Yoga teacher training programs have been expanding at a rapid rate and they have become an important profit center for many yoga studios. However, as a result, I am now getting lots of calls about conflicts between students and the schools.
There have been disputes among students, teachers and studio owners, complaints to state regulatory agencies, harsh attacks in social media and blogs, and lawsuits. Students have accused schools and their teachers of engaging in unethical conduct. These conflicts have become inflamed because students have accused yoga schools of bias, discrimination and unfairness when the schools try to defend or to explain their actions.
These situations can be deeply distressing, time consuming, expensive and damaging to your business.
The fundamental causes of these problems are twofold. The first is that many students are very attached to becoming a yoga teacher. Sometimes this attachment is for the wrong reasons: yoga may be viewed as a life raft, a way out of a difficult life situation or as a way to build a meaningful new career. Some students think teaching yoga is an easy way to make great money and have lots of personal freedom. If a student who wants to be a teacher for these types of reasons does not graduate -regardless of the cause- the result is often a strong emotional reaction. Frankly, some students are attracted to teaching yoga because yoga has healed their personal traumas. However, the deep work involved in training programs may bring these traumas to the forefront and lead to emotional instability. If these students are denied graduation, the result can be explosive. The school is usually blamed for the situation.
The second cause is that many yoga schools are young businesses and do not have experience in putting procedures in place to prevent these problems from occurring in the first place. They do not have experience in managing the difficult issues that the intense experience of yoga teacher training tends to create. Professional agreements are not used or agreements are not used at all. Some schools are launching their first programs and learning as they go.
Three Common Scenarios That Breed Trouble
These conflicts evolve from three common scenarios: (i) the student cannot master the material, fails the program and does not graduate; (ii) the student voluntarily withdraws from the school; or (iii) the student is involuntarily withdrawn from the school.
Students Who Fail The Program
Unfortunately, there are some students who are not capable of mastering the material necessary to become a competent yoga teacher. Some students become paralyzed with fear at the thought of standing in front of a class and teaching. Other students may have a learning disability or are not able to master the substantive information necessary to graduate. They may not be able to grasp anatomy, basic Sanskrit, the asanas or yoga philosophy. They underestimate the rigor of the teacher training process. Still others do not have the emotional and personal maturity or stability to teach yoga. I have seen very delicate situations when a student cannot graduate due to pregnancy or physical disability.
The school may be forced to conclude that the student did not fulfill the requirements of the program. The student is devastated and this can easily lead to a dispute.
Sometimes students may need to voluntarily withdraw from a program for a good reason. The reasons are varied: sometimes it is work or family related, health, financial or other similar reasons. Sometimes students realize that they cannot accept the basic system of yogic beliefs due to cultural or religious reasons and wish to withdraw. In other cases, a student may just arbitrarily quit the program.
Some students may become so disruptive that the school may is forced to remove the student from the program.
I have personally seen situations where a student was so aggressive and adversarial in class that she effectively shut down the entire class so that she could vent or express her feelings. I know of other situations where students have emotionally “melted down” as a result of the deep work they were doing in the program. This has led to emotional outbursts, erratic and abnormal behavior, and conflicts with the other students and teachers.
In other situations students may find that they intellectually or emotionally reject the basic yogic belief system. Others may find that their cultural or religious beliefs conflict with yoga. These situations may lead to problems in class and result in the program terminating the student.
These situations are dangerous and often lead to disputes that are difficult to resolve.
Strategies to Prevent Trouble
What should yoga schools do to prevent such situations from occurring in the first place? How should schools react when they are faced with one of these situations? How can schools position themselves legally so that they will be in a strong position as they manage their way through these problems?
Only Admit Qualified Students
Yoga schools should carefully screen students before they admit them into their programs. This can be done by adopting meaningful admittance requirements. All schools should use a questionnaire that solicits information about the candidate’s practice and motivations for wanting to become a teacher. A personal statement can also provide insight into the motivations of the student.
It is a best practice for the school to personally interview every student who wishes to enter the program to make sure the student is emotionally mature and stable. Schools should ensure that the candidates have a dedicated and substantial yoga practice. If students are not serious practitioners of yoga, how can they hope to teach?
