Are you familiar with pickle pose? It’s when you, as a yoga teacher, find yourself in a predicament that you don’t know how to handle.
You won’t be prepared for all situations you’ll encounter in class, whether it’s a student whose body requires a type of variation you don’t know or someone who boisterously distracts other students. Yet of all of the unpredictable, unwanted, and sometimes unimaginable scenarios, the most terrifying is when a student becomes injured in your class.
Sure, you carry liability insurance and students sign their bodies away with waivers. But what would you actually do in the moment when someone becomes injured? You probably wouldn’t point to the dotted line where they signed.
A few years into my teaching career, I organized a workshop on Handstands. I took everyone through a warm-up and spent most of the time teaching them how to kick into Handstand and safely fall out of it. Toward the end, I gave everyone a few minutes to practice in small groups while I made my way around the studio to give individual attention to each student.
Accidents take place in a split second. When you’re teaching, you may not hear anything—or if you have your back turned, you may not notice anything has happened. I didn’t realize anything had gone wrong until a student showed up at my side and said, “I think she might have gotten hurt.”
I immediately went over to the student, who was sitting on the opposite side of the studio and crying quietly. She had collapsed out of Handstand and seemed to be experiencing shock, pain, and humiliation. Everyone else continued to kick up, unaware of the situation.
On the outside, I managed to stay pretty calm and collected. But on the inside I was panicked. I felt my temperature rise, my pulse quicken, and my hands start to shake. I took a few moments to process several areas of concern and how to best handle each of them. I definitely felt like a duck in water—calm on top and peddling fast beneath the surface.
Within moments, all of the other students were looking at me to see how I would resolve the situation. I asked everyone to find Child’s Pose while I quietly spoke with the injured student to assess the situation. She said she felt okay, but she was still in tears. I asked her what happened, how she felt, where she was experiencing pain, at what intensity, and if it hurt to move. She was able to turn her head but not without intense pain.
I told the rest of the class to remain in Child’s Pose while she and I slowly walked to the lobby. I sat her down on the couch while another teacher went to get ice. The studio owner was there and we quickly discussed what had happened: Her arms had collapsed and she had fallen directly on her head. Her neck hurt but she could still move her head and walk.
We strongly encouraged the student to take the situation seriously and immediately seek medical attention. The owner remained with her while I returned to the workshop, and fortunately, she listened to our encouragement and went directly to a local urgent care clinic.
As it turned out, we were incredibly fortunate. The injury wasn’t serious and the student, who was a regular at the studio, continued to attend my classes and workshops.
I kept in touch with her afterward to see how she was healing physically and emotionally. I was concerned that she might have injured not only her spine but also her motivation to practice yoga, and I wanted to check in and make sure she was processing any concerns she had.
At some point, I asked if she would feel comfortable sharing what happened in more detail. I wanted to better understand what led up to her injury and what I could do differently to try and prevent this from happening in future workshops.
“I was still feeling a bit nervous by the time it was my turn to go upside-down,” she shared. Buoyed by her group’s support, she managed to kick herself up and hold Handstand for a few seconds. Then her arms buckled and she landed on her head. “So much for cartwheeling out the proper way,” she added.
“I remember repeating that I was fine as everyone came to check on me,” she recalls. But as the initial shock subsided, she started to realize that she was not fine. ”I’m not sure what hurt more: my neck or my pride.”
She suggested that I remind students, “Make sure you don’t skip steps when trying to do advanced moves in yoga. Take your time to build up those muscles before testing their limits in risky positions.” She said the moral of the story for her was “take responsibility for your actions.”
We were all students that day—and the lessons were plentiful. I’ve replayed what happened again and again, wondering how I could have handled the situation differently.
I’ve come to understand that I didn’t do anything wrong when responding to the situation. I acted calmly and quickly. I asked everyone else to come to a resting position with heads down to maintain some privacy for the injured student. I encouraged her to seek out a medical professional who could accurately diagnose her injury. But I’ve given a lot of consideration to whether I could have prevented her injury from happening.
I was once told in a yoga teacher training that it isn’t a matter of if an injury will happen in your class, it’s a matter of when. We can’t control all of the variables in our teaching space, but we can be prepared to respond to an injury with efficiency, grace, and compassion.
Here are some strategies for creating a safe learning environment and navigating the inevitable:
Set realistic limits on workshop numbers
There is a reason why workshops have a capped number of attendees. This should be informed by how many students you can realistically and safely oversee during the content you intend to teach, not just how many mats can fit in the space.
