Social Credentialing: A Transparent System of Oversight and Accountability

Professional Development By: Richard Karpel

As consumers increasingly turn to the opinions of others to make their buying decisions, social-ratings sites like Yelp! have grown to encroach on the role historically served by credentialing institutions like associations. One association, Yoga Alliance, has aimed to beat the competition by adding a social-ratings layer to its existing credentialing structure. Here's how it works.

In 2013, Yoga Alliance, the primary registry and standards-setting organization for yoga teachers and schools worldwide, created Social Credentialing, a system that blends the best practices of social ratings websites and traditional credentialing processes. The new system reflects the longstanding desire of the yoga community to increase the rigor and transparency of its credentialing system while protecting the diversity in yoga formats and styles.

As interest in yoga continues to rise, Yoga Alliance has a responsibility to the public to provide meaningful credentials that promote safe and competent yoga teaching. After exploring a variety of credentialing models, Yoga Alliance developed Social Credentialing because it adds a layer of oversight and accountability for teacher-training programs and provides them with real-time feedback from their students. It also allowed us to maintain low registration fees while utilizing the foundation of our existing registry.

A Unique Challenge: Yoga Teaching is Not Easy to Credential

Yoga is a complex, personal, and multifaceted practice with a seemingly infinite variety of lineages and styles and is intended to be adapted to the evolving needs of each student. It doesn't easily fit the testing, rule-making culture that modern credentialing systems represent. Credentialing is about separating, measuring, and analyzing processes and outcomes, but yoga defies easy categorization and universal methods.

Nonetheless, yoga is not immune to the public's desire for confidence and security that credentials encourage. People generally expect their yoga teachers to bear credentials that attest to their levels of training and experience. When the founders of Yoga Alliance began to develop a credentialing system in the late 1990s, they were responding in part to the likelihood that, if the yoga community didn't set its own standards, the government would do it instead. They also addressed needs expressed by hospital administrators for yoga teachers qualified to work with their patients.

Members of the yoga community generally understand the need for standards. They are interested in nurturing the growth of a practice they love, and they understand the negative impact that poorly trained teachers can have on the community.

Growth Has Led to Increased Demand

Instructors now teach yoga to millions of people on a daily basis. The "Yoga in America" study issued by Yoga Journal in 2012 reported that 20.4 million American adults (8.7 percent of all U.S. adults) practiced yoga, an increase of more than 22 percent from four years earlier. Practitioners also nearly doubled their spending on yoga classes and products between 2008 and 2012, from $5.7 billion to $10.3 billion annually.

The increase in yoga practitioners has increased demand for yoga teachers, which has in turn increased demand for teacher-training programs. The number of teachers registered with Yoga Alliance has quadrupled in the last eight years, while the number of schools registered with us has expanded almost 900 percent.

A Registry to Support Diversity in Yoga

Yoga Alliance grapples with this fundamental challenge: How is it possible to maintain a credentialing system that respects the freedom and diversity of thought and style inherent in yoga while also providing oversight and fostering accountability among credentialed schools and teachers?

In 1999, the founders decided a curriculum-based registry was the best way to achieve balance between diversity and compliance. So, they created minimum curriculum standards for 200-hour and 500-hour teacher-training programs. They also developed a registry for schools agreeing to adopt and uphold those standards and for teachers who completed their training with a registered school. While a traditional registry does a great job of respecting diversity, it is also less rigorous than other voluntary credentialing systems, such as certification and accreditation.

Over time, however, the lack of oversight became an ever-more-pressing concern within the yoga community.

Evaluating Traditional Credentialing Options

In 2012, we began to consider our options. As we explored the potential of traditional credentialing solutions, we saw some drawbacks:

  • Assessing an individual's knowledge or skills via testing does not reliably indicate long-term conceptual retention, potential work performance, or ability to assimilate and apply knowledge on the job. Likewise, evaluating an organization's teaching conditions and processes via an audit provides a limited picture of the quality and effectiveness of its training program.   
  • Traditional credentials are generally more expensive, with in-person testing or physical audits followed by several years of costly market research to assess their validity.         
  • An entirely new, separate credentialing product could invalidate the investment that tens of thousands of current Registered Yoga Teachers (RYTs) made in securing our existing credentials and undermine the yoga studios and nonprofit organizations that operate Registered Yoga Schools (RYSs).

As we considered these challenges, we determined that students who are the clients of RYSs would be in the best position to determine whether our those schools are upholding their promise to meet our curriculum and trainer standards. When asked specific questions designed to promote objectivity, students can tell us about their schools' curriculum and trainers and provide feedback on the quality of the training they receive.

