It’s the nightmare scenario you hope you’ll never have to deal with – a student injury in one of your yoga classes. It does happen and it’s wise to think ahead as to how you would deal with that situation.
Yoga teachers are in the frontline of dealing with people who have pre-existing aches and pains. The idea is that we will help them to gradually get over injuries and improve their overall strength and flexibility. And while yoga is a pretty perfect form of all-around body conditioning, the people we teach (and we ourselves) aren’t perfect.
Sometimes injuries will occur in the class setting, and when that happens, it’s best to be prepared for how to act.
First things first: make sure you’re insured. It’s not actually illegal to teach yoga without insurance, but most employers and venues ask for insurance as a matter of course. Many teacher training courses, such as YogaLondon, will suggest responsible, reasonable insurers for their graduates, so it should be straightforward to get it organised. It’s worth reading the small print too. Some basic yoga teacher insurance doesn’t cover teaching at home or abroad, so make sure you’re covered in all your teaching situations.
The other form of insurance crucial to have is First Aid Training in the workplace. Again, there are courses out there aimed at yoga teachers, so get together with your fellow graduates or peers and book in as a group. Refresh this training every three years, and read over your notes every six months or so.
The best form of protection is preventing injury from happening in the first place. Identify any dangers, risks or hazards in the venues that you teach in. Make sure students are aware of them. Get your students to fill out a medical form with emergency contact on it. And then check those medical forms regularly, so that you actually remember what it is that’s wrong with them!
BUT, remember you’re not a doctor or physiotherapist. Admit your limits. Don’t be afraid to turn down students that have too much wrong with them and recommend them to a more senior teacher, or to a doctor!
Offer modifications for each pose
Get the students to help themselves! It’s really hard to keep every student’s different needs in your head for every pose in every lesson. However, if you put the hard work in at the beginning then hopefully your students will begin to look out for themselves. After the hundredth time of saying, ‘those with back problems, keep your feet hip-width apart’, they should really get the message and do it without being told. (haha).
Explain the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pain
When I’m teaching beginners I usually give a little talk at some point about the difference between good and bad pain. Actually, I usually say between “pain” and “discomfort”. I teach that if and when it’s painful, come out, and if it is uncomfortable, breathe through it. Yoga shouldn’t really be painful (although those of us that are more experienced know that pain can be part of the process). But for beginners, it’s best to help them tune in to their unique body and how it works.
Be careful with physical adjustments
If the student is pushing themselves too far and injures themselves then it’s difficult for them to pin the blame on you – especially if you’ve made it clear that everyone should go to their own limits and not beyond. Where the waters get muddied is when you’ve adjusted them and that has caused an injury. Always ask first. Even when you’ve got their permission you need to be cautious. However, once you’ve made the decision to adjust them, especially if they’re in a balancing pose, don’t let them go until they’ve come out of the pose. Be very, very careful if anyone has a pre-existing back or knee injury. Don’t adjust them at all unless you know the student really well and know their limits.
The other thing to watch out for with physical adjustments is your own safety. If the person injured in your yoga class is you, it’s harder to take control! Be careful of lifting heavier students up into upward bow pose, for example, by standing behind them rather than bringing them up from the side. Lead by example and don’t take risks – your body is your business!
Have a Plan
Top of your plan should be “Don’t panic”. It helps to have a plan in place if a student injury should occur in a lesson. If it’s an injury related to the environment that you’re in, first assess the seriousness of the injury. If you need to use your first aid training then get someone else to immediately call the emergency services. If it’s less serious, then get the other students into a pose they can stay in (you don’t want them all clustered around) and then make sure the student is comfortable and calm.
Take a photo of whatever object or hazard caused the injury. Make a note of the date, time and any details. When you get home, write up an incident report, even if nothing happens.
Don’t get too involved
Speaking from personal experience, I would say that it’s helpful to remember that it almost certainly isn’t your fault. When it happened to me, I was correcting someone in a pose. They said that my correction had hurt their hip. This was a correction that I had done countless times before – I was not using undue force. I had done everything by the book.
That didn’t mean I didn’t feel horrible. But I was careful not to say, ‘Oh no, it’s all my fault’. I asked her to continue to do the pose on the other side. She said it still hurt, so I adapted the pose so that she could complete the pose. At the end of the lesson, I gave her a couple of poses she could practice at home to release the hip.
I then went home and wrote down everything that had happened and when it happened, including my response and all other details. That way, if there were any repercussions I could refer to my incident report. Thankfully, there weren’t any.
Remember that you’re only responsible for the student in your yoga class. Although this might sound callous it can be easy to get sucked into a constant checking up on all your students’ physical health. If an injury has occurred during the lesson it might be nice to send one email to ask how they are, but after that, it’s their responsibility to look after their own health.