The importance of touch has become increasingly more researched and known. Tiffany Field and her colleagues at the Touch Research Institute have researched many different aspects of touch in child development and also how touch can help alleviate symptoms of medical conditions. In summary, touch is important not only for growth and development, but also for communicating and learning about the world (Tiffany, F., 2003). Our skin is our largest sense organ and unlike our eyes and ears we can’t shut or cover it. It’s constantly on. According to Field (2003) “touch continues to be the primary mean of experiencing the world throughout infancy and well into childhood, even into aging”.
Issues around touch are a complex matter, but I feel if a decision is made not to assist students physically, teachers miss out on a lot of opportunities to enable the students’ process. Sinason (2006) describes touch as a lifesaver and life giver, but points out that at the same time it has the potential to be traumatising. So what gets communicated via touch and how can we use touch effectively to help our students in their practice?
Touch is a way of “listening” and “speaking” to the student without words. It is a language in itself. Sometimes students just can’t hear words and don’t respond to them. Touch can be a very useful tool in communicating the teachings and reach students in places where words would not.
On a very fundamental level, touch in a yoga room is used as a skillful intervention to deepen the posture of the student or to create more space in that person – whether this is on a physical, emotional, mental or energetic level.
On an energetic and physiological level, touch has an important impact on the nervous system and plays a part in the body’s restoration (Westland, 2015). Westland (2015) summarises concisely the effects of touch by saying that touch “restores the body’s psychophysiological repair systems” (p.224), thus aiding in the healing process of both the body and the emotions.
Different levels of touch in teaching
The effects of touch go beyond the functional and psychophysiological though by creating a deeper connection within the student and also between student and teacher – adding a spiritual dimension. In this way students are helped to get in contact with themselves increasing the sensation of self. Students get a deeper experience of where they end and where the other starts, and can thereby develop stronger skin boundaries and create an anchor. Further, students experience the connection with another human being in a non-sexual way.Finally, even though teacher and student relate on an adult-to-adult level, touching speaks to the younger parts of the student also. In this case, a holding and comforting touch will reach into those parts of the student that were possibly deprived of a mothering touch in early childhood.
Thus teachers need to be aware of their importance to students beyond the obvious teacher-student relationship whilst maintaining healthy boundaries. The importance of touch for symbolic mothering cannot be underestimated (Westland, 2015).
Managing touch in relationship
For touch to be effective, it’s crucial that the way the student is touched emerges out of the relationship and the need of the student in that particular moment. Teachers ideally allow themselves to engage with uncertainty without really knowing exactly how touch and words will impact students, but with a willingnessto explore and respond (Westland, 2015). Furthermore touch needs to happen inside very clear boundaries and with the option for the student to say no. Equally if teachers have a strong sense in themselves of not wanting to touch, they need to honour their intuition. (Ben-Shahar, 2014)
I like Ana Forrest’s recommendations of entering the students’ energy field slowly, letting them know you are there and then touching them gently whilst explaining what you are doing (Forrest Yoga Training Manual)
To conclude, I feel that the discussion is not about whether to touch or not to touch in absolute terms, but to apply the yogic principle of being present and responding to what is in front of us; thus making a decision based on our intuition and experience whether one particular student would benefit from our touch or not.