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Yoga’s Growing Threat of Legal Liability

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The collapse of the U.S. economy has forced millions of Americans out of their jobs, and into the ranks of the semi-employed.  For many, that’s meant reduced incomes and growing impoverishment, insecurity and fear.  For others, it’s meant an opportunity to take the risk of exploring unknown terrain.  For an estimated 75,000 American women, it’s led to the life of a yoga teacher.

It’s not an easy life, most say, in part because so many women have jumped in so fast, leading to a veritable “glut” in the market.    But it’s also an unusually easy labor market to enter.  For a few thousand dollars, and sometimes less, one can obtain a “certificate” to teach from a local yoga studio, and then register as a due-paying member of the Yoga Alliance, a self-styled yoga “trade association.”  There are no formal guidelines – let alone a standard curriculum — for yoga teacher training and no oversight of the process from either a governmental or industry body.  Six months ago, you might have been walking dogs or waitressing, with no real career prospects.   Suddenly, you’ve morphed into a “yogini,” a faux-Hindu goddess, and neighborhood faith healer.

And that’s where the problems begin.   Many of these newbie teachers really aren’t qualified to teach all that much, and what they know, while offering a modicum of callisthenic stimulation, improved flexibility,  or short-term stress relief, may not have much long-term benefit, many yoga experts says.  In fact, a growing of observers have begun questioning whether the yoga industry, as currently configured, isn’t doing more long-term harm than good.  William Broad, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with the New York Times, sounded the alarm in 2012 with a book charging that yoga injuries were more widespread, chronic and potentially life-threatening than many observers realized.   That led to bitter and angry recriminations from veteran yogis, who charged that Broad was engaging in “sensationalism.”  But Michaelle Edwards, a 40-year yoga teaching veteran, stepped up publicly to defend Broad, suggesting that much of her own teaching practice in Hawaii was geared to students that had gotten injured in yoga classes – sometimes severely — elsewhere.   Her charges echoed those of other veteran teachers and studio owners like Valentina Petrova of Los Angeles, who claimed that most of her own yoga students were “refugees” from other studios.  In 2012, Petrova tried to write about her experience teaching injured students for the Huffington Post, where yoga, under the influence of the magazine’s publisher, an industry aficionada, has become a quasi-official religion.  Huff-Po refused to publish her article.

Alas, the days of carefree yogic bliss – and an unofficial industry black-out – may soon be drawing to a close. Not only is evidence mounting that poorly trained, unlicensed yoga teachers are inflicting unnecessary pain on their students, but some of these students are quietly rebelling — by suing their teachers and the studios that employ them.

So far, at least six major lawsuits have been filed against yoga studios and teachers by students claiming to be victims of “negligence,” according to Matthew J. Taylor, the former president of the International Association of Yoga Therapy, who has testified in several of these lawsuits.  Taylor told me he is dumbfounded by the refusal of yoga studios to adopt even basic risk management precautions that might protect them and their teachers from civil liability.   As a result, once they’re sued, they generally don’t have a yoga leg to stand on, he argues, and they end up settling – for $250,000 in one recent case.   It’s just the beginning, he says.

Taylor says it’s a myth that yoga students are only at risk in large studios run by corporate yoga chains or in fitness centers and gyms more accustomed to high-intensity exercise than to a quieter mind-body practice.   In fact, one of the worst liability cases he’s encountered occurred in a “private” session, in which a single student works with a highly trained teacher, in a relationship of bounded intimacy and personal trust.  Yoga veterans say that’s how yoga used to be taught, and still is, in many parts of India or in more reclusive American ashrams.

But Taylor says that even these relationships are open to abuse if the teacher lacks the medical and professional background to inquire about pre-existing health conditions and fails to tailors their student’s yoga practice accordingly.  In one case that he is familiar with, a teacher pushed q student to perform “The Plow,” an extreme folding pose that compresses the carotid artery and places enormous stress on neck ligaments.  The student had recently suffered neck surgery and was completely unaware of the risks associated with the pose.  So apparently was the teacher, who never inquired about the student’s past health problems, either.  When the student ended up severely reinjuring his neck, he blamed the teacher and sued – and won a sizable settlement.

Not all yoga injuries – or studio liability — are due to the quality of instruction.  Often, the studio has not taken care to secure the premises and its fixtures in a way that would better protect class participants.    In another recent case, in Portland, Oregon, a large full-length mirror in a yoga studio fell and shattered on top of a yoga student lying on her back in – of all things — Corpse Pose, which typically concludes a yoga class.   Huge shards from the mirror lacerated the student’s body who is still recuperating from her injuries.  She sued the studio and the glass company after it was revealed that the mirror had been attached to the wall with simple glue, without basic supports, let alone reinforced braces.

Taylor says the rapid commercialization of yoga is partly to blame for the escalating risk of injury to students.  Many teachers are rushing to get trained to teach to exploit the burgeoning consumer interest in yoga but the industry is doing virtually nothing to ensure that teachers are properly qualified.  There is no formal licensing body in yoga as there is for Chinese mind-body practices like acupuncture and Qi-Gong.   Graduating yogis should have acquired some serious medical knowledge, including, at a minimum, awareness of the known medical contraindications for all of the major yoga poses, but most haven’t a clue, he notes.  And teachers should also be able to perform basic screenings, to identify pre-existing health conditions, and to tailor their students’ practice accordingly, even in large group settings, he suggests.

