Touch is a very important topic with relation to teaching yoga, and touch is a most integral part of a yoga class. Students often tell me that being touched in a yoga class helps them to connect and to feel cared-for. There’s a lot that can be said about it, however.
To start, there are many reasons to physically correct a yoga student:
- They are doing an asana incorrectly (beginners often have more limited body awareness, and a physical correction may be the easiest way to translate for them);
- They are doing an asana correctly but the teacher feels that they are capable of more;
- To give a suggestion of where their focus should be;
- To give encouragement, or in order for the student to feel supported; and
- It can be somewhat of a ‘transmission’ of energy, from someone a little higher-up the spiritual ladder, and so long as the ego is not involved!
I have myself been touched by a teacher (a higher-level sort) where I instantly felt understood without having to express myself in words and I felt my fear and anxious mind melt away. It was quite electric, and something most tangible passed from him to me. I have also been touched by the same teacher while doing a very challenging balancing asana, in fact he leaned on me, and I remember thinking, “I can’t believe such a big man is placing his weight on me and I’m not falling-over!” There are many stories about great spiritual teachers transmitting knowledge to a student through touch alone or opening their eye of intuition through a touch to the ajna chakra (third eye).
Touch is tricky. It can also detract from the experience of yoga. I’ve observed students jump in the air (and it’s not levitation…sorry!), so shocked that they’ve been touched while they were so focused and having a more internal experience of yoga. There’s a real art to knowing when to touch and when not to. A teacher needs to question what their own motivation is in wishing to correct a student, whether there is any selfish reason, or whether they are only pleasing their own ego.
And I haven’t yet stated the obvious things; the touch should never be sexual, or appear sexual, which suggests that certain body parts should never be touched. Nor should I say, clasp someone’s legs to my chest or any part of my body that they or I would feel uncomfortable with. It is important not to trigger any negative or strong feelings or memories for a student. Culture is important here too. There is no tradition in India (or in many other parts of the world) of a male teacher having more than minimal (if any) physical contact with a female student. Trust is perhaps the most important aspect of the teacher/student relationship, and a teacher should aim to earn trust by a careful placement of the students needs and wishes above their own.
Lastly, a lot can be achieved with a minimal amount of touch. A good teacher knows exactly where to touch and can do the most with the least. A single finger placed in the right spot can be just enough. The longer I teach, it seems in general the less I correct.
In some traditions there is too much touch (see an example below), or such full-on body touch that, to me, it seems most un-yogic. In such cases, it seems that the inner experience for the student must be lost. Our pranic energies so easily mingle with that of others, and there is perhaps no other place where we are more tuned to our own energies than during a yoga class.
There are no easy answers, however something to think about.