Today is a day to relax and recover somewhat from this weekend, which was the latest installment in my 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training, and it was intense. As is sometimes the case with yoga, it was grueling physically, mentally and emotionally (breathing through the physical aspect of it usually drums up the mental and emotional issues that define who we are and how we react to different situations). This morning finds me a little quieter and a little more sore than usual (and a tad more humble, me thinks!). Something we discussed over the weekend has kept creeping back to the forefront of my thoughts, so I figured why not try to make sense of it all by posting it up here? An article was read to us on the subject of touch; the role it plays in different societies, and its significance in creating and maintaining bonds that link people one to the other. As a yoga teacher, it is my responsibility to not only be confident with the adjustments that I administer to my students, but to know how and when to touch and to not be irresponsible in the execution of the adjustments. To understand the responsibility that we have as teachers and human beings, we need to understand the significance and the science of touch.
North America is considered to be a “low touch” culture, one in which we are more concerned with the idea of personal space than with how we can assist each other by maintaining some sort of physical contact. In a society where the ever-elusive drives the masses to exhaustion and people are withdrawing from the workplace after having “burned out”, I would have hoped that someone in a position of influence would have bothered to look at what we lack as a culture. But that’s not the North American way. Why would we ever admit to being “less than”? It’s this false pride that has brought our society to where it is, and we need a wake-up call. Now.
The medicinal aspects of touch date back over the last 2500 years. Known to decrease stress and increase dopamine and serotonin levels, touch actually boosts the immune system. More impressive than the benefits of touch are the results of touch deprivation. A medical condition named Marasmus (Greek for “wasting away”) was discovered in the 1800’s after a slew of small infants died of starvation. The cause for this ended up being lack of constant physical contact between the child and the caretakers. The children literally wasted away from not being touched. Ironically for us as Westerners, the first thing that a doctor does when delivering a child is to place the child on the mother’s chest and into the mother’s arms. That initial contact is vital to creating the life-long bond that only exists between a mother and her child.
The power of touch is almost other-worldly. Speech, for all its effectiveness and precision, is sometimes less effective as a communication tool than touch can be. Touch can convey a myriad of emotions and intentions: love, grief, affection, disappointment, reassurance, emphasis, anger, aggression, assistance, defensiveness, instruction, congratulations, therapy, punishment, pity, sexuality, sympathy, and the list goes on and on…What serves as the toll of differentiation behind each instant of contact is the intention behind it. Sometimes touch can convey what words and deeds cannot, and it is in these moments of truth and purity that technology and scientific advances take a back seat to what has existed since the dawn of humanity.
As a yoga teacher, I have seen many people’s relationships to touching and being touched. Some students admit to the possibility of being touched by the teacher as a major motivator in getting them to class, as it’s the only interpersonal contact they’re getting in their life. Some students feel that being adjusted is some form of criticism of their form and, ultimately, their practice. Some believe that to not get adjusted during class is a form of abandonment, of being overlooked. Others freeze up when they get adjusted, maintaining a rigidity in their alignment, giving me the impression that they are set in their body positioning and in their minds and do not want assistance. These are usually the same people who approach me after class to let me know how much they loved the class and can’t wait for the next one. Everyone has a different relationship with touch, and walking the fine line that links us to each other is the job of the yoga teacher, one that I take extremely seriously but that will not ultimately alter my method of teaching. I believe that with mindfulness and the correct intention, my students will only benefit from the contact I make with them, and that in some cases, that contact can re-define what they deem as a healthy avenue of communication. I’ve always been an affectionate person, a massive fan of hugging and a believer in the power to communicate the intensity of an emotion with the aid of touch. Funneling this aspect of my character into a yoga setting takes some care, but it’s something I’m happy to do. It’s this kind of influence that makes me proud to be able to do what I do. The ability to help (and potentially heal) others brings a validity to my profession that until this period in my life proved elusive.
Let me know what you think about all this…what your viewpoints are on touching and being touched, on and off the yoga mat. And don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who may need that extra bit of affection or support…sometimes simple contact is all that we need.