“Most yoga teachers these days learn about the [Bhagavad] Gita and can perform headstands but they actually know very little about the body and how to protect their students,” he argues.

Some yoga professionals have been quietly moving to raise the licensing standards for yoga teachers.   Michael Lee, a 40-year yoga veteran who founded Phoenix Rising in Bristol, Vermont, trains teachers to become full-fledged yoga therapists, many of them already nurses and health professionals with advanced training in psychology and psychotherapy, physiology and anatomy.  This is serious year-long training with an intensive residency period and a supervised practicum.  Lee says he wants people attracted to yoga to be able to get the deep psychic healing they need, not just the stress relief or improved flexibility that a typical yoga asana or posture practice conducted at a commercial studio might provide.

Even here there are dangers, however.   Dr. Carol Horton, who has written extensively about yoga, and teaches in New York, argues that yoga students and their teachers involved in intensive therapeutic work can develop unhealthy psychological dependencies that leave one or both parties at risk of “psychic” injury.  Often, students project onto their teachers fantasies about being “saved” or “parented.”  Teachers, with their own unmet emotional needs, may either find themselves drawn into these unhealthy bonds or worse, might seek to exploit their students’ vulnerability for personal ego gratification.

A number of highly-publicized sex scandals, including ones involving John Friend of Anusara Yoga, and Bikram Choudhury, accused of raping several of his young students, have drawn attention to the issue of teacher abuse in codependent “cult-like” settings but it is only the tip of the iceberg, yoga insiders say.   Horton and Lee believe that problems can arise in any intensive teacher-student interaction because in yoga students often unearth memories and sensations stored in their bodies which may lead to intense fears and anxieties, or inflated feelings of elation and a desire to bond with their teacher.  Teachers who are young and inexperienced may not know how to deal with these reactions, or may be consciously or unconsciously triggering them, leading to the kind of “transference and counter-transference” typically seen in structured therapeutic settings.  It is important in these settings that teachers see the warning signs and understand the symptoms of deeper underlying emotional issues, and perform what Taylor calls “triage,” ensuring that students are referred out for additional help.  When that doesn’t happen, due to poor training and personal immaturity, real trouble can result.

Sadly, there is no official recognition in the American yoga industry of the importance of these issues.  Whenever the issue of instituting a more formal licensing system is raised, one hears cries of “elitism.”  Yoga shouldn’t be “regulated,” so many yogis declare, as if ensuring the safety of students through some form of collective oversight was somehow an invitation to government control and interference.  Broad, in his controversial book, urged the American yoga community to “grow up” by developing more rigorous standards for training and licensing all of its teachers, much as Lee and others, including Taylor’s former employer, the IAYT, are trying to do on their own.  But the industry, increasingly dominated by corporate investors and by ideological libertarians like Leslie Kaminoff, a prominent New York yogi who has attacked Broad and other industry critics, has done its best to quiet and stigmatize these voices.

Taylor says he is especially concerned about the number of teachers now running around claiming to be “yoga therapists,” but without any of the requisite therapeutic training.   Many teachers qualified at the 200-hour level go on to become qualified at the 500-hour level, conferring even greater legitimacy on their training.  However, Taylor says that “certification” hardly qualifies them to begin a private therapeutic practice, or to charge unusually high rates for their sessions.  Consumers that may need a range of counseling or therapeutic services often bond closely with their teachers in these settings, with unpredictable results.   The standard reply from teachers to problems that arise in these settings is that the student simply needs even more intensive yoga, to work through the psychological challenges.  But yoga alone may not be the answer, Taylor says.

Yoga is certainly not the only industry facing such challenges.  Many industry defenders, including Taylor, are quick to point to the threat of physical injury in other fitness-oriented settings as well as problems of psychological abuse – including therapist counter-transference – that arise in more conventional counseling and psycho-analysis.   However, Taylor agrees that yoga, as a fledgling industry, needs to set a higher standard if it expects to survive as an alternative modality.  Some teachers may need to be weeded out, and some should never be allowed in.

But the response thus far from the industry has been to stick its collective head in the sand — in “Ostrich Pose.”  From New York to Virginia to Texas, yogis have banded together to block any attempt to bring yoga teacher training under the rubric of state vocational training guidelines, arguing that their mind-body practice is “special” and should be declared “exempt” from all government “interference,” including taxation and licensing fees.

Taylor, among others, believes that fears of “government regulation” are a red herring.  There is a range of collective regulatory “options,” he notes, that would allow the yoga movement as a whole to create a core of common standards, without any government regulatory involvement.   He says the stakes – and the potential costs — are growing and that the industry needs to move soon, while it is still fairly young.  He notes that a growing number of overweight and obese students are taking yoga classes, as part of yoga’s broadening consumer appeal.  “At some point, someone doing a simple pose like ‘Legs Up the Wall’ is going to stroke out [and die].  It’s inevitable,” he says.   “Right now, we’re simply not prepared for what is to come.”

Perhaps the first confirmed “death-by-yoga” will finally force American yoga to wake up and recognize the need for internal reform.   In the interim, though, the industry’s likely to face growing concern over unnecessary injuries.  And increasingly expensive lawsuits from consumers that far too naively entrusted their minds and bodies to its care.

Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com

 

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