When I was three years old, I broke my leg. It is one of my earliest memories, and I can conjure the sensory experience of it even now just as clear as day. Trying to keep up with some older kids in the play area of Buster Brown shoe store at Northgate Mall, I leapt off a platform and ended up fracturing my right femur. When I first hit the ground, I didn’t feel any pain, just the room spinning all around me. The second thing I recall was intense embarrassment, not only for having wiped out in front of the older, cooler kids, but at the fact that my mom was taking my pants off in front of everyone. It was clear that something was VERY wrong with my leg.
It wasn’t until she had gotten my brother and me into the car to go to the doctor that I remember the pain finally setting in. And it was awful, unrelenting in a way that my three-year-old brain did not have words for. As my mother sped to the pediatrician, I laid out supine on the backseat with my brother crouched in the floorboard below holding my hand. I know that kind of thing isn’t done in these days of seat-belt laws, but I think I would have lost consciousness without it and am very grateful. (It was the right thing to do, Mom. And thank you, Douglas!)
Once we arrived at the doc, I was immediately taken to the examining room. By this point the pain was unbearable, and I begged my mother to keep her hand placed firmly on my leg right where the break was. I know that must have scared her to death since applying any sort of pressure, even the lightest touch to a broken bone sounds pretty horrifying. But I desperately NEEDED her to touch it. And once she did, I swanee the pain disappeared! (For the non-southern folk reading this, “I swanee” means “I swear.” Use it in good health, and you’re welcome!) Of course the moment she removed her hand, the pain flooded back in to the point of overwhelm, but while my mother’s hand was on my leg, I was ok.
Now, I am pretty skeptical about many things related to healing. Unlike lots of my colleagues, I am a big fan of western medicine (although I also know that it has many shortcomings), so my first reaction to hearing someone say that a person’s touch made their pain disappear is suspicion. But hand to heart, my mother’s touch on my broken little body felt like a miracle. It felt safe; it felt grounding; it felt like the only thing keeping me from being swept away. It was the most precious, purest form of touch I can think of.
When I first started writing this blog post about touch, I was thinking specifically about how as a yoga teacher, I engage in the physical contact of touching students with hands on adjustments and corrections. But practically as soon as I wrote the word “touch,” the memory of my mother’s hand on my broken leg came pouring out. And here I was all prepared to go in a completely different direction! I was going to talk about instances of hands on adjustments going too far, about how touch can so easily cross the boundary into injury. But instead a story about my mother wanted to be set free. So I will save that other post for another day and try to figure out instead what exactly my memory wanted to show me.
The main thing I can tell from my own story that speaks to touch in yoga is that touch is extremely powerful, and it would be foolish to ignore just how powerful it is. And like anything with great power, it deserves serious consideration before being administered.
Do you remember learning about interrogative words in grammar? Well, I think as yoga teachers we need the interrogative Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of placing our hands on students. Who are the students in front of us, and is touch even appropriate for them? What exactly are we observing in their practice, and is it possible we are projecting something that isn’t there? When is the right time for them to receive a correction, and when is it better just to let them be? Where are we in our understanding of one another as teacher and student? Why does this student need hands on correction rather than something else in the first place? How can we as teachers best meet our students’ individual needs? And if we can’t answer any of these questions (which is actually ok!), we need to follow another basic grammar rule (this one is about commas): when in doubt, leave it out.
When my mother touched my leg, it was the closest I might ever know of sacred touch. I know I cannot do that for my students, nor would I ever try. They are not my children, not mine to protect from the dangerous world. But I can still approach touch with the respect, inquiry, and consideration that such a powerful tool calls for. In my previous post, I went on and on about why words matter. Well, the recollection of my broken leg reminded me that touch matters just as much, and it can leave a lasting, permanent mark. Lucky for me (and I know that many are not so lucky), that mark is a beautiful one. I will never, ever forget its power. Thank you mom, for such an amazing gift, which I am sure you didn’t even know you were giving. It is everything.