When is Touch Appropriate?

I had one of my Teaching Senior Yoga trainees ask me a question today. She brought up some issues about when is touch appropriate. Her question was some older students may not receive much human touch if their partner, friends, and family are not available. So how much and what kind of touch may be appropriate in classes with this student group?

I give minimal adjustments for this population (or any population actually). Older people have used their bodies for decades and their body reflects that use. Older students have the most diverse bodies of any age group. They also may be feeling the changes in their bodies due to age which leads to even more diversity. Older students will have more problems doing a standardised pose because of this body diversity .

Older students’:

  • hips may be tight from sitting a lot,
  • shoulder and arm muscles and joints unequal from a lifetime of tennis or golf,
  • back may be sore from damage to the discs or vertebrae from work.
  • Expecting them all to do a standardised pose won’t be successful.

So what do I do when an adjustment would be helpful? At most, I may put one finger gently on a spot (with permission) to call attention to that area if a student is having trouble focusing on that part of the body. I do give verbal adjustment cues. I focus the students on getting to know their body through very slow movements and holding the asanas for a few breaths. Giving them lots of modifications for most asanas allows them to explore and find the modification best for their body. I give them permission to say no; my body does not feel good doing that asana. I emphasise that yoga is not about pain but gaining knowledge about yourself.

But in the situation where students may be hungering for human touch, I have done a few different things. I have guided self-massages before savasana where the person massages their own neck, face, arms, hands, lower back and knees. As one student said, I would like someone to touch me but this self-massage is better than nothing. (Not a ringing endorsement, I agree but many learned a bit more about their bodies doing it. Most liked rubbing their knees best.)

Another possibility is offering head and neck massages during savasana. People who wanted the head and neck massages placed their heads towards the centre of the room. Those that didn’t placed their feet towards the centre of the room. This allowed people to choose privately whether they wanted a massage. Students looked forward to a massage each week.

So touch is a difficult area. I have a minimal adjustment rule: I only do adjustments to stop someone from hurting themselves. I reject the idea that everyone has to look the same doing a pose. First of all it is not possible and secondly it is nonsense. But the question about wanting human touch is a human need. Each teacher will have to decide if and how they want to meet that need in an ethical way.