2 Dec 2012

Helping hands

touchOne of the many things that fascinate me about teaching movement is the ability to touch people’s lives, both literally and figuratively. Because no matter what, in any positive movement experience something profound happens – whether it’s the awareness of a new sensation, the accomplishment of a new skill, being back in proper alignment, or simply feeling great.

All of these experiences are reactions that we as teachers can’t take credit for – it’s all chemicals, if you will. But what we can take credit for is facilitating the process. We facilitate by way of curation of the experience, with the selection of cues and exercises appropriate for the body in front of us. And, we facilitate with touch.

Both in my personal as well as in my professional upbringing, touch was always important. In everything I learned there was a progression from being safe in somebody else’s hands to being let go, and experiencing independence. In my own movement practice, whether in dance, Pilates, or otherwise, that meant having my teachers hands on me as I am exploring a new challenge or access movement from a different place in my body – until I “got it”.

No matter how well you can communicate with words or demonstrations, there is something that only the right touch can accomplish: a tactile and kinesthetic sensation that is impossible to “unfeel”. Movement, before we acquire other means of communication, is an instinctual experience in the first place, governed by both conscious and subconscious brain activities in response to the world in- and outside of us. Our motor behavior typically evolves long before we can put it all in words, which is why any student will benefit from teaching strategies that involve high levels of kinesthetic feedback. For the teacher, the hands are a sharp tool to test muscles, facilitate movement in the right places, provide traction, resistance, and deeper stretching.

Like an extension to the senses we usually rely on, the hands can feel what the eyes can’t see, and express what words can’t say.

But there is more – touching is quite literally an exchange of energy. With nerve endings communicating on both ends of any given touch, the information exchanged includes temperature, pressure, texture, and electromagnetic energy.

When using apparatus to teach movement, it becomes an extra pair of hands in the studio. The Pilates Reformer, for example, was developed for that very reason. In return, we might say that the teacher’s body, specifically the hands, are a refined teaching tool, and an apparatus of sorts.

Finding the right touch is a matter of careful study and practice. The art of using your hands goes well beyond mere intuition. Just like words, a touch is a stimulation that needs to be simple, on-point, and administered purposefully in order to be effective – else it can lead to confusion and misinformation. Looking at the picture below (and disregarding what you know about the original painting), I am sure you can detect certain qualities in each of the pictured hands, and possibly anticipate the quality of touch they will provide when they meet.

Which hand do you think will make a better teacher / toucher?
What about your hands?