Some schools are very cautious about admitting students who are on medication for psychiatric issues because they have found that these students may not be stable enough to handle the rigors of the training program or to become a yoga teacher.
Some schools seem to think that the only requirement for acceptance is a credit card application. This practice can lead to admitting unqualified students and to problems managing students. The end result may be the graduation of unqualified teachers. This may damage the brand of your school.
It seems to me that your school’s brand will be stronger if graduates from your school are competent and inspired teachers. We should remember that yoga was originally transmitted directly from guru to student but only when the student was ready!
During the evaluation process, it is a good idea to understand whether the student wishes to teach or to deepen his or her practice. The student’s intentions should be clear and the options that are available to the student should be discussed. Some schools freely admit students into programs to deepen their personal practice and then allow those with the interest and the aptitude to continue in the program if they decide to teach.
Use State of the Art Agreements
It is critical that all yoga schools use a professional agreement for their teaching programs. This will accomplish several things:
(i) you can include the questionnaire and personal statement so that you can determine if the student is qualified to enter your program;
(ii) you can set the ground rules for student behavior in class;
(iii) you can make it clear that graduation is not automatic; i.e., students must pass all of the components of the program to the satisfaction of the school in order to graduate;
(iv) you can make it clear that the school has the absolute discretion to determine whether a student has met the requirements to graduate from the program;
(v) you can set forth your refund policy in three common situations: you expel a student, the student fails the curriculum or a student voluntarily withdraws;
(vi) you can set clear rules around students who wish to deepen their practice and those who want to teach;
(vii) you can require the student to follow an appeal process to your Ethics and Teaching Committee if the student has a grievance with the school;
(viii) you can limit your liability for personal injury and for liability for economic damages (such as tuition fees and loss of potential earnings from teaching yoga);
(ix) you can protect your intellectual property such as teacher training manuals and other materials and impose restrictions on the use of your materials;
(x) you can require that the student follow a Code of Ethics (and revocation of your teaching certification if that is your business model); and
(xi) you can include provisions that will discourage any student from filing a lawsuit or a regulatory complaint.
As a service to the yoga community, I am happy to provide you with a free copy of my template agreement for yoga teacher training programs. If you would like a copy, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Set Up A Teaching Committee
I recommend that all yoga schools establish a Teaching and Ethics Committee (the “Committee”). This Committee may be comprised of owners, senior teachers and respected members of your yoga community. I recommend three people. The Committee can be quite informal and the members do not need to do anything until a problem arises.
The purpose of the Committee is twofold: (i) to administer your teacher training program and to respond to complaints and problems with students; and (ii) to resolve any ethical problems that may arise in your yoga school or studio (and to administer your studio’s Code of Conduct if you have one).
The Committee establishes a clear mechanism for dealing with teacher training and ethical issues in a structured and objective way. These problems are often delicate and complicated and may have conflicts of interest due to personal relationships between students, teachers and owners.
Many yoga schools do not have a process in place and, when a problem does occur, the owners try to address the situation on a “one off” basis. It is a best practice to already have a Committee in place. A formal complaint and resolution process gives students comfort that their problem will be handled in a professional and objective way.
If you do not have a Committee and a student brings an ethical problem to your attention, it will weaken your legal position. Regardless of the decision that you make on the matter, the student may feel your decision was the result of favoritism, bias or discrimination. Moreover, if you know the persons who are involved, then it is even more difficult for you to make an objective decision due to a conflict of interest.
On the other hand, if your studio has a Committee and it has objectively evaluated the circumstances and made a fair decision, your decision is much more defensible legally and emotionally. It is much easier for a Committee to make a decision and then communicate that decision to the people who are involved, rather than being in the position of having to do that yourself.
I have seen cases where the head of a program determined that a student did not meet the requirements for graduation but the student disagreed and wanted to protest the decision to the studio. There was a conflict among the student, the head of the program and the owners of the studio. If you have a Committee in place, it can resolve the situation based upon an objective review of the facts. Otherwise, you may end up in paralysis between the school and the student and a dispute.