You can also hire a qualified teacher or two to assist you as needed. In that situation, I was fortunate that I could ask someone else to help the injured student, assist her with icing her injury, and convince her to get the medical care she needed while I tended to the rest of the students.
The ratio of teachers to students definitely depends on the situation. I personally seek out an assistant if there are more than ten students in a workshop.
Be transparent about prerequisites
It’s important to be very clear about the necessary level of experience required for any class or workshop you teach. If you’re teaching a challenging and potentially unsafe pose, you should set appropriate boundaries. For example, when I teach a multi-level workshop series, I typically break it into three parts, with the first workshop covering the basics. Even if students want to attend only the third and most difficult workshop, I require them to attend the prior ones.
In that first workshop, we cover all of the safety precautions and building blocks. Even if you are ready to start learning how to kick or press up, I will not teach students unless we have created that base of awareness and responsibility.
Have “the talk”
I’ve learned that it’s empowering for both myself and my students to have “the talk” at the beginning of a workshop: We discuss expectations for the practice, creating more awareness for both teacher and student, and reminding everyone of their responsibilities.
I explain to students that it is their practice and that they have a responsibility to choose what they are comfortable with and ready to attempt. They create the boundaries on their mats. A teacher should never insist that a student attempt something that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. In this way, the practice of yoga also becomes a practice of saying no—or not yet.
This doesn’t mean you’re casting blame on your students if something goes wrong. It simply gives students permission to take what part of the practice serves them and leave what doesn’t. It also gives them the ownership to set healthy boundaries and to say no whenever something doesn’t feel right.
Seek legal protection before an injury occurs
You should also always make sure your bases are covered legally. Litigation lawyer Sally Harmeling explains that instructors and studio owners can reduce their liability exposure by requiring appropriate releases prior to instruction and verifying that their insurance covers all types of classes and workshops. Harmeling adds that liability releases, commonly known as waivers, should be a precondition to participating.
Yoga studios typically carry their own liability insurance. They also require teachers to purchase individual liability insurance policies and students to sign waivers prior to taking part in any class or workshop. If you’re an independent teacher, even though you may be on a friendly basis with everyone who comes to your class, you still need liability insurance and to require everyone to sign a waiver.
When an injury happens, keep calm
Your job as a teacher is to take control of any situation and minimize the amount of harm or disruption to everyone. An unexpected injury in yoga class can be traumatic for the student, the teacher, and everyone else in the space. Behavior therapist Amy Kaye explains that in this kind of situation, our autonomic nervous system floods our system with adrenaline and the physiological symptoms of the fight-or-flight response take over.
Bring everyone into a resting position. I chose Child’s Pose that day because it brings everyone’s heads to their mats without bringing additional attention to the injured student. It’s also okay to take a couple moments to gather yourself before you act. Remember what you tell students—breathe.
The injured student might be in a state of shock, denial, or humiliation. Sit with them. Cue their breathing if it seems necessary to help calm them. And, if it feels appropriate, talk to them about a similar situation you experienced.
It is imperative that you recognize you are not a medical professional and that it is irresponsible to act as if you are. An accident isn’t a time to prove how much you know or determine who was at fault. There is no place for “waiting and seeing.” You must act in the best interest of your student and guide them as efficiently as possible to professional help from their health care provider or urgent-care center.
I later learned that it is safest to not move students right away in the case of spinal cord injuries. A medical professional—not a yoga teacher—needs to determine if it’s safe to relocate the student. When in doubt, call 911.
After the student’s needs are addressed and your class or workshop has ended, explain to the studio manager or owner what happened. This allows the management to can complete any necessary documentation and handle any communication with the student.
That experience has forever shaped my future as a teacher. I’ve taken everything I learned from that experience into each teaching moment that followed. I also was inspired to dive into yoga therapeutics, and after years of studying, became a certified yoga therapeutic specialist. I’ve learned that you can’t control everything that happens in your teaching space. Accidents happen and they aren’t a reflection on your ability as a teacher. However, it is your responsibility to be adequately prepared to manage the situation if, or when, it does.
About our contributor
Holly Fiske, mother of two, is a registered Yoga Medicine Therapeutic Specialist and 500 RYT. She is the author of The Book of Handstands. She is an eco and ethical clothing designer and yoga and movement teacher. She is a Yoga Alliance certified advanced teacher through Yoga Medicine with a Bachelors Degree in Journalism and Sports Management from Washington State University. You can connect with Holly online, at traveling workshops and during her Yogadventure Retreats. Holly shares her passion for motherhood, adventures and movement with her Instagram audience as @upsidedownmama.