes programs that train yoga teachers. And she emphasized that the state has no interest in regulating yoga classes themselves, only programs that train people to become an instructor.
The state council says it is required by law to regulate any vocational training: as a result, bartending schools, massage therapy schools and even programs on how to shoe horses have received state licenses in recent years, as have several yoga studios.
But other yogis have fought back, and Virginia is not the only state confronting the issue. In New York, education officials earlier this year dropped plans to require yogis to have licenses before they can train new teachers in the face of protests. Michigan also this year began working to license schools that teach future yoga instructors.
In Virginia, Leitner-Wise says the licensure program requires a $2,500 application fee, annual renewals of at least $500 and loads of paperwork, none of which is necessary.
The yoga instructors are represented by attorneys from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm. Attorney Robert Frommer said the state has no business determining what kinds of training programs are acceptable.
"The Virginia bureaucrats who will pass judgment on these instructors have no expertise whatsoever in yoga," said Frommer, adding that there is significant debate within the yoga community about what is considered proper technique and philosophy.
More broadly, Frommer said that teaching is a form of free speech. And if the state wants to regulate free speech, it needs a compelling reason to do so. Keeping tabs on the development of new yogis and gurus does not meet the bar, he said.
Nelson said the licensure requirements mostly involve mundane, content-neutral issues revolving around development of a solid business model and posting a bond that enables students to be reimbursed if a program goes defunct.
For issues concerning the quality of the yoga instruction, SCHEV relies on standards developed by an industry body, the Yoga Alliance.
R. Mark Davis, president and CEO of the Arlington-based Yoga Alliance, said more than a dozen states are regulating yoga teacher-training; many of those states incorporate the alliance's standards.
He said the alliance's goal was to establish a form of self regulation and takes no position on whether states ought to issue licenses, but he said in other states most practitioners report no problems. The biggest problem in Virginia, he said is the $2,500 upfront fee is exorbitant for small studios that only have a few students.
The Virginia lawsuit asks for an injunction barring state regulators from applying the licensing requirements to yoga teacher academies.
Meanwhile, Virginia Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, said he expects to introduce legislation that would either exempt yoga studios from the regulations or provide some other type of relief.
"I have not seen a compelling reason so far for why we should go ahead and add this burden on yoga studios, especially in this economy," Bulova said.