Whenever we work with another person there are stages to that engagement. These stages can be summarized as approach, contact, engage and depart. In this blog I’d like to illuminate the often overlooked dimension of our approach into the student’s space and how we can begin to make a more refined connection through touch. We begin by recognizing that each of us has a kinesphere, a term coined by Rudolf Laban, to define the sphere around our body defined by how far our limbs can reach without stepping away from our place of support. A more nuanced dimension of this space is our peripersonal space.
Your peripersonal space (PPS) is defined as “the space surrounding the body where you can reach or be reached by external entities, including objects or other individuals. . . it is a fundamental characteristic of our everyday life, where we move through space to reach our goals, interact with other individuals, avoid colliding with objects or other people, and act in a way that protects our bodies from potential incoming threats. To engage in such a complex task, we need to integrate visual, auditory, tactile, interoceptive, and proprioceptive stimuli from our own body and from the environment, thereby not only constantly monitoring our body location in space but also scrutinizing changes occurring in the surrounding space.”(1)
The multisensorial awareness of this space allows us to assess the salience of information within our environment. For some individuals the peripersonal space has become a place of heightened vigilance which may make being touched from behind, unexpectedly, or with the eyes closed, an alarming experience. For this reason, it is almost always better to make your approach known by entering someone’s field of vision from the front or side. If someone has their eyes closed, such as in a relaxation position, it may be prudent to verbally announce your presence before asking permission to touch.
Not only do individuals have different peripersonal space, what feels like a safe or appropriate distance between people can be strongly influenced by culture. In some cultures, close proximity often accompanied by touching is the norm while other cultures are more distanced with strict constraints around touch. You, the teacher, also have your own peripersonal space and it’s important to acknowledge when this space may feel trespassed. Students who make excessive demands on a teacher (especially after class) often unconsciously lean into the teacher’s kinesphere, sitting, standing, or placing their face too close. If you find yourself uncomfortable, stepping back or shifting your body to create more distance, you are in the territory of a peripersonal space invasion! On rare occasions this may require you to ask another person to sit or stand further away from you to re-establish your peripersonal space. This can also be helpful for a student who may not be aware that he/she/they have a habit of encroaching on other’s territory.
In the context of using touch for repatterning and exchange with students, the most important aspect of your peripersonal space is to establish a grounded, centered and calm atmosphere within your own kinesphere. This is something you’ll want to return to again and again as you enter into touch dialogues with students so that you establish and re-establish (as often as is necessary) a place of comfort and ease in your body as an ongoing priority.
The peripersonal space is unique to each individual. It is something we sense and feel but cannot always predict. Veer on the side of caution and always ask permission such as, “Would you be open to movement repatterning through touch?”
When people are in deep process work and/or in profound states of relaxation it can be counterproductive to move around or to touch them. Even if you are convinced that an extra towel under the head or a rolled blanket under the ankles will make that Restorative Yoga posture more comfortable, if someone is already in a deep internal state, your touch is likely to be experienced as an interruption and invasion of that process.
It’s often assumed that touch is about correcting. This implies that we have already made a judgement call on what needs to happen. Our starting point when we touch should be about establishing connection. It is the place where we:
~ Discover where the person is.
~ Meet the person, accepting and supporting them at their level of understanding.
~ Communicate their intrinsic wholeness without conditions.
~ Gather information through our touch without projecting a preconceived solution, our opinions, ideas, or prematurely jumping to conclusions.
~ Center ourselves and facilitate centering in the other as a prelude to change.
~ Prepare for the use of more intentional touch (e.g., to adjust or direct towards a new choice).
Neutral touch requires that we the teacher enter a neutral place within our own embodiment. This is only possible if we are in a balanced state within our own nervous system: relaxed yet attentive and connected to our own breath process. If you are in a heightened state of sympathetic arousal, anxious, or disconnected from your own breath process, your touch is likely to activate a sense of vigilance, anxiety and disconnection in the person you touch.
Neutral touch is about being with the person rather than doing something to the person. It is the foundation for our interaction, and it is the resonant field that supports more differentiated and directive touch.
– This material has been sourced from the newly written manual for The Art of Teaching.