When is a Yoga Teacher Negligent? ~ Amy Taylor

Via Amy Taylor
on Feb 22, 2013
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Source: thedailybeast.com via PLANK on Pinterest

Sure, Hilaria Thomas had a responsibility to do her best to teach a safe class. But, ultimately, we are all responsible for our own bodies and judgment.

Intriguing details have emerged about the incident that prompted student Spencer Wolff to file a lawsuit accusing yoga teacher Hilaria Thomas of negligence after leaving one of her classes by ambulance.

Apparently, Wolff was coming into or out of handstand when his foot crashed through a window of the sixth story studio, causing significant bleeding and resulting in a leg injury. He blames the crowded conditions and poor judgment of the instructor.

See, this is why I avoid handstand. And practicing yoga on the sixth story.

Seriously, I’m trying to discern what went wrong here. Who decides when to cut off a class roster? Did the studio have guidelines and were they followed?

In reality, I know most studios pack ‘em in. More students means more money. It’s a problem many of us who teach would love to have.

Class size aside, whose fault is it if a student attempts handstand too close to a window?

Clearly, Wolff had a traumatic experience. No one expects to leave the studio on a stretcher.

But how much responsibility does the instructor bear for these events? Does it reach the level of negligence?

Can someone really be “forced” into a pose that’s unsafe?  I’ve implied it in my writings about unpleasant adjustments. I have felt distressed after adjustments given by sought-after teachers in crowded classes. Still, I never considered a lawsuit. On some level, I understand that I’m an actor in the drama, too. I have a role that comes with responsibilities.

In fact, this situation has helped clarify it for me:

I am responsible for setting my own boundaries. If I don’t, I put myself at risk.

If I am appropriately assertive and a teacher still bullies me, well, then she may be at fault. But I can always walk out.

Knowing nothing about Thomas’s teaching style, I can’t say whether or not she pushes people to push their limits. If she teaches handstand in an all levels class, as reported, it’s possible.

I do know other teachers who take a drill sergeant approach. One yelled, “C’mon guys! No one ever died doing yoga!”

I cringed, hoping that wouldn’t be the day she was proven wrong.

As students, what do we have a right to expect from our yoga teachers? Are they supposed to scan the room for every potential hazard and be ready to prevent misguided moves?


We know the releases students sign offer little protective value. Still, there should be a sense of trust, a pact between teacher and student. Mutual respect. No intentional harm. Healthy boundaries.

First time in a class, you might not know what to expect. But apparently Wolff had attended this teacher’s class before. He chose to put himself back into her hands.

Sure, Thomas had a responsibility to do her best to teach a safe class. But, ultimately, each of us is responsible for our own body and judgment.

Even when the teacher is married to a celebrity.


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Ed: Kate Bartolotta


About Amy Taylor

Amy Taylor writes about parenting, yoga and other journeys for jconline.com, GaiamTV, elephant journal and others. Find her biweekly columns here. She completed 200-hour YTT at CITYOGA in Indianapolis in 2008 and teaches classes for all ages at  Community Yoga. When she's not writing or practicing yoga, Amy loves to read, research and have adventures with her husband and twin sons. Follow her on Twitter.


27 Responses to “When is a Yoga Teacher Negligent? ~ Amy Taylor”

  1. oz_ says:

    A very thoughtful article, thanks Amy!

    In our legal system, springing from the common law tradition, there USED TO BE the concept of a 'reasonable person' – which wikipedia describes this way:

    "the "reasonable person" is not an average person or a typical person. Instead, the "reasonable person" is a composite of a relevant community's judgment as to how a typical member of said community should behave in situations that might pose a threat of harm (through action or inaction)…The standard also holds that each person owes a duty to behave as a reasonable person would under the same or similar circumstances…"

    A jury would thus have analyzed both Thomas and Wolff from within this framework and determine if the actions or inactions of either was outside the bounds of reasonability.

    Unfortunately, that concept was pretty much thrown out a few decades back, thus throwing the floodgates open. Remember the woman who spilled hot coffee on herself due to her own foolishness – yet collected millions from MacDonalds? Case in point. So now, when 'deep pockets' are perceived to exist in some situation, there is an incentive to sue. One reason we've become such a ludicrously (and dangerously) litigious society, IMO.

  2. Gabriela says:

    But it sounds like it wasn't a "forced teacher adjustment" case that the student could have refused. It is about an over-crowded studio and a window and a handstand. It souns like a safety case that, to me, is totally under the studio's and the teacher's responsibility.

  3. Vision_Quest2 says:

    I could not help but share this article on Facebook.

    There is further you have to go than you have suggested, but then–by a process of elimination–I am pretty much old school yoga.