In my experience, students tend to respect the decision of a Committee more that that of a single person. Moreover, the decision of a Committee can be used to rebut any feeling of the student that the decision was based upon favoritism, bias or discrimination.
Consider the case where a student has an emotional meltdown, finds that he or she is not ready to teach or is struggling to master the material. The school has decided that the student should continue in the program but the student just needs more time. I have had success in recommending that the student be given a “time out.” This means that the student leaves the program for six months or a year in order to resolve the problem and then comes back to the school for an evaluation. If the school decides that the student is ready to continue, the student is re-admitted.
This solution also works with very “sticky” problems with no clear resolution: sometimes the person moves away during “time out” and the problem resolves itself over time.
Refunds For Peace
In many situations, the student simply wants a refund of tuition. Sometimes they just want their money and other times the refund represents vindication that they were right. I typically recommend that the school provide the refund. In my experience, this can be a relatively cheap way to buy the peace. This may be the right thing to do if the student must withdraw due to health or career reasons or some other valid reason.
If there is a dispute, the student can launch assaults against the school and teachers on social media and there is little that can be done to stop this. The student may continue to harass the school, get a lawyer or file a claim in small claims court.
All of these situations will ultimately cause you more time and expense and anxiety than the refund is worth. Even though you know that you are right and the student is wrong, it may be more efficient to give the refund. Lingering disputes can be draining and some students who feel wronged may feed on the conflict.
If possible, it is a good idea to get a release from the student so the problem is finally put to bed.. The release can also include an agreement that neither the student or the school will make any public statements concerning the situation.
Don’t Try To Graduate The Problem Away
I have seen cases where schools have decided to graduate the problem student just to make the problem “go away.” Although I understand the thinking behind this, I do not feel that this approach is healthy for your school, the students who may encounter this teacher in the future or the greater yoga community. It is better to take the path of “right action” even if it is hard.
ASCAP is the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. It is a membership association of more than 500,000 composers, songwriters, lyricists and music publishers of every kind of music. It represents hundreds of thousands of music creators worldwide.
ASCAP protects the rights of its members by licensing and distributing royalties for the non-dramatic public performances of their copyrighted works. It licenses music to all who want to perform copyrighted music publicly.
An ASCAP license authorizes performances of millions of copyrighted musical works in the ASCAP repertory and in the repertories of affiliated foreign performing rights organizations representing over 100 territories. ASCAP announced that it distributed over $851.2 million in royalties to its members in 2013, an increase of nearly $24 million over 2012.
ASCAP has discovered that yoga studios are a source of licensing revenues and are now targeting the community. ASCAP has been sending demand letters to yoga studios which require them to purchase a license for the performance of music within the studio.
Playing music in a yoga studio is considered a public performance of music which requires the permission of the owner of the music. The permission requires the payment of a licensing fee. Because studios are receiving an economic benefit from playing music to enhance the experience of the students, it strengthens the claim that the owners of the music are entitled to payment of a license fee.
The most recent ASCAP letter that I have seen requires the payment of royalties because a yoga studio is considered a “dance school” within the definition of the ASCAP license. A “dance school” is a school that teaches “jazz, classical, ballet, tap, modern ballet, acrobatic, gymnastic, square, folk, ethnic, baton, aerobics, yoga, zumba, pilates, hip-hop, fitness, exercise and workout classes.” The fees are based upon tiers of students. These tiers are: not more than 75, not more than 150, not more than 300 and over 300 students.
Unfortunately, the license is only for a year, and you can expect ASCAP to hit you for another license in the second year. The fee is also adjusted annually based upon he Consumer Price Index.
As a practical matter, there is very little you can do. ASCAP has lawyers, money and are experts at extracting licensing fees. If you decide not to pay the fee, ASCAP will ramp up the pressure until you do and you may be at risk for an infringement action. The fine under the Copyright Act for a public performance violation can be as high as $150,000 per occurrence (i.e., per song played).
