December is here, and with the holidays upon us, we have opportunities to connect with old friends, close family, extended family, and new acquaintances. To kiss or not to kiss, to hug or not to hug? Sometimes it can be a little awkward.
I don’t come from a family of huggers. Most of the time when I was growing up, touching was limited to my mother grabbing me by the arm to save me from falling into the Grand Canyon, my brother putting me into one of his latest wrestling moves, or being tucked into bed with a kiss on the forehead. There was one major exception to the no-touching rule, and that was when we visited my grandma. We visited my grandma for Sunday dinner about once a month. Each time we arrived at her home, we were greeted with a hug, and when we left, my mother pushed us into her arms saying, “give your grandma a hug.”
As I got older, I got to Grandma’s house less and less, and I started appreciating her hugs more and more. When I was a young adult, my grandma passed away, and the night after she died, I dreamt that I was back in her house. Because I knew that she was going to die that night, I asked her for one last hug. In my dream, I could feel the warmth of my grandma’s heart, and the pressure of her arms around my back, and even with my grief, I felt peaceful and happy.
In contrast to Grandma’s hugs, a lot of the hugs that I experience on a daily basis have a squeeze and run quality. Sometimes there is an awkward concern about how much time to spend or how much pressure to use, especially when it’s a mixed-gender hug. Sometimes the very hug itself is in question, and I may move in to hug, and find that it wasn’t welcome. Rarely is a hug as natural and as satisfying as the hugs from my grandma so many years ago.
Several years ago, I was happy to discover a practice, Hugging Meditation, which, like grandma hugs, are deeply satisfying. To start with, in Hugging Meditation there is clarity about the desire on the part of both parties to engage in a physical connection, and on the timing of when it will happen. In Hugging Meditation, we have eye contact with the person we want to hug, we join our palms at our hearts, and we bow to each other. This assures that both people are willing to hug and signals the start of the actual hug. Bowing wasn’t necessary for my grandma’s hugs, because there was no need to verify a hug was wanted between grandmother and grandchild, and the timing of the hug was set by my mom’s shoving us into her arms.
After the bowing, the second part of Hugging Meditation is the hug itself. We mindfully embrace our friend or loved one, putting our arms around each other. We then stay in the hug for three conscious breaths. During the first breath, we become aware of being in the present moment. We feel our bodies, feet on the floor, like we would do in tadasana. During the second breath, we are aware that we are hugging our friend, relative, or loved one, and we really feel them in our arms. During the third breath, we contemplate that we are here together, right in this moment, on this earth, and we feel gratitude for this opportunity to be together. Although my grandma had never learned about hugging meditation, her hugs were so nourishing because she maintained her mindfulness and love throughout her hugs. I could always feel her really there with me.
To complete Hugging Meditation, we join our palms at our hearts again, and bow