We live in a touch-phobic society. When we are in the elevator, everyone squeezes their limbs tightly within their own impenetrable personal bubble. In the train, eye contact is avoided while everyone is crammed into a tiny car. Accidental grazes and bumps only lead to hostile stares and awkward adjustments.
We weren’t always like this. If you observe young children, you’ll see that they are very touchy both with each other and their surroundings. The early stages of life are when our comfort level with physical contact and physical closeness is developing. Parents establish deeper connections with their children through affectionate touches. Children find support and comfort in the embraces of their parents. But as children grow older, societal, familial and cultural pressures discourage touch.
Human touch is necessary for mental and physical well-being. Our skin is the largest sensory receptor on our body. Human beings crave physical contact, but in the modern world and westernized society, the prevalence of physical touch has lessened. Cultural and lifestyle shifts have caused smaller family sizes, higher media consumption and non-physical activities in metropolitan areas around the world. Though mankind is more interconnected than ever, this fast-paced technologically advanced culture has made humans more physically isolated.
The no-touch culture is ingrained in us from a young age, many schools now operate a strict ‘no touch’ policy in fear of pedophilia. As we grow up, many of us satisfy our need for touch through rough interactions with friends such as wrestling play and sports. Generally, fear of touch is greater between men. Touch is often perceived as a feminine gesture, conflicting with societal ideals of masculinity. Casual touches between men and women can sometimes be interpreted as unwarranted sexual advances.
In general, adults are less dependent on touch, but as we age we are likely to feel alone and vulnerable. Therapy animals have become common in care homes for this very reason. There is also a rising demand of massage therapists, physio therapists, and even professional cuddlers.
It is a shame that touch is so discouraged because the benefits of physical interaction can improve both mental and physical health. Physical touch activates the brain’s orbit-frontal cortex, which is linked with feelings of reward and compassion and can trigger a release of oxytocin. Regular hugs can lower a person’s heart rate and blood pressure in the long term. Affectionate platonic touch has been shown to strengthen the immune system, decrease stress and reduce anxiety.
How can physical touch benefit our yoga teaching?
The most practical reason for having a hands-on approach to teaching is that for kinesthetic learners, physical adjustment can be more easily understood than any verbal cue. The most important thing to remember when incorporating more physical touch in your life is to do so naturally without making others feel unsafe or awkward. With touch, less is more. A light tap to remind a student to use that part of the body is more effective than forcibly manipulating. When adjusting use firm hand movements to adjust specific body parts. Physical contact, when held for too long or in the wrong places, can be perceived as creepy or threatening. Light stroking movements or fluttery fingers can be misinterpreted by the student or be considered too uncomfortable. Generally the upper back, shoulders and hands are the only acceptable places to touch between casual acquaintances.
Incorporating hand gestures and touch into teaching can help you establish a deeper connection with your students. Even fleeting contact with a stranger can have a measurable effect, such as a brief touch on your hand when returning a library card or receipt. Research has shown that even seemingly insignificant touches between waitresses and customers can yield bigger tips. Incorporating handshakes, high-fives or a pat on the back are good non-verbal ways to communicate support and cooperation.
Using physical adjustments can also help your students feel more relaxed and at ease, and in turn, keep them coming back to your classes. When you stimulate the pressure receptors in the skin in a safe context, the body will lower stress hormones. All in all, incorporating more human touch into our lives can not only benefit our teaching practice but our overall quality of life as well. Try making an effort to connect with those around you not just while you are teaching!