Attuned Touch and Trauma
Dear Yoga Community,
I was recently asked whether as yoga teachers is it appropriate or even safe to touch our students who have experienced trauma. I have come across conflicting answers on the topic, and I thought I would share my opinions with you.
I believe the majority of human beings have experienced trauma. Car accidents, surgeries, illnesses, breaking a bone, going through a break up and experiencing grief can all lead to trauma symptoms (i.e. ruminating over memories, flashbacks, hyper vigilance, nightmares, trouble sleeping and feeling isloated are just a few symptoms). If we can assume that most of the people who attend yoga classes have experienced at least one trauma in their lives, then we probably should not be touching anyone if this aggravates the trauma symptoms.
Why do we believe that touch can aggravate trauma symptoms? I believe touch absolutely can ignite fear, anxiety or panic when: 1. we do not know that touch is coming. 2. the touch is not done in a mindful, compassionate way and 3. we feel as if something is being done to us rather than being in a relationship with the person (i.e. the yoga teacher) who is providing the touch. Is there inappropriate touch in the yoga world? Sadly, yes. Does this mean that we should ban all touch from the yoga world? I do not believe so.
A few years ago I took a continuing education course on touch in psychotherapy. Touch in the mental health world is also seen as taboo and generally frowned upon. Dr. Zur shared his reasons for believing that touch is a powerful healing intervention that we can provide to our clients and students. Some of the research he cited said that touch can:
-Decrease stress hormones.
-Increase serotonin and dopamine.
-Increase immune system’s cytotoxic capacity (helping our body maintain its defenses).
-Decrease anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, inattention and cortisol levels.
-Activate parasympathetic activity (rest and digest response).
Remember those trauma symptoms? Touch, when done appropriately, can heal trauma symptoms! So how do yoga teachers provide touch that can heal instead of re-traumatize?
-Tell students that you provide touch in your classes (if you do).
-Tell them your intention behind touch (I usually say my touch is to offer you a pleasant experience in your body, and if that is not happening I would love to know).
-Give students an “out.” When someone has been traumatized the power was taken away. Our yoga classes can be an opportunity to give that power back! In savasana if I am going to touch everyone I will tell them and say students can put their hand on their belly if they prefer not be be touched. At The Samarya Center they had orange stickers that students could put on their mats to let the teachers know they prefer no touch. This “out” is also necessary when you are asking your students to touch each other. Whenever I am doing a partner pose I offer another pose that people can do individually if they prefer.
-Get very clear in your own mind why you are touching your students. This is part of your yoga practice.
-Ask for feedback, especially with new students who you are just starting to create a relationship with. Is that too much? Not enough? Ok? This shows that you are invested in them and also value and take into consideration their feelings, sensations, wishes and desires.
-Watch your student’s non verbal language when you are touching them.
-Get more training in touch. I’ll be doing an Attuned Touch workshop at the NW Yoga Conference in March, 2015.
As for you amazing yoga students, how can you take care of your awesome selves in class?
-Call ahead of time to find out the studio’s policy on touch. This can give you an insight into the culture of the studio.
-Learn to say no. This can be incredibly difficult, and it can also be incredibly powerful. When something is not working for you, let the teacher know. I bow to the courageous students who have honestly shared when I was doing something that wasn’t working for them. Thier honesty and courage have helped me become a better yoga teacher.
-Give feedback for both what you enjoyed in class and what you didn’t enjoy. Email works just as well if in person is too intimidating. Including the studio owner will also let the owner know about your experience so she/he can continue to help her/his teachers grow.
-Go to a class specifically for trauma. I’ll be teaching one on Saturday, November 1 with my dear colleague, Laura Kramer.
Touch, like most things in life, is not a black and white issue. Touch can be traumatizing and healing. It can be used to take power or to give back power. It can take us away from our body or invite ourselves back into our bodies.
I look forward to seeing you on or off the mat!
Laura Humpf and Satmato Yoga Therapy