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The Legal Implications of Health Advice, Part 2

As yoga is increasingly conceptualized as "therapy," the legal boundaries between yoga and licensed health professions are becoming increasingly blurred. In this climate, how can you protect yourself as a teacher?

By Michael H. Cohen, JD, MBA

What do you say to a student who is healing from whiplash and asks whether Shoulderstand or Headstand could possibly compromise her chiropractic sessions? What about a student who has asthma and asks about the potential benefits of these postures for his condition? One who has a heart condition and heard from his energy healer that "turning upsidedown could reverse the energy flow and spin the heart chakra backwards"? One who asks whether certain Chinese herbs are helpful for menopause? Or one who asks your advice as to whether acupuncture can help augment flexibility?

Yoga therapy may offer health benefits, but, in most states, only licensed health providers are legally authorized to give health advice, and then only within a limited scope of practice for the profession delineated by statute. When faced with requests for health advice, here are some general principles to keep in mind: It is appropriate to acknowledge the limits of yoga teacher training, to emphasize the importance of requesting advice from licensed health professionals (in an appropriate professional setting), to beware of making health recommendations yourself, especially involving dietary supplements, and to appropriately acknowledge your students' health concerns (see The Legal Implications of Health Advice, Part 1).

But still, don't Patanjali and some of the great, contemporary masters of yoga describe health benefits of specific poses? In the ancient world, wasn't yoga considered a science as well as an art? And isn't yoga therapy a set of practices, discovered through meditation and experience, attuned to healing specific diseases?

Indeed, that may be true, and there may be a gap between what yoga is and can be, and how it--like other health modalities--is regulated by law. Nonetheless, the danger in claiming health benefits is not only potential inaccuracy and lack of sufficient scientific evidence (see Can You Prove That Yoga Works?), but also potential liability. To protect themselves, teachers should learn the implications of several legal rules that govern claims in health care, including licensing laws, legal rules regarding professional discipline, laws relating to advertising, malpractice liability rules, fraud and consumer protection rules,and others.

Many of these hone in on the same principle: claims that are false or misleading may be legally actionable. Students who rely on unproven and misleading benefit claims may, if injured, be able to allege fraud or misrepresentation as one way to win a lawsuit. Federal and state regulatory agencies also can intervene if exaggerated claims endanger the public.

When tempted to tell your class, for example, that "backbends fight depression," consider that contemporary medical science has not validated this claim and that, even if the statement is true, we do not know how this works. The wisdom of the ancient sutras may appeal to the higher mind of the contemporary yogi, but not to regulatory authorities. Linking a therapeutic practice (such as backbends) to a medical disease category (e.g., depression) can be a red flag for regulatory authorities who must ensure that advice regarding disease treatment is left to licensed medical doctors.

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I am currently seeking information regarding the legal standing of yoga therapists in Australia making a diagnosis. Any links or advice would be greatly appreciated! Thank you!

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