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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


Consent to a commonly accepted amount (and nature) of contact is implied in certain social situations such as a crowded bus. Touch beyond the boundary of the implied consent is impermissible, and thus legally actionable as battery. This means that unless the student expressly tells the yoga teacher not to make physical contact, the yoga teacher generally has the student's implied consent to touch within socially accepted limits; contact beyond these limits (such as sexually-motivated touching) could be grounds for a lawsuit.

In addition to battery, negligence offers a second potential theory for liability. In health care, negligence (malpractice) consists of violating the applicable standard of care, and thereby injuring the patient (see Should Yoga Studios Ask Students to Sign a Liability Waiver). A student who believes he or she has received an injurious adjustment may be able to claim that the yoga teacher violated teaching standards and thereby committed malpractice. Although it may be difficult to establish a universally recognized standard for touch for the yoga teaching profession, the student's claim could nonetheless be difficult to defend against, because yoga teaching often involves a highly fluid, individualized interaction that increases the ambiguity of physical boundaries.

Psychotherapy has not solved the problem of touch. Applicable legal rules contain general language, such as admonishing practitioners to refrain from "engaging in sexual contact with a client" without further defining what kinds of behavior might constitute such contact. Similarly, ethical guidelines asking psychotherapists to refrain from "behavior primarily intended to gratify sexual desires" again fail to specifically identify problematic actions, and instead rely on "intent," which in the hindsight of a lawsuit or disciplinary action may be difficult for third parties to discern. Whether professional boundaries have been crossed often depends on such things as "the situational context," an ambiguous term that again leaves many possibilities unspecified.

To solve the dilemma of differentiating permissible from impermissible touch, some studios may be tempted to have their teaching "assistants" move through the class and give every student the same adjustment for a particular pose. Unfortunately, this approach conveys the impression that standard poses apply to standard bodies (and standardized persons inside those bodies). Moreover, a student who is deeply in touch with the pose may find the assistant interfering with the awakened sense of repose, harmony, and balance that Patanjali defines as our natural state.

A preferred approach to the standardized adjustment is to ask permission first, or alternatively, to invite students to opt-out of touch corrections before the class starts. Teachers can also try to intuit whether and to what extent a touch adjustment will be appropriate. (This, of course, assumes the yoga teacher has clear boundaries and is therefore unlikely to misuse touch out of unmet needs or other mental and emotional distortions). On a broader level, it may be helpful for the profession to develop clear ethical standards regarding touch--standards that, unlike the examples above, specifically differentiate permissible from inappropriate conduct.

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