Hands On - A little about the way I use touch in yoga
Hands on work plays a big part in my teaching of yoga – in the form of “assists” for the purpose of a student to more safely find a pose, or to help them experience possibilities of new anatomical alignments in a pose, or to support them in overcoming fear (this often arises in inverted or back bending postures).
Then, there is the touch I use when the student is doing Yin yoga or savasana (the final relaxation pose that comes at the end of a yoga session) and this is a touch that I have been using as long as I can remember. It’s the touch I used as a child to use to cradle my father’s head when he had a headache, it’s the touch I used to let my sister know I was by her side when she was very ill and now, it’s a very informed touch I use with clients and students with years of study in non-verbal communication, movement analysis, somatics, yoga, breath work and most recently, The Rosen Method behind it.
When I lay my hands on a student in this way, there are a few things that happen:
1) I look at their body for “holding patterns” – places that seem void of breath or full of muscular tension.
Common places that I see in people that are void of breath are the chest (so they move their belly a little as they breathe but the top of the lungs are not being accessed and this is evident because their chest will look “frozen” or very still. (Donna Farhi's The Breathing Book is an excellent reference for this.)
Really common places I see chronic tension are in the jaw, chin, neck, shoulders, upper back and chest. If you look at Rosen’s “lid muscles” these are included here. “Lid muscles” are those muscles that we use to keep a “lid” on our emotions. The jaw clenches so we don’t say what we need to say or because we’re angry or because we’ve got to stay determined. I’ve never met anyone with a tight jaw and a loose neck so whatever is happening in the jaw undoubtedly affects the neck.
2) I touch with permission and without expectation or desire (and sometimes I say aloud whilst I have my hands on a student “With this touch, I don’t want anything from you and I don’t expect anything from you. I am here to support you”). When they know this and believe it, then often I feel a ‘release’ in their system…by this I mean, I can feel them relax because the tissue I’m contacting softens and usually their breath opens and slows. On occasion this is accompanied with an emotional release or excessive swallowing / throat clearing in an effort to keep literally swallowing back the emotional release that they can feel starting to surface.
The first moment of contact is really important for me, I make sure my hands are soft and open. One image I use that was taught to me from a Rosen practitioner was to touch ‘like you’re sliding your hands into a warm bath’. Sometimes I think of this upon initial contact. Sometimes I think, “how can I sense or feel more the essence of [and I say their name in my head]” and in trying to get a better sense of them – this essence of them – the way I touch changes.
3) I touch with both hands simultaneously. For me, I feel like this closes the circuit of exchange between us. (If I find something in writing that supports this I’ll let you know…) Touch is communication so using both hands doesn’t leave any dangling threads; in my mind it communicates certainly, stability, support and commitment.
4) I feedback to them what I feel in their tissues through my touch. So, for example, if there feels like a lot of tension, holding, or unnecessary effort in the musculature of where I’m touching, I will (if it feels appropriate) go into the tissue with pressure from my hands feeding back to them the amount of pressure I feel in their tissue. I will usually tell them that this is what I’m doing and sometimes ask if they feel they need to maintain that much pressure or tension in that particular place to sustain the position they are in (bear in mind they are usually lying down completely supported by gravity). Once I have called their attention to how much tension they are hanging on to (both verbally and physically) then this is when often they will “let go” or get some release. I don’t expect them to let go or try to encourage them to do so – I wait and let their body answer for itself.
5) I will take my hands away when I sense a “settling” or get a sense of “quieting” in their system. It washes over me like a feeling of peace from them and I can feel it in their tissue and see it in their breathing. In Crainalsacral Therapy I believe this is called the “stillpoint” – I will stay with them here in this quiet space for and bit and then when I go to take my hands away I always tell them before I do so. I usually say, “ I’m just going to take my hands away.” This way they know I’m consciously going, I’m not just abandoning them and I do this slowly and attentively.
Now, during any of these stages it is not unusual for the student or client to cry. To me, this indicates release. Either a release of muscular or emotional tension and in my experience it is both.
My PhD drilled down into the inextricable link between mind and body and every time I work with someone in this way this link is evidenced. Our lived experience tells us so…we are angered by someone and instead of telling them where to go we hold our teeth tight together at the back, our jaw clenches, the tongue hardens in our mouth, the chin pinches, the throat constricts, we hold our neck solid and our breath becomes shallow and quick. In just one instance we can feel all this physical tension manifesting in an effort to control our emotions.
When we ask ourselves how many times have we swallowed back anger in our lives then we can begin to see why we all have numerous patterns of chronic muscular holding. We don’t even realize we are holding on to these patterns but when we finally release them after a yoga session where our tissues have been stimulated in new ways and then at the end when you lie down to rest someone who cares about you comes and places relaxed, calm, undemanding hands on you and quietly asks if you if you think your jaw could soften a little bit … then that just might be the nudge you needed to release that chronic muscular holding and then in felt physical relief, the tears come.
I am never bothered when a student or client cries when my hands are on them but yet, almost all apologize for their experience of release. I find this very interesting, that in a moment of freedom we feel compelled to be sorry for showing it to another person. All this points to deep undercurrents running in most of our cultures that teach us that tears are not okay. That belief alone causes massive tension in the face, throat and chest. We have years and years of suppressing our tears built into our faces, necks, shoulders and breathing patterns.
I really believe that a yoga practice alongside an open, compassionate and attentive touch can help some people unwind these patterns of stress and it’s the sole reason I do what I do.