L'Oréal Blackett spends three hours in a cuddle sandwich
There's an arm snaked around my waist and a hand slowly tracing circles on my shoulder. My free arm is being tenderly stroked by delicate fingertips. I feel a head snuggling into my hair. A warm body cosies up behind me, and another behind them, and another behind them….
Sixteen of us lay on coloured duvets, all in various positions of embrace. Heads are stroked, hands are held, men cuddle men, women cuddle women, and vice versa. I’m unsure where my body begins and another ends.
I know what you’re thinking: this reads like a harem. But this experience was entirely platonic. So, let’s get this clear now: cuddle therapy is not an orgy. Though it is extremely intimate.
As I’m spooned in a friendly ménage a trois, I’m perplexed to how I reached this level of comfort. The concept initially made me want to peel my skin off. I’ve been known to dodge hugs from strangers like Muhammad Ali dodged uppercuts. I’m by no means cuddly.
And yet, in a conference room in Chorlton I’d ventured into the intriguing world of cuddle therapy and ‘platonic touch’ with enthusiasm.
I was promised an unbelievable high.
The alternative therapy concept has been witnessed in America, Europe and Australia and has been hailed as a mood-boosting, life-affirming experience, helping to heal and enlighten. Through touch, participants are said to address their issues with intimacy and relationships in a safe environment.
For the next three hours, I’d pet, stroke, hug and spoon guests in the pursuit of happy-hormone oxytocin. I was promised an unbelievable high.
Before we start, I sit alone in the furthest corner of the room, staring at a portrait of a noble aristocrat on the wall. It stared back with haughty judgement.
Laid out in front of us were colourful duvets and pillows on the floor; we’d sit crossed legged in a circle avoiding eye contact. My shoulders tense up. My palms are clammy. For some reason, I regret not wearing socks.
Organisers and sexologists Jon and Elara help to ease the palpable nervousness in the room. They both have a free-spirited otherworldliness about them. Speaking with a devoutness, Jon leads the session and tinkers with little cymbals throughout like a seventies commune leader.
There are house rules to abide by; no kissing, no touching of the genitalia and importantly the rules of consent are law. Here, ‘no’ is a complete sentence. We’re encouraged to use ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘pause’ and ‘please’ as a measure of our own comfort level.
We’d first partner up and stroke each other’s arms. Battling my awkwardness, I administer a ‘nice’ massage by clumsily kneading, stroking and rolling my partner’s knuckles. Again, I don’t make eye contact the entire time. I’m conscious that I’m sweating. “Yes please,” came the response to my tender touch. I relax as soon as my partner does.
That wasn’t so bad. I soon warm to my partner and to the other people in the room. My boundaries down, I share my feelings to open ears. I'm thanked for sharing.
It became clear that cuddle workshops are about emotional touch as well as physical. I spot eyes glistening with water as we talk. I see tense individuals loosen up. I see friendships made. I make new friends too. That was the oxytocin in play.
In trios, we’d then become ‘divine beings’. For thirteen minutes of uncompromised touch time, you can ask for what you want including a ‘cuddle sandwich’ (pretty self-explanatory, you just have to decide who’s the filling and who’s the bread).
In a tag-team, I massage a back and stroke a forehead as requested. They do the same for me and I allow four hands to wonder my body. I can’t believe I’m comfortable with this but the drool coming from my mouth would confirm I was.
To end, we get stuck into the ‘puppy pile’. Gripping onto pillows, all sixteen people dive to the floor for the ultimate spoon session. This was probably the most relaxed I’d felt in weeks.
“I feel light. At peace. Grateful for this experience,” I share with the group afterwards, a little emotional and hungry too – cuddling works up an appetite. But most of all, I came to fully understand the cuddle workshop’s benefits.
“Did you know that it's a proven fact that just twenty seconds of physical contact can lift your mood for the whole day as it releases oxytocin?” explained Jon. “Touch is an instinctive, natural language that we can all speak and understand. It’s essential for stimulating our nervous system and promoting healthy physical development. It is also critical for our mental and social development.”
“Touch is often sexualised in society,” added Elara, “and because of that people can attend the sessions with a lot of shame – what will my friends and family think? Why would you want to touch someone you’re not romantically involved with? But it’s a beautiful experience, to have touch without feeling obligated to go further. Presence really enhances the experience – it’s as if you’re really being seen.”
I leave on a high, though I was warned it'd wear off by the next day. The experience of strangers - of all ages, genders and experiences - bonding over hugs will stay with me for a while.
Friends and family shudder and cringe when I tell them my experience. Why is platonic touch so taboo? Blame it on Britishness, I guess. Sure, it's not for everyone (just ask Karl Pilkington). I’m still not sure if it’s for me. But I do know a life without human touch would be a miserable one. Cuddle workshops could help fill a void in many people’s lives.
So, has it changed me?
Well...hug me and find out.
Cuddle workshops cost £28 per session. You can find out more about the Manchester-based group here