I arrived fifteen minutes early to the workshop, but hesitated before I enter the door labeled 'Room 1'. I have to admit, I was feeling nervous. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but I knew I was about to engage in four hours of intimacy with absolute strangers.
When I finally plucked up the courage and entered the room, I found a trio of smiling women. One sat behind a table laden with biscuits, hot drinks and a large jar of mints, and offered me my name tag (punctuated with a little heart). Another gave me a laminated piece of paper with an ice breaker question. I dutifully went and asked the next person who entered the room "when was the last time you had a really amazing meal?" After a chat about the merits of London-based fish and chips, we discussed our reasons for attending a cuddle workshop.
For my part, I was intrigued by the idea of a space to explore platonic touch. As a teenager, I had been quite tactile, but became increasingly less so in recent years. I wanted to explore the idea of physical connection without worrying that my hugs would be misinterpreted. My companion told me she loves cuddling, and signed up to the workshop just this morning. She too had no idea what to expect.
What followed was an afternoon of sharing. We were asked to share our names, and how we were feeling. We asked one another if we could "share a hug". We shared the emotions stirred up by the exercises. Throughout the session, there was a real emphasis on being generous with ourselves, and one another.
"The experience of a cuddle workshop is subjective. Some participants would cry after an exercise, as the intimacy of the moment allowed for a great emotional release."
The workshop was made up of a series of exercises. The nature of these was varied: one exercise involved lying with your head in a partner's lap, while he or she stroked your head, arm, shoulders and back. Another played with the idea of presence, asking us to feel the difference between touching someone when distracted, touching someone when he or she is distracted, and touching someone when both of you are focused on the moment. There was an exercise involving an embrace known as a "melting hug". There was another where we practiced saying "no" to a proffered cuddle, and explored what it felt like to both reject and be rejected. This focus on consent, and accepting one another’s boundaries, was key: our leaders, Anna and Andrew, created an environment of communal respect. People were able to opt out of exercises, and we were told to ask our partner's permission before we reached out and touched them. We were also told to thank everyone we shared a physical connection with, and to thank those who didn't want to be touched. At the end of the workshop, many of the attendees told the group that they felt "grateful", and no wonder: we were constantly encouraged to engage with this warm emotion.
The experience of a cuddle workshop is subjective. Some participants would cry after an exercise, as the intimacy of the moment allowed for a great emotional release. Two men both explained how stroking another man's arms reminded them of their fathers, and how this memory helped reconfigure their preconception about male-male touch. One attendee announced at the end of the session that he felt energised; many others that they felt calm. Some, no doubt, left that afternoon feeling that they would stay on their oxytocin high for a while yet. Some, no doubt, felt their initial anxiety completely subside shortly into the session. Others may have felt the occasional stirring of nerves, but were able to accept this, and still engage with others.
"I wanted to explore the idea of physical connection without worrying that my hugs would be misinterpreted."
I entered the workshop intrigued, but sceptical. I left with an appreciation of how open people can be, and an acute awareness of how quickly two individuals can connect. I feel that every embrace I shared today told me so much about the person I shared with, and I wonder how much they now know of me.
I also left having experienced some jolly lovely hugs indeed.