Know Your Touch
Just because we grow older does not mean our need for affection goes away. Just a simple hug can release oxytocin, reduce stress, and boost immunity and self-esteem. With new businesses popping up like Cuddle Up To Me in Portland, Oregon, Cuddle Sanctuary in Los Angeles, California, the Snuggery in Batavia, New York, and Be Snuggled in London, UK, makes receiving loving affection more readily available than ever before. And we can seek it for ourselves! These new cuddling businesses prove to me how deprived our culture is of touch and how little our society understands touch. Thankfully cuddling businesses educate their communities on touch in efforts to share their missions. On a similar note, massage therapy has been becoming a more popular career as new research proves the emotional, physical, and psychological benefits of receiving touch, as well as, how the profession moves towards distinguishing itself with medical treatments, the healing arts, and expansions into various proven methods and modalities. Although, to actually experience touch, your mind has to be in the present moment and you have to be conscious of your body, so much as to be aware of the quality of touch you receive. The mind rests and observes the sensory input given by the body’s receptors. Touch plays a part of the five senses and the more we rely on it, like the blind, the more sensitive we will be to how it communicates to us and how it can enrich our life’s experiences.
When I was in massage school my teachers taught about the deprivation of touch and affection in our society. They would warn us of clients who would interpret our massage as intimate touch and how to set boundaries and explain. They also told us about clients whose only form of receiving touch would be their weekly massage and how big of a difference that makes in one’s life. I am excited for our communities to learn about the various types and forms of touch because most of our society only knows touch as intimate or violent. Touch is so much more! Touch can be affectionate, comforting, therapeutic, compassionate, communicative, protective, friendly, alarming, etc. Allowing ourselves to experience touch adds dimensions to our life increasing our awareness and sense of a physical body and tending to its needs to be touched, move, and speak non-verbally. Syl Carson, founder of Bodhi Yoga, teaches in her Advance Chakra Therapy Certification the energy between the throat and sacral chakra is “My movement speaks for itself”. She teaches our body needs to express honestly, self-reflect, and play without cultural infringements, held back from this causes energy blocks that disturb our emotional flow, suppression that can cause living in more fear, and censoring, silencing your body’s natural instincts and desires. That child-like wonder and enjoyment of life is still found in our adult bodies as we open to explore the infinite realms of movement and touch, learning about our physical body sensations.
I observe people who enjoy receiving massage, never miss out on a hugging opportunity, enjoy cuddling, participating in ecstatic dance, and attracting safe, loving, healing touch into their life live in less fear and experience more pleasure and love. They are enjoying another dimension this life has to offer us. The more we allow ourselves to experience and enjoy touch and human connection the more love and union we will have and the less fear and feeling isolated. Elysabeth Williamson, author and teacher of The Pleasures and Principles of Partner Yoga introduce the principle of union and says, “The experience of separation is the primary cause of human suffering. We experience separation from each other, from aspects of ourselves and from our own divinity. Partner Yoga provides tools for us to realize we are not separate but that we are part of a connected whole. It is this realization that empowers us to become who we are and frees us from the fear and suffering that the illusion of separation creates” (2). One of the tools taught in her partner yoga book is touch. Healing touch dissolves the illusion of separation and reinforces togetherness.
Give and Receive
Touch can be an emotional, powerful, healing experience with human connection. The affirmations touch brings to us are “you are not alone”, “I am here with you”, “you belong”, “you are seen”, “you are heard”, “you are here”, “you play a role in our community”, “you have purpose”, “you are loved”, “you are appreciated”, “you are what you are”, “you are accepted”, “you are embraced”, “you are supported”, and so on. As the divine cycle of giving and receiving can bless and enliven us, most of us focus on giving because we mask receiving with the idea of taking. Think of the last time you accepted a compliment and believed it and allowed it to soak it. Most of us hear a compliment and throw it right back at the person giving it.
“You are so beautiful.” - “No, you are beautiful too.”
“I really like your outfit.” - “What!? This old thing?! I like your shoes.”
“You inspire me.” - “Ah, I think you’re inspiring.”
