Updated: Nov 21, 2019
The power of Touch
Recently, we have heard a lot about inappropriate adjustments by some famous yoga gurus and a lot of talk has been centred on the abuse of power and awareness of trauma and a lot of talk has been around adjustments in yoga.
Even thus this is a very welcoming topic in the yoga world, I don’t intend to speak about this in this blog, but there is no doubt that my full understanding and compassion goes to those who have been the victim of inappropriate touch or adjustments. I myself have been inappropriately touched and adjusted on my yoga journey (see the "metoo" movement), but also have I received supportive and caring touch and so have some gentle adjustments made me feel the pose a little bit deeper.
It is nevertheless important to state that it is a very sensitive issue and invokes a lot of discussion about trust and trauma and that is good. We constantly have to learn and keep up to date with the current socioeconomic environment.
Also, we have to remind ourselves that biological variability makes each person’s body unique and each person has a different experience and stores this experience.
We have different types of learners coming to our classes and some type is more inclined to learn the kinaesthetic way, that is, here some movement or touch may help those learners.
Touching in such is defined and experienced by each individual differently and even thus we may have the best of intentions, one touch can be interpreted by two people differently and I would add there also is a cultural difference. When I was living in Southern Spain, people stood so close to me at the traffic lights that even me (who is a very touchy person) became uncomfortable in the beginning. Each culture has their own intimate unique shape. We can see this in how we greet people, some cultures kiss, some cultures shake hands.
According to yogic philosophy touch is one of the subtle elements that make up our individual cosmos.
Adjusts yes or no?
The first thing we should consider when giving assists is to be aware of our intentions and be aware of the potential vulnerability of the student regarding touch or words.
Consent in yoga as in every other activity is very important and goes beyond the simple question “Is it ok to be adjusted or assisted”. There is a relationship between the teacher and student and this relationship can only exist through trust and respect. We also have to appreciate that some people may have had traumatic experiences and we need to consider this when giving or not giving adjustments. Other reasons not to touch could include cultural differences. For example, it is for example not appropriate to touch the head or hair of a Thai person, etc.
Verbal and physical assists can help the student to go deeper, but they have to be safe for the mental as well as the physical development of the student and teacher. We offer energetic alignment-based assists for students to encourage a deeper embodiment of twists, forward bends and backbends, but subtle inner shifts in consciousness can also take place and their impact should not be underestimated.
It is natural for some people to crave the affection of the person in charge, so we have to be aware that our touch is a guiding touch rather than affecting an unhealthy shift into dependency by the student to the teacher. Never push or force people and allow for space and boundaries.
If a student’s safety is compromised in a pose and the student does not understand the verbal adjustment, offer help, but otherwise I would recommend stay away from the student and let the student feel and determine what feels safe.
The power of touch
“There is but one temple in the universe, and that is the Body of Man. Noting is holier than that high form. Bending before man is a reverence done to the Revelation in the Flesh. We touch heaven when we lay our hands on a human body”. - Novalis
The power of touch cannot be underestimated. Touch affects our nervous system. The power of touch through our skin sends sensory messages right back to our brain. Touch is the first sense we acquire. The quality of the touch should be firm, purposeful and not confusing in any way. There are different levels of how firm you can be or how soft you can touch.
The Physiological Effects of Touching
We come equipped with an ability to send and receive emotional signals solely by touching or being touched. We seem to be able to perceive anger, disgust, fear, love, gratitude etc. through touching. This can be measured by brain activity. Touch is a language and we learn this language well enough to be able to communicate positively in a way that can lead to healing.
We feel more connected to someone if they touch us. This is intrinsic in us and started in our mother’s womb receiving tactile signals from our mother’s heartbeat. All our feeling of security depended on this communication. Later, cultural differences lead to different skills in touching. Some people have a higher need for being cuddled or embrace touching as something more culturally normal. For example, it’s completely normal for two strangers in some cultures to kiss each other when they get introduced, whereas other cultures simply shake hands.
Some studies indicate that a person who was touched (they may not have even noticed it), left a tip or bought more items. We are at our core “social animals” and this human touch gives us a sense of connection. We all know the expression “this person touched my heart”.
Pressure receptors in the skin get stimulated and this is said to lower stress hormones. A warm touch can release the hormone oxytocin, that enhances a sense of trust and attachment. It is also sometimes called the cuddle or love hormone. When we feel stressed, a self-massage can slow down our heart rate and decrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol. The nice thing is that it is mutually beneficial. We all know how calming stroking a cat can be. It seems the same physiological benefits happen to the one who is doing the caressing. Studies say that people who give hugs, receive the same benefits as those being hugged. We can sense muscle tightness and resistance and this kind of information tells us our behaviour towards the person, it influences us how we perceive the person and how we may react to the person.
Furthermore, studies prove that infants who have been stroked regularly are less prone to illness and have a better immune system. The skin is our first medium of communicating and protection. Skin is the mother of all other senses and is the largest sensory organ in our body. Along with the brain, skin is the most important organ.
We say that people have a “human touch”, “a delicate touch”, or they have a personal touch ,feminine touch, soft touch, we describe people as “touchy”, “tough- skinned” some “get under the skin” or are “skin deep”, “tactless” or “tactful”, somebody being “callous”. There are so many ways we use touch to describe our emotions and feelings. As a baby our whole perception depended on the sense of touching and our perceptions ultimately influenced our behaviours. As mentioned above, skin has a large representation in our brains, so for example, our hands have a huge proportion. We can see this in a diagram, or a cortical homunculus, which is a “distorted representation of the human body that is based on a neurological "map" of the areas and proportions of the human brain dedicated to processing motor functions, or sensory functions, for different parts of the body.”
If you like this article, please help to share and / or write me a review. This has been taken out of my teacher manual. If you have enjoyed the benefits of yoga and would like to pass on that knowledge, get in touch with me.
Claudia Steinhauser SYAP
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