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.


Like elephant yoga on Facebook.

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. Amy says:

    Yes, you're right. I read somewhere that Wolff claimed he was "forced" into the unsafe pose though I assume the (perceived) command was verbal and that she didn't push him up the wall! I should have been more clear. My entry point to trying to understand his position was through my own stressful experiences, none of which really compare.

  4. Amy says:

    I agree. And, as a teacher, I find it frightening.

  5. Dan says:

    I'm inclined, without full view of the facts, to concur that it may be a combination of instructor and studio mismanagement.

    On the other hand, knowing no one was blameless in that situation, I can't but wonder at how Wolff calculated possible trajectories prior to going into handstand. As Amy succinctly notes (and when I take a class), each student is (I am) fully responsible for being ever-aware of her/his (my) actions. Knowing my practice's and body's current limitations, there have been numerous instances where I have elected not to go into something because it was not feasible to shift/adjust without encroaching or endangering a fellow student.

  6. Amy says:

    Yes. It makes me think of the discussion I have before kids' classes in which I emphasize personal space to keep self and others safe. I often remind my adult students to listen to the wisdom of their bodies, especially if I have new and/or beginning students in class. Often but not always. I will be rethinking my teaching style to ensure that I am placing sufficient emphasis on personal safety and responsibility. It's no guarantee but I think it is best practice.

  7. 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.

  8. Vision_Quest2 says:

    I just saw that movie, Hot Coffee. She was a skinny elderly woman, an active, working woman with a lot of moxie and courage.

    She had suffered THIRD-DEGREE BURNS, and needed skin grafts.

    As a result of the lawsuit, McDonalds lowered the prep temperature of their coffee by 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
    Worker bees other than that woman may have a cooler coffee drink (quelle inconvenience, and that's why God invented the microwave oven) by the time they get to the office.

    I would say, on balance, a SOCIAL WIN!

  9. 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

  10. Vision_Quest2 says:

    I hope you teach Dharma Mittra yoga. Because,compared to my experience, you sound very sane.

    Maybe that style can learn all about "energetic" assists.

    Well, it's too late now–if they ever do … I've, personally been long gone …

  11. Amy says:

    Thank you so much for sharing openly. I fear experiences like yours are much more commonplace than we would like to believe.

  12. 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?

  13. Amy says:

    Humbling is just the right word and the attitude to cultivate. I'm sure it can be difficult to maintain when you are held up as an icon. Sean Corne helped shine a light on this issue by talking openly about her own struggles with ego. I respect her for modeling that kind of transparency and accountability.

  14. Amy says:

    That's what I think, too. I have heard stories of people instructed into advanced inversions in their first class. They stumbled out and decided they weren't good enough (re: strong, flexible, young, fit) to practice yoga. There's no getting them back into a class now. Not that everyone needs to practice yoga but what a shame some folks never get a fair shake.

    I wonder how we could best teach that foundational level of body awareness. I guess a solid beginning class is the place to start…

  15. 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.

  16. Vision_Quest2 says:

    I take yoga in the Greater New York City area.

    Let me tell you about looking for a mild class HERE …

  17. Vision_Quest2 says:

    They had probably been in an All-Levels Class for their first class. And the teacher was hungrily looking for new private clients for themselves or for their mentees. Yoga Vida (Hilaria's studio) offers private sessions on their website. To students needing affordable yoga.

    Hilaria–you are BUSTED! I hope Spencer Wolff wins.

    Affordable yoga. Private sessions at the going rate – not something on the order of magnitude about $50/expected for an affordable studio. What is WRONG with this picture?

    On the other hand, taking the studio up on the offer of private sessions–whatever the asinine asking price–may have prevented the lawsuit … yes… no?

