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The Ethics and Liabilities of Touch

As yoga teachers, many of us guide our students through touch regularly as we adjust their poses. But can this ever go too far? Protect yourself and your students by understanding the legal and ethical issues surrounding touching in class.

By Michael H. Cohen, JD, MBA

The propriety of touch is an issue that concerns all health care and healing professionals, yet the ethics of touch may be more complex in yoga teaching than in other, licensed professions. To protect yourself and your students, it’s important to understand the ethical and legal ramifications of inappropriate touch as well as how to discern the frequently ambiguous boundaries between the permissible and the inadvisable.

The question is simple: How can you determine when guiding through touch will deepen a student's yoga practice, and when the adjustment will be distracting or distressing?

Some yoga teachers ask students' permission to do touch corrections before or during class; others seek permission non-verbally through a complex exchange of body signals during the practice. Still others announce that touch adjustments are part of the class and that any student who feels uncomfortable should let the instructor know, while others have students sign a waiver form in the hopes of staving off potential liability should the correction go awry. Which of these strategies is best—legally, ethically—and which most honors the philosophy of yoga?

Touch is complex: it can illuminate or darken, elevate or depress, celebrate or invade. At worst, touch can be physically injurious or sexually invasive (see The Trouble with Touch, YJ March/April 2003). Further, the profound and ideally nurturing relationship between yoga student and teacher during class can leave room for "shades of gray" in physical contact.

The causes of inappropriate touch in yoga, as in other healthcare professions, can include the provider's inexperience, unmet emotional and sexual needs, and psychological transference (unconsciously transferring one’s emotional past and psychological needs into the present relationship). The potential perils of touch cause many health professions to shun it: for example, to limit possible sources of liability, psychologists and other mental health care providers often avoid all physical contact with their patients. Other professions, such as physical therapy and massage therapy, embrace touch as a healing modality, but pronounce sexual touch wrongful and legally actionable.

Because yoga teaching bridges mind and body, physical contact can neither be totally avoided, nor completely embraced. This presents an interesting paradox: how can we find that place of balance where contact is appropriate and neither inadequate nor violative? It is a question that forces the yoga teaching community into the borderland between the rational/scientific and the spiritual/intuitive. Simply put, touch imparts information, positive or negative, and a yoga class often brings heightened sensitivity to that source of information entering the portals of body, mind, and spirit. If the information is negative, the student will be likely to sense that right away.

Legally, the basis for permissible touch is the theory of implied consent: a person's agreement to be touched can be implied by law, as well as expressly given verbally or in writing. This notion comes from the tort of battery, which is defined as touching (or making contact) with another person without that individual's consent.

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