It’s all about intention and learning about the divine exchange of giving and receiving the distorted view is giving and taking. Fostering awareness on receiving can enrich our lives whether it is a compliment, a charitable offering, or a gift. I bring this up because many people who deflect a compliment, or deny an offering, or feel obligated to gift back immediately miss out on the joy of truly receiving and this goes for receiving touch too. For some, receiving may seem more vulnerable and more difficult than giving, it’s less in your control and more in someone else’s...? Giving and receiving should feel like a dance. It’s enjoyable, creative, and a part of experiencing the authenticity of humanity.
Peter Sharp, founder of the Liberators International, began a rippling social movement to illustrate what I mean. Imagine walking by a huge plaza in a big city, people walking and bustling about their business and you see a sign that says, “Where has human connection gone? Share one minute of eye contact to find out.” You see a large group paired off just staring into each other's’ eyes. Some laughing, some crying, some smiling, hugging… You make eye contact and you know you need to spare just one minute. You stand in front of a complete stranger and look into their eyes, maybe you feel overwhelmed and decide to close your eyes and breath with the emotion until it dissipates. Then open your eyes and gaze into the eyes of a stranger and whatever thoughts come up, whatever insecurities, is all of a reflection of you. After all the illusions disappear, the voice of the inner critic quiets, love radiates and reflects back and forth between you and this stranger, smiles are shared and the powerful human connection manifests. This project launched in over 156 cities worldwide and made a huge impact. It’s an inspirational YouTube video currently. So, this is what giving and receiving offer. It’s a chance to experience human connection, smile, cry, hug, laugh, and enjoy the human experience learning how fear holds us back and paralyzes us. It’s vulnerable for both parties, it’s healing, it’s enjoyable and yet poorly understood and practiced.
Touch can be even more emotional than eye contact because of the physical stimulus. My massage education program taught me to empower my clients by checking-in with them on pressure, with comfort, with unique situations, asking them questions on an intake form like “is this your first massage?”, etc. Just like how emotional the Peter Sharp’s project was for people experiencing eye contact, touch can be just as powerful and meaningful. In the massage realm we call a sudden bust of emotions an emotional release. We are all familiar with emotional release whether it occurs violently with screaming and yelling, or venting to a friend about something frustrating and feeling better after, or letting yourself have a nice long cry session and coming back into balance. Emotions are a part of the human experience and learning how to release them and allow them to flow in a healthy way is essential and touch can help facilitate that. While we are talking about emotional release, I would like to add that I teach clients in a treatment called Yoga Nidra, a self-guide into emotional freedom and healing that I will be talking about in future publications and feel free to contact me about it. For now, we are talking about touch and the art of giving and receiving.
Our relationships suffer because we don’t learn how to give and receive healthy, loving touch. I offer my clients a package I call Fortify Relationships. Two of the activities we learn and practice is partner yoga and Thai massage, both focused on giving and receiving touch. The people I work with are amazed to see how their relationships transform when they learn the dance of giving and receiving therapeutic touch. Williamson confirms, “We all have a deep desire to touch and be touched – to give and receive nourishing physical touch and to have our hearts and minds touched with inspiration… touch is vital to our survival as air, food and water. As with these other forms of nourishment the quality of our touch that determine its capacity to nourish us and it is our intention that determines the quality of our touch” (16). With practice and awareness we can all learn the art of touch and nourish our relationships with knowing how to offer therapeutic touch to our loved ones.
The Science of Touch
Andrea Alfondo published an article in Scientific American entitled “Discover How Nerves Translate into Different Types of Touch Sensations”, “Within your skin is an array of touch sensors, each associated with nerve fibers that connect to the central nervous system. These sensors comprise specialized nerve endings and skin cells. Along with the fibers, they translate our physical interactions with the world into electrical signals that our brain can process. They help to bridge the gap between the physical act of touching and the cognitive awareness of tactile sensation.” Our bodies are pre-wired to experience an array of different physical contact and we are sensitive to it. When you hug someone you know immediately the quality of their hug because the sensory input into our central nervous system communicates it to us. It’s data entered, ‘good hugger, mediocre hugger, weak hugger, strong hugger, was that even a hug?, or I don’t want this hug to end”, and so on. This network of nerves, known as tactile receptors, adapt easy to light, touch, pressure and vibration. There are more of these nerves on our lips, genitalia and fingertips than anywhere else on the body, however these receptors cover every square inch. Their home is in the skin layer so that we can feel and know touch with each other and the elements.
