There’s more to a hug than you think…

Giving and receiving hugs is good for both your emotional and physical health. Here’s how (one, two, more?) hugs can help you in your mind-body practice.

(click here to tweet about the benefit of hugs!)

get a hug…

I was reminded of emotional benefits of a hug when, on a balmy summer evening a couple of weeks ago, I made my way to the Javits Center (on the far western side of midtown Manhattan) to queue up for what would be a 7 hour wait to get a warm, motherly hug from Amma.


If you’re shocked by the fact that I waited 7 hours for a hug, then you obviously haven’t been hugged by Amma yet. Known as the “hugging saint,” Amma comes from Kerala, in southern India, where she began hugging her family and neighbors at a young age. Amma says she is and has always been overwhelmed with compassion for the suffering of others, which is just about everyone because who in the world doesn’t suffer?

Instead of turning away from others’ suffering, like many of us–myself included–so often do, Amma acknowledges suffering with a loving embrace. For everyone, all over the world. No matter how they look, talk, walk, smell or feel, Amma hugs them all with the same amount of love. Hundreds of thousands of them.

This was my third hug from Amma, the first one being in India itself, where the sights, sounds and smells lend an ethereal air to everything that happens including being hugged by Amma.  But I have had a similar experience each time: I approach her, she pulls me to her bosom, I have a strong feeling that she knows me personally (even though my mind knows I am only one of the thousands of people she hugs each night on her tours), and I move away feeling blessed and full of love myself.

It’s a powerful experience to be hugged by Amma, and her example of hugging everyone with the same unconditional loving intensity is mind-blowing. It is the ultimate practice of loving-kindness.

If you haven’t been hugged by Amma, you should go to see her the next time she is in your area or you are in hers (you can find her “hugging tour” schedule on her website; when she is not on tour she is hugging from her lovely ashram in Amritapuri, Kerala).  It is an experience unlike any other. And it will uplift your spirit from whatever emotional or mental doldrums you might be inhabiting.

…give a hug

Your body (and mind) can also benefit from giving a hug to yourself.

One of the most frequent questions I get from students is how to relieve tension in the upper back, shoulders and neck. I also feel tightness and tenderness in this area when I am particularly stressed about a deadline. My favorite way to give my body relief is through a hugging stretch that can be done seated on the floor (as part of your yoga or other body practice), standing or even seated at your desk.

This “self hug” stretches the shoulder and neck muscles, and relieves pressure from the middle-upper back. To try it, follow these simple instructions, using the little pictures as a guide:

1. Sit or stand with your feet hip distance apart.

2. Open your chest by gently pulling your shoulder blades toward each other and lengthen your spine by lifting the crown of your head toward the ceiling.

3. With a deep inhale, fully extend your arms out to the side (and if possible, a bit back as you open your chest further by pulling your shoulder blades toward each other).

4. Exhale slowly and cross your arms (with the right elbow on top) over your chest and reach your finger tips towards edge of the shoulder-blade closest to the spine. If it feels comfortable you can also drop your chin toward your chest to deepen the stretch in your neck.

5. Repeat movements #3 and #4, this time crossing your left elbow on top.

6. Do the sequence, linking each movement with your breath, as many times as you need to until you feel the muscles in the upper body relax, or until you have had enough of giving yourself hugs.

Don’t be shy with these self hugs.  After a while you will find your mental state relaxing as much as your body, and your compassion for yourself growing. This is the start of the loving kindness practice, the start of embracing the world as Amma would by embracing yourself.

If you have questions about this (or any other) yoga inspired posture, fire away in the Comment section below.  And if you are interested in learning more ways to relieve tension and feel good at your desk (or to discuss my office yoga workshops), email me at zara(at)yoginizara(dot)com.

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