You may also be at risk for paying fees to the other two licensing agencies which are similar to ASCAP: BMI and SESAC. Yoga Alliance has advised the following:
“However, if you pay licensing fees to ASCAP, that won’t protect you from BMI and SESAC. A public performance without permission of even one musical work from within either company’s catalog triggers the obligation to pay royalties for use of their entire catalog. Furthermore, paying ASCAP may make it more likely that you will subsequently face demands from BMI and/or SESAC to pay them licensing fees as well. So the only way to eliminate all risk is to pay licensing fees to all three companies…”
In my workshops, my advice has been for studios to play as much music as they can that is covered by a blanket license. This is music from Pandora and Spotify, and other sources which have ASCAP blanket licenses. Then you have an argument that only a portion of your studio’s musical performances are infringing. Using live and original music may help your argument. This may give you an argument to lower your license fees.
You may also be able to use music that is in the public domain (old music that was composed before the early 1900s) or music that is made available royalty-free through a Creative Commons license. These options are not attractive because it will be difficult for you to find appropriate music that is outside of the scope of ASCAP and, even if you do, you may still get hit and be compelled to pay the ASCAP licensing fee. It is legally complicated to determine if music is in the public domain or if it is being used within a Creative Commons license.
Another approach is to take the position that the studio is not liable for the music played by its independent contractors (i.e., the teachers). By definition, the teachers are running independent businesses and are responsible for their own music. Many teachers bring their own devices and plug into the studio’s system. The studio is only responsible for music played by its employees. A studio may be able to use this argument to negotiate getting into the cheapest tier.
Obviously, this approach would not be popular with the teachers! Also, ASCAP may take the position that it will base its calculation of your license fees upon the number of students in the studio, irrespective of who is playing the music.
Last, I understand that Yoga Alliance is planning to contact ASCAP, BMI and SESAC to determine whether they can negotiate a special deal for yoga studios. I wish them the best of luck on this but chances of success are low.
I have been in many yoga classes where, at the beginning of class, the teacher asks whether any students have an injury. Sometimes the students describe their injuries openly in the class. Other times the teachers visit with the students privately (usually in child posture) because some students may be reluctant to discuss their injuries in front of the class.
The teacher then begins the class. However, rarely do I see the teacher paying special attention to the injured students. I think this is for several reasons. First, if the class is large, the teacher may not have the time to run the class and spend the time on the injured students. Second, the teacher may not have the expertise to give personal guidance to students who may have a broad range of injuries and conditions. And third, some teachers may find it difficult to remember which students are injured and what their injuries are while they are teaching their class.
Should Teachers Ask About Injuries Before Class?
How does the legal system treat a teacher who has actual knowledge of a student’s injury, does not give the student personal care during class and the student suffers an injury? Is the teacher in a better position or a weaker position because they have knowledge of the student’s injury as a result of asking at the beginning of a class?
From a legal point of view, a teacher who asks about pre-existing injuries and has actual knowledge about an injured student is in a weaker legal position than a teacher who does not ask and has no actual knowledge about injuries.
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. If the teacher does not fulfill this duty, then the teacher may be found liable for the damages if a student is injured.
Teachers must fulfill their duty of care even though it may be very difficult to monitor several injured students in a large and dynamic yoga class.
If I Have Actual Knowledge of a Student’s Injuries, What Should I Do?
You must pay special attention to your injured students and suggest modifications to prevent them from aggravating their injuries. In special cases, you may need to suggest that the student attend a different class. For example, this could include pregnant students or beginning students who are injured but who want to take an advanced class. If you are teaching yoga in a hot studio, then you should be even more cautious in taking care of your injured students if it is not appropriate for their situation.
In my many discussions with teachers about this situation most want to know about their student’s condition so that they can offer compassionate support in class. But the question remains: do you have the competence to care for injured students and can you fulfill your duty of care for those students in the context of a large and dynamic yoga class?
If the answer to these questions is “no”, then you should not be asking students at the beginning of class if they have any injuries.
If I Don’t Ask About Injuries, How Should I Teach?