    Also, read FYI

    This whole topic is hardly relevant to me, personally. An erstwhile regular yoga practitioner, I stayed out of live yoga classes for the past year and a half.practicing vinyasa on my own … A year and a half ago, taking from a more old-school studio, and intending to return to yoga class … not even at that place, but I could tell my prospective teacher is NO high-pressure maven (I could tell from the way she taught me a mat pilates class) …

  18. Vision_Quest2 says:

    I hope you teach Dharma Mittra yoga also.

    End of story.

  19. 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.

  20. oz_ says:

    So…your point seems to be: if someone gets injured, it's never their fault provided the injuries are sufficiently severe and in such a case assigning responsibility elsewhere is somehow good for society??

    I'm sorry, this reasoning makes little sense to me. I gotta go with Sir James Russell Lowell on this one:

    "The ultimate result of protecting fools from their folly is to fill the planet full of fools."

    The point is that if someone incurs injuries due to their own ineptitude or thoughtlessness or just plain old idiocy – as established by the reasonability doctrine derived from centuries of common law – then it's nothing less than common extortion for the courts to force someone else to pay for those injuries. And that is precisely the opposite of a social win.

  21. Vision_Quest2 says:

    Times have changed. There is no common law in New York State. We have what is known as contributory negligence. Would you want yoga itself to be old-school (although I love it, and there may have been few law suits emanating from it) all across the board–for yourself?

    Contributory negligence–that same priniciple as applied to automobile accidents.

    I had spilled 7-11 coffee on myself while being driven in the back of a car, and had been bound by my then grossly-obese bulk, binding clothing and all the possessions I'd had in the world at that time (this had been 35 years ago, not too long after the "Hot Coffee" era–though a pretty fat-phobic one in my then-age cohort). It had soaked through a few layers of clothing I could not get off right away; and had caused second degree burns. And one thing had led to another, including my father getting into a mild accident as a result of his panic while driving.

    But my family does not sue.

    But this is why I called her a "skinny elderly woman".

    The public had a chance to form their own opinions for years before the truth emerged. That is called corporate propaganda. These corporations call what they do "tort reform" [Sound benign enough for you?]

    Yoga is a profit-driven industry, and does not deserve "non-attachment" .. from the niyamas

    I am a consumer as long as worldly emoluments change hands …

    As a primarily home practitioner, if the same thing would have happened to me, I would not sue my young rich landlord , if I'd broken through my own window doing a similar thing. Because then it would be totally my own foolishness.

    Spencer was a consumer of services.

    And this is one watershed moment. My story downthread is only one of a few suffered at the hands of even experienced yoga teachers … but one where I could actually gather a valid second opinion …

  22. Vision_Quest2 says:

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

  23. Vision_Quest2 says:

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

  24. 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..

  25. Amy says:

    I think you make a good point. The difference between safe and unsafe (or healthy and unhealthy) practice can be extremely subtle. Even with years of practice, I sometimes push myself too far and wind up tense or injured. It reminds me of my students' vulnerability to same. I love today's article about Hanumanasana but the picture made me nervous. That's a pose I no longer teach after realizing how often students go too far too fast and wind up injured.

  26. Vision_Quest2 says:

    Marketers have always conflated yoga with meditation. Yoga as an industry, continues to support this fiction, even in this new wave. Despite their being hijacked by and kowtowing to their young contemporaries. They are not content to just do acro exhibitionism in the park. They want my generation's pockets emptied, too. We who've had the "hippie" yoga and the mellow mindset.

    I think a good rule of thumb is, to tune out the other students around you after class; and all that they say about how the class was for them, and tune in to yourself (assuming no injury or anything more than a mild soreness, of course)–ask yourself to answer truthfully the question–and the answer should be apparent within two hours after the end of class: "Do I feel better about myself, more relaxed, less tired, more peaceful than when I came in?"

    If consistently "no", then you are in the wrong class, style and possibly studio for you.

    In a few days (and I am much too poor to be New York City-fussy–what? you think my home practice was born only of self-discipline?), I will be on my 6th.

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