Time for a Paradigm Shift in Yoga? Shifting the Emphasis from Classes to Yoga Wellness Courses

This article on current issues in the development of yoga as a profession is a excerpted from a recent webinar hosted by YogaUOnline-founder Eva Norlyk Smith and yoga therapist Lynn Crimando. See video excerpts from the talk below as well. 

The yoga community has long been debating the issue of how to create greater diversity and inclusiveness in yoga. The preponderance of slender, fit, flexible, and athletic, mostly white and mostly women in yoga classes speaks to the pressing need to include greater variety of race, gender, body type, fitness level, and so on.

There is one aspect of this discussion, however, that has not been addressed as much as it should, however. The issue of diversity is driven by an even deeper issue: The kind of yoga that is taught in most yoga classes is really only suitable for the slender, fit, athletic, and flexible.

In the current studio environment, if you are 50+, you need not apply. If you lack flexibility, you need not apply. If you are overweight with movement limitations, you need not apply. If you are out of shape with a sedentary lifestyle, you need not apply. For people of color, the problem is even worse; the same barriers to entry as above apply, but add to those a host of socioeconomic issues like cost, access to studios, and so on.

But here is the point. These are huge potential markets for yoga that we are currently missing out on. However, these population groups for the most part don’t attend yoga classes, because yoga has little to offer them. The way yoga is taught in most studios, it is, indeed, exclusive to anyone but the slender, athletic, fit, flexible and young (let’s call them SAFFYs).

In other words, beneath the issues of lack of diversity and inclusiveness lie an even greater issue: The limitations in the skillset yoga teachers bring to the table. Most yoga teachers have not been prepared to teach to anyone but the SAFFYs. So it’s a chicken and egg problem. Yoga is exclusive to the SAFFYs, because yoga has little to offer the not-so-SAFFYs, because they have not learned how to teach them in a way that gives them a satisfying experience.

This isn’t just an issue of diversity, it’s an issue of professional development – or lack thereof – which has huge implications for the position of yoga as a profession in the market place and the huge potential opportunities yoga teachers are currently missing out on.

The Wellness Market – Missing Out On a $500 Billion Opportunity?

To understand just how big these opportunities are, let’s take a look at the bigger picture of where yoga fits into the so-called wellness revolution. The wellness movement has been unfolding for decades, and it is apparent in anything from the growing interest in organic food, supplements, and holistic and alternative approaches to health care and prevention. It also has driven the increasing demand for fitness modalities, including yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi, and so on.

The wellness industry is made up of several sub-industries, but in 2015 it was considered a $3.7 trillion market. That is three times the size of the global pharmaceutical industry according to the Global Wellness Industry Institute. Of this, the Fitness industry alone was estimated at $500 billion.



So how does yoga fit into this picture? A good way to look at this is the model of the Illness-Wellness Continuum, which was devised by Dr. John Travis in 1972, one of the pioneers of the wellness movement. In this model, health and disease are not an either or, they exist along a continuum.

At one end of the scale is disease and at the other end of the scale is optimum health.  Most people are somewhere in the middle.

And here is the rub: Most yoga classes today cater to people who are at that upper end of the continuum. This is people who are able-bodied and in good health and who can drop into a Vinyasa class without any problem.

In the middle of the wellness continuum, however, are the not-so-SAFFYs. These are people who are not ill, but they are also not in great shape. Many of them are interested in yoga because they want to up their game and have a healthier lifestyle.

Unfortunately, traditional yoga teacher trainings don’t prepare teachers to work with people in the middle, i.e. the not-so-SAFFYs. Yoga teachers learn how to teach poses in yoga teacher trainings, but we don’t learn to teach people. Everyone is different, and for the most part, the modifications we learn in teacher trainings are not sufficient to meet the needs of people in the middle range of the health-illness continuum.

This is the great irony of contemporary yoga: With the growing popularity of yoga, yoga teaching as a profession is faced with one of the greatest opportunities in history.  Unfortunately, yoga teachers are not adequately prepared to take advantage of those opportunities.

Shifting the Emphasis in Yoga Teaching from Classes to Courses – Teaching Yoga Wellness Courses

The skillset needed to teach the people who fall in the middle of the health-illness continuum is very different from what is included in most yoga teacher training programs.

This is not a fault of yoga studios; yoga traditionally developed around younger, fit populations. As a result, even today, there are very few people who can teach effectively to people with a sedentary lifestyle or people in the 50+ age category.

To teach effectively to these markets, yoga teachers need to know

1) how to observe the common musculoskeletal conditions that are holding most students back in their practice,

2) how to adapt poses to enable students to practice comfortably within the range of their limitations, and

3) how to structure their teaching in incremental steps to help students progress over time.

4) how to help students develop greater body awareness to make their practice rich and empower them and motivate them to continue.

For instance, a student cannot get into any kind of comfortable version of Chaturanga by a teacher demoing the pose with perfect alignment. It’s critical to take the time to build up the student’s body awareness, strength, flexibility, and core integrity.

And importantly, this cannot be done in a standalone class.

The key to teaching people in the middle spectrum of the health-illness continuum is to teach people in courses, not in classes. This brings numerous advantages.

