I have given up trying to keep track on the weeks of this blog. I know I am several weeks behind and ultimately, this blog has veered off the “monetary” track. What I have found is that my life and my passions and my money are all directly related and so to reflect on something that is not singularly about cash money, it is indirectly related to value and wealth.
In the last few weeks I have taken a 10 day trip to New York to participate in a 50hr Hands-On Assisting Course at Laughing Lotus Yoga Center in Manhattan. In that training we had different sessions that covered Restorative Yoga, Reflexology, Thai Massage, Aromatherapy as well as general techniques for offering assists/enhancements during a traditional yoga class. When I returned, I also accepted a new job at a local spa. While I am only massaging 4 days a week (for a total of 24 hours) I have found a deeper reverence for being in a position to offer healing touch to people. Below are thoughts that I have been churning in my mind for some time as I have been going deeper into my yoga and massage education.
I come from a family of clairvoyant healers and through my own experience, I have seen first hand that most people are starving to be touched. Outside of the touch that people experience in their romantic relationships with their partners, there is rarely any other physical contact that we, as a collective group, experience during our daily lives. Sure, we might hug our friends. Maybe a handshake with a colleague or coworker. But in the state of our current world, we do not touch nor do we accept touch on a consistent or regular basis. Feel free to continue reading below:
The Essence (and Ethics) of Touch
I crave to be touched. Whenever I go to a yoga class, I silently beg the teacher to come by and lay their hands on me. I will sit on my mat and use all my telekinetic powers to draw that instructor my way, just to feel those healing hands. It never has to be much – a light hand on the back of my heart, a thumb in the crease of my hip to draw it back into alignment or encourage space, a soft weight to my shoulders to remind me to release the grip in my traps.
In the last year, I have started taking spin classes and I found myself consistently drawn to two different instructors. Why was I, along with countless other people, drawn to their classes? Yes, they had amazing music. Yes, they kicked my ass. But that was a common thread in all of the classes at that studio. WHY THEM? I realized – they both touched me. It is very difficult to offer effective touch in a spin class. There really isn’t the opportunity to correct or enhance like in a yoga class, except through the voice. So what was it about the touch of these instructors that kept me coming back for more?
In almost every class I take with either of them, I feel seen. It might be that one will place hand over mine on the handle bars during a difficult sprint. Or one might put a hand on my back while climbing a hill. In both cases, I realized, the touch represents the value of being acknowledged (and other, physiological responses). Some will argue that I should be in spin, or yoga, or anything else, for myself. Not for the benefit of someone else or for recognition. And I do have a few instructors I will go to, in spite of the absence of touch. I will attend a yoga class with a teacher who does not offer assists and I can/will have a great experience. But I am continually drawn to those teachers that connect with me in a physical way.
A Small Bit of Science Behind the Benefits of Touch
I have recently become a LMT (Licensed Massage Therapist) which allowed me more extensive training in anatomy and physiology along with a deeper understanding of why the body craves touch. And how it can help, not only the body on the gross, physical level, but also on an emotional and spiritual level.
So why do we want to be touched?
First, the great hormone – oxytocin, which is produced naturally in the body (in all genders) and stimulates the production of a neurotransmitter that has been called “the Bliss Molecule”. Located in the hypothalamus – the part of the brain that is responsible for the secretion of the pituitary hormones (helping with blood-pressure, along with other crucial functions). It is commonly known as the Love Hormone and is produced during childbirth and breastfeeding, as well as other physical interactions, driving the social bonds of attachment between people. Physical touch increases levels of trust and makes us feel close to another person.
Touch also reduces the physical symptoms of stress by activating the pressure receptors (Pacinian corpuscles) just below the surface of the skin. These signals go directly to the Vagus nerve, which is a nerve bundle deep in the brain. The vagus sometimes is called “the wanderer” because it has branches that wander throughout the body to several internal organs, including the heart. And it’s the vagus nerve that then slows the heart down and decreases blood pressure – buffering the physical symptoms associated with stress and helping to activate our parasympathetic nervous system.
