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Yoga courses: is online yoga teacher training as good as an in-person course?

Posted by for Wellbeing

Think you’ve got to schlep to Bali to do your yoga teacher training? Think again: more and more courses are popping up online at vastly cheaper rates than the in-person versions. Writer and yogi, Lisa Bowman, explores the pros and cons of qualifying as a yoga teacher in a post-pandemic age.

If yoga Instagram is anything to go by, you can’t qualify as a yoga teacher without jetting off to some far-flung tropical island to qualify. You might be in Rishikesh to learn an ancient art but if you didn’t also get a pic of you doing a headstand on a bright, white beach, who’d know that you a genuine yogi?

Of course, Covid-19 pandemic put a stop to these qualification-vacations and as the world ground to a half, yoga schools around the world had to adapt. Yoga Alliance (a global, non-profit organisation that certifies yoga teachers and trainings) decided to allow online training to run into 2021, rather than making in-person sessions a prerequisite to qualifying.  

The question is: just how good are these online courses, compared with the in-person ones and how long might they be here to stay?

The minimum training for a yoga teacher is 200 hours. That’s usually done over a three-to-four week period as part of an intensive, residential course. Students can find themselves studying six days a week, from dusk ‘till dawn, taking part in classes, lectures and assessments on subjects like anatomy, asana (poses), and sequencing. Students can also choose to train at studios closer to home, studying part-time over a longer period of a few months to over a year.

While online training isn’t totally new – some schools have been doing it for years (they just weren’t certified with Yoga Alliance), the digital market has blown up since the pandemic. 

Taking yoga teacher training online has its benefits and pitfalls. Georgia St John-Smith experienced both when her in-person course was cancelled partway through. She’d flown to Bali at the end of February 2020 to do her 200-hour training with Leah Sugerman in Canggu, but two weeks into the three-week course, students were forced to fly home due to the pandemic.

“Yoga Alliance said we could continue the training online,” explains Georgia. “We waited a couple of weeks for everyone to get back to their homes in all different corners of the world and then had our last week on Skype. We practised together on Skype, we did the theory, we did our final assessment on Skype; we got to finish. It was fine but it wasn’t the same. We booked a course in Bali – we wanted it in person for a reason. But we had no choice.”

For many people – including Georgia – the intense, immersive nature of a full-time course far away from home is all part of the experience. However, not everyone has the time or money to take four weeks off and fly to a yoga school in the Himalayas, and for those who choose to train part-time, courses were previously limited to the yoga schools they could travel to regularly.

Online training has opened up a world of possibilities, allowing people to train with teachers they admire from thousands of miles away. 

The benefits of online yoga teacher training

Yoga Alliance requires that online programmes have a blend of synchronous (live, interactive) and asynchronous (self-paced, pre-recorded) teaching.

Fierce Grace is one yoga studio that took trainings online last year. “I did have a few reservations about how we could deliver the intensive experience that is so transformational in a live in-person training,” says Michele Pernetta, Fierce Grace’s founder. “I was also concerned about not being able to get on the mat with the students and give them hands-on corrections, show the group how to feel certain things, show up-close how muscles can be used, or joints adjusted. So I wondered it might be an inferior process to a live intensive.”

However, Michele has been impressed with how adaptable participants have been, realising some benefits of online study: “While it was less intense than a one-month full-time course, that’s actually good for a lot of people and makes absorption of material easier.”

Many students agree. Zoe Jones is currently training online with a school in Goa, and has found pre-recorded resources a huge advantage. “I have absolutely no concerns doing my training online because I believe the world has proved it can continue online,” Zoe says. “Apart from it fitting in with everyday life, the benefits of an online course are endless for me. I love how the material is methodically uploaded into an online platform that I have access to. My brain works better with structure – I have all the material instantly to hand, so I can plan ahead, watch videos ahead of time, then do my own reading if necessary.”

Clare Bethan is a yoga teacher based in Manchester, who’s previously taken part in multiple in-person trainings, and decided to do physical therapist and yoga teacher Lara Heimann’s online 200-hour course. 

“There were days on my initial 200-hour where I was so exhausted and hot that I’m sure some of the lecture content went in one ear and out the other,” she says. “I can revisit any of the recorded lectures from my online training – three-hour lecture on function of the spine? I’m glad I can do that one more than once.”

No need for hands-on help

Yoga teacher assisting a woman in child's pose
Online courses may not offer the opportunity to touch or assist but that's not necessarily a problem

However, self-paced online does have the disadvantage of not being able to ask questions as you go, though many courses schedule regular live Q&As for this reason.

