The state is facing an unlikely adversary: scores of angry yogis.
Tensions rose after the Colorado Division of Private Occupational Schools sent letters to more than 80 yoga studios that offer yoga teacher trainings. The letters explained that the studios may need to be approved by the division's board and pay fees because the state may consider them "occupational schools," which are regulated under a law that's been in place since the 1980s.
But the yogis argue that the state is interfering in something too "esoteric" to be any of its business, and that yoga teacher training isn't occupational education because teaching yoga is more often a hobby than a full-time job.
"The state of Colorado knows nothing about yoga," says attorney Roger Rippy, treasurer of the nonprofit Yoga Alliance. "It's like saying, 'Why don't you regulate interpretive dance?' ... Yogis can't even really decide what yoga is."
Besides, local yogis say, most full-time yoga teachers are too poor to pay state fees.
Take Jessica Patterson, owner of Root Center for Yoga and Sacred Studies on 17th Street. A yoga therapist and nutritionist, Patterson focuses on the philosophical and healing sides of yoga, something less prevalent in major studios. She says that despite having a good reputation and unusual specialties, she sometimes struggles to make rent.
If state fees — which typically would be at least $2,000 to cover the first three years — are imposed, Patterson says, she couldn't afford to do teacher trainings.
"The diluted and the McDonald's versions of teacher-training programs would be the most likely to make it," she says.
Amber Richman, owner of cambio. Yoga on Austin Bluffs Parkway, says she might be able to pay the fees, but it would be difficult. She has anywhere from 16 to 40 students a year in her vinyasa yoga teacher trainings. The classes are her main source of income. Though she charges anywhere from $1,800 to $2,500 per student, Richman says when she subtracts the expenses and factors in all the hours of instruction, that comes to about $10 an hour in take-home pay.
"It's generally not a business," she says, "where anybody is rolling in the dough."
So far, Patterson hasn't received a letter from the Division of Private Occupational Schools, but Richman and many others have.
State employees say there's no change in the rules — they just didn't realize that so many yoga programs were flying under their radar until a yoga teacher trainer sent a letter pointing it out. The state investigated further and sent letters to studios it believed should be regulated. Many were listed with the Yoga Alliance, a nationwide nonprofit that has registered more than 55,000 teachers and 3,500 schools that meet its standards.
The letters led to a swift backlash. Consequently, the division's board has agreed not to require applications from yoga training programs before its March 24 meeting. The delay is meant to allow more time for meetings with stakeholders, though deputy director Mary Kanaly says she thinks the division is legally required to regulate the studios.
The Denver Post has published an editorial condemning the division for attempting to regulate the studios. It also called out the division's director, Lorna Candler, for having a conflict of interest, because she teaches yoga part-time at a chain studio that's already regulated. Candler has spoken to the press supporting enforcement.
The division responded to the Post's claims on its website, noting that Candler reported the potential conflict early, does not own a yoga studio, and that she handed day-to-day oversight of the yoga issue to her deputy, Kanaly.
The state law Kanaly is trying to enforce is largely meant to protect students. For instance, the state requires that student tuition be bonded and returned if classes are cut short. There are also requirements that schools clearly state their class offerings and then live up to those promises. All those protections for students, she says, cost schools less than what a single yoga teacher training student usually pays in tuition.
To the Alliance's Rippy, this sounds like a solution in search of a problem.
Rippy, who owns five yoga studios in Houston, notes that the Colorado division never received a complaint from a yoga student — rather, a yoga teacher "ratted out" the competition. Similar things are happening nationwide, he says, and often the only way to hold back regulators is to change the law.
The Yoga Alliance expects a bill to be introduced in the Legislature soon that would exempt yoga-teacher trainings from regulation. But Rippy says Colorado doesn't need a new law — it could just decide that a yoga school isn't an occupational school. After all, there's no high school diploma needed for acceptance, and the aim usually isn't to get a job. According to internal surveys, Rippy says, only about 15 percent of Yoga Alliance members teach full-time.
Take Josh Moore. He completed his yoga teacher training at cambio. in October. He says he never even considered quitting his job as a carpenter to teach yoga classes. Yoga is a passion of his, but it wouldn't pay his bills.
"I have a wife and two kids," he says, "and they rely on my profession to create a livelihood."