Touch Skills & Blind Faith

Touch and seeing are much more than sister senses in the human experience.

Image of hands by Amy Very

Image of hands by Amy Very

Twofold is the miracle when, through my fingers, my imagination reaches forth and meets the imagination of an artist which he has embodied in a sculptured form. Although, compared with the life-warm, mobile face of a friend, the marble is cold and pulseless and unresponsive, yet it is beautiful to my hand. Its flowing curves and bendings are a real pleasure; only breath is wanting; but under the spell of the imagination the marble thrills and becomes the divine reality of the ideal. Imagination puts a sentiment into every line and curve, and the statue in my touch is indeed the goddess herself who breathes and moves and enchants.”

Helen Keller, The World I Live In

Helen Keller’s essays, written by a woman who was blind and deaf, are just beautiful. Her poetry is exquisite and through her sense of touch comes the most exquisite emphasis on how she could (only) access language through her hands.

Reading it reminded me so forcibly of how I used my sense of sight, to learn touch skills, that I stopped after reading the essay, to sit and reflect on the profound connection between seeing and learning the language of touch. Dr Ida Rolf apparently used to say that “Seeing is touch at a distance”, but what if you can’t see? What if seeing sometimes interrupts touch skills, or even hijacks their scope?

Reading the essay took me back to a time when my hands meant no more to me than most, in that I didn’t really think about using them naturally every day to do things. They were a useful means to open and close doors, prepare and eat food and drive a car and so on; also, they could be very productive drawing tools, when I had time to sit quietly and indulge myself in sketching and painting. As a single mother, with a seven-year-old at the time when I was learning really seriously to consider my hands as something beyond the obvious, time to sit and paint was hardly on my list. It came as a shock to discover my hands were unaware there was a very detailed and carefully syntaxed language of touch that I didn’t even know was missing.

When I undertook to study and learn Structural Integration, hand-skills were required at a level beyond the feedback I was used to using them for. I had already become very inspired by the Yoga Hand Positions or Mudra’s and later, that was to bring my work to a new level. However, in 1998, when I first met Tom Myers (before Anatomy Trains was written), my hands were pretty skilled at making chocolates, using a computer, working with ink and paper or steering a yacht and winching sails; but speechless in the face of the body language I had yet to learn. I knew how to love my baby son, but that was different. In the first classroom in Somerville, Boston in 1999 and 2000, my hand literacy met what was missing. To work it out I did three things:

  1. Learned to play the Tabla Drums to strengthen them, practicing on rocks

  2. Learned to French-braid my hair, without a mirror

  3. Learned to draw my hands, over and over again, without looking at the drawing

1. The Tabla: the drums taught me two things; rhythm and depth. Besides having to strengthen my fingers, the playing of Tabla gave me new ways to make sounds. Both hands learned to communicate and syncopate with each other and work in individual but complementary rhythms. They had to be repeated, repeatedly, until my hands seemed to pick them up by themselves. That changed everything and it helped, a lot.

2. The French-braid was the one that employed sight the most; through the lack of it. I sat with my eyes-closed and practiced over and over getting my thick, long hair (that is naturally not compliant) into tightly woven braids from my forehead to the nape of my neck and then down to the end of the braid. Each attempt was neater and eventually, by acquiring blind faith in my hands to feel their way into the forms of weaving, I began to trust another sense over seeing. To this day, I can do a better braid if I’m not looking at it. Reading Helen Keller brought me for the first time, to a place of recognition for blindly trusting something I couldn’t see. I guess that is like having blind faith in a possibility. For sure I never thought I would have a career in Structural Integration, or that it would feed me and my son for the next 20 years.

3. The drawing was called Contour Drawing (from Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards). You draw your non-dominant hand, without looking at the drawing; only looking at the subject. At first, I produced a fairly hopeless string of sausages, if they bore even that much resemblance to fingers! By the end, I could “draw without seeing” my drawing and it was the dawning of a new language. A new ability to “see” from within the sensory feedback, bypassing the mind-chat that re-interprets it. Unlike Helen Keller, bless her heart, I could use my eyes to confirm. For sure there is more than one kind of seeing.

Now, after decades of practice, my hands see things I can’t even interpret, they change so rapidly. It is a language that, I suspect, is spoken at the speed of sound (at least) and while that is a subject for another blog, I have no doubt that it takes longer to repeat the story my hands pick up, out loud in words, than it does to feel the forming of the body language they speak in. Many practitioners describe working with the fascial matrix, or soft-tissue body, like working in a kind of “body Braille”, that speaks its quirks and pains and relaxations in the clear grammar of the first person, stating the here and now, whatever it is for that person at the time.

After 20 years, my hands “speak fluent fascia”; since the fascia is everywhere and as the organ of form, seems to provide a very clear account of however a client is organised, at least structurally if not biomotionally. I tell my clients that although I can’t feel what they feel, I can feel that they are feeling it. So, when I am treating someone and I ask them for sensory feedback “if zero is no pain and ten is max, give me a number if I touch here”; it is rare that they give me a number that I can’t already sense with them.

Perhaps it is the “hear and now” that we touch by; for there is no question that presence is a pre-requisite for working with people and the moment we touch, or experience being touched, we become present to the current state of the tissue. It is very simple, at its essence, even though the complexities of interpretation are so many and varied. Nevertheless, the touch of a skilled body worker is a quality of listening that is worth its weight in gold to a body longing to be heard, on its own terms.

My dear friend Anastasi Siotas gave me the book of Helen Keller’s essays and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Thank you Anastasi xoxox