The healing art of touch is one of our fundamental human needs and is becoming more and more talked about. There has been studies done in orphanages in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, children raised in orphanages had a less than fifty-fifty chance of reaching puberty due to neglect with little or no loving affection. Other studies have been done on violent behavior due to the deprivation of touch. Another study reported baby monkeys failed to thrive and often had developmental and mental problems, even if they’re provided with the food, water, and shelter necessary for survival but deprived of cuddling with their mothers. Researchers like Tiffany Field have studied the tactile stimulation and the effects of massage. In infants she reported that those infants who received regular massage “experienced fewer colds, less diarrhea, grew faster, gained more weight, and exhibited less agitation and excitability.” In a study she did among adolescents she reported, “empathetic behavior increased and aggressive behavior decreased in adolescents receiving regular massage”. Tactile stimulus plays an important role in our emotional well-being and physiological function. “We observe examples of the connection between the integumentary and nervous system everyday. Emotions and thoughts become visible when we flush with embarrassment, pale with fear, or goose bumps of excitement” (Archer, 69). One of the ways babies learn their relation to the world is by touching things, putting things in their mouths, constantly reaching for objects to hold, drop, pound, throw, as they analyze the object’s relation to their physical existence. Infants utilize their sense of touch to explore their world with genuine curiosity and intention to know. They live the wisdom that says our best teacher is our body. Movement and touch are profound healers and help transform lives all the time.
Thai and Yoga Traditions
I have noticed that I live in a society deprived of touch and hope the Thai massage and partner yoga workshops I offer will give the opportunity for my community to learn and practice therapeutic touch. In Thai Medical Theory touch is medicine. Children learn to give massages to help their parents and grandparents with aches and pains. It has become a lost tradition for some families, nonetheless folk medicine passed down from generation to generation. Nephyr Jacobsen said in her book Seven Peppercorns, “Just as where there are plants people will find ways to use their healing properties, where there are bodies, people will find ways to heal through touch; it is after all, the most natural thing in the world. If we go to a friend’s house and find them sad, the first thing we do is lay our hands on them in a healing hug or comforting pat” (18). She added with amusement, “As a massage therapist, I’ve been subjected repeatedly to ‘groundbreaking’ studies about massage or touch that come out from time to time from scientific community - studies that positively prove touch is good for you, or that infants require touch to survive. I always laugh when I see these things. I mean, people have always known this, always. Most mothers know their children need pats and hugs and kisses and tickles. Who cannot see that rubbing your tired, aching shoulders brings relief?” (19). She concludes that all traditional medicines root back to people experimenting with plants, touch, and movement exploring the remedies within our Self and within our communities. I wish there was more I could share about the philosophy of touch in Thai Medical Theory, but texts still need to be translated and we are still working and waiting for more.
Yoga philosophy teaches touch has a direct and indirect influence. Dr Shankaranarayana Jois, Indian doctor and Yogi, says, “No one fully knows the condition of another’s mind, nor does one know whether that person is calm and kind-hearted, greedy, cruel, or overly sexual. The more one touches others, the more one’s mind will be influenced by that physical contact” (197). He teaches that touch can be a powerful influence that can either hinder or benefit one’s practice, and that touching strangers should be limited. It is believed that touch influences the stillness of the mind and effect meditation practice. Like in anything we need to know the people we are inviting into our lives whether that’s our medical community that supports our physical well-being or our social community that supports our emotional well-being. Yoga philosophy supports the touch of loved ones and babies, touch that bring comfort and ease, however a menstruating woman should not be touched for the first three days, certain plants and animals should be avoided, etc. Some of the teachings on touch can be hard for Westerners to embrace. Instead of going down a path of resistance I think the important concept to grasp is the basic fundamental principle that everything has an energy, vibration and frequency - some energies come together and it is healing while other energies clash. It’s like, we get along with some people but not others or our vibration attracts certain types of people and not others.
This Yoga philosophy is taught to massage therapists insomuch as teaching them that they do not have to give a massage to everyone who wants one. Massage therapists should be particular who their clients are and refer clients to other massage therapists if the exchange is not beneficial on gross and subtle levels. Both massage therapists and those seeking massage should and need to be cautious and protect themselves. A massage can disturb well-being but can also heal and support well-being. It all depends on the forces at play. I think it’s important to offer my clients a free consultation so we can meet and feel what it is like to be in each other's’ presence and gage the energy and magnetic fields before committing to a session. Of course this is the subtle exchange that is happening while we interview each other and talk and fill out an intake form. Consistently, that initial contact both parties know if either one will benefit from working together or not. It’s a beautiful tool that can be applied to any profession. It’s taking the idea of dating and applying it to a professional setting.
