The Power of Touch

Touch.  To some of us, this word seems so second nature.  We go throughout our day touching things with our hands…phones, light switches, keyboards, our hair and faces, clothing, food or food utensils, books, bags, chairs, desks, papers, and multitudes of other objects.  Our feet touch the ground upon which we walk or run.  It is a sense that often goes more unnoticed or taken for granted than seeing, smelling, hearing, or tasting.

Here is a rhetorical question for you:  How often throughout the day do you touch another living being?  More than you touch your devices or keyboards?  Less?  How often do you hug and kiss your spouse, or simply hold his hand?  Do you work in a field that requires you touch people all day and if so, how does that affect you?  Do you have children who are constantly interacting with you through the touch of their tiny hands?   I ask this question so that you might start to really think about your sense of Touch in your day-to-day life, and how this might be affecting you and your energy.

Let’s reflect a bit on just how important touch is to us as human beings, how truly powerful it is.

In 2014, Feldman et al. published a study in Biological Psychiatry about the effects of maternal-preterm infant skin-to-skin contact on development within the first 10 years of the child’s life.   Over a period of 10 years, preterm children’s functioning was analyzed using the intervention known as “Kangaroo Care” (mother’s body heat is used to keep babies contact).  In this trial, premature babies receiving kangaroo care during their hospital stay were compared to premature babies that received “standard” incubator care.  These children were followed for ten years, and the results were fascinating.  Not only did mothers in the kangaroo care group show more sensitivity and express more maternal behavior toward their infants, but these children showed better cognitive skills, improved sleep patterns, better responses to stress, and better executive functioning abilities up through 10 years of age (compared to the standard group).

Many of you may have heard of children neglected in orphanages here and/or overseas.  The lack of consistent, nurturing, loving touch and interaction leads to developmental delays and abnormal bonding behavior patterns.  Evan Ardiel and Catharine Rankin in their review article “The Importance of Touch in Development” published in 2010 in Pediatric Child Health summarized that “organisms need sensory stimulation for normal development”.  In various other studies, massage therapy has been shown to reduce stress and blood pressure in the workplace, improve the immune system, and decreased anxiety levels.

What exactly does touch have to do with yoga?  Well, in my opinion, everything.  First, the touch from within ourselves:  the contact we make with our hands and feet to our mats or to other parts of our bodies (fingers to toes, hands to shins, thighs, foot to groin, the list goes on).  This contact we make with the mat and our bodies gives us constant feedback and grounding.  But then there is that special place you get to go in a yoga posture when a teacher physically touches you.  The Assist. 

Teaching yoga without skilled touch (okay sidetrack here…notice I said skilled, meaning well trained/educated with astute awareness of the student’s physical, mental, and emotional state in the posture/practice and an intimate knowledge of the student’s yoga practice) deprives students of the opportunity to truly find the depth in the practice that their minds and bodies have the potential to go.  Skilled touch from a teacher helps students find their bodies in space, bring awareness to areas that they weren’t aware were not “awake” and “active”, to open up somewhere just a bit deeper, or to engage somewhere with a little more strength. 

But remember, touch is powerful.  It can be good, but also bad.  A slap or a hit hurts and causes pain and suffering, not the kind of touch a being can thrive on.  As a yoga teacher, pushing a student beyond his physical boundaries, or aggressive, un-attentive, or un-sensitive touch can sometimes bring more harm than good.    It is important to remember that our energy shifts toward other beings without even touching them.  Just reaching out sometimes is enough for another being to feel a connection.  That energy is powerful, even more so when you make physical contact. 

There are days in Mysore class when some of my students are feeling particularly tired, or their bodies feel sluggish and angry, and the thought of an assist almost terrifies them.  And there are days in their practices when they crave a deep assist, to be touched, to be helped along in their journeys on the mat.  I try as a teacher to listen to my students bodies, feel their breath under my hands and breath with them, look at how their body reacts as I approach them, before I even touch them, to get a sense of where I can help them go on that particular day. 

Most days I practice alone, without touch.  I crave it more than anything else in my practice.  If I could get assisted at least once every day in my practice, I would practice whatever my teacher wanted me to…primary, second, third series I wouldn’t care!  Today I had the opportunity to finally, after 9 months (since training with Tim Miller in August), get the intense, deep assists and touch that I needed in my Intermediate Series practice, and I couldn’t be more grateful.  With each day that I practice here in Philadelphia with David Garrigues and his teachers and apprentices, I know that progress is inevitable, that I will go deeper than I could ever go it alone.  I will cherish the next 4 days and come home knowing that Touch has taken me somewhere I wasn’t before, in a positive and reflective way.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said, “Without touch, progress is very slow.”   Nurturing Touch is essential to our physical, emotional, and mental development both as children and certainly as adults.  Hold your significant other’s hand when you wouldn’t think to.  Give your child an extra kiss.  Pat your friend gently on the shoulder or give her a hug when she is having a difficult time with something. Let your dog lick your face.  Pet your cat and listen and feel as it purrs under your touch.  Go get a massage.  Hug yourself.   And find a yoga teacher that will give you strong but nurturing assists to take you deeper into the yoga practice, to a place you never imagined you could go before.  Touch and be touched with nurturing hands, so you can make progress yourself and help others make progress in life, both on and off the mat.