Along with reducing the symptoms of stress and creating Oxytocin, physical touch also activates the orbitofrontal cortex (located just above the eyes) which also process pleasant smells and sweet tastes. It processes emotion and reward as it relates to decision making. So when we are touched, we associate this with being rewarded. Makes sense when an instructor puts a hand on us in a tough spin class! It provides us with stimulation in the part of the brain that connects us to reward.
There are so many studies out there that go in-depth on the benefits of touch and the physiological effects – we have just skimmed over the surface.
The Hugging Rule
There is a saying by Virginia Satir, a respected family therapist, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.”
Now, 12 hugs a day may seem like a stretch for most of us – especially in our busy and intense lives, but this brings me back to the craving that many of us feel in a class setting. Within our busy schedules, many of us find time to carve out an hour or so for a class at a gym or studio. We make this a priority…the opportunity to sweat and release some tension from our hectic lives and many of us are usually drawn to classes or instructors whom connect with their students in some way.
While in New York I had the opportunity to attend a couple of classes with a friend of mine. Both classes were favorites of hers. She enjoys both instructors and makes it a point to fit them into her extremely busy schedule. They are very well educated in the field of yoga, have many years of experience and are highly regarded in the community. At the end of the first class I felt amazing. Rejuvenated, clear, uplifted and accomplished. I already knew that this was largely due to the simple fact that he offered me a hands-on assist. In fact, I am quite certain he was able to do that for every student in that class. I remember being in a deep pose and I was feeling like I was going to just drop onto my head in exhaustion and he came by and offered physical support. Not a ton, but enough that it encouraged me to breath and to sit with what was happening in my body. Looking at it from a scientific lens, it activated a physiological reward response and one that increased trust and bonding. A side note – this class was packed.
Fast forward to the second class. Again, very highly regarded instructor. But he never once put a hand on anyone. In fact, he never looked up or came off of his mat. And I found myself sulking like a child. Bitter that I had showed up for a class in which I had such high expectations, to be so frustrated that I abandoned my own practice in a rebellious-type act against him. (I don’t think he cared I was throwing a fit). This class didn’t have more than 10 people in attendance.
Now, my fault for letting someone affect me so much I let go of all of my own integrity and self-motivation while on my mat. But it made me really sit down and think about why I was so upset and why it was so important to me to have an instructor that saw me on some level. As I reflected about all of the instructors that had influenced me over the years there was that common denominator – acknowledgement and connection. And the ones that I continue to practice and study with – they have all put hands on me.
I have attended two very separate trainings that specialized in hands-on assists (both in opposite parts of the country). Each one I enrolled in because I took one class with an instructor and they performed some sort of assist that left me craving the knowledge that they had. I needed to know how they created that connection. My background is in bodywork so I wouldn’t expect everyone to just follow a teacher all over the world to study hands-on assists but it is very common in our yoga climate for students to follow their teachers on retreats and get-aways, and I can guarantee you that these teachers are connecting on some level with those students.
THE BAD (AND THE UGLY)
While I am a cheerleader for touch – bodywork, massage, hands-on assists in yoga class, etc. it would be irresponsible of me to not address the dark side of the subject.
There is a huge uphill battle that Licensed Massage Therapists are fighting. The constant joke about a “happy ending” haunts the integrity of our industry and there is always going to be a warding off of creeps looking for more. Most people are familiar with the gross misconception of what a massage therapist offers but there is less talk of abuse is in the yoga community.
One day, in the depths of my yoga passion, I begged a good friend of mine to try a class with me. I adored this particular instructor and had been taking his classes for a couple of years. While he offered a very difficult and strenuous class, I felt like it would be a great yoga introduction for my friend.