Another phenomenon that is occurring in the yoga culture in the West is yoga instructors over use hands-on adjustments. Melissa Cooley, founder of Om Sweet Om and a teacher of Jivana Yoga taught me this. She said, in an alignment workshop, that the main purpose of Yoga is to move the mind inward or toward Samadhi, the path of uniting the Self with Eternal Truth. If instructors are adjusting the students they interrupt the student’s’ inward path and might as well just sit in meditation for that matter. I like the way David Emerson and Elizabeth Hooper taught the purpose for hands-on adjusting in their book Overcoming Trauma through Yoga, “There are several types of assists in a yoga class, but we will focus on three…, safety assists, comfort assists, and deepening assists. We would recommend using physical assists primarily for safety purposes...” (124). Because of our touch deprived culture and our traumatized culture, yoga instructors need to be careful when offering hands-on adjustments. The correct protocol is asking yourself, is this student in danger? And then finding words to assist the student to safety, and if that doesn’t help offer assistance and ask permission to touch stating where you are going to touch, this is one of the many reasons why knowing anatomical terms is useful and necessary.
Touch is a big deal, the energy exchange, the intention, the awareness, etc. It is a skill to forever learn and cultivate. Like an artist’s technique for creating their ever-evolving life work, touch is my technique I am constantly evolving. My tools are not paint or brushes but are my hands, forearms, elbows, knees, feet, and focused mind with each contact trying to bring more purpose, intention, and awareness to benefit and sustain the healing process of the body. I believe if more people learned the art of touch our families would be stronger, our society would be healthier, our communities would be more united, and love would be more abundant.
We need to be able to ask for touch from our loved ones, schedule a massage from time to time, maybe even participate in a cuddling workshop, so we are not in an emotional state of deprivation and desperation. Be aware when you need touch and what type of touch. Touch like all the senses enliven our awareness of our bodies and its relation to the physical world. Williamson says, “Touch is our most primal way of relating. When we are touched, we feel ourselves and know we exist. Touch provides a physical sense of safety and containment while nurturing us on many levels”. Touch keeps infants desiring to keep living. It can be a powerful tool to help heal the sick and relieve pain, offer comfort, show affection but it can also become distorted into violence. It is important to become more sensitive and aware of our senses as our body speaks to us so we can use our intuition in all of life’s situations. Williamson adds, “Healing touch is not something reserved for those trained in healing arts, but is something innate to us all. Cultivating our capacity for sensitive, healing touch is the heart of Partner Yoga practice” (16). The touch I offer to my clients is therapeutic touch to support the health and well-being of their body, mind and spirit on their path of awakening to more stability, clarity, and vitality. I desire to teach and help people develop their abilities to give and receive therapeutic touch to enrich their relationships and become more conscious of the internal union (body, mind, and spirit) and the union that manifests externally within relationships with partners, family and communities.
Alfano, Andrea. "Discover How Nerves Translate Different Types of Touch Sensations [Slide Show]." Scientific American. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, A DIVISION OF NATURE AMERICA, INC., 1 July 2015. Web. 01 Aug. 2016.
Archer, Patricia A., and Lisa A. Nelson. Applied Anatomy & Physiology for Manual Therapists. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Health, 2013. Print.
Carson, Syl. Bodhi Yoga Where the Spirals Meet: Advanced Chakra Therapy Certification. Provo: Bodhi Yoga, 2013. Print.
Emerson, David, and Elizabeth K. Hopper. Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2011. Print.
Jacobsen, Nephyr. Seven Peppercorns: Traditional Thai Medical Theory for Bodyworkers. Forres, Scotland: Findhorn, 2015. Print.
Jois, Shankaranarayana. The Sacred Tradition of Yoga: Traditional Philosophy, Ethics, and Practices for a Modern Spiritual Life. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2015. Print.
TEDxTalks. "Dare to Be Vulnerable | Peter Sharp | TEDxPerth." YouTube. YouTube, 01 Apr. 2016. Web. 01 Aug. 2016.
Williamson, Elysabeth. The Pleasures and Principles of Partner Yoga. Arvada, CO: Wisdom Arts, 2004. Print.