First you wait in line on 34th Street for a while, with an assortment of yoga teachers, Indian families, and assorted devotees in the 90° evening heat. Then you enter the Manhattan Center, taking a paper number, like at a deli counter, and move through the marketplace, distracted by the stacks of brightly-colored scarves, bronze Ganeshas and Lakshmis, books, cds, photos and essential oils. Somewhere beyond the market, there is rhythmic music and chanting which floats up through the space. Peering over the crowd, you can clearly see a plump, radiant-looking woman seated onstage under bright lights, surrounded by white-clad assistants and a long line of people.
Amma, who is known as a living saint, gives out hugs. She is highly respected for her addresses to the United Nations and her extensive charities that feed, clothe, and educate the poor, but she is most famous for the way in which she gives darshan, or blessings, in the form of an embrace. Amma has hugged over 25 million people all over the world. Sometimes she does this for more than 18 hours straight. This sounds unusual, but if you remember that touch, offered lovingly, is essential to human happiness, the meaning of the experience shifts. Babies deprived of touch suffer developmental problems. Pets are brought into nursing homes so that the elderly can have physical touch and affection in their lives. When we are massaged or have bodywork done, we often have an emotional response. Amma offers touch as a gift and as a lesson.
So what is the experience like? Her assistants line you up, wipe your face, ask you to remove earrings or glasses, then bring you forward into her arms. You are enveloped in her embrace. She smells good, like jasmine maybe. She chants a mantra in your ear, and then releases you, smiling, placing flower petals and a Hershey’s kiss in your palm, as the next person in line is guided into her arms.
You feel either calm or emotional, happy or released, a little spaced out and meditative. Maybe you go downstairs and eat a dosa or drink some of the fragrant chai, basking in the bhavana or vibe. Last year, sometime between midnight and dawn, hip-hop pioneer Doug E. Fresh, radiantly energized from Amma’s darshan, stood up and gave a 20 minute impromptu performance, freestyling and beatboxing his way into everybody’s heart. No one around me had any idea who he was, but still, he pulled the entire crowd up from their meditations and onto their feet, ecstatically clapping and participating in a call-and-response.
Touch does more than activate our pleasure sensors. It develops our brains and our awareness. It offers solace, which in turn creates connection and community. Think about this: How and when do you offer physical touch to the people in your life? What is the quality of your touch – even of your hand touching someone’s arm to tell them something? And most importantly, what message does your touch convey?