    My newest plan (I now have low blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes):

    I will listen only to what I deem sane orders from a teacher. Along the lines of middle path, rather than blow past your edge. Thus, the unmindful teacher, who is into testing the student's limits, can feel free to kick me out of class.*
    I will return the favor, of course! I don't need a class that I invariably dread beforehand anyway. My life is THAT stressful.
    Bottom line–I won't be goaded anywhere I'm not going for that day.

    I'd started out taking yoga in an upscale but mid-market chain gym a few years ago. Not an independent studio. The mind-body studio inside the gym takes liability seriously; they have to answer to ironclad insurance rules. By and large a YogaFit teaching studio. No headstand, no crow, no handstands or even any arm balances beyond tolasana taught by the overwhelming majority of the teachers. And, always told to honor your body. And to be where you are that day.

    In the studio world–don't ask! I could, personally, write a book – and I should.

    A rock star yoga teacher had tried to teach me handstand a few years ago. I took it on the road down to OM Yoga later on (they are out of business–no mystery why [maybe because they subscribe to sanity?]) and found out that rock star teacher had gone too far (my L-pose had been encouraged to be more like an upside-down navasana flipped 90 degrees against a wall–very possible to do, as I am short-waisted). I'd left that studio, and never came back.

    *To such teachers, who learned their lessons, and in the recent past have straightjacketed their teaching styles, I hope they have learned that this change to their styles should be permanent. Maybe they will lose the Spencer Wolffs or a whole bunch of private clients, but they will not be courting lawsuits.

  4. catnipkiss says:

    It's a little scary when we go upside-down, or attempt something that bends us in a new way. As a student, I want to trust that the teacher will encourage, support (physically, at times) and never push or prod. as a teacher, my "foga" classes are for older folks, and I ONLY ever do "energetic" assists – a light placing of hands for body awareness. Even so, I can feel the student trying to respond as if I am pushing or pressing sometimes! I remind them to do what is right for their bodies, to do what is comfortable, etc. I am humbled at times by this responsibility. – Alexa Maxwell

  5. Chris says:

    Sounds like most comments come from experienced students, at least students who have body awareness. It never fails to amaze me the number of students (especially in a “Power Yoga” class) who have no inkling of their own limits. This is why it is the teacher’s responsibility to guide, instruct, adjust or observe.

    I count myself experienced enough to practice safely most of the time, even when the teacher is a cowboy. But it seems to me that most students put so much trust in the concept of yoga as a “safe” exercise that it excuses them of any care and understanding of their own bodies. In the hands of a cowboy, this just equals injury, and who knows how many beginners don’t return for injuries less severe than Wollf’s?

  6. devacat says:

    When I was trained to teach, it was understood that we're responsible for holding a safe space for students–physically and emotionally safe–and I can't imagine how ahimsa can ever leave the room. I teach all levels, at a private studio and at the Y, and often have inexperienced students show up for challenging vinyasa classes. Some classes are very large. The principle still holds. The teacher's agenda should never override care for the students.

  7. devacat says:

    I'm Kripalu at heart, but I've studied with Dharma Mittra, Beryl Bender Birch, many others. Eclectic, which I like; I can draw on a range of wisdom to serve my students.

  8. Vision_Quest2 says:

    You have to read the right treatments for this case, such as:

  9. Vision_Quest2 says:

    And the link I'd used for my own blog –not a yoga blog– was this one, which is also good.

  10. Yoga Roadkill says:

    I think students readily impart a trust in the concept of yoga as a "safe" exercise because this is EXACTLY how yoga has been and continues to be marketed to the general population. The industry loves to promote yoga as a panacea that can cure just about any problem – my favorite was the claim it could cure flat feet. It is constantly being promoted as the healthy and safe exercise alternative that brings with it a plethora of physical/mental/emotional boons. When the specter of injury raises it's head the standard response has been finger pointing and scapegoating either other teachers/styles or the students themselves (ego, doing too much thing).

    I think the yoga industry and most studios/teachers want to have their cake and eat it, too. Get all the glory for any number of nonsense claims on how yoga will cure your sad, broken life but disavow themselves of any responsibility for the very real pitfalls of this physical practice.

    I do think the tide is slowly turning, though, as evidenced by the increased conversation around yoga injuries in general. I would invite yoga teachers in particular to take a good look at the language and culture surrounding injuries. It's all well and good to call in personal responsibility on the part of the student but when the whole system has been skewed towards assuring prospective students that there is an inherent safety in yoga, is there any wonder there could be confusion on where the limit is? It's a bit of a bait and switch – you lure them in with the promise of safety and health benefit claims then when the success story turns into an injury story you lay the blame at their feet. There is something messed up here and I think what is needed is cultural shift – less pie-in-the-sky yoga is the cure claims, more industry-wide responsibility for addressing both the positive and negative aspects of the practice.

    Maybe a celebrity lawsuit will be the thing that rings the wake-up bell for people. Who knows..

  11. Zeeshan_A says:

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