But what should you do if you decide not to ask about injuries in class? I recommend that you make a general announcement at the beginning of class that students should modify their poses to “keep themselves safe” or to “honor their bodies” or similar language. You should emphasize that those students with injuries should exercise special caution to care for themselves. In addition, you should offer several different modifications to the class for your poses. This is important because many students do not know how to modify their poses and simply telling them to modify will not offer them very much meaningful guidance.
What If a Student Volunteers Medical Information?
What should you do if a student volunteers information about a medical condition? Since you have actual knowledge of the condition, your duty to take reasonable care of that student has been triggered and you should do all you can to give that student special attention to protect he or she from injury. It may seem somewhat unfair if you did not ask for this information but it is the right thing to do both from a legal and a yogic point of view.
We should contrast this with those teachers who offer classes that are intended to teach students who have injuries or serious medical conditions. For example, I know a teacher that offers classes for students who have cancer. I know another who has classes just for runners. In those cases the teachers have special training and are competent to take care of the students. Also, if everyone in the class has the same medical situation, it is much easier for the teacher to offer a class that is appropriate for all of the students.
Medical Information on Release Forms
A related question is whether you should solicit medical information in a form of release or a new student questionnaire. In my experience, this is fairly common practice with yoga studios.
However, I do not think it is a good idea to gather medical history from your students because this practice raises many practical and legal questions.
Are you prepared to keep the student’s information strictly confidential and implement a security process? Are you prepared to require your students to update their condition if it changes? What about your existing students who provided you with information about their medical condition but it subsequently changes? Do your teachers actually review the information about all of the students who are in their class before the start of class and use the information? Are your teachers trained and able to give individual attention to each student’s medical needs within a class setting?
From a legal point of view, the problem is much the same as soliciting information about injuries at the beginning of a class. If you have actual knowledge of a student’s medical condition that you obtained from a questionnaire, then you have a duty to use reasonable care to protect the student from further harm.
However, as you can see, there are lots of practical problems with protecting sensitive medical information, keeping it current, and giving it to your teachers so that they can properly use it.
Signing a lease is one of the most important economic actions that you will take as the owner of a yoga or wellness studio.
The key point of this post is that you must read, understand and negotiate your lease. There is no such thing as a “standard” lease and you should never accept the form that is provided by your landlord. It will always be written in the landlord’s favor.
All terms of a lease are negotiable but your leverage depends on whether your local rental market is hot or cold. If plenty of commercial space is available, you may win some concessions. If your rental market is tight, you may have less leverage. Always remember that a bad lease can harm your business.
Here are 20 key points to consider in negotiating any lease:
1. Personal Guarantee. Are you obligated to personally guarantee the lease or is it an obligation of your legal entity? Naturally, you want to sign the lease in the name of your entity. If you sign it in your personal name, you are personally responsible for all liabilities arising under the lease. These include rental payments and indemnity.
2. Landlord Build-outs. Many disputes result from the landlord’s obligation to build out or modify the leased space. Make sure that your lease has a clear description of the landlord’s obligations. What is the landlord obligated to do, what are you obligated to do, how much will it cost, who will pay the cost and who is responsible for cost over-runs? You need to have a firm completion date in writing. What if the landlord does not complete the build-out on time and your opening is delayed? Will the landlord pay a penalty or abate rent? I have seen several studios forced into delaying their openings because the landlord delayed completing the construction.
3. Zoning. Do the local zoning laws permit a yoga studio business in the space that you are leasing? Make sure that you know this for a fact; do not rely upon statements by landlords and leasing agents. Studio owners have signed leases and then found out that their space was not zoned for a yoga studio. Check with the local municipality for zoning, license and inspection requirements before you sign the lease.
4. Lease term. What is the term of the lease, and can you extend the lease? If you elect to extend the term, what is the rental rate? Is it the same or does it go up for the extended term? Do not be afraid to negotiate your rental rate and your lease term! A short-term lease is usually to your benefit. Shorter leases give you more flexibility if the needs of your business change — for example, you want more space or decide that a different location would be better. However, a long-term lease ensures that you’ll have an affordable space for a longer period of time. Landlords are often inclined to make more concessions on long term leases than short term leases.
