The Philosophy of Touch: Exploring the Benefits and Risks of Hands-on Assistance
It seems so simple: A student stands in Tadasana, shoulders tensed, and the teacher places his hands on the tight area, inviting relaxation.
Yet depending on a wide array of factors—ranging from the teacherís intentions and attitude to the studentís emotional state, religious beliefs, and personal history—this basic adjustment can be healing or violating, welcome or repugnant, constructive or demoralizing.
Touch is an intimate act and a complex issue--particularly in our litigious, sexualized society. Concerns about harassment have led to a hands-off attitude in some workplaces, and anxiety about abuse has prompted some schoolteachers to avoid touching children. Members of some religious groups may refuse to be touched by members of the opposite sex. And people who have been abused may be reluctant to be touched by anyone at all.
As a result, touch can pose a dilemma for yoga teachers who use hands-on assistance as an integral part of instruction. "Touch is sometimes more direct and effective than verbal instruction, since it brings students out of their heads and into their bodies," said Esther Myers, a Toronto-based yoga teacher and author of Yoga and You (Shambhala, 1996). (Yoga Journal interviewed Myers about six weeks before her death from breast cancer on January 6.) "We can sometimes give more precise and detailed information through touch than the student can absorb verbally."
Yet the intimate quality of touch is "both its benefit and risk," Myers said. "As teachers, we need to find a balance between caring, concern, compassion, and professional detachment."
The role of touch role in yoga instruction varies widely, depending on the teacher and the style, says Mara Carrico, a San DiegoĖarea yoga teacher and author of Yoga Journalís Yoga Basics (Henry Holt, 1997). "I studied with Bikram 25 years ago, and there was virtually no touching. He would bark out the directions and we would follow." In contrast, she says, "Iyengar and Ashtanga tend to be more hands-on, while Viniyoga tends not to be so touchy."
In recent years, thereís been a growing awareness that touch can pose risks for students, particularly if overzealous, inexperienced teachers perform aggressive adjustments. But it also can be hazardous for teachers, who might, for example, be kicked in the face while helping a student into handstand. "Hands-on assisting can be very strenuous," says Carrico, who describes her own style as "eclectic." "In the energetic realm, we have to guard ourselves, particularly if weíre working long days. With maturity, Iíve learned to pace myself."