Who’s responsible for yoga injuries?

We’ve been talking a lot about the instructor’s responsibility. The instructor is the person in charge of the class, puts people in certain positions, and most importantly – makes adjustments. So of course, the instructor is responsible. The person in charge necessarily is.

Now, let’s look at the student.  

Students in yoga are (mostly) adults. They are people who buy a car, a house, take out a loan from the bank (well, maybe not in that order, but you get my point): They show responsibility. They know that they need to own up for their deeds. That decisions have consequences. They are handling large transactions, getting and quitting jobs, pay off debt, sign papers.

Not only that. They take responsibility for others. Most of them. They raise kids. They decide what’s best for them. How do they know? Well, they read, learn, trust their gut feeling. None of them is born with an innate knowledge of how to do this. They learn to distinguish what’s good and what’s harmful for their little ones because they have to. No one else will step in and help.

Kids, at least up to a certain age, think Mum (or Dad!) is a hero. Parents know everything. Therefore they must be right. In the ideal scenario children know: Mum and Dad know what to do, what’s good for me, and they would never do me any harm.

The perfect yoga teacher would behave in the same way. And of course in the perfect world, all teachers would be perfect. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. And unfortunately, the same people who take responsibility for their kids, buy houses and cars, the very same people get on the mat and switch off their ability to question and make judgements. Because “the teacher knows better”. Apparently.

It's not because every one is doing something that it's good for you

But the teacher cannot know how Mum and Dad are feeling on the yoga mat. Cannot know if this already hurts, feels like a good stretch – or feels too easy a posture. Even teachers with the best intentions can hurt a student. How many students reply “yes” if asked if this is still feeling OK, not wanting to disappoint the teacher. Or worse, because they think it should feel OK. How many students when instructed to hold the posture “as long as feels comfortable” hold it much longer – because every one else does?

Students have to take responsibility. But this chunk of responsibility should not be taken away from the teacher. The instructor is responsible for, well, the instructions and the teachings. The student is responsible for his or her reaction to it. Only if the student gives honest feedback can the teacher tailor the practice to the student’s need.

Of course instructors are trained to see what students don’t say. They see what’s difficult and what’s not and can make suggestions on how to move forward. But they cannot read a student’s mind.

Now you’re saying: Well, fine, but is yoga not meant to develop this body awareness which is necessary to not just blindly follow the instructions? Yep. That’s right.

But as long as we’re living in a world with yoga teachers who cannot read your mind (or who are not perfect, can you imagine!) adult students need to perceive their bodies like they do their kids. They need to figure out what the body needs. Without any prior training. Like raising kids.

Just throw yourself into it. See how you feel. Trust this feeling. If something feels dodgy, it probably is. Tell the teacher – and make this teacher be the best teacher for you. You’ll rock as a team!

Categories: Controversial, Nourish Body & Mind, Yoga

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14 replies »

  1. I think two things about this. First, Sally Kempton wrote a wonderful piece in Yoga Journal a few years back (also on her website) called “Playing Your Part.” It reflects a philosophy of co-responsibility, which I think reflects our lives. So students have a responsibility to say when something hurts. Teachers have a responsibility to develop a class climate in which this can occur.

    The second, which I have written about on my blog, is that injury can be a path to the highest. There are so many instances of this in the yoga community. Obstacles are there for us to learn.


  2. It’s great you bring this up. I just read a book from a French osteopathy therapist (Pallardy) who is categorical: yoga is bad for the Western body. You can imagine my disappointment as a yoga practicioner. Unfortunately, I have developed neck pain because of yoga and reality is that I was not listening to my body and perceiving that I was making things wrong.
    I still practice yoga and holistically; as a spiritual path that is the best for me, I accept now to be more gentle, skip risky poses as long as I am not ready… That too is actually part of the way!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s very freeing, as a student, to be able to think or say, if necessary, “No, I’m good here, thanks”. Initially you want to please, you want to do things “right”, until your first injury gives you pause. I’ve had outstanding yoga teachers who have made it very clear that I should only do what I was able or comfortable to do and who provided modifications on the spot.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. People treat doctors the same way, they give away too much of their power. But again, like you said it’s their choice. To the instructor who mentioned the student who wouldn’t use a block and was an injury waiting to, as a teacher for many years I have to say, there isnt anything you can do. you can lead that horse to the water but you cant make em’ drink. But after class you could offer her a few minutes of your time to show her how a block could benefit her, if she still refeuses… then be sure to document the date time and type of class you taught, what you said and her responce. A copy should go to the facility and for your records as well. It does bother me that all this discussion across the world is casting a dark cloud over yoga as a whole, its an amazing practice, no matter if you can do the fancy-smancy poses or not. And I know its an important topic, but I feel (and sounds like maybe you do too) that I have been on the defencive ever since ‘that article’ came out. LOL
    I loved (as always) not just what you said but how you said it, fair, frank and firm.


  5. teachers have injured me (twice) when they’ve sat on my back while I’m doing a forward bend. by the time I could say ‘no’, the muscle tearing had already happned. I’m constantly saying ‘i’ll modify’ to teachers because I’m something of an injury queen (currently have a sprained ankle so my yoga teachers are going to love me when I go back after easter and announce this new one). It makes me a little scared of meeting new teachers sometimes because I don’t just have one thing wrong with me. I can however do 80 per cent of things as long as I modify. I’ve learned I just have to speak up and acknowledge that as long as my mind is in silence, it doesn’t matter that someone else can hold a forearm balance mid-room for 2 minutes if I can only manage 30 seconds or my shoulders are fatigued and I need to stay in child’s post.

    However, what annoys me most is when I meet a new teacher who then pushes me and thinks ‘oooh, someone who clearly has practised for a long time, let me she what she can do’, when I’m in my first class with them. I do think when someone like me clearly announces injuries, a teacher should leave me be for at least one class before they sit on my back/demand I do a handstand/ask me to swing around into chaturanga using my wrists before they’ve seen what I can actually do.

    oh, and I DO ignore the silly bikram teachers who almost always announce ‘it will hurt, if it doesn’t you aren’t doing it right’. too much yoga has told me there’s a difference between pushing myself and actually hurting myself. I think though sometimes as experienced yogis we forget what newbies are thinking and that the mentality while doing exercise in the western world today is generally to be competitive and not necessarily to be in a place of silence, but actually desperation. so many times a yoga teacher doesn’t even explain to students how to breath; and while I can zone out when teachers are saying things I’ve heard a 1000 times, sometimes when I see others struggling I wonder if the teacher could have helped themselves by asking about injuries/explaining breathing/suggesting it’s okay to rest at the start of the class.

    interesting article, thanks for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. great commentary…we are responsible for ourselves, teachers are meant to guide, inspire and share our journey with us. but teachers are humans too, until they have esp there is shared responsibility for time on the mat. it is all about teamwork!


  7. I had a student in my class monday who refused to use a block during triangle pose. She was twisted in a weird position and when I went to make an adjusment she told me she would not use a block. I wasnt going to make a big deal out of it. Although continuing to do poses and not taking adjustments will cause her injury. Am I responsible for not forcing and adjustment or is she for refusing it?


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