Are you going to the cuddle workshop?” For a moment I was tempted to say no – the prospect of an afternoon spent embracing strangers seemed suddenly terrifying – but I followed the man up a flight of metal stairs and into a dance studio. We walked past two women hugging in the hallway, and my stomach tightened.
The first official “cuddle party” was held in 2004 in New York, hosted by relationship coaches Marcia Bacyznski and Reid Mihalko in their Manhattan apartment. The idea quickly spread, first across the US and Canada, and then to London in 2006.
I had signed up for a four-hour cuddle workshop in north London run by newlyweds Anna Shekory, who started doing this in 2010, and Tom Mayer. Anna also runs private cuddling sessions; Tom is a Harley Street hypnotherapist. An afternoon of cuddling costs £29 and the aim is to help people “rediscover nurturing touch and affection”.
It is no coincidence that cuddle workshops have caught on here. According to OECD statistics, Britain is the loneliest country in Europe: we are the least likely to report having close friendships or knowing our neighbours. The number of people living on their own has doubled since the 1970s, with single-person households now making up a third of all homes. We often imagine older single people as being the most isolated, but a 2010 survey found that 60 per cent of those aged 18-34 described themselves as lonely.
Which left me wondering: what exactly do people mean when they talk of loneliness? In some ways, we have never been more connected: the internet has made it faster and cheaper to contact distant friends or to make new ones. Could it be that, in a digital age, people are left missing physical touch?
The people I met at Cuddle Workshop think so. I spoke to a trendy thirtysomething who said he had lots of friends and a big family but still felt “disconnected”; he was looking for a “healthier” way of finding affection. I asked what he meant and he looked embarrassed and then explained how he sometimes takes the Ecstasy-like drug MDMA as an excuse to “hug it out with his mates”. Another participant, a nurse, felt that the workshops helped her care for others because she left feeling valued and loved. Many described the cuddle sessions as “life-changing”.
When I first arrived, ten minutes early, about thirty people were already milling around the studio, reading out “ice-breaker questions” from multicoloured strips of paper. “What is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?” I asked a nervous-looking, middle-aged man in a tight black T-shirt. “Stand-up comedy,” he replied, unexpectedly. Whatever stereotype you might have of the kind of person who pays for cuddles, few people would fit it. There was a roughly even split between men and women; some cuddlers were in their early twenties and others were much older.
We started by sitting in a large circle and meditating. Anna asked us to close our eyes and to focus our attention on whatever we were feeling. “Perhaps you’re feeling sadness, and those feelings are welcome, too,” she said at one point, and the sound of ragged breathing suggested that two people had started crying. Then we were invited to do warm-up exercises: we danced around the room and touched body parts on command: “Everyone, high-five the person next to you”, “Touch your hips together”. It was excruciating.
Still, I had promised myself I would try to “get into it”, so I focused really hard on giving another woman a “loving” back massage. “I was really moved by that. Thank you,” she said, and I found myself cheered.
During the tea-and-biscuit break, we were assigned the task of asking at least three people for a cuddle. I couldn’t face it, but I was halfway through eating a Bourbon when someone asked if I wanted a hug, and I said yes as cheerfully as I could. I ended up cuddling four people, and it did feel nice. Then I turned someone down, which is OK, too, because it’s important to “honour yourself” and know your boundaries.
I might, in retrospect, have been better off leaving then. I must have reached my cuddle limit. Instead, I ended up stroking a woman up and down her body like a cat, while she purred, and then caressing a man’s face. We finished with a huge “cuddle huddle”, in which everyone lay on the floor caressing each other.
Almost everyone, that is. I sat on my own in a corner, hugging my legs defensively against my chest. “Are you happy where you are?” Anna asked me, looking quietly concerned. I nodded. And then I had a strange realisation: I felt lonelier than I have in years.