I Never Thought I’d Get Into Hug Therapy—Until I Tried It


In today’s world of far-flung family members and working remotely, loneliness is an unavoidable fact of life. Sure, you’ve got a lot of social media friends, but feelings of isolation can be as risky to your health as smoking and drinking, according to a study of nearly 309,000 people

So what’s a person to do? I heard about hug therapy—where you approach total strangers and, well, hug it out—and immediately thought, Ewww. Why would I want to hug someone I don’t know? It feels so intimate, vulnerable and sincere—totally not my brand as a profesh urban striver. Unless…perhaps it’s time to evolve in the hopes of being happier, more energetic and maybe even a better and more even-tempered single mom. Hug or cuddle therapy, as it’s called, has been featured everywhere from Dr. Phil to The New York Times (it’s said to have started in the Big Apple, as hard as it is to imagine brusque New Yorkers cuddling). It’s received so much attention over the past few years that when I learned there was an organization right in L.A. offering classes and events devoted to cuddling, I finally decided to give it a shot. 

Truth: I showed up to the Venice-based Cuddle Sanctuary hoping to get a boost of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone” that is released when you have close physical contact with another person. And unlike, say, dating or spending time with your family, at Cuddle Sanctuary the promise is being free to relax in a non-transactional atmosphere, without having to think of things to say or snacks to prep

So How Does Group Cuddling Work?

A free 45-minute training session is required before you’re let loose in a room full of open arms. During the two I attended at a Venice yoga studio, a facilitator has 15 participants sit in a circle on floor cushions, introduce themselves and say why they came. One young man had recently hosted a visiting friend from his “touchy” school days and was hoping to keep that happy vibe going in his day-to-day. A woman had been encouraged to come by her therapist. When it was my turn, I copped to being curious. The newbie crowd was evenly split between men and women, and ages ranged from mid-20s to mid-60s.

In a calm, friendly manner, Suz the moderator explained the do’s and don’ts of cuddling, including…

DO: Ask for consent from someone before you touch them. (“Hi, Dana, would you like a hug?”) 

DON’T: Take it personally if you get a “no” response (the person might have a sore back, or be taking a moment to themselves, or…basically having some other experience, so don’t take it as rejection). 

DON’T: Expect or engage in any sex stuff. (This experience is about kindness and friendship, not hooking up then or later.) 

DON’T: Acknowledge others from Cuddle Sanctuary if you see them out in the wide world. (Presumably because the world isn’t ready to destigmatize adults rolling around on yoga mats, even if it’s G-rated.)

Consent training was the most unexpected part of the hug party training: We role-played requesting consent to touch one another, and I couldn’t help noticing how slowww it seemed to go: You had to face another person, assume a casual and relaxed body posture, and then look them in the eyes before reading their name tag and saying, “Armando, can I shake your hand?” If he says yes, you have a quick handshake and an exchange of a slight giggle. Then Armando might ask you to share a hug. And repeat: quick hug, shy smile.

In another exercise, we walked around the room and alternately said yes and no to each other, then regrouped to report our realizations to the circle. My friend A., who came with me, said she was surprised at how difficult it was for her to say no without an explanation to save her hug requester’s feelings, and how she realized she didn’t want to touch any of the guys in the room. We wondered if any of the guys among us were incels, because we suspected that this was an opportunity for creepy, frustrated guys to rub against a woman, subway masher style. 

Thing is, I didn’t get any creepy vibes from the guys. And there were practically as many women as men. (Gender parity: No creepy vibes from the women either.) During the training session, a point was made that “arousal” is often a natural part of being touched or relaxed or whatever, so no one should freak out if it happened, though you are supposed to adjust your positioning (presumably so that a person’s “arousal” isn’t poking into anyone’s back) and also adjust your thinking (pushing provocative mental images out of your mind).

With that, our training session was over, and veteran Cuddle Sanctuary guests filed into the room. For the next 90 minutes, we all asked one another to hug, snuggle, sit side by side and spoon. Throughout the process, the word that kept coming to mind was gentle: Men and women were speaking softly to one another, and the energy in the room was one of peaceful alertness. I felt super awkward having to tell a longtime cuddler that I wasn’t ready to “baby bear”(in Cuddle Sanctuary parlance, this pose is where one person sits between another person’s outstretched legs and leans back against that person’s chest), but I felt very grown-up when I negotiated with that person to lean my head on their shoulder instead. I sat for a while in the Solo Spot (an area against the wall where participants can put themselves in a time-out) and perched on the Introduction Bench (where you go if you want to engage with someone but can’t quite work up the courage to make a first move, and someone will come rescue you).

A cuddler would chat, or maybe not, while we were linking arms or holding hands or, yes, making like bears. What started as a kind of self-dare—could I really be this close and real with strangers?—turned into a fun interest in a new experience and other people. (Which also basically describes my attitude at every party I’ve ever gone to, ever.) At the end of the 90 minutes, we were invited to “puppy pile,” a pose where everyone rests in a big heap on top of one another and you can’t tell whose leg or arm is whose. Most of the people were smiling or laughing, and it brought back sense memories of my preschool playground.


What’s the Takeaway?

Walking back to my car, I was surprised at how energized and alert I felt even though this was late for me to be out midweek. I was fizzy-headed and full of a “gosh, people are great, coming together in friendly communion” feeling, which is seriously not my default mindset. Ever. Ahh, must be that oxytocin clouding my mind with its feel-good chemistry. I decided I’d take it, turned up the radio and sang my way home.

The Very Best Wellness Advice We Received in 2019

dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...