Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Remember when you got a boo-boo as a kid and your parent kissed the pain away? Ever notice how a hug seems to make things feel better? Turns out it is not magic. Touch is a powerful and necessary aspect of healing and survival.
When we are in pain, hugs can be a balm for the soul. When we are in joy, they are a way to share that experience. Physical touch helps us feel in synch with something greater than ourselves. It literally brings people together, permeating our physical layer and dissolving the divide between “us” and “other”.
Humans are not alone in needing touch and contact. Our dog, Tucker, begs for cuddles like other dogs beg for food. He will literally cut off his air supply if it means being close us. Google “animals hugging” and any worry you have will instantly melt away as you scroll through images of various creatures nuzzling against each other. (Pro tip: Add the word “cute” to your search to up the ante.) Turns out it is a very mammalian thing to do.
Touch is crucial for overall health and well-being. All of us need connection to thrive.
Research Proves the Importance of Touch and Connection
Psychologist Harry Harlow turned the field of psychology upside down in the late 1050s when his research found that being cuddled and comforted outweighed being fed in the hierarchy of what is important for human development. This experiment was revolutionary, as it came during a period where it was believed that the only things human beings needed for survival were food and shelter.
In his experiment, Harlow looked at baby rhesus monkeys who were separated from their mothers at birth. His team tested different types of surrogate “mothers” in the monkey’s cages and observed who the baby monkeys were drawn to for both literal nourishment (read: food) and emotional nourishment (contact and comfort). The first “mother” was a wire figurine with a bottle as food source; the second “mother” was a cozy, terrycloth figurine, which would sometimes have food and sometimes not.
The baby monkeys chose the cloth mama, even when she did not have food. In fact, the monkeys would take what nourishment they needed from the wire “mother” and then run right back to the cloth “mama.” If something scared them, they ran to the cloth “mom” first, every single time.
Countless more research studies have proven the importance of physical connection: Touch is a potent analgesic for both acute and chronic pain; it soothes the nervous system; it can improve immunity; and it can also decrease anxiety. There is even research happening right now exploring therapeutic touch as an alternative treatment for cancer.
This Healing Sequence Harnesses the Power of Touch
Here’s the best part: You don’t need contact with another person to receive all of the benefits of physical touch. In fact, you can learn to “hug” and “hold” yourself, using your own incredibly healing hands.
Just as we support and connect with others through physical touch, we can do the same for ourselves. In fact, we do this often when we practice yoga. Think about it: When you lightly lay your hands on your belly to track your breath or place your hands near your heart to sense your inner light, you are harnessing this great power of touch.
Learning to “hug” yourself is an important tool for self-soothing and to feel connected, and you can use this 7-pose sequence to cultivate connection through touch:
See also Cultivate Your Connections
Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana)
This restorative shape is a great way to ground and connect with breath. Begin by laying on your back. Bend your knees, bringing the bottoms of the feet together, thighs open to the sides. Place one hand on your belly and the other at the center of your chest. Allow your hands to rest lightly on your body, and simply observe the rise and fall of your breath for 20 rounds.
Thread the Needle
This supine hip opener is accessible, comforting, and effective. Releasing the hips helps to open the energy channels flowing from the upper body to the legs. Begin lying down with both feet on the floor, hip-width distance apart, and knees bent. Take your right ankle and cross it on top of your left knee, creating a figure four shape. Reach your right hand between your legs (the eye of the needle) and interlace your fingers around the back of your right thigh or the front of your right shin. Hold here for 20 breaths and repeat on the other side.
See also Hip-Opening Yoga Poses
Eagle Pose (Garudasana)
This asymmetrical standing pose balances both the body and the mind, and the wrapping of both your arms and legs is the yogic version of hugging yourself. From standing, inhale your arms up and sit back into a Chair position. Lift your left leg up to hip’s height and wrap it around your bent right knee (please note the standing knee must be bent to wrap). Balance your left toes on the floor (like a “kick-stand”) or squeeze them behind your right ankle. Cross your right elbow over the left elbow. You may modify by crossing your arms around your chest in an x-shaped “hug.” On an inhalation, rise tall through your spine; on an exhalation, round your spine, touching your elbows to your knees. Stay here for 5-10 breaths. Then, on an inhalation, slowly bring your torso upright and repeat on the other side.
See also Balancing Yoga Poses
Garland Pose (Malasana)
Commonly known as the yogi squat, this pose teaches practitioners to “hug” themselves in order to radiate the heart wide. Begin with your feet hip-width distance apart, feet turned out. On an exhalation, bend your knees and shift back into the squat. With your hands in Prayer position, press your elbows into your inner thighs to broaden your chest as the inner thighs squeeze back into your arms. Hold for 10-25 breaths. If it is not possible to reach your heels to the floor, use a rolled-up blanket as a perch.
See also How Yogis Do Squat: Malasana
Crow Pose (Bakasana)
Hugs make us feel safe, and mastering the “hug” aspect of this arm balance can help you find more lift. Begin in a squat position on your tip toes, with your inner feet touching. Separate your knees and “hug” your shoulders with your inner thighs. Place your hands a few inches ahead of your shoulders and start to shift your weight forward, bending your elbows. Keep shifting forward until one or both feet leave the floor. Once balancing, squeeze your inner thighs into your arms, drawing your ankles together. Keep your upper back broad. As you get more comfortable balancing in this posture, try straightening your arms. Hold for 5 full breaths, return to the squat position, and rest before trying it one more time.
Lizard Lunge, variation
Feel the power of connection between your shoulder and inner leg in this compact variation of Lizard lunge. Start on your hands and knees. On an inhalation, lift your right leg back; on an exhalation, step your right foot around your right arm and hand. Curl your back toes under and actively lift your back knee and thigh up toward the ceiling. At first, keep your arms straight and work to “hug” your right inner thigh into your right upper shoulder. You may bring your arms lower to the floor, either resting your elbows on a block or the floor. Stay here for 10 full breaths, then repeat on left side.
Pascimottanasana (Western Stretch)
This seated forward fold lengthens the hamstrings and backside of the body, but also squeezes the front side of the body, aiding in digestion. Talk about a full body hug! Forward bends by their nature are a practice of turning inwards and this particular shape is extremely soothing to end practice with.
Begin sitting with the legs straight out in front of you. If you have a hard time lengthening the spine when sitting directly on the floor, we recommend using a folded blanket or towel beneath the sit bones. On an inhalation, reach the arms up to the ceiling, lengthening the spine. On the exhalation, begin to fold at the hip-crease. If you are unable to reach the feet, use a strap or belt around the feet to modify. Keep length in the spine by reaching the chest bone toward the toes. Release the muscles of the upper back and neck down away from the ears. Remain for 25-30 breaths. Come out slowly on an inhalation and rejoin the world!
See also VIDEO: Standing Forward Bend
About the Author
Sarah Ezrin is a yoga teacher in San Francisco. Learn more at sarahezrinyoga.com.