The renegotiation of touch
One in three girls in this country has been sexually abused or molested before the age of 14. One in four women will have been raped in their lifetime. One in seven boys has been sexually abused or molested.
The clinical world raises eyebrows regarding touch. Sexual abuse survivors?! You’re touching them?! That can be re-traumatizing! And yes, this is true. But with the right knowledge it can also be profoundly healing.
I say, it’s time to renegotiate what touch means to us.
Growing up, I experienced an abundance of inappropriate touch amidst a parched and empty desert of nurturing touch. During my childhood and later teen and young adult years, I came to fear and later be confused by touch from men. Family friends, doctors, bosses and other men in authority positions abused my trust and ultimately I came to figure that there was just something about me that made people do this. I recognize that my story is not unusual. In fact it is sadly common.
It is not surprising that I met and married a man who could help me continue this dynamic—a dynamic that was so familiar to me that I knew no other way. Over the years, this repetition of unsafe touch left me feeling like a turtle pulled deep into her shell. Each time I would peak myself out of the shell I gained further assurance that there was just something about me—he couldn’t help it. It was up to me to make sure I didn’t continually cause this to happen. I needed to erase myself. I needed to become dead. I began to retreat. I would run to bed and pretend to be asleep before my husband would come up. I shut all my physiological and energetic doors. I became a prisoner in my own body.
Then I began to practice yoga. The studio where I happened to stumble upon my first of thousands of yoga classes had a hands on assistant in class. The experience was so profound for me that I still remember who she was and exactly what she looked like. Suddenly I was being touched in a way that I hadn’t experienced in what seemed like forever. Whoever this loving, giving spirit was, she was offering breath, support, nurture and love through her touch. Over and over I found myself feeling safe and nurtured in my practice. The assistants changed but the quality of touch remained the same. I began to trust. I began to allow myself to feel my body once again. I began to come alive.
When I eventually trained to become a class assistant, my life was turned upside down. Other than my children, I had no connection to others by way of touch. In addition, it became clear to me that it was just too dangerous for me to touch my husband unless I was prepared to receive the only form of touch he knew—a touch that I had come to fear and despise.
I once pleaded with him to express nurture and care in a touch that was not sexual. He informed me that there was no such thing as non-sexual touch. For him, I have not doubt that this is true.
But I was starting to understand a different kind of touch. It is the kind of touch that asks for nothing—that does not push—listening to the receiver before offering more. This touch offers support. It is a conversation without words. It says, “I am here. I will help you trust when you are ready. I will support you in going where you want to go. When you are ready to go there.” It is mindful and considerate yet given fully and without doubt or hesitation. It is an exchange of energy.
Now I teach groups of yogis how to give this touch—it is not easy. My partner, Ray Mucci and I teach this skill from a fundamental belief that this is an opportunity for healing in not only the student, but the assistant as well. The foundation behind our teachings is build upon three core principles:
- fully believe and trust that you have something worth offering
- Meet the student where they are
- Listen to where the student is telling you about where they want to go. Support them in going there.
Of course there is a lot more to the art of assisting than just these three things, but without these core principles I believe a beautiful opportunity for connection and healing is missed.
Without fail, participants of our program bump up against all kinds of self-doubt, fear and shame. It takes a lot of work to understand that the shame they carry is the very shame that the students carry—in that we are all the same. We are healing together.
Loving, supportive and nurturing touch is one of the most powerful healers of shame that there is.
When they express fear of a student not wanting to be touched, we remind them that by giving a student permission to say “no”, they are offering that student an opportunity that can be profoundly healing. It may be the first time the student has allowed themselves to safely use that word in a long time—maybe ever.
When they express fear of being “creepy” (this usually comes from the men) we tell them that if they come from a place of nurturing and care, they can help a woman heal from abuses of the past.
It was the nurturing and supportive touch of the male and female assistants that changed my life. Over time—in the sanctuary of the yoga studio and on the safety of my mat—I was able to renegotiate what human touch could be.
It wasn’t very long ago when I was so scared of touch that I was not able to feel alive. I thank my first assistants every day for helping me to feel supported, nurtured, loving and ever so fully and brilliantly—ALIVE.
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