by Ellen Tousaw
Our lives are overwhelmingly online. We spend more and more time on our devices, connecting instantly with countless people every day, yet feeling disconnected. We spend less time with physically with others, feeling their presence, feeling their touch.
The benefits of physical touch are countless and are well-documented by psychological research. Here we’ll explore some of these benefits and how they fit in to the practice of yoga.
Touch induces concrete, physiologic changes in the body that give us a warm-and-fuzzy feeling. Firstly, kind touch causes a release of the hormone oxytocin. Affectionately known as the “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin is strongly implicated in social and emotional cooperation. It strengthens, lengthens, and adds meaning to all types of relationships: from parent-child connection, to intimate partner bonding, to sympathetic exchanges between acquaintances. Oxytocin plays a pivotal role in maintaining mental health, as the loss of social interaction and relationships is a risk factor for psychiatric distress.
Research also suggests that oxytocin has direct anxiolytic effects, meaning it reduces the effect of stress hormones and helps people recover from stressful tasks. In addition to this, physical contact decreases blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol. So, touch may be an important therapeutic tool for a yoga instructor to facilitate students’ recovery after a physically demanding or emotionally charged practice.
Additionally, physical contact increases endogenous (natural) opioids. These are one of the body’s ways of organically combatting pain and discomfort. The combined hormonal changes induced by touch result in decreased physical and psychological stress, which in the long term contributes to balanced mental and bodily wellbeing.
Interpersonal touch is unique in that it is necessarily reciprocal. We cannot touch another without being touched back; that is, touching someone else activates our own touch receptors. This points to a strong shared benefit in giving and receiving touch. It’s a tactile way of sharing emotions, relating to others, and promoting social bonding. Isolation and loneliness can lead to devastating mental health problems. Hence social bonding through touch is an evolutionarily important aspect of survival, for both toucher and touch-ee.
It doesn’t stop there! The positive social and emotional effects of touch extend beyond the two people immediately involved in the interaction. It turns out that observers of an encounter that includes touch benefit emotionally and socially as if they were the ones being touched themselves.
Participants of yoga – both teachers and students – have the potential to benefit enormously from physical touch. Appropriate touch improves the therapeutic relationship. Many of us will agree that yoga is a form of physical, mental, and spiritual therapy. Consequently, the therapeutic alliance between teacher and practitioner is extremely important and can be ameliorated by touch. Extrapolating from research done on touch in non-yoga settings, students who receive hands-on adjustments are likely to feel more valued and validated. They are also likely to reflect more positively on their practice than those who do not receive hands-on contact.
There are many reasons a yoga instructor may be hesitant to use hands-on techniques. They may feel it interferes with a student’s practice or individual experience, that it breaches the professional boundaries of the practice, or that it may be interpreted as sexual. Of course, any touch in a yoga class must be respectful and consensual, as physical contact can be triggering for some people. Individuals with a history of trauma or abuse, for example, may have negative physical and emotional reactions to touch. Distress that is provoked during a yoga session is, of course, the exact opposite of the healing experience that one hopes for from a practice. It is important for instructors to obtain consent from students and to appreciate that differences in gender, culture, social background, and life experiences influence one’s desire to be touched. For example, a pioneering psychology study from the 1960's observed the conversations of friends in different parts of the world as they sat in a café together. In England, the two friends touched each other zero times; in the United States, in bursts of enthusiasm, friends touched each other twice. But in France, the number shot up to 110 times per hour, and in Puerto Rico,friends touched each other 180 times during a chat over coffee.
Additionally, there may be a misconception that adjustments could make students reliant on the instructor, causing them to lose self-observation and self-dependence. Touch, however, has actually been proven to increase awareness, confidence, and control. Moreover, touching students can help them build self-esteem: an instructor giving time and attention to a practitioner may make that practitioner see their own body as deserving of such time and attention, contributing to positive body image and higher self-respect.
In one study on the use of touch in psychotherapy, participants found touch as superior to verbal instruction when learning a relaxation exercise. This could be because our spoken word tends to be laden with inferences and subtle meanings. In contrast, appropriate touch is interpreted as involving less criticism or judgment. Touch therefore can help a yoga student more effectively learn a posture or meditation technique, while feeling more safe and better able to explore the practice independently.
Yoga is many wonderful things. But importantly, yoga is learning to pay attention: to our minds, to our bodies, and to others. And by truly paying attention to ourselves and to others, we learn that we all share experiences and emotions, and through that knowledge we can build our resilience together. Human connection may be one of our strongest tools in protecting our wellbeing. And there is arguably no better way to foster that connection than by physical, concrete, I-feel-you-and-you-feel-me, touch.
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