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Should Yoga Studios Ask Students to Sign a Liability Waiver?

It's time for yoga teachers to adopt some of the legal protections that other health professionals already use. Here's how to understand the benefits of liability waivers plus advice on how to use them and what disclosures they should include.

By Michael H. Cohen, JD, MBA

As liability issues move into the forefront of the business of yoga, teachers and studios need to start asking some tough questions about whether smart business practices are consistent with the spiritual tenets of yoga. This month we'll explore one of the most important issues facing professionals today: Can a yoga studio or yoga teacher meet liability concerns without compromising the intention to be fully present and offer wisdom and compassion within the practice?

Although there have been few, if any, reported lawsuits stemming from injuries in a yoga class, there have been some claims (See "Insight From Injury," May/June 2003). This makes the threat of liability, while small, nonetheless real. Still, liability concerns need not dominate, but rather can engage yoga studios and teachers in a thoughtful reflection of how to balance appropriate legal protection with the ethical and spiritual commitments yoga embodies.

One way to address liability concerns is by having students sign a consent form. Such a form discloses the risks and benefits of the yoga practice and allows the student to formally acknowledge his awareness of the disclosed risks.

Since yoga is, above all, a healing practice, we might take as our model the health care system. The law requires health care providers to provide "informed consent," disclosing to their patients the material benefits and risks of proposed treatments. Although yoga instructors may not literally fall within this legal rule, the notion of yoga as therapy suggests that disclosure of potential major risks is appropriate.

And there is another document that provides even greater protection to the studio or teacher: the liability waiver. The liability waiver goes beyond a mere disclosure of benefits and risks by asking the signer to assume legal responsibility for these risks and also to promise not to sue if an injury results. Hospitals and medical clinics have their patients sign consent forms and, in many cases, liability waiver ("exculpatory") clauses before surgery and even outpatient procedures; so, increasingly, do chiropractors, acupuncturists, and even massage therapists. But balanced against the possible legal protection a liability waiver may afford is the insertion of a written legal document into the relationship between student and yoga studio or teacher. Here's what you should know before you decide where you stand:

While informed consent is legally imperative in health care, signing a form will not prevent someone injured, angered, or offended from suing or later winning the lawsuit. Courts disallow the use of forms to avoid legal responsibility for truly negligent behavior. If an instructor, for example, has injured (or unnecessarily invaded) a student through an unnecessarily forceful (or intrusive) adjustment and the student makes a claim for negligence or battery, the form will not provide a defense. Given this knowledge, how can studios and teachers find the right balance? Here are some practical suggestions for reducing potential liability exposure while maintaining a safe and respectful studio environment.

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Reader Comments

Terry

Would you recommend online waiver services like Smartwaiver for yoga studios?

Emily Kochert Riveramelo

I have the same question. I've been looking online, and have found a few examples, but is there any "template" available?

Debi Kennison

Regarding the article by Michael H. Cohen on Liability waivers and disclosure forms: Is there a source for these forms online that yoga instructors can use?

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