When Yoga Alliance was founded, this type of feedback system was neither technically feasible nor culturally acceptable. However, the development of online social-ratings systems has enabled us to build a transparent system of feedback and accountability by empowering students to provide oversight of the yoga schools that provide their training.

That is how our new Social Credentialing system was born.

How Social Credentialing Works

Social Credentialing was built on the foundation of our traditional registry. Our goal was to add oversight and accountability to the registry by implementing a system that empowers verified students to provide factual, non-anonymous, systematic feedback about the RYSs they attend.

Applicant schools have always been required to document that their curriculum and trainers meet our standards. In the past, that happened only during the application process. Now, however, schools are required to post their syllabus and the names of their lead trainers on our website so students can provide ongoing, quantitative feedback about whether they continue to meet our standards.

We are also encouraging RYSs to articulate the learning objectives they seek to achieve. Those objectives are posted on our website and visible to the public along with the syllabus. Students searching for the ideal yoga school are more likely to invest their time and money in RYSs that transparently share information about their programs' goals and content.

When students apply to register with Yoga Alliance after completing a RYS training, we now require them to complete a review of their school, which entails rating and commenting on how well it satisfies the following standards-related criteria:

  • How closely does the syllabus you were taught correspond to the one the RYS filed with us?
  • Are the lead trainers who taught you the same individuals the school registered with the program, and did they teach the required minimum number of hours?
  • Do you feel prepared to begin teaching the principles and techniques of yoga safely and competently?
  • How likely would you be to recommend the school to a friend or colleague?

We completed the initial transition to our new Social Credentialing model on December 4, 2013. Since then, more than 17,000 registering yoga teachers have evaluated the RYSs from which they received their training. We're still in the initial stages of implementing the system, and we have a lot to learn to maximize its effectiveness. Yet there is no doubt that Yoga Alliance and the yoga community now have a much clearer picture of what is happening at our RYSs than we ever had in the 14 years before the introduction of Social Credentialing. That will help us to increase the rigor of our credentials and provide more credibility for the yoga community.

Credentialing Comparison

Advantages Over Common Social-Ratings Sites

At first glance, some may confuse Social Credentialing with social-ratings websites like Yelp, but that comparison is superficial. We are a nonprofit credentialing and membership organization, not a for-profit social-ratings business. We have a responsibility to our registrants and the public to avoid the unverified, subjective, and sometimes corrupt or inflammatory ratings and comments that consumer-oriented ratings sites often deliver. We operate a system different than those other social-rating websites in several respects:

  • The individuals who review our RYSs are verified. We know they were actual students who completed the teacher-training programs they evaluate.
  • There is no anonymity, so students who evaluate our RYSs are accountable for what they say, which encourages civility and constructive feedback.
  • Reviewers have extensive experience with their school. RYS 200 students, for example, have spent a minimum of 180 hours of in-person learning with their teacher-training program faculty, far more time than the average consumer spends experiencing a service or product before evaluating it on a typical social-ratings site.
  • Our survey encourages objectivity by seeking feedback grounded in fact, such as whether the RYS teaches content matching the syllabus it filed with Yoga Alliance, whether the lead trainers were the same individuals who were verified by Yoga Alliance, and whether they taught the minimum number of hours required by our standards.
  • Social Credentialing provides systematic feedback to help RYSs improve their training. All registering students are required to participate, eliminating selection bias. Every respondent is asked the same series of questions, and that provides a consistent baseline for comparison. We have also included an option enabling RYSs to add three additional review questions of their own, to help them receive useful and specific feedback about their training programs.

Social Ratings Comparison

Protecting Yoga From For-Profit Social-Ratings Sites

As consumers increasingly place their trust in the online recommendations of others, it will inevitably promote the businesses of companies like Yelp and Google and diminish the need for traditional credentials and credentialing organizations, which are also in the business of advising consumers.

Consumers are already reviewing yoga studios and individual teachers on platforms provided by Yelp, Yahoo, Google, and others. These for-profit, publicly traded corporations' business models put their bottom line before the best interests of yoga or the individuals earning a living by teaching it.

By contrast, Yoga Alliance's mission and sole motivation is to serve the public and protect the interests of the yoga community while maintaining the integrity of the teaching and practice of yoga. Our Social Credentialing system is designed to measure quality in a way that traditional credentialing cannot, to provide the RYS community with systematic feedback to help them improve their training programs, and to provide potential yoga students with useful and objective information to make informed choices.

Richard Karpel

Richard Karpel is president and CEO of Yoga Alliance in Arlington, Virginia.