5. Security deposits. Make sure that the lease is clear on how you get your security deposit back. Under what circumstances can the landlord withhold your security deposit? Is it clear and is it fair? Some leases require that the tenant give written notice of the expiration of the lease as a condition to the landlord’s obligation to return the security deposit. Put the notice date on your calendar.
6. Use of the Space. Make sure that the scope of use in the lease is broad enough to allow you to expand your business. Can you open a boutique, a tea shop, or provide massage therapy? After the lease is signed, it may be hard to convince the landlord to let you change your business. Your business may expand and you do not want your lease to block your plans.
7. Parking. What about parking? How many parking spaces do you get and do you have to pay for additional parking? Is there enough parking if your business grows?
8. Subleasing. You may want to sublease a portion of your space or you may want to leave the space before the end of the lease. Make sure that you have the right to sublease. Negotiate language that the landlord cannot deny your right to sublease unless it has a commercially valid reason. Your right to sublease should not be at the landlord’s discretion. You will probably remain liable on the lease if your sub-lessee does not pay the rent, but at least you will have this important right.
9. Signage. Do you have the right to put up signs on the building? What are the landlord’s restrictions on your signage?
10. Rules and Regulations. Many leases require tenants to comply with the landlord’s rules and regulations but these are often not provided with the lease. Make sure that you review a copy of the rules and regulations before you sign the lease.
11. Heating and Cooling. The lease should be clear on the landlord’s obligation to heat and cool the space. Do you have control of the temperature of your space or is it centrally controlled?
12. Location. Before you sign the lease make sure that the location is appropriate for a yoga studio. How does natural light look throughout the course of the day? How does the energy of the space feel? Who are the tenants? Are they noisy and will they disturb your classes? Are there complimentary businesses in the area which may be willing to refer students to your studio?
13. Rental Rates. Negotiate the rental rate. Make sure that you know what similar spaces are renting for in the area and use your knowledge to negotiate a fair rental rate. Be careful about automatic increases in rent if you want to extend the term of the lease. Some leases include an annual increase to your rent. If the landlord insists on this provision, try to get a cap on the amount of each year’s increase, and try to exclude a rent increase for the first year.
14. Hidden Expenses and Utilities. Landlords often include extra expenses such as maintenance fees, upkeep for shared facilities (common area maintenance) and so on. What about utilities? These charges are usually the responsibility of the tenant but how are they measured? Are they individually metered or apportioned by the square footage? Be sure that you understand all of these “hidden fees” before you sign the lease.
15. Repairs and Upkeep. Even though the landlord owns the building, you may be responsible for repairs and upkeep. Commercial leases vary in their approach to this – some provide that the tenant is responsible for upkeep and repairs while others state that the landlord is responsible. Understand and negotiate your lease.
16. Default. You may lose your lease if you default. This may occur even if the default is unintentional. What is a default? If you default, will you be locked out immediately? Do you have an opportunity to cure the default? What is your cure period?
17. Gross and Net Leases. Be very clear as to whether the landlord will pay utilities, repairs, taxes and insurance. With a “gross lease,” your rent includes these costs. However, with a ” net lease” you pay for these items separately.
18. Don’t Negotiate Your Lease In “Panic Mode.” You may be in a rush to sign a lease to launch your new studio or maybe your business has grown so quickly that you want to lease a new space. These pressures can affect your ability to negotiate the best deal for your business. It is important to remain open, flexible and creative about your lease and your space. Don’t let yourself become desperate; landlords are expert at sensing this and it will put you at a disadvantage.
19. Don’t Be Attached to One Property. You are putting yourself at a huge disadvantage if you decide that a particular space will “make or break” your business. Always negotiate knowing that, if you can’t get a fair deal, your business will thrive elsewhere. I have seen situations where the owners fell in love with a space and were willing to make large concessions. However, when the deal fell through, the owners found an alternate space which was much better than the original!
20. Get Representation. It is wise to find an expert to help you negotiate your lease. This could be a commercial real estate broker who knows your location or a lawyer. If you use a broker, make sure that the broker is not also representing the landlord. This is a conflict of interest and you will lose.