The Importance of Touch

“The most natural way for human beings to calm themselves when they are upset is by clinging to another person. this means that patients who have been physically or sexually violated face a dilemma: they desperately crave touch while simultaneously being terrified of body contact. the mind needs to be reeducated to feel sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch.” 

— Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., The Body Keeps Score

On our drive through the Midlands, Meghan and I stopped at the historic town of Ross, home to one of Tasmania’s four female factories. It was here, between the years of 1847 and 1854, that women convicted of crimes (which were really not crimes at all) were sent to work as slave labor. 

Except it wasn’t just women the factory imprisoned, but also their children and babies, who were kept separate from their mothers. In fact, visits were only once a week. The rest of the time, babies remained in a crowded nursery; watched, but rarely held. 

It is unknown the exact number of babies who died, only that most did not survive. Because it wasn’t enough that they were fed and clothed. Touch was every bit as vital. Babies need that skin-to-skin contact to thrive. In fact, we ALL do. 

Touch is the first of our senses to be developed, hardwired in the womb. Our need to touch and be touched is like breathing, instinctual and innate. Unlike any of our other senses, touch is the one we cannot live without. 

Touch is healing; it reduces stress, strengthens immune systems, and reduces pain. Touch communicates love and care and is a means of expressing our emotions. And it is through touch, we connect with others and gain a sense of our own self. 

At the same time, we know that touch can be traumatizing; it can be used as a way to humiliate, hurt, and abuse. And for anyone who has suffered such interpersonal trauma, it is understandable and yet tragic that they may avoid the very connection that is also critical for healing. 

This is a conundrum facing the yoga community today. For within what should have been safe and sacred spaces, the use of touch has been abused. And so maybe the safest solution is for everyone to just keep their hands to themselves. It’s not like we don’t have good reason! Though, this is what I fear. Especially as we slowly emerge from two long and lonely years of isolation and social distancing. 

Two years separated from family, friends, and community. Two years of being afraid to hug or even hold someone’s hand. Humans are social animals and the lack of physical contact has surely taken a toll.

Touch deprivation is serious. The symptoms include depression, anxiety, weight gain, trouble sleeping, and a lack of motivation or purpose. And if this sounds like you, just know, you’re not alone.

And so, as we move forward as a community, in an attempt to be trauma-informed, I just don’t think the answer can be as simple as a ‘hands-off’ policy. Nor as easy as consent cards. Each may be appropriate in certain situations, while in others, hinder our ability to connect.

Besides, yoga is about relationship — the one we build with ourself, but also with others. And it seems to me, that is something we need more practice in, not less.*

*The above was an excerpt from May’s issue of THE PATH. Download the full journal and join us for this month’s live GATHERING on the 29th, by following the link below:

Space is limited. Register before May 31st and save $50.