An Interview with John Kepner, M.A., M.B.A.

The fifth Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR) will be held June 13-16, 2013 in Boston—the first time it’s been held on the East coast. The third Symposium on Yoga Research (SYR) will be held immediately before, on June 11-13. Integral Yoga Magazine is proud to be a media sponsor of both these symposia, which are organized by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT). John Kepner, IAYT’s executive director since 2003, has been at the forefront of developing publications, conferences, standards and a professional identity for the field of Yoga therapy for a decade. In this interview, he reflects on that journey and the upcoming symposia.


Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): What is the mission of the IAYT?

John Kepner (JK): The IAYT mission is to establish Yoga as a recognized and respected therapy. I consider that like a sutra—there are a lot of implications packed into that one sentence. What would you need to establish Yoga therapy in the West? You need professional credibility. How do you establish that? One of the first ways is to establish a credible professional journal. IAYT has published the International Journal of Yoga Therapy since 1990, so we took it to peer review in 2005. It was accepted into PubMed (the database of medical references operated by the United States National Library of Medicine) in 2011. From IAYT’s perspective, these are major milestones.

Another important pillar for a growing field is to develop professional conferences for Yoga therapists—to meet peers, network and receive continuing education. Once we established an annual conference, we also had a forum to discuss all the issues in our field. We hoped to get 400 people to attend the first SYTAR, but this many registered in the first month! We sold out at 800. The reason was that those working in the field felt isolated and didn’t have colleagues in their town, so they were thrilled to finally have a chance to meet others from around the US and over 30 countries. These conferences helped Yoga therapists forge a professional identity, which then puts us all on a bigger map.

IYM: Was the idea to become part of the  integrative medicine field?

JK: We believe Yoga is one of the solutions to the healthcare challenges our society faces. As such, we’d like to present Yoga as a valuable practice which can be integrated within the conventional healthcare system and can also stand alongside as well, as a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practice. Yoga is often a poster child for a holistic approach to healthcare. It’s a nice visual image, but Yoga was never at the table when they talked about integrative, complementary and alternative medicine policy. We weren’t licensed, we had no standards and we weren’t organized.

IYM: How did you get invited to sit at the table?


JK: We joined the Academic Consortium for Complementary & Alternative Health Care (ACCAH—a consortium of naturopathic physicians, acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists and direct-entry midwives. That consortium is a counterweight to a consortium of medical schools that are interested in integrative medicine. I’d been looking for a seat for Yoga at the healthcare policy table for years. So when ACCAHC formed, I knocked at the door and asked, “Would you let us in?” They said yes, but only if we established standards. What I didn’t know at the time was that they debated fiercely about whether to let us in. The main argument against us was because we were unlicensed and they were licensed. But then they said, “We were suppressed for decades. We’re not going to do that to emerging health care people. We will help them instead.”


IYM: So standards were needed?


JK: Absolutely, but note, standards don’t prescribe details such as how to do triangle pose. We use the phrase “standards, but not standardization.” In America, if you want to call yourselves “therapists,” you need standards. ACCAH is very helpful to its members, so they came to our conferences, gave presentations, inspired us and taught us how to develop standards. We also brought in other knowledgeable people to talk to us. We worked on standards for more than two years. We published lots of draft versions and reviewed them at meetings of schools at SYTAR. In July 2012 the final version was published on our website. These standards, like all professional standards, are based on competencies, were developed by peers and address what it is that Yoga therapists need to know in order to practice safely and effectively. During SYTAR 2013, all the afternoon sessions are related to one or more of the competencies. It’s not just about setting standards, but it’s also about peers teaching peers.


IYM: Are there colleges and universities creating training programs?


Read the rest of this article in the Spring 2013 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.