When it comes to adjustments, Clare doesn’t think learning them online is that big a deal: “Honestly, there’s a lot of conversation about adjustments in the yoga world. Should we be doing them? Why are we doing them? Is it appropriate? During lockdowns, of course, we couldn’t! All I will say is that assisting and adjusting a fellow yoga teacher on a teacher training is good practice but it’s totally different from working with the general public in your classes.

“I’ve learnt more from practicing with my partner in lockdown than I did practicing on fellow yoga teachers as he doesn’t practice much yoga and isn’t anticipating what I’ll do.”

Final assessments on in-person courses usually involve teaching your fellow students in a class. Online assessments vary, ranging from teaching group and one-on-one classes on Zoom, to recording yourself teaching a housemate, with the addition of written tests and assignments. While teaching on Zoom may not prepare you fully for teaching “live” at a studio, it certainly prepares you for teaching online, which may well be the “new normal” for a while.

Online teacher training is much cheaper

Although web learning has its downsides, there is potentially one big benefit – reduced costs. While there are still online courses that charge big bucks, some schools are passing the savings onto their students

Margaret Young began part-time teacher training with Yoga Sanctuary in Malahide, Ireland in September 2019. The course was due to end in May 2020 but after lockdown hit in March 2020, it was all moved online. Despite the downsides of online training, Margaret has gone on to do her 300-hour online with a school in Austin, USA.

“In-person 300-hour cost around €3,000 (£2,559) in Ireland so I’d put the idea on the back burner,” she explains. “When a friend told me about My Vinyasa Practice in Austin and the cost was €492 (£419) I was in shock. It felt too good to be true, but it wasn’t. I’m about halfway through now – it’s a lot of work but I’m learning so much and interacting with an international yoga community in real-time. I am already sure that it is one of the most memorable experiences of my life.”

While you certainly shouldn’t base your decision purely on cost – sometimes you really do get what you pay for – having more affordable training opens up the world of yoga teacher training to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it, potentially making the yoga community more diverse. 

Is online the future of yoga training?

While we might be back mingling with strangers at yoga studios already, elements of online study may be here to stay, and hybrid courses have actually been around longer than you may think.

Alexandra Reeceford began training online back in May 2016 with the British School of Yoga, on a course that was International Yoga Network (IYN) certified. As well as her online learning, she also had to train for 200 hours with an instructor, in-person – getting the best of both worlds.

“I chose this course as there were no time constraints which was ideal for me as a mum of three children, managing three chronic illnesses,” Alexandra explains. “There were 22 assignments to be completed at home and sent via email or post, which were marked by qualified assessors and sent back with your mark on each one.

“I then had to attend 200 hours of lessons with another instructor and have an in-person assessment at the end of that which required covering a strict criteria – all of which had to be assessed in a class environment and signed off by a qualified and experienced instructor. There was also a final exam paper.”

Fierce Grace’s Michele agrees that online/in-person trainings could be here to stay. ”Certainly in-person (or at least a large percentage of hours in-person) with a master tutor can’t really be beaten, but I think online has a place,” she notes. “Hybrid online/live offerings are going to stay, because recorded lectures from experienced teachers are a valuable resource as long as interactive sessions are there to back them up. Plus, some people could simply never certify if they didn’t do a lot of it online.

“I have been surprised how online live tutoring can still be very special and rewarding. Intimacy does cross through that medium. It shows we are, in fact, all connected – regardless of location.”

If part of your reason for doing yoga teacher training is finding yourself in a foreign land then maybe online training isn’t for you. If you just want to study your butt off and become a yoga teacher while living your life (much of which is online at the best of times), then online study may well be a silver lining of this weird new world we’re living in. Whichever training you choose, just make sure you choose wisely – ironically the world of yoga is full of scammers, both online and off.

5 tips for choosing an online course

Make sure the syllabus interests you. Courses vary massively with some including multiple disciplines of yoga, and extra subjects like Ayurveda and meditation. Choose carefully.

Choose a course structure that works for you. Short attention span? Maybe a longer course stretched out over a period of months suits you more than a four-week intensive.

Chat to other students who have studied with that school. Don’t rely on website testimonials – actually find and grill some former students, if you can.

Do a deep-dive on the instructors. Digitally stalk them, check their credentials, and take their online classes (if possible).

Make sure the course is Yoga Alliance certified. While other certification boards exist, YA is the most well-known, so it makes sense to go with them for your first online training.

Want to make sure that you’re the strongest you can be before diving into teacher training? Have a go at one of SWTC’s training plans. You’ll be chaturanga-ing like nobody’s business after eight weeks of full-body strength training.

Images: Getty

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