This is an interview with Thea Blair, a Certified Massage Therapist, a Certified Pediatric Massage Therapist, and a Waldorf teacher, as well as a mother of two children. Her son is 16 and her daughter is 9. She lives with them and her ex-husband in a small intentional community and farm in Nevada City, California.
Written Transcript Below.
“I am passionate about the healing benefits of touch. It started with my experiences with the children in my home kindergarten. I was amazed at how simple touch, either comforting or playful, worked like magic to transform aggressive and anti-social behavior into calm and friendly willingness to play.
Later, after my massage trainings, I discovered that I am gifted in helping parents and teachers achieve greater connection and collaboration with their children. My own children are the “guinea pigs”! Because of my training and experience as a Waldorf teacher I am able to create simple massage routines in imaginative ways that are fun and easy to do.
My work extends to Personal Consultation. Its all about connection and learning to live to our full potential. With children its about helping them live to their full potential. The sense of touch is integral in this process.”
You call yourself a Touch Educator. How did this journey begin and what is your mission?
My mission is to bring awareness of the importance of nurturing human to human contact in healthy human development and in the evolution of empathic and enlightened human culture, because touch is our primary language of acceptance and belonging, safety and security. Nurturing touch, or touch-with-presence is a physical, tangible form of love.
What is the significance of touch for an evolution towards greater compassion?
Well, this comes straight form Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf schools: In his view, touch is the first and over-arching sense, culminating in a perception of the sovereign being of another. Namaste, if you will. I call it Empathy, or the capacity to perceive self and other simultaneously. If you think about it, thats what touch is on a physical level – a simultaneous perception of self and other. When this is received, especially at developmentally important moments, it translates into the social sense of mutuality.
What role does the sense of touch play in personal development?
I became aware of the significance of the sense of touch to the quest for self-knowledge when I was in massage training. Suddenly all of my spiritual, emotional and intellectual strivings since adolescence began to integrate! It was a very exciting moment when I realized that I had not been “in my body” for years.
My first clue was a couple of years before this when I was going through a dark night of the soul. Once, in the midst of my deep despair, I had a flash back of being an infant and crying out and no one came. The ensuing panic and terror sensation in my body was almost more than I could bear.
My second clue was when I became aware of the lack of nurturing touch in my marriage; in my childhood; in the
culture. How normal this was and how inhibited I felt about touching. (This is what I mean when I refer to a “touch barrier”.)
I began to do a lot of research and read that others, such as James Prescott, discovered that touch deprivation leads to violence. I found, through my own introspection, my personal research, that this was so. Furthermore, I have discerned that if violence is not “acted out” it is “acted in”. I don’t know if anyone else is saying this. Now, I had the answer as to why I had feelings of self-loathing, feelings like I had done something terribly wrong and voices in my head berating me for not being enough”.
Humans are social mammals and as such, touch is our primary language of acceptance and belonging. When a social mammal perceives itself to be outside of the group, either left behind or banished, this is extremely stressful and the brain goes into the survival mode of fight, flee, or freeze. The Hormone that stimulates this is Cortisol. With Cortisol everyone and everything is seen as potential enemy. Now, Cortisol lives in a balance with another hormone and that is Oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as the bonding hormone, because it was discovered in infants and mamas when they are forming attachment. Nurturing touch stimulates the secretion of Oxytocin, which views everyone and everything as a potential friend. This is why I refer to this duo as the “Yin and Yang of Survival” and why I believe that touch and Oxytocin will lead us to an Empathic Civilization.
Is your work primarily with parents and children? Do you work with couples? What is the nature of your Personal Consultation service?
Educating others, especially parents, about what it is that infants and children need is part and parcel of what I do, because the first thing they need is touch.
I offer a service for coupes that I call Couple’s Massage Personal Training. wherein I teach them to give each other a massage made-to-order. It is a lot of fun for everyone!
My Personal Consultations always focus on what is right about a situation. What is the wisdom that is trying to be revealed through certain behaviors.
What poses the greatest challenge to this work?
I would say, all things considered, that denial is the greatest challenge I face when bringing an awareness of healthy touch to adults. Because touch deprivation in infancy is traumatic and because it is the nature of the brain to numb out painful experiences; because touch is portrayed as violent or sexual in the media, most people just don’t get what I am about until they hear my presentation and experience Peer Massage for themselves. So I face a challenge in being invited to speak. But once I do, my work is always received with enthusiasm and gratitude.
Tell us about your work with children and massage:
How did you come to do this work?
For fourteen years I held a Waldorf inspired pre-school in my home for ages 2 through 6. In my last year of teaching I became acutely aware of the significance of touch, either comforting or playful, in resolving children’s difficulties whether between two children or a disturbance they brought with them from home. This coincided with my own awareness of the lack of touch in my marriage, the lack of touch in my childhood, the lack of touch in my culture.
I stopped working with children to process a divorce. I enrolled in a massage training, because it was something I always wanted to do. One of my fellow students told me about massage in the classroom and zoom! I had another way to contribute to my life purpose of supporting healthy childhoods!
How do you bring it to children?
