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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

Put the statement that "backbends fight depression" on your yoga studio's website and not only licensing authorities, but also the Federal Trade Commission (which regulates Internet advertising), might take an interest. In the past, different health care providers have gotten into legal trouble with ads containing exaggerated, hyperbolic, or even suggestive statements, such as, "relief is just a phone call away."

To limit potential liability, follow the suggestion of Yoga Journal's medical editor, Timothy McCall, M.D., in acknowledging your sources. For example, while leading class, you might say, "This comes from my teacher, this from Patanjali, this from my own experience, and this from a trial study done at the Mayo Clinic" (see Can You Prove That Yoga Works?). In addition to that basic rule of thumb, here are some other ways you can work to limit potential liability stemming from exaggerated claims:
1. Limit claims to those backed by current medical and scientific evidence. When evaluating what is "false and misleading," regulators are likely to follow conventional medical evidence in assessing the truth of claims. Therefore, the yoga teacher who claims that a particular pose has a specific health benefit is on safer ground referring to current articles in peer-reviewed medical literature.

2. Be clear about potential contraindications. By balancing a discussion of potential benefits with a mention of known risks, yoga teachers give students the full disclosure necessary to make up their own minds about how far to venture into a pose—and into the practice. Disclosing risks and benefits also accords with the legal principle of informed consent, which is applicable to licensed health care providers more broadly.

3. Stay modest about potential benefits. Not all statements about yoga therapy are legally problematic. In many cases, acknowledging sources, mentioning contraindications, and being clear about the medical evidence behind claims can help steer teachers away from undue liability concerns. Humility is key. Legal issues tend to arise when health care providers make claims that are false and misleading, that are excessively exaggerated, or that lead to over-reliance on non-medical therapy to the exclusion of necessary medical care. Staying modest about what is known and not known and steering away from benefit statements that could sound, in the ears of an injured student or regulatory authority, like a pitch, will help.

These suggested guidelines are not intended to overstate legal risks, but simply to identify potential problem areas and suggest some basic, risk management strategies. This focus potentially can both increase safety and enhance professionalism.

As mentioned earlier, the worst legal trouble around claims often is associated with perceptions of salesmanship in health care; for example, read into Missouri's prohibition against "any self-laudatory statement" by a chiropractor, a legitimate concern about the use of strings of self-aggrandizing (and possibly meaningless) letters after one's name. So to stay grounded in the area of health advice and health claims, be guided, among other ideals, by yogic ethical principles of ahimsa, the obligation of non-violence, and satya, the obligation of truth.. Those ideals, combined with common sense, will go a long way toward ensuring legally safe and responsible practice.

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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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