“Start going up to people and introducing yourself.”
Thus my mentor instructed me as I began the apprenticeship portion of my 300-hour teacher training. The words were enough to send a chill down my spine, bring a cramp to my stomach, and adhere the soles of my feet to the floor as firmly as if they were smeared with Crazy Glue. Scanning the studio, I started to hyperventilate.
What was it that hurtled me into a state of near panic? What fear-inducing Gorgon had almost turned me to stone? Nothing other than a group of Level 1 students innocently filtering into the room, finding places for their mats, gathering their props, and sitting quietly, waiting for practice to begin. The reason? My shyness can reach near-pathological proportions.
This may beg the question, “Then why in the world would you become a teacher?” For me there is a huge difference between standing in front of a group of people, and dealing with an individual face-to-face. You see, I used to be a performer. I’ve acted, I’ve sung, I’ve danced. I’ve done improv, the theatrical equivalent of Philippe Petit wire-walking between the World Trade Center towers. I have never had any problem climbing up on a stage and making a damn fool of myself in front of an audience. But interact with a person one-on-one? I’d rather fight Godzilla with a toothpick.
That day it took a true physical effort for me to inch forward, leaden step by leaden step, towards my first confrontation. I approached a class regular, a sweet woman named Ronnie. As I told her my name and shook her hand, the welcoming light in her eyes and her glad answering smile told me I had made the right choice. I felt the panic drain away as I talked with her, telling her I was the new teaching assistant, and asking her about her injuries or anything that might affect her practice. After Ronnie, I spoke to five or six more people, not bad for a first day.
What did I learn by vaulting headfirst over my fears? First, Level 1 students don’t eat fledgling yoga teachers for breakfast. Second, taking an interest in people makes them open up. Third, physical contact, i.e. the handshake, is important.
As a student, I have felt a sensation of distance between myself and a teacher with whom I am unfamiliar. As a teacher, introducing myself to my students bridges a gap between the person who is “onstage” and those in the “audience”. Having a face-to-face talk is far more likely to elicit valuable information about a student’s practice and its limitations, if any, than posing the question to the group. It’s not only what they say, but how much they tell you, and their demeanor as they do so. The modifications we can offer in response shows our concern for a student’s welfare and puts them at ease, knowing they don’t have to live up to any expectations.
And if I approach a student with that old-fashioned courtesy, the handshake, I am bridging what can seem like an enormous gulf. Centuries ago, clasping another’s hand or forearm was an assurance that you carried no weapons to use against them. Is it so different now?
Today, touch is a touchy subject (pun intended). The sad reality is that physical and sexual abuse and sexual harassment take place in every stratum, every area of life: in the family, the school, the church, the workplace, the government, the Armed Forces. Pertinent to our field, yoga teachers have been accused of overstepping their bounds and injuring students while adjusting them, and they have been sued for sexual harassment. We don’t know our students’ backgrounds. We don’t know what their childhoods were like, or how their adult relationships are. It may seem safer for us to avoid all touch for fear of being inappropriate.
Yet positive physical contact is so important. Touch is vital to the health and development of infants. It is a form of communication and helps us to bond with other people. It has health benefits, such as reducing anxiety and lowering blood pressure.
A handshake is both formal (a gesture of respect) and intimate (skin on skin). At one and the same time, it draws people near but sets a safe boundary. It offers friendship but does not violate space. It is an equalizer, putting the two participants on the same level.
I teach yoga to nursing home patients and to incarcerated people. In both settings the residents are separate from the general population. And in both settings, employees and volunteers have to be very careful to avoid improper touch. How handy the humanizing handshake becomes! It reaches patients whose true self may be difficult to reach because they are trapped within an illness; it makes a connection with someone suffering from dementia. In a prison, where I am sure the segregation from society can make one feel less than human, my willingness to shake an inmate’s hand reminds them that they are still human beings.
So I have become a glad-hander (with none of the insincerity implied in that term), happy now to reach out and make a connection with a stranger. It reminds me that I am human too, just like my students, and because we are equal we need have no fear of each other. We are in this adventure together, exploring the path of yoga. Maybe starting out by sharing a handshake, that appropriate, kind, and respectful form of touch, will remind us to respect and be kind to our bodies in the process.