Thursday, February 24, 2011

The unexpectedly intrusively mysteriously sensual nature of touch

As I was sitting in the campus cafeteria earlier today, preparing for my afternoon class, something interesting happened. I was sitting at a table, and my back was facing this woman at the next table, whose back was also turned to me. Which is really a very long-winded way of saying that our backs were turned to each other :-)

I was sitting there reading this book when suddenly, I felt something brush against the nape of my neck. It felt sensual and yet intrusive at the same time: I sensed a certain deliberateness in the movement of whatever it was that was touching my neck, and the feeling itself would have been pleasant, if I had been expecting it. It's as if somebody I knew had snuck up behind me and caressed the back of my neck. But who the hell could it be? My girlfriend was at work miles away, and none of my students would have the nerve to do that; at least, I like to think I inspire at least that much respect.

I immediately whirled around, expecting to give whoever this audacious violator of my personal space was a piece of my mind. I came face to face with the woman at the next table, and she apologized in an embarrassed fashion. It turns out that she probably had reached her hands back to stretch, and did not realize that I was sitting so close behind her.

Weird. I don't have any reason to doubt that she had sincerely mistakenly touched me (I know this is a very cheesy way to put it, but bear with me :-)). But still, there was something... electric in that one instant of contact that was both intrusive and oddly sensual at the same time.

This brings to mind something that Stephanie said in a comment on my post last week about yoga and creative/sexual energy. Commenting on adjustments in a mysore class, she says,

"I don't think it's the placement of the hands, or the position of the posture, that makes a teacher's adjustment sexual. It's the 'charge' of the touch that makes an adjustment seem sexual, in my experience. No matter where or in what pose the hands may be touching."

I totally agree with this, in light of what happened to me today. Except that I have never felt any touch that was "charged" in this way within the context of a yoga class. Maybe it's because I've always had the good fortune of having teachers who have much control over the "charge" of their touch (how one goes about controlling this, I have no idea). The only time I can remember an adjustment bringing up strong feelings within me was during this particular class in Florida a couple of years ago. It was a class I regularly attended, and I knew the teacher well (or so I thought...). Anyway, around this time, she had just started doing her teacher training with this particular big yoga organization (I'm not going to name names here), and had what she thought were many fresh and exciting ideas about alignment to share with her class. So she came up to me in downward dog and tried to adjust my shoulders in this particular way that I felt was totally counter-intuitive. I don't remember the exact alignment details now, but apparently, my body must have been resisting her adjustment on some level, and "not getting" it. She asked me to go forward into plank (gosh, I hate this neither-here-nor-there posture: In my opinion, it's a half-assed pose that is neither chaturanga nor downward dog), and then proceeded to adjust me into downward dog from there. I don't know how else to describe this, but the whole posture just felt... wrong, and I wanted to yell at that very moment: "Get your hands off me, you [whatever]!" In any case, the "charge" of that touch during that adjustment, if there was one, was a very negative one. The adjustment wasn't painful, and it would have been a stretch to even say that it was uncomfortable. But it just felt... wrong.

But I digress. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I have never, to my knowledge, experienced any touch that was particularly sensual within the context of a yoga class. But what happened today also shows that touch is a very mysterious thing. It seems that we don't always have control over the "charge" or "message" that our touch conveys to people around us. Well, perhaps this shouldn't be so surprising. After all, we don't always have this control as far as the other senses are concerned: Think, for example, of the many misunderstandings that have arisen from somebody mistaking the tone of another person's voice, or the "meaning" of another person's glance. So why should we be expected to have this control over our touch?       


  1. I loved reading this! Thanks. Touch is such a cool subject, and so nuanced.

  2. This is a very interesting post. I agree that touch is a very personal and emotional sensation. Especially when the touch is one that wasn't invited it can be particularly confusing because you can only engage in touching someone until it is invited. Even a handshake is every personal establishment of identity between people. Hugging too, although not sexual, is a very intimate way of greeting or saying farewell.

  3. In a yoga class, you're expecting adjustments, so most physical contacts, if firm, do not come as surprises. The "charge" probably comes from the fact that 1. it was unexpected; 2. it was a light stroke 3. it was from a member of the opposite gender.

    People tend to prefer firm touches over soft ones (same as voice and handshakes). If the touch seems hesitant, it generates negative feelings in the person being touched. I'm not sure why.. is it because we're born with the tendency to distrust unconfident gestures/behaviors?

  4. Thanks Brooks. Yes, touch is both a cool and "touchy" subject :-)

    @Chris, yes, I guess it probably doesn't help that in this culture (and probably in many other industrialized societies as well), touch only usually occurs in highly structured ways (handshakes and brief hugs). Maybe there needs to be a National Non-sexual-yet-sensual Touch Day, so that we can all get over our hangups with this touch thing :-)

    @Yyogini, yes, I think it is true that we expect the touch to be firm, whether it is a handshake or an adjustment in a yoga class. If the touch is not firm, we tend to judge it negatively. Hmm... maybe we need a National Non-judgmental Non-sexual-yet-sensual Touch Day.

  5. That title is too long for a National Day. But even worse, it goes against the national pass time!! :)

    This is neither here nor there, but I couple of years ago I was visiting my daughter in Saigon (HCMC) and her boyfriend almost ran the motorbike we were in against a wall because we were watching 2 cops tickling each other! I'm Latin and used to seeing friends and relatives of the same sex walk down the street arm in arm....

  6. @sereneflavor, hahaha! I have a male Asian colleague who likes to put his arms around me at dinner gatherings. In many Asian societies, older men do this as a show of (non-sexual) affection for younger men, whom they see as their younger brothers. But he had to explain to the Americans that there is nothing sexual in this display of affection :-)