The European Union of Yoga was founded in 1971 by Gerard Blitz and Andre van Lysebeth in Switzerland in 1971 and was earlier known as the European Union of Yoga Federations (UEFNY). The current president Gabi Gillessen, who qualified as a yoga trainer from the Irish Yoga Association, steers the yogic journey of 17 national federations. Yoga in Europe is a serious undertaking, and the EUY’s four year teacher training programme is among the most demanding in the world.
Gabi started to practice Yoga when she suffered from lower back pain after her son was born. She attended a Chiropractor who suggested she take up yoga to strengthen the muscles of her back. She says after the first session, she was “completely captivated! I loved the time I had for myself to explore by body, my breath, my mind – basically the opportunity to reconnect with myself.”
Her journey from there grew very quickly; she did the Irish Yoga Association’s (IYA) teacher training course, the IYA Tutor training course and an introductory level Iyengar training course.
In this interview she speaks to CSP about the EUY and yoga training and practice in Europe. She says that while each Federation probably has their own documentation of the yoga developments in their own countries, she is not sure whether a European body of documentation exists.
How do you think travelling to India has deepened your understanding of Yoga? Would you say that a visit should be inbuilt into any teaching programme?
One of the students that came to India with me said ‘Visiting India was like seeing the yoga philosophy come to life’. For me personally my visits to India help me reconnect in a similar way that my practice helps me reconnect to something deeper within me. One of my IYA TTC groups chose to complete their training in India. For 2 weeks we focused on early morning practices, invited guests to deepen our experience of mantra, culture etc. and visited prominent places of interest. As much as I think each course should have a similar experience it is not always possible for group members to have the luxury of 2 weeks away from work / family. But the experience of travelling to India is there for teachers and trainees to avail of if they are in a position to do so.
Are there countries which are promoting yoga at the government level which is giving it a fillip?
Many of the EUY member Federations are recognised at government level. The difficulty comes when trying to put yoga into a ‘category’ – is it classified as Culture? Sport? Health? Education? We know yoga is all of those (except sport!!!) but also that yoga is so very much more! So which European / Western category does it fit into? Maybe it should have its own status!
What is the goal and purpose of Yoga according to the European Yoga Union?
The history of the European Union of Yoga (EUY) is in fact the awakening of Yoga in Europe and the formalisation of a truly professional European network of yoga teacher federations. In today's ongoing globalised commercialisation of Yoga, it is our aim to continue to promote and transmit the essence of yoga; developing and guarding the quality of teaching, with clear pedagogical and ethical criteria as a European Organisation. The EUY adopts the basic Yoga tenets as defined in the Yogasutras of Patanjali. The EUY Yoga training follows the framework given by the classical yoga texts. Yoga in the EUY is non-competitive. It is aimed at developing human potential fully. During yoga education the transfer of experiential learning takes place in addition to the rational, academic aspects so that the essential elements of Yoga are conveyed and teachers may inspire and guide students on a profound journey of self-discovery.
Do cultural differences within Europe make a difference on how Yoga is perceived and practiced? The US for instance has seen different schools of Yoga becoming popular.
I will answer this question by quoting an excerpt from the European Teacher Training Programme (ETTP).
The aim of the European Teacher Training Program is to enable students to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to become effective teachers of yoga, and to provide a basis for the continued study of the philosophy, principles, and practice of yoga. Teachers of yoga must have the ability to convey the methods of yoga to students in a way, which will help them to understand the true essence of yoga, increase their physical and mental well-being, and provide the necessary elements for spiritual growth. Yoga should be transmitted in a way that is both faithful to the teachings of the ancient sages, and cognisant of the worldwide application of yoga. This means a study and analysis of the different traditional pathways in ways, which will encourage those precious qualities of flexibility and acceptance that have always been characteristic of yogic thought.
Member Federations do represent different yoga traditions however all federations have the above in common – so schools that focus merely on one aspect of yoga are not represented by the EUY.
At the moment the only way the EUY monitors the training courses of their members is to check the course content and hours devoted to each subject of a course that has been completed. Then only can they become a recognised EUY school. It is the responsibility of each Federation to monitor their own schools. The EUY has a basic ETTP that has been agreed by all – the basic syllabus, subjects and minimum hours that we feel would constitute a basic, minimum teacher training programme.
