Yoga Coaching Sessions: Should I Ask About Injuries Before a Yoga Class?

Question: Should I ask students about injuries and conditions at the start of class or on sign up forms? I’ve always asked at the start of class (since I am not involved in the sign-up process currently) and then provide modification suggestions before and during class or confirm they are able to self modify. But I recently read an article that said to avoid including a question about this on waivers, as our knowledge of the condition holds us to a higher standard of duty of care.

Watch the video exploring the question ‘should I ask about injuries before a yoga class’ or read the discussion notes below:

Answer: That’s a great question! There is a shift right now in both yoga and group fitness to not ask directly about injuries, but rather remind students to practice in a way that works best for their bodies, and choose variations, regressions, progressions, and props that suit where their body is at today.

Unfortunately, I can’t give a concise answer as to whether it really does increase our liability or responsibility because it varies in each country/region. Having said that, I do think that it’s a good idea to always be empowering our students to choose safe practice, rather than giving the impression that we can know their bodies/health/limitations or that we are educated on safe practice for every type of injury or condition (that’s for someone’s doctor or health team to know and inform the student about).

After I received this question I spent a bit of time researching, and I did find this quote from a yogi/lawyer Gary Kissiah (in the US) who writes about yoga and liability: “If a teacher has actual knowledge that a student is injured, the law imposes a duty of reasonable care on the teacher to monitor the student and ensure that he or she does not aggravate the injury.”

I agree, that if we are given information, we have to act on that information to the best of our ability.

The trouble is, we don’t always have that information, we don’t always have the education or experience to act on it, and in a big class, how do we provide that individualized guidance while instructing a large and diverse group of people? My answer is to put the power back in the students’ hands.

If you aren’t involved in the intake process, it can be hard to know people’s level of practice and the injuries or health conditions they are coming to class with – so it can feel a bit like you are flying blind if you don’t ask or at least give some pre-class guidance. Ideally, it’s at the intake stage that people with health conditions that might make your particular style of yoga unsuitable are being screened out and referred to their health team or a more suitable class.

If you are teaching an accessible-specific or accessibility-oriented yoga class, this is made easier by having built in options for all abilities. This is what I would like to see more of in yoga for sure. But often we are teaching flow classes in the gym with 50+ students, and a mandate to keep students moving, and it’s a challenge to make this type of class accessible for all. That is work that is ongoing.

The issues with asking about injuries before yoga class:

• it may increase your liability and duty of care.
• it puts students in an uncomfortable position of having to disclose personal information in front of strangers.
• it may make you, as a teacher, hyper aware of one or two students in class to the detriment of the group.

If you are keen to ask this question, having a question on your intake form about any movements that are uncomfortable or restricted, or asking before class either privately or in the group if anyone has questions about how to make practice more comfortable. You might even give some examples – ‘if you have wrist issues today you might..’, ‘if you have some shoulder restrictions you might…’, ‘if your doctor as said to avoid deep twists you might…’ and offer some accessible options.

I want to mention that you might have a class culture where the community is open to discussing personal information, like injuries, disability, chronic pain. While it can be useful to all students to hear about ways to manage a practice through injury or disability, it can also be off-putting for some students and make them feel less comfortable in your class, and as I said before, may increase your duty of care.

The issues with not asking about injuries:

• you don’t know if people are coming to class with injuries, mobility issues, pain, or disability, or need assistance.
• students may not be aware that there are risks in yoga (like in any movement practice). Without that information they may not know they could be safer or benefit more from an accessible option.

A way to manage that is educate your students that there are risks in movement, including yoga, and you might discussion specific risks for particular issues like blood pressure, osteoporosis, carpal tunnel etc.

Continually provide options and versions for all students. You can provide options in a variety of ways, like I said before you can talk about ‘if you have wrist issues you might try’, or you can frame it a bit differently – ‘if you are looking for more support try..’, ‘if you are looking for more ease you might try…’, ‘if you need more space in this pose you might…’, ‘if you want to try another option you might…’ this works for all students, whether they have an injury, they are in a bigger body, or they are needing a different option today for any reason.

In my own teaching, for almost 30 years, I use an intake form that screens for students who are not suited to the practice I teach (high blood pressure, heart condition, osteoporosis etc.) so that they can have a conversation with their health team about safe practice and return with guidance from their doctor. As well, I’m in the process of changing some of the language on my intakes about injuries to instead ask about their need for accessible options.

I also provide pre-registration information for prenatal students – in my region you have to have a prenatal training certificate to include prenatal students in your class, and I don’t have that, so my intake is clear that my classes are not for prenatal students and I’m happy to make recommendations to another class or teacher.

I do have a general pre-class discussion to remind students that there are risks in movement, and guidance on listening to your body, choosing options that work for you, and generally how to practice safely.

I recommend all teachers make some space at the start of their class to remind students about their responsibility to practice safely and let them know I’ll be offering lots of options throughout class. Of course, sometimes with big classes and late arrivals that is challenging. It could be worthwhile to have a standard email that goes out to new students with these tips on how to practice safely and joyfully so that they are armed with that information before class.

For me, one of the most important things I can educate students about is that there is no pose or alignment that is more important than safety. There is no ‘right’ way to practice, so there is no need to compromise safety or risk injury, even when you are looking for a challenge in your practice. Getting to know your body better is at the heart of yoga, so empowering students to look to their own bodies and their own wisdom and experience to guide them to making choices is the culture I want to create in my classes.

This is such a good topic for discussion! I will keep on researching this question and keep you updated. I hope to keep up the conversation, so if you have questions, insights, experience to share, please do comment below or send me message here.

This leads to a larger conversation about the incidence of injuries in yoga, which we’ll talk about soon.

If this discussion has sparked your curiosity or concern, it’s worth making a call to your insurer or professional membership body (Yoga Alliance, Yoga Australia, AUSactive) to find out what the requirements and guidelines are in your region for asking about injuries. They will be best to guide you on specifics.

Finally, in the notes I’ve flagged a few articles that I have on file that you might find useful on exploring the question about whether we should ask about injuries before yoga class, and our scope of practice as yoga teachers.

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