The human touch is a powerful instrument indeed.
I have spent the past few weeks learning the ancient art of Thai massage at one of Chiang Mai’s most distinguished massage schools. I now know the difference between a lower palm press and a double thumb press. I now know how to align my hands properly over achy muscles and blocked Sen Sib lines (the ten major life force energy pathways, unseen to the naked eye). I now know how to sequence a massage for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. Of course, I cannot do all of this perfectly — but I now know the basics.
The most significant achievement for me as a result of this course, however, is this: confidence in the simple act of touching — really touching — the people receiving my massages. Touching without hesitation. Touching without doubt. Touching with authenticity. Simply being comfortable with touching.
It’s a comfort I never completely had. Part of it stems growing up in a household that wasn’t big into hugs and kisses and embracing. My family is just not touchy-feely. At least not in the way that I witnessed with some of my friends growing up. I’d always envied those friends specifically. The exception to my family’s conservativeness in this respect came from my Polish nanny Elizabeth. She loved to spontaneously scoop my four siblings and me into her arms and shower us with kisses on the head. But that was only when we were very, very young children. I don’t hold any resentment toward my parents, grandparents, etc., for this lack of touchy-feely physical contact. It’s likely something learned from their generation before, their generation before that, and so on. I get it. We showed affection in other ways, and I had a richly rewarding childhood as a result of their love and support.
Now that I am older, however, I want to break down some of the barriers instilled in me from a very young age. The aversion, perhaps even fear, of touching is one wall that I hope to knock down.
But I am realistic: The deeply rooted, subconscious traits are often the hardest ones to change.
My participation in courses at the Thai Massage School of Chiang Mai was an opportunity to continue chipping away at this wall. Each day, I was forced to work on a new body. In turn, that person was required to perform massage techniques on me. Any modesty or sensitivity to touch (tangible ticklishness aside) quickly evaporates within a few days. I began to enjoy touching these strangers.
When I was massaging, I focused wholeheartedly on the other human being in front of me. I stayed true to the moment and, as best I could, stayed in rhythm with the other person’s breath. Through a lot of practice and repetition, I learned how to lay my hands on these different bodies with precision, swiftness, confidence and compassion. The compassion came as I imagined some of these people as relatives, friends, enemies and the emotionally injured. It made the practicing more real versus simply than by-the-text-book in a classroom setting. By imagining a specific scenario or ailment, it created more motivation to work thoughtfully. This was especially helpful for the times when my lower back flared up in pain and I wanted to quit the course entirely.
Yes, unfortunately the back injury I sustained in India haunted me throughout my time at massage school. This made me an interesting case study for the other students, in that they needed to be more mindful and modify (or eliminate) massage techniques — just as they would need to do for a friend or client experiencing similar pain. But my injury also made me a practice partner that most preferred not to pick. Each day, I felt like the last kid picked for kickball on the recess field. It was an amusing position in which to be, considering I was always among the first picked for any elementary school recess game.
Despite the small bruising of the ego, the course accomplished what I had hoped it would: increase my confidence in and willingness to touch other people.
This is a life skill that transcends yoga. Most family and friends likely believe that my purpose in taking this massage course was aligned with my yoga practice and teaching. The secret is out! That is not the case. My motivation is much bigger than that.
It is also a life skill that transcends any application into a career. I have no desire to become a massage therapist. It is hard work, both physically and emotionally. I have a newfound appreciation and respect for everyone who works in this field full-time.
I look at this knowledge gained as an invaluable “souvenir” that will hopefully bring joy and comfort to many people down the line. How is yet to be seen. But informal massages after dinner or during holiday gatherings are definitely in the cards.
Touch has a healing power that medicine just cannot duplicate, and I want to be able to share this — not just be on the receiving end of it. The experience has taught me a lot about myself, including that I am capable of shifting my approach to touching others.
Now it’s time to apply all of this in my life back in Chicago.