The Need for Touch
The following examples show the drastic need for more touch in our society:
- When a cat cafe opened in downtown Toronto last year (a few blocks from my house), people patiently waited in long lineups to snuggle up with some stray cats over a cozy cup of tea.
- I teach private yoga at various tech startups that welcome pets in the workplace, noting the emotional benefits of a midday cuddle.
- Almost every summer weekend in Toronto at Yonge and Dundas Square, you can find strangers with kind smiles and open arms offering “free hugs”, and, ever more beautifully, people from all different walks of life, taking them up on their offer.
- In the UK, a cuddle cafe – complete with stuffed toys – recently opened with the sole intention of increasing happiness levels. In Japan, the new trend is rabbit cafes.
- Most tellingly, if you are feeling lonely and ‘out of touch’, the Rose Sheep service in Tokyo will send you someone to sleep by your side and cuddle you to bed (nothing more than snuggles). The cuddling service is increasingly popular with married women in their 30’s and 40’s.
What triggered this sudden trend in touch? According to one Mumbai-based psychologist, “hugs are important as they signify bonding. It could be with a lover, parent, senior, colleague or anyone. It reduces negative mental symptoms and roadblocks in the mind.”
The long-known science of touch stipulates that touch helps reduce stress, and there is no question that in this hyper-digital and seemingly overly-connected world, we are all feeling a little too stressed out.
In the 1950s, the Maternal Deprivation Study explored the relationship of touch between babies and mothers. A baby monkey was placed in a cage with a wire monkey “mother” and a cloth monkey “mother”, and only one of the “mothers” provided a source of food. Regardless of which mother had the food, the baby monkey was drawn to the cloth mother.
The researcher, Harlow, called this “contact comfort”. He concluded that “that a lack of contact comfort is psychologically stressful to the monkeys, and that digestive problems are a physiological manifestation of that stress”. Through his studies, he concluded that touch deprived animals had a weakened immune system and increased stress.
Benefits of Touch
“This is a touch-phobic society,” says psychologist Matthew Hertenstein. “We’re not used to touching strangers, or even our friends, necessarily.” Likewise, Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute, has linked touch, in the form of massage, to benefits including:
- better sleep
- reduced irritability
- increased sociability among infants
- improved growth of premature babies
Another touch researcher, Guerrero, argues that “more recent studies have found that seemingly insignificant touches yield bigger tips for waitresses, that people shop and buy more if they’re touched by a store greeter, and that strangers are more likely to help someone if a touch accompanies the request. Call it the human touch, a brief reminder that we are, at our core, social animals. Lots of times in these studies people don’t even remember being touched. They just feel there’s a connection, they feel that they like that person more.” 
Touch in Yoga
While touch is not necessary or required in a yoga class, in my personal experience as a yoga teacher, I have noticed the drastic desire for touch. Every class, I ask my students when they are tucked away in child’s pose, where no one can see their response: “If you do not want to be touched, let me know now”. On average, a mere 1 in 200 students refuse touch.
My most popular yoga classes are those that inherently include touch (e.g. aromatherapy yin yoga, where the application of aromatherapy requires contact). While many yoga lineages and teachers avoid touch altogether, I come from the belief that the integration of safe, individualized, consensual touch-based adjustments in our yoga practice can have astronomical benefits. Many yogis agree that touch can:
- help students move out of their mind/ego, relax tension and return to their body
- demonstrate nurturing and compassion from the teacher
- help to experience a posture in a different and potentially more profound way, and to deepen a pose, and create spaciousness
- encourage students into safe alignment (e.g. pressing into the feet to encourage a rooting down) and bring awareness to a particular body part or movement
- be transformative for kinesthetic learners, who absorb information best by doing
If you are curious about how you can integrate, understand or practice hands-on and touch-based adjustments in your yoga teachings or yoga practices, join me this Valentines Day weekend at YYoga Queen Street West in Toronto, for a partner yoga practice. We will move together through a series of gentle yoga postures, integrating components of thai yoga massage, yoga adjustments and therapeutic touch, reaping the many benefits of human touch in the safe and supportive space of the yoga studio.