Legal Essentials for Yoga Teachers and Studios

Presented by Gary Kissiah, RYT 200 | Published on: May 20, 2014

Take it from an attorney—lawyers follow money and lawsuits follow lawyers. Yoga, a $7 billion industry in the United States, continues to grow each year and, consequently, so do the legal risks associated with teaching the practice or running a studio. That's why practicing attorney Gary Kissiah, RYT 200, held talks at our 2013 conference on how yoga teachers and studio owners can prevent lawsuits: “Essential Legal Issues for Yoga Teachers” and “Essential Legal Issues for Yoga Studios.”

The most important thing you as a professional yoga teacher or yoga studio owner can do to protect yourself from personal injury liability is to use effective releases, make sure your insurance covers all of your activities and use careful teaching practices.

Essential Legal Issues for Yoga Teachers

Essential Legal Issues for Studio Owners

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Make Sure the Studio’s Release Covers Teachers

To guard against potential lawsuits, many studios ask students to sign a release. However, most of these releases do not offer teachers protection against legal action because these releases do not cover the teachers. Gary advises teachers to “read the release” that is used at every studio where you teach and verify that the “release specifically includes the teachers.” If the release does not specifically cover teachers, you should ask the studio owner to include teachers in the waiver.

Also, if you are offering private lessons or teaching in corporations, you will need your own form of release.

Know What Words Make a Strong Waiver

Gary cautions that, to hold up in court, a release must be worded in proper legal terminology. He warned both teachers and studio owners that if a release is just “two sentences long it’s not enforceable” and won’t serve as a sufficient barrier against legal action. To verify if a release is legally sufficient, yoga studios and teachers can compare it to the model form of release that has been developed by Gary in cooperation with Yoga Alliance®.

To purchase a copy of the model release, together with several other essential documents from Gary, log in and visit Member Perks.

Protect Yourself and Your Business with Insurance

The topic of insurance is particularly important to studio owners given the potential liability for personal injury that may result if a student is injured in a class.

Through insurance, studio owners should be sure to cover all forms of yoga that they teach, massage and body work if offered and all consumable products such as Ayurvedic remedies. The employees and owners should also be covered.

However, Gary explained that insurance companies have their own lawyers who draft insurance policies with the idea of minimizing the amount of money the insurance companies have to pay if you're sued. The language of the policies is written in favor of the insurance companies.

One the most important sections of any policy describes what is excluded from coverage by the policy. For example, acroyoga, aerial yoga, martial arts yoga, massage and herbal supplements are excluded from coverage by many standard yoga insurance policies. If your activities are excluded from coverage, you must contact the insurance company and purchase an endorsement.

You must make sure that all of your activities are covered by the insurance policy. "You don't want to find out that your policy does not protect against liability if one of your students is hurt in your studio or yoga class.

Should Teachers Ask About Pre-existing Medical Conditions and Injuries?

Yoga studios and teachers are often faced with the question of how they should teach students who have pre-existing medical conditions or injuries yet avoid subjecting themselves to an increased risk of liability for personal injuries sustained by students. Should a teacher inquire before class if any students have a condition or should a teacher not make any inquiry at all? If a teacher makes an inquiry, how should the teacher use that information to guide the student in class?

Gary discourages teachers and studios from asking about students’ injuries before class because doing so may increase your liability. “This is where the law and yoga compassion may conflict, but from a strictly legal point of view, my advice is don't ask," said Gary. Once a teacher is aware of a student’s medical concerns, he or she has a higher duty of care to make sure the student isn’t further injured. Gary cautioned that you shouldn't "undertake that duty of care unless you're prepared to really monitor and take care of those students who are injured."

Teachers should provide clear modifications for all students in class who may have pre-existing conditions to help keep them safe.

However, you also don't want to turn away students who could benefit from your teaching. Gary suggests teachers and studio owners make sure to direct students to classes suited for particular needs—for example, front desk staff could recommend a prenatal class to a pregnant woman or suggest a private session to someone with a severe back injury.

The Best Practices for Teaching Students with Pre-Existing Medical Conditions is another resource included in Gary’s Packet of Essential Information, available at a discounted rate to members in the Gary Kissiah section of Member Perks.

Be Careful Who You Include in Yoga Teacher Training Programs

Teacher Training Programs should be careful to admit only those students who are ready to begin training as a yoga teacher. The program should use a student intake form to determine the level of practice and emotional stability to enter the training program.

Gary has seen many situations where trainees have threatened to sue yoga schools if they fail the program are excluded because they are disrupting the program. Gary pointed out that some trainees just aren't ready to become yoga teachers. Yet a student may desperately want to become a teacher and might be willing to take action against a program that determines the student should not graduate. The teacher training agreement should be professionally written to give the school the absolute right to fail or exclude a student from a program. Also, it should address whether it must provide any refunds in that situation. Gary said offering a "time out" is one potential solution. Giving that student a year or so off to work on their issues can be a good way to balance the interests of the program and the student.

Yoga In the Park

Whether you are a teacher or a studio owner, Gary advises that if you conduct a class in an open setting, such as a park:

  1. Have the participants sign waivers when they first arrive; and
  2. Keep the practice gentle in order to minimize the risk of injury in case random people drop in on your class who did not sign the release.

Correctly Classify Your Employees and Independent Contractors

If you run a yoga studio and bring teachers aboard, know the difference between who is legally considered an independent contractor and an employee. This is a complicated thing to determine and it is much more gray than it is black and white. Knowing the difference between the two can be the difference between surviving an audit by the IRS or your state taxing agency or being hit with large back taxes, penalties and interest.

The IRS and the states use a twenty factor test to determine if a teacher or other worker is an employee or an independent contractor. The key test, however, is control.

"The more you control that teacher, the more they look like an employee," said Gary, however, the “less control you exert, the more they look like an independent contractor."

Gary offered a classic example of someone being hired as an independent contractor instead of an employee. When a plumber comes to fix a leak at a studio, the studio doesn't provide the tools for the plumber to do the job. The studio and the plumber are not in the same business. The plumber provides an invoice when the work is done. Yoga teachers generally do not provide invoices for their services like independent contractors.

Many states are now specifically targeting yoga studios for tax audits over whether they have properly classified their teachers as employees or independent contractors. It is essential that studios use professionally prepared agreements to build the strongest case that the teachers are independent contractors.

This discussion is for informational and illustrative purposes only and is not meant to impart legal or tax advice. Each studio owner’s situation may differ depending on the factual circumstances and the jurisdiction in which the studio operates.

About Gary Kissiah

Gary Kissiah has been studying and practicing yoga since 2000. He is a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT®) with Yoga Alliance and has a Certificate of Yoga Philosophy from the California Institute of Integral Studies. Gary has studied yoga at Esalen Institute, Parmarth Niketan Ashram and Satchidananda Ashram. He practices Zen at Kannon Do Zen Meditation Center and has studied at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. The author of the new book, “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Illuminations Through Image, Commentary and Design,” Gary is also on the teaching faculty of Breathe Yoga of Los Gatos, California. View his website.

Eligibility for Continuing Education

This workshop counts for one Continuing Education Non-Contact Hour or one RYS Curriculum Non-Contact Hour under the Teaching Methodology category.

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