In your opinion do you think there are many takers for a structured 4-year teacher training course when it is possible to get a teacher training certificate by doing shorter courses?
When we introduced the 4 year teacher training course in early 2000 many students were hesitant! Indeed why would you think of completing a 4 year course when you can complete your training in 2 years or even less in some cases!! But 20 years later we are still training teachers and I think people have realised that after 2 years they are not adequately trained and that they still have so much more to learn to prepare them for teaching!
Yoga is a life journey; it is not a practice that ever stops. Many shorter courses also have no follow up training or supports for their teachers – the IYA runs Continuous Professional Development days for our teachers. Teachers have at least 7 weekend courses annually to choose from, covering various aspects of yoga to support them in their own personal yoga journey and in their teaching. The IYA also runs regular Teacher Refresher residential weekends to support teachers in deepening their knowledge, skills and attitude.
What does the syllabus of the teacher training include? How was this curated and by whom?
The IYA TTC syllabus was put together by senior tutors in the late 1980’s. As the course evolves the syllabus stays the same but is added to by the knowledge gained from group to group. The syllabus is extensive and includes:
• Āsana – including standing, back bending, forward bending, twisting postures, seated postures, inversions. Order of practice, teaching practice, contraindications. Yoga for children, yoga in the field of mental health, yoga in pregnancy etc.
• Prānāyāmā – including breath awareness, three phase breath, complete breath, Nadi Sodhana, Viloma A&B, Kumbhaka etc.
• Kriya, Mudrā and Bandha
• Relaxation – including preparation, brain waves, techniques, postures, teaching practice etc.
• Philosophy – including the history and types of yoga, cosmology, study of the Upaniṣads, Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Hathayogapradipika etc. and practical application of philosophy in life.
• Meditation – including exploration of attention, focuses for meditation, teaching practice etc.
• Round – is rooted in Patanjali’s yamas and niyamas and encourages students to take responsibility for what happens between themselves, as they come to realise that they are in charge of their experience and perception.
• Class planning – including structure of classes, from beginners classes to continuation classes etc.
• Anatomy & Physiology – including bones, muscles and systems of the body, subtle anatomy etc.
• 1st Aid certification valid for two years
• Guest Lectures on specialised subjects e.g. Sanskrit, Psychology, Group Dynamics etc.
Meeting at zinal in 1984
What was the role of visiting Indian Yoga and spiritual gurus in creating an interest in Yoga?
Many of the EUY delegates regularly travel to visit and / or to study in India. This connection is important. Many prominent Indian teachers have been invited as guests of honour to teacher at the EUY Congress in Zinal, Switzerland since 1973, including Swami Satchidananda, Swami Satyananda, K.V. Desikachar and more recently A.G. Mohan, T.K. Sribhashyam, Ravi Ravindra and Sraddhalu Ranade. Many of these renowned teachers also teach throughout Europe, invited by member Federations. So I feel there is very much a two-way system of exchange between India and Europe. The role of this exchange would be to uphold the authentic yoga traditions and emphasis the spiritual yoga journey.
What are the events that are held under the umbrella of the Yoga Union?
The main event the EUY organises each year is a week-long Congress held annually in Zinal, Switzerland. This year will be the 47th Congress which brings together between 300 and 500 participants, mostly yoga and meditation teachers, but also yoga practitioners of all ages and from around the globe. Many prominent teachers are among the guests of honour invited each year since 1973, including Swami Satchidananda, Swami Satyananda, Andre Van Lysebeth, Indra Devi, T.K.V. Desikachar, A.G. Mohan, T.K. Sribhashyam, Willigis Jäger, Père Lassalle, Sri Anandi Ma, Swami Nityamuktananda, Ravi Ravindra and many others. This year, Sraddhalu Ranade and Geza Timcak are the guests of honour. In 2019 we introduced a satellite Congress that was held in Catania, Sicily. It is hoped that every 3 years a satellite Congress can be held in different countries around Europe. Each member Federation also organises their own national events.
What do you think is the main difference between Indian Yoga trainers and other yoga trainers?
I have limited experience of Indian yoga trainers but those that I have had contact with – Sraddhalu Ranade, Yogacharya Venkatesh, Dr. Vinayachandra BK and Dr Anuradha Choudry – have all conveyed the long history and the deep spiritual aspect of yoga. I feel that this is very much upheld by the EUY and the IYA tutors.