All the routines on my DVD developed spontaneously with my pre-school children or with my own children. My daughter is 9 and my son is 16. During my massage training I practiced on them and was amazed at the immediate change in attitude and behavior it effected! This fueled my fervor to bring awareness of healthy touch to parents and teachers.
I give talks and teach workshops. I visit classrooms. I work one-on-one with parents and their children, teaching the parents how to massage their child.
Why is touch so important?
Touch is our first sense to develop. It is our primary language of acceptance and belonging, safety and security. We need touch our whole lives, but some times more that others. Most people are aware that infants need touch, but are not aware that touch deprivation in infancy is trauma and has an affect on how the brain develops.
Touch is also important at adolescence, which I think of as the second emergence, a very stressful time.
To understand the importance of touch it is helpful to understand that when we are stressed the adrenal gland secretes Cortisol which stimulates the Fight, Flight, or Freeze response. This causes blood to be diverted from the digestion, the immune system and the forebrain (the place that makes creative thinking possible) and shunts it into the large muscles of the arms (to Fight) or the legs (to Flee).
Nature is wise. Sometimes we really need this response to get us out of immediate danger. At all other times it is most advantageous for our survival to collaborate, to think rationally and creatively. There is a hormone which stimulates this, too, and it’s called Oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as the bonding hormone, the love hormone, the friendship hormone, the community hormone. It was initially discovered during parturition: it stimulates contractions (babies first massage!), flow of milk, and bonding. It is secreted by the pituitary gland and when it floods the blood stream it is like a sigh: the breathing slows, normal digestive and immune function resume, relaxation occurs; everyone and everything is seen as a potential friend.
What brings on the Oxytocin? Connection. Any kind gesture, any attempt to understand another, any way we share a common purpose, will bring on the Oxytocin. By far the most significant contributor to the secretion of this “peace hormone” is our primary language of mutuality: Touch. That is why a hug is so comforting.
How can it help in the classroom?
In the classroom it is called Peer Massage and is conducted student to student with the teacher telling a story and overseeing the activity. It helps the children be calm, focused, and friendly. It dissolves cliques, reduces bullying, increases social inclusion. In addition to all of this, it establishes a respect for physical boundaries and empowers the children in ways to get their needs for touch met in non-sexual ways.
How is it received?
From my experience in Waldorf schools the children of Kindergarten age and younger receive nurturing touch from their teachers and then share it with their friends and family through imitation. I bring Peer Massage to the grades and high school. I have found that up until 6th grade the children need very little explanation. Beginning with 6th grade I encounter gender-embarrassment, yet they do not want to hear much explanation. They definitely do not want to hear the word “sex”, yet they are responding to the messages they get from our culture about touch and sex. By high school they have calmed down quite a bit and can engage in a conversation about how touch is depicted in the media. The challenge in high school is that the social boundaries are more established and some of the youth identify themselves as outsiders – they have given up on trying to belong – and will opt out of the activity, not giving it a chance to work.
At the end of every session I ask, “How was that for you?” I have never had a negative response. Usually they say, “Relaxing”, or “Peaceful”. A few 6th graders once said, “This was the best day of my life!”
My greatest challenge is that, until parents and teachers and school administrators hear my presentation and experience the peer massage for themselves, they are skeptical or even uninterested, because the value of healthy touch is not a reality for them. And I can empathize! But once they receive my presentation they are always enthusiastic. One 8th grade teacher said that it wasn’t until my presentation that he saw he was touch-phobic and that was why he asked me to bring peer massage to his class. He knew he was not capable of bringing this valuable skill to his students.
Many children are very sensitive to touch, how does massage work for them in the classroom environment?
Every case is different, but on the whole it gives them an opportunity to communicate exactly how they want to be touched. I have seen children who are touch-sensitive teach their partner to touch them in a way they enjoy. It is very empowering. They are in total control of the massage. Checking in with your partner is part of Peer Massage. They are also free to decline the activity.
What might parents do at home to bring conscious touch to their children?
A couple of things. First, experiment: instead of arguing or punishing anti-social behavior bring in touch. Say your child comes home from school and gets sassy or shows angry behavior to you. Invite them to sit on the couch and tell you about their day while you rub their feet. Or perhaps your child will respond to playful wrestling. A hug, a shoulder rub… get in as much touch as you can. I have done this and watched in amazement and gratitude as the anti-social behavior simply dissolves.
The second thing you can do is examine your own “touch biography”. When I did this I saw how much of my life had been lacking in touch so the amount of touch that I considered normal was not enough. I still have to push myself through my own “touch barrier”.
Is this good for adults too?
Most definatly! Just remember, touch is our primary language of acceptance and belonging, safety and security. People behave differently when they feel loved and accepted in this tangible way.
How can teachers, parents and child care providers learn more about bringing touch to children in this way?
First of all I can be contacted through my website: www.theablair.com There you may purchase my DVD called Playful Touch, 10 massage routines for your child. You can also subscibe to my weekly newsletter called Let’s Stay in Touch. I am available to do a workshops such as “Breaking Through Your Touch Barrier” and “Getting in Touch, Staying in Touch”. I also offer Personal Consultations for parents, teachers or anyone else. What is blocking you from getting what you want? You may schedule a complementary conversation with me through my website.