I’m touchy. I squirm if someone grazes my shoulder and I rip out the tags in my clothing.
The other day in yoga, I was lying sprawled out in child. A teacher-in-training approached me from the back and pushed down my shoulders with a light, feathery touch.
Oooooh. I cringed!
Worried that she would have noticed my body squirm and feel insulted, I approached her after class to explain my adverse reaction to her touch.
“It’s not that I don’t like to be touched,” I said. “On the contrary. I love to be touched—when it’s a firm touch. Yours was a light feathery touch and felt annoying.”
My response to her light touch was not idiosyncratic. Light touch creates a defensive response and especially in hypersensitive people like me.
Tactile sensation happens via touch receptors that convey information about pressure (light, deep); pain; temperature (hot, cold); and vibration.
Receptors that register light touch induce a primitive, alarm system to alert us of danger: a stranger in the crowd might be picking our pocket or a bug might be crawling up our leg.
These receptors spark fear and turn on the sympathetic nervous system, releasing brain chemicals like cortisol to prepare the body to flee or fight.
In a state of high alert, our focus is entirely on figuring out what touched us and assessing its potential danger. In the very least, we become jumpy. At the very most, some touchy people become aggressive and instinctively punch a stranger in a crowd whose hand grazes their shoulder.
In yoga, light touch can happen from a teacher’s hands-on adjusting using light touch, as well if mats are too close, and bodies swipe each other. This is common in a crowded class when for instance in a posture like the Supine Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana), someone’s hand invariably lightly touches our arm, side, or leg.
Deep Pressure Touch
Let us return to me lying in Child Pose (Balasana) in yoga class. This time the teacher is Thomas, a tall, muscular hunk.
Thomas scoots up behind me and drapes his body over mine. Ahhh. A bear hug. My body sinks with a sigh of serenity.
If light touch annoys, deep pressure touch calms and organizes. The more pressure, think an A-shaped hug versus the bear hug, the more intense the somatosensory (tactile and proprioceptive) input and the more powerful and pleasurable the experience.
Tactile receptors for pressure, or deep touch enable us to recognize how things feel, without having to look or think about what our fingers, hands, or feet are pressing against. At the same time, deep pressure into the proprioceptors defines our edges, connecting us to self, to the earth, and to others. “Safe,” purrs the brain.
Temple Grandin is an autistic savant who became a professor of animal science and whose story was immortalized on HBO in the film, Temple Grandin. She sums up the difference between deep pressure touch and light touch.
“Deep touch pressure is the type of surface pressure that is exerted in most types of firm touching, holding, stroking, petting of animals, or swaddling. In contrast, light touch pressure is a more superficial stimulation of the skin, such as tickling, very light touch, or moving hairs on the skin. In animals, the tickle of a fly landing on the skin may cause a cow to kick, but the firm touch of the farmer’s hands quiets her” (cited in Sensory Enhanced Yoga, p. 153).
A caveat. People react differently to being touched in yoga class. For some it feels good, for some, especially the touchy, it feels bad. For this reason, teachers should establish ahead of time if someone wants to be touched. At the front desk at my yoga studio are coasters to place next to your mat that say, “Don’t adjust me.”
Yoga & Deep Pressure
You might wonder how much deep pressure we can get in a non-contact activity like yoga? Actually, quite a bit. Standing poses involve pressure into feet and typically hands as well. Take Triangle (Trikonasana). Feet must be strongly pushed into the ground to maintain balance, while the hand pushes into the top of the foot to stabilize the pose.
In seated poses, like Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana), we get pressure to butt and back of legs and into the hands that are grasping the tops of the feet.
In prone poses like Boat (Navasana), we get pressure into the abdomen. In poses like Dolphin, we get pressure into the forehead. In supine poses like Shavasana, the whole back of the body is pushed into the floor.
“…when I’m trapped in the most overwhelming sensory moments,” writes Rachel Schneider in Making Sense, “nothing feels quite as right as hitting the deck, or sprawling out on the floor…. on my back with my legs and arms splayed out like Da Vinci’s famed Vitruvian Man. By hitting the deck someone with proprioceptive issues can press skin and joints against the solid ground connecting the entire physical self to the still, strong earth.” (p. 114).
All this deep pressure during yoga class, along with proprioceptive feedback from muscles and joints boosts happy neurotransmitters: serotonin, lifting our mood; dopamine, making us feel rewarded; and oxytocin, our “cuddle” hormone.
Serotonin release from deep pressure touch. Cortisol potentially from light touch. Calm serenity from deep pressure touch. Irritation in some from light touch. Clearly, yoga teachers should make every effort to adjust those who wish to be touched in yoga practice with firm touch.