Yoga Injuries and How Teachers Can Protect Themselves
There’s something you need to face as a yoga teacher. You ready? At some point in your career, there will be a student who gets injured in one of your classes. There, I said it. The truth is, even if you call out the proper way to do a pose and ease students safely into that pose, you could still be held liable for student injuries in your classes. And, did you know that some of these injuries may not have anything to do with the actual asana, but instead, a trip or a fall? Needless to say, thinking about all of this is scary, but it is necessary for it to be on your radar if you want to go into the world of teaching yoga.
To make these ideas a little less scary, I talked with Dr. Matthew Taylor, a certified yoga therapist and expert witness in yoga safety and injuries (yes, that’s a real thing!), about how teachers can protect themselves.
1. Once becoming certified, what is the first thing a teacher should do before they start to look for work?
Find a mentor or get affiliated with an experienced yoga community. Trying to teach without a community for feedback and consultation is a recipe for stagnation and catastrophe. We're all fallible and need additional training and development beyond basic certification. I've been doing this for 20 years and I still have to study/learn/read for many hours each year – and that's with a Masters of Physical Therapy background!
2. Why do yoga teachers need insurance? How do they know which one is right for them?
In the United States, we're a litigious society. Yoga is an activity that by its nature has some risk for injury. In our society, there's a tendency to determine fault when someone is injured. Our justice system is there to provide retribution and/or recovery of loss if necessary. The way we handle that liability/exposure is through insurance. It is relatively inexpensive and protects your personal assets. As far as the specific insurance and how to best protect yourself legally, I’d consult with an insurance salesperson or lawyer.
3. You’re known as a yoga injury expert witness. Can you give examples of the types of cases you have been involved in where the yoga teacher could have avoided the incident?
All of the cases I've been retained for have been needless injuries that could easily have been prevented and not led to legal action if common sense and proper risk management had been employed. I can't disclose specifics, but every single case involved unsafe practice management without oversight, no safety policies or training, and terrible management by the teacher/facility in handling the plaintiff's complaint of injury. For example, doing crow pose on a wood floor while sweating (in an advertised candlelight gentle class), or modified shoulder stand when the student was two months post hernia repair.
4. What about a case example where the teacher did what he/she could to avoid an incident, but he/she was still at fault?
If a teacher is practicing within the standards of the yoga industry and did what he/she could to avoid an incident, and those precautions matched what anyone in the industry would do (and he/she did nothing negligent or illegal), then typically there would be no justification to sue beyond recovery of losses – which is what insurance companies cover. Slips, trips, and falls are part of the business and are covered by policies. The severity of the injury can drive cases, and most yoga injuries are not life or limb threatening, or don’t generate high levels of disability.
5. On your website you have this phrase: "We must work together to make ahimsa the rule, not the exception, in yoga." How can teachers make sure they are more aware of ahimsa while teaching?
As our first yama, ahimsa should be foremost on our minds as teachers. Basically, ignorance isn't bliss. We need to know who we are teaching, what their capacities are, and any vulnerabilities/risk factors that exist. By "exception" I mean studios should train on safety, have policies and procedures in place to reduce risk, and have a plan of action when an incident occurs. Generating a practice culture of non-harming does take time, but it will pay for itself. The clientele sees the care and concern that goes into the entire operation, and that matters because it's these clients who will refer others. In addition, our clients continue to get more frail and vulnerable, especially as the health benefits associated with yoga become more widely known. Those who can offer a smart, safe place to learn yoga will get customers for life.
Dr. Taylor leads training programs and creates resources to incorporate smart, safe yoga for the international yoga community. Smart Safe Yoga fosters intelligent, creative and mindful sources of information and tools for yoga teachers, students, yoga therapists and conventional medical professionals who want to incorporate yoga principles into their practices and studios. His leadership in the field of yoga safety and science has made him an expert in yoga safety and injuries. Personally, he can attribute yoga to both changing his life and easing chronic back pain. His new book will be released in the 2nd quarter 2018 titled Teaching from the Wisdom of Pain: Yoga Therapy as a Creative Response.