The English Language has many metaphors for behaviour and feeling using skin and touch. ‘Thick-skinned’ folk lack sensitivity or ‘tact’. Tact – from the Latin ‘tactus’ meaning touch – is to delicately touch another. If someone ‘gets under our skin’, they are annoying. When our ‘flesh creeps’, we’re afraid, when it tingles, we’re excited. If we’ve made a lucky escape, it’s by the ‘skin of our teeth’. ‘Moving moments’ are described as ‘poignant’ fromt the Latin ‘pungere’, to prick or touch. If I am ‘touched’ by you, you have evoked a feeling in me. We must be ‘in touch’.
There was a period in my life working as an artist, that entailed being alone – sometimes for days on end. Deprived of any kind of contact with another human being – verbal or physical – I began to wonder if I really existed. A few months later I was learning Contact Improvisation – as I rolled over and under other dancers, lifting and being lifted, in a continuous exchange of movement, I felt delight at my heightened sense of being alive.
As a result of the contact deprivation experience and subsequent joy found through the physicality of contact dance, I made a study of the need for touch in video, drawings and photographs. Many of these were made from working with Touchdown Dance – a dance company in which both sighted and visually impaired dancers, improvise together in movement. Contact Improvisation can be fast, exhilarating and fun – being lifted and lifting, spinning and rolling. With the Touchdown dancers the exchanges were often slow, sometimes delicious, and involved a lot of sensing.
Here’s a drawing made at that time. The drawings culminated in an exhibition at Yorkshire Dance called ‘move, touch, connect’:
I’d learned to fully appreciate the powerful importance of ‘touch’. It is in fact a basic behavioural need – as babies we need to be securely held and caressed in order to thrive. In his book ‘Touching’, Ashley Montague states that in 19th Century US foundling hospitals, almost 100% of the babies died. It was a phenomenon known as ‘merasmus‘ – from the Greek meaning ‘wasting away’. In Ceaucescu’s Romania many of the babies in the orphanages died. These babies died through lack of touch, not lack of nutrition. Elderly people are often deprived of any touch apart from unpleasant medical procedures. We don’t know if they die from touch deprivation but there’s no doubt that lives are enhanced when someone takes the trouble to massage an elderly person’s hands or even just hold their hand.
But touch is a touchy subject. We have the sad situation nowadays of paranoia around touch – even though being touched is essential for well-being and development. No one, other than a parent, dares to touch a child any more, even if the child is distressed, sick or just in need of a sticking plaster after a fall. I wonder what kind of message children receive from this? That everyone is potentially out to harm them? And yet if people grow up without the experience of kind, caring, non-invasive touch, I believe they are more likely to channel the fundamental need for touch into dysfunctional behaviour such as sexual relationships where there is no love. They will also miss out on feeling vibrantly alive.
The subject of touch arises in the teaching of yoga. In class I use touch to help bring awareness to the students’ breath and bodies. I also make gentle adjustments so people can go a little deeper into a pose. With a new student I check that they are OK about me touching them first. Donna Farhi says on her teacher trainings – ‘make sure there is someone at home’. By this, Donna means that before touching a student, a teacher should ensure the student knows you are there and also that he/she is present in his/her body.
Sometimes we do partner work in my classes with aims similar to those described above. I also teach my students to give each other pleasant experiences through jiggling of arms/legs, tapping the back in Child pose, massaging around the neck and shoulders etc. However my Beginners always receive a pep talk about this first – I emphasise how important it is for them to feel comfortable about having someone’s hands on their body. I tell them that if they don’t feel comfortable they must value their own feelings enough to say so.
Through practising yoga we develop awareness and this can include being tuned in to the difference between friendly and unfriendly touch. And yet Moshe Feldenkrais said ‘I have never met anybody, man or animal, who cannot tell a friendly touch from an evil one. Touching, if unfriendly even in thought, will make the touched stiff, anxious, expecting the worst, and therefore unreceptive to your touch.’
The most effective hands-on tool I know for calming a highly stressed individual is to simply place one hand to the head and the other hand to the sacrum as shown here.
I described the technique for this and the rationale in my blog from July 2011 ‘timeless…weightless….spacious’.
I taught the technique to a group of yogis at the British Wheel of Yoga Festival on July 7th. Feedback I received afterwards was ‘I felt sooo… relaxed.’
Note About Contact Improvisation
It’s a fusion of contemporary dance and the martial art Aikido that was developed by Steve Paxton from the early seventies. This is one of many definitions:
‘The improvised dance form is based on the communication between two moving bodies that are in physical contact and their combined relationship to the physical laws that govern their motion—gravity, momentum, inertia. The body, in order to open to these sensations, learns to release excess muscular tension and abandon a certain quality of willfulness to experience the natural flow of movement. Practice includes rolling, falling, being upside down, following a physical point of contact, supporting and giving weight to a partner.’