Wednesday, December 16, 2015

To touch or not to touch? That is the question.

Right after Thanksgiving, I had an opportunity to create a couple of mixed-media mandala canvases. I donated a purple one to The Center for Living Well to be used as a silent auction item, and I created one with shades of red to be used as a gift. But of course, the words that go with the rest of this post have nothing to do with my mandala art. :o)
As a student of yoga, I have always appreciated when a yoga teacher offered hands on adjustments for me. It's interesting that when directed to hold our arms straight out to the sides, we do just that and think, "Yeah. My arms are super straight out to the side..." but they might not be! And if they aren't, a yoga teacher might gently touch the arms to adjust the alignment of the pose.

I've always welcomed correction in my poses from teachers I respect, so I was surprised to discover during my yoga teacher training that there are yogis who consider a correction from a yoga teacher to be criticism rather than kindness by way of adjustment. A welcomed hand on my shoulder to remind me to keep them down and back feels like a gift to me, but might feel like criticism to someone with a tender self-esteem.

Some teachers don't touch their students at all, while others may even offer a bit of massage work during the course of the class. While I appreciate a gentle touch to adjust my alignment, I've also experienced forceful adjustments that could have been potentially dangerous. In fact, one teacher was so forceful with me that I never went back to her class after that.

And then there's the part where not everyone likes to be touched. I always ask permission before I touch my students. A simple, "Is it ok for me to touch your shoulder?" is enough to put a student at ease. They know it's coming, and I know it's ok for me to touch them. I also respect when a student tells me flat out at the beginning of class, "I don't like to be touched!" and I honor that request. I'd rather know up front than to have it be uncomfortable for a student during class. There may be very personal reasons for a student who doesn't want to be touched.
Advice for yoga students: Know going in that a yoga teacher just might put their hands on you. Know that it's ok to tell them you don't want to be touched! Your time on your yoga mat is for you, not the teacher. It's your call to set boundaries that work for you on your mat.

Advice for yoga teachers: Tread lightly here, and never assume that a new student appreciates a hands-on adjustment. As your teaching practice grows you'll have returning students that you build trust with - so it's not always guess work.

Advice for all others: Yoga is calling you. It's such an amazing practice to answer to.
Standing in front of a group of students, each with different feelings about being touched? Well, it's kind of tricky I suppose, but I don't let it bother me. If I see a student in need of an alignment correction, I'll do what I can to correct it - always from a place of love and compassion for their well being and safety, never because they're "doing it wrong." Many times it's a matter of directing a student with my words, or I might stand next to them and quickly demonstrate with my own body what I'd like to see them do with theirs.

But gosh, there's so much love and sweet power in the gentle touch of a hand...

To touch or not to touch in yoga?
That is the question for many yoga teachers, but I have my own formula:
Ask first, touch second, love always.


Sian said...

Our Pilates teacher always asks at the beginning of class that anyone who doesn't welcome hands on correction makes themselves known to him before we start. Personally, I'm very happy to be shown what I'm doing wrong (shoulders back and down is one I still need help with!). I too would be very surprised to learn that it could be interpreted as criticism

Patio Postcards said...

Deb this is such a beautiful post. Your true kind heart comes through in these words. I'm a 50/50 on the touching part, I would have to have "known" the instructor a bit before. My first yoga teacher, Kathy was kind & like you asked before touching. The last yoga teacher I had, never moved from the front of the class - I don't think she was 100% comfortable with a classroom environment. I'm hoping that the "new" yoga instructor (starts in January) is going to be like you ... Your red mandala is very handsome in colour & design.

alexa said...

A lovely thoughtful post - and I think you have it just right. Ask gently each time, and never assume. Even just a gesture with hands and an enquiring face can convey 'Would you like me to .../Is it OK to ...?'. Your mandala has such wonderful layers of rich colour!

Maria Ontiveros said...

I love it when a yoga teacher touches me.
My favorite is when I am in downward facing dog and she will pull my hips back to elongate my spine. It's heaven!
I also like it when she comes around at the end (when we are in the sleeping pose or whatever it's called) and she gently places lavender eye pillows on us.
Rinda (who thought I posted this comment before)

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