After an amazing class I was floating on a yoga high and I asked her what she thought. She confessed to me that when he offered her hands-on assists she felt creeped out. I reassured her that some yoga assists can be intimate but it was all for the benefit of alignment and that it felt awkward because she hadn’t been practice and wasn’t used to it. I even told her she was lucky she was getting so much attention, that it was awesome to be receiving so much “help”. She came with me a few more times and each time she voiced that she felt like something was off, that the things he was doing felt sexual.
Fast forward several months later and this instructor (very prominent in the community) was no longer teaching public classes. There wasn’t a ton of talk about his absence it but it was clear that there had been complaints from numerous students about the way that he had touched them and that the various studios had decided to no longer offer his classes.
This is not an isolated case of claimed sexual misconduct in the yoga community. The names/places/dates can be changed in this particular story and a similar one will pop up in almost every city where there is a yoga class. I witnessed it first hand with an instructor on my last trip to New York. We look at teachers with a ton of awe and reverence and trust that they have our best interests in mind and when boundaries are crossed, we stay silent or endure, for many personal reasons.
This is where touch can become dangerous. While it produces oxytocin – that wonderful hormone that increases the feeling of emotional closeness with another person – it also allows openness to bad boundaries and/or harmful touch at the same time and this is where trauma can occur.
While the majority of this article is geared towards sharing my opinions on the benefits of touch, I want to clearly state that touch is not and may not be beneficial for everyone. Those that have experienced trauma or abuse do not fall into the category that I am generally speaking to. As teachers and therapists of various types of bodywork, we have an enormous responsibility with every person we come across and lay hands on. How we set intention and respond to each situation should be approached with great care and pure love.
I used to teach a class that became popular for many reasons. It was held late on Monday nights, lit by candlelight and donation-based. It was a gentle flow and folks generally enjoyed it. I believe that along with the above components, the reason people came back each week was because I offered an assist to everyone at the end of the practice in savasana. Nothing big. I simply put hands on the temples and forehead, set intention and offered a short cranial sacral release. Gentle and appealing to all.
Or so I thought.
After about a year of teaching this class I was kinda feeling myself and my amazing savasana assist. I thought it was my go-to yoga teacher move. Later that year I was enrolled in a hands-on assisting course and the instructor told us all to pair up and give each other our favorite savasana assist. This was it…I was going to wow the socks off my partner. She would remember this assist as the best she had ever had. As I laid my hands on her forehead I felt her flinch a little. And as I moved my hands down to her ears she clearly cringed. I shrugged off both these indications that something was wrong. I went in for the money move – fingers on the occipital ridge and traction from the base of the skull.
Well, I was certain there was no way I was ever going to touch anyone in my life again. NEVER. EVER.
Thankfully we were in a space that we could give each other feedback and she had reveled to me that she had previous trauma in her life and touching her in that way triggered it. Feeling terrible and apologizing profusely I really questioned my choice in careers. How could I ever put hands on another person? Had I been aware of the signs she was giving me in the beginning I could have avoided triggering her.
Unfortunately this happens a lot in yoga classes and I think it scares a lot of new instructors away from touching their students. There a few tools to help avoid these types of situations (offering tags for students mats so they can decline hands-on assists, asking those who don’t want to be touched to place a hand on their belly in the beginning of class, etc.) but there are going to be times where the connection isn’t there are we are at risk for negatively affecting our students. But I truly believe we have to keep offering. We have to hold space for those that need to be touched. We need to continue to educate ourselves and to seek out courses that offer support and tools for those that have experience trauma. This is a dark side of the industry and in order to sustain the integrity of the practice, we have to better ourselves.
Touch is healing, there is no doubt about that. From a scientific background or a spiritual point of view, the human experience is about connection. We crave closeness, to be able to trust and to allow support from another person. In any capacity, find a way to bring touch into your life. Get a massage, find a yoga class and get a wonderful assist, go to Grit Cycle and take Matt or Dani’s class (there really isn’t a bad instructor there!) Find ways to connect. The physical and emotional benefits are amazing and your body, mind and spirit will thank you.