As a massage therapist, I am struck every day by how much we need touch and how powerful an experience it can be. On a physiological level, there is no better way for releasing tension from the muscles than through massage. It is a great remedy for aches and pains, and can help the entire body function more efficiently.
My clients always emphasise how strong they have become - mentally and physically - since they have incorporated regular massage into their lives. They feel positive, healthy, much more aware of their body and posture, and more able to cope with the stresses of everyday life. Whatever their background or age, the comments always seem to be the same.
However, I believe there is another dimension to the knuckling and kneading I administer, which goes beyond any physiological changes in the body. For me, it's the idea that touch is fundamental to all human interaction. This has fascinated me ever since I began massage therapy 17 years ago. Unfortunately, not only is this idea neglected in massage manuals, it's simply no longer part of our everyday lives.
In his inspirational book, Touching, Ashley Montagu wrote that we can reach out to other planets, but too often we cannot reach out to our fellow humans. Although touch is the mother of all senses, it does not appear to be present in today's society. Often associated with violence or sexual abuse, human touch - pure and simple - has almost vanished.
We are afraid to touch others. We aren't willing to accept, much less appreciate, the close proximity of another. We simply don't know how. For example : in crowded spaces, we physically retreat from this most basic human involvement. But we all have a deep need to be touched. We all want to feel the warmth of a hand on our shoulder after a long day, or a gentle stroke on our head in moments of difficulty.
It is scientifically proven that babies and children grow to be much healthier when they have had the chance to experience loving touch. For seniors too, the physiological effects of touch benefit the body greatly. It can help them to cope with the loss of their partners and friends and to establish a strong bond with their families. A soothing neck or hand massage from a grandchild can make a world of difference.
Touch is the first sense to develop and is still active even when sight or hearing is lost. It gives us a sense of reality. As Bertrand Russell wrote: "Not only our geometry and our physics but our whole conception of what exists outside us, is based on the sense of touch."
When we touch, we communicate on a profound level. We become aware of our physicality but also feel a deep sense of belonging. We reach the core of our existence, and communicate beyond language.
As part of my research, I visited one of the oldest cultures on earth, the Kalahari bushmen. In their village in southern Namibia I learned about their healing tradition. When I first met the bushmen, there was silence - I did not speak the language and we did not know each other. I was given permission to touch them, first on the hands, then the arms, the shoulders, their heads and chests. Carefully and gradually, barriers began to disappear. The words which later emerged were given greater depth and meaning because they were instigated by touch.
Sitting there, under a tree in 40*C heat with these extraordinary people, I realised that we are generally afraid of the unknown - and that, today, touch itself has become an unknown. To learn about it, we have to set aside our verbal framework and our prejudgments, and simply accept this silent form of communication.
Even if you don't speak the same language, you will begin to understand one another. This is when true communication begins. The pearl inside each of us starts to shine. We begin to feel good, beautiful, important and loved