  • Teaching yoga courses enables students to go through a more in-depth, progressive learning process and addresses most of the problems beginning students have, no matter their age.
  • Teaching in courses also enables you to build incremental steps of learning, so the students can gradually pick up the skills and experience they need to practice the poses.
  • Teaching in courses enables yoga teachers to get to know each student and the limitations he or she brings to the practice, in order to better support them on their path of learning.
  • Students can enjoy their practice and enjoy progressing instead of forcing themselves into a pose they are not ready for, and the class can progress together in relation to the theme of the course.
  • A course also forces a commitment.  When students have signed up and paid for a course with a series of classes, they are much more likely to stick to it, creating a much more tenable learning situation for both teacher and student.

Yoga Wellness Courses: The #1 Mistake to Avoid When Teaching Yoga in Courses

Some studios do offer a series of classes under the headline of e.g., Yoga for Beginners. The problem with this is that no one likes to think of themselves as a beginner.

Instead, to be successful, a yoga course needs to focus on the potential benefits students can gain from taking this class. This is why we refer to these courses as Yoga Wellness Courses: People come to yoga because they want to improve their health and well-being.

The key to reaching the untapped markets in yoga is to offer wellness courses that educate people on some aspect of how to stay healthy and improve their well-being. Sample topics could be yoga for core integrity, yoga for posture improvement, or yoga for healthy aging, yoga for stress relief, yoga for insomnia, yoga for lymphatic health.

The Difference Between Yoga Wellness Courses and Yoga Therapy

Yoga wellness courses focus in the middle part of the health-illness continuum. The focus is on self care and prevention, not on treating illness.  Therapy is the treatment of a physical or mental illness.  The therapeutic benefits of yoga by contrast suggest that yoga promotes wellness, so you can therapeutically benefit from yoga without being a therapist.

Yoga may reduce the chances of developing health conditions and can increase wellness in general health, but yoga itself is not therapy.

So the wording of Yoga Wellness Courses is important.  For instance, instead of calling a course “yoga for insomnia,” with would be called “yoga for better sleep,” because insomnia is a medical condition. Insomnia is rampant and complicated, but all of us go through periods in our lives where our schedule has disrupted our sleep.  The name of the course will determine the kind of people you attract, so staying squarely within the realm of wellness topics you are well versed in is important.



Yoga Wellness courses, the way we see it, bridge the gap between yoga classes and yoga therapy. The focus is on making yoga’s life-enhancing practices available to people at a broader range of the health-illness continuum, not just healthy, fit people.  The focus is to help people live their best lives and inhabiting their lives with health, happiness, and with a calm demeanor, not treating a medical condition.

Steps to Building a Yoga Wellness Course

In a course, it’s critical to build a progression of learning about the things that the students need to develop in their practice. For example, if one of your goals is to build greater awareness around pelvic tilt and what it means to find pelvic neutral, which is important for posture improvement, then you would introduce progressive elements of that in each class.

Don’t expect everyone to be able to find pelvic neutral or distinguish between anterior and posterior tilt after one class. Teach incremental steps in each class and then add layers of learning over each session. You’re essentially creating a curriculum for your yoga classes each time you create a sequencing plan for your standalone classes.

Teaching Yoga Wellness Courses includes:

  • Building up the learning steps over a series of classes
  • Sequencing learning on many levels, on the level of body awareness, and around the main course theme you are working on.
  • Building a progressive learning experience around the health education theme the course is about in order to help students understand that aspect of their body better.

For example, one of the wellness courses we have in the Yoga Wellness Educator training is Yoga for Osteoporosis and Functional Aging.  The different modules and sections in that course are helping students understand the different elements that go into having a body that stays functional well into their 80s and 90s. The key to this is to start when you’re in your 40s, 50s or 60s. Think you can attract some non-SAFFYs to a course like that? You bet you.

Another example of a popular course offered via the Yoga Wellness Educator training is Yoga for Posture Improvement. With the growing epidemic of forward head posture, many people are looking for ways to counteract the effect of numerous hours of sitting and improve their posture. Yet another topic that it’s easy to attract people to who would not normally set foot in a yoga studio.

Like any physical skill, yoga is something that has to be learned in the same way you had to learn how to ride your bicycle and drive a car. There is a huge gap in the marketplace and a great need for yoga teachers who can address the needs of people who fall into middle of the health-illness continuum.



In summary, the reason most yoga teachers aren’t teaching in courses is that they have not learned how to observe the common musculoskeletal conditions that are holding most students back in their practice.  They don’t know how to adapt poses to students with a wide range of abilities.  They don’t know how to structure their teaching in incremental steps to help students progress systematically over time.

Unless we as a progression begin to meet this need, it’s very doubtful that the yoga teaching profession will progress past its current status as a market-driven, Lululemon fitness trend. This is one reason we here at YogaUOnline created the Yoga Wellness Educator Professional Certification Training, which is focused around filling the gaps in yoga teacher training needed to take the next step forward: To learn how to structure yoga teaching in steps of incremental learning and to learn how to effectively adapt the practice to the needs of literally everybody.

On this path, we are pleased to be joined by a stellar roster of leading yoga teachers specializing in teaching yoga to everybody.

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