I have the very good fortune of currently living just a five minute walk away from Triyoga which makes it incredibly easy to get in to the Mysore class in the early mornings. That I also have an unlimited pass means I get to drop into lots of different classes at Triyoga and dip my toes into various disciplines, yogic and non, just to see what they are like. Most have proved to be valuable and enjoyable excursions (particularly the restorative yoga class, very much balancing the yang of Ashtanga with the yin of relaxation), some have been ‘interesting’ for different reasons, but one thing that keeps coming up for me as I visit some of these other classes is just how very special the morning Mysore experience is and the role that it plays in my life. This could easily turn into a very long post so I’m anticipating that I’ll split it up into several posts each covering different aspects of what is coming up for me. Starting with the importance of touch…
Now I know that adjustments aren’t unique to the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga but they do constitute a significant part of teaching the system, particularly in the context of Mysore self practice, with some teachers being very hands off, and others quite the opposite. I fall into the latter camp: I’m a very hands on teacher and enjoy giving adjustments immensely. The art of adjusting fascinates me – it is most definitely a practice in itself as it requires a deep internal focus, an awareness of breath and the ability to connect this with your own muscles and in turn bandha, in order to stabilize your own body and avoid injury. Balancing this inner focus is an external focus whereby you connect with and are present with the person you are adjusting, feeling the subtleties of their bodies as they respond to your adjustment, connecting with their breath, picking up on tension that may increase as you adjust (usually panic for some people!) and knowing how to soothe and ease it. I feel that the art of adjusting really is that – an art – and is something I am continually developing and refining.
Something I find incredibly profound about adjusting is that it is a very intimate form of connecting with people – connecting primarily through touch, which I’ll talk about in a minute, but also connecting emotionally and energetically with people too. Students have to trust you, to feel safe, and to have faith that you know what you are doing and that the intention the adjustment is coming from is benevolent and intended to help as opposed to coming from the ego of the teacher that wants to be the one to get the student the deepest they have ever been in a pose. Adjustments don’t always have to be strong or, for that matter, involve much or any touch at all – non verbal adjustments, a look, a gesture, a sign, are all ways of adjusting and their effectiveness all boil down to the same principle – rapport. Interestingly, the principles I just mentioned with regard to rapport, trust and safety also very much mirror the therapeutic relationship I engage in in my ‘day job’. In a teaching setting, the intimacy comes in connection: the student learns to be vulnerable and literally put themselves in your hands and it is when all the points I just mentioned above connect and interact that the adjustment is effective.
I watched a video yesterday on the importance of touch, which I’ll post below, and it brought up for me something I have thought for a long time – that we have lost the essence of touch and intimacy and that we increasingly equate these with sex. This is increasingly being driven by the time in which we live – one where digital communication is favoured over analogue, the ease of which this is possible and the convenience which this brings only serving to reinforce this. Pornography and the objectification of humans are taking us further away from what true intimacy is really about. We live in a time of law suits and litigation which probably causes us to think twice before we reach out and touch that client, colleague or even friend.
Dacher Keltner (in the video below – it’s definitely worth checking out some of his work here) cites a study from the 1960s where researchers studied the conversations of friends the world over as they sat together in a café to demonstrate cross-cultural differences which of course play an important role too. In the UK, the two friends never touched each other. In the US, there were just two instances of touch… in France, there were 110 incidents of touch in an hour, whilst in Puerto Rico, the two friends touched each other 180 times!
Keltner goes on to cite evidence that demonstrates just how vital touch is: individuals who are given affection and appropriate touch when young are less stressed and their immune systems stronger. Parts of the brain linked to reward and compassion are activated which reinforce relationships and create alliances between people and groups of people. Other studies (mostly in primates) show that touch signals safety and trust, reduces cardiovascular stress and activates the release of oxytocin in both the ‘toucher’ and the ‘touchee’ – the love or bonding hormone. This last point has even been demonstrated in the study of what happens when a person strokes a dog: there is a release of oxytocin in both the person stroking the dog as well as in the dog itself. Wonderful news to a dog lover like me!
As Keltner also quotes in one of his articles online, Michelangelo said “to touch can be to give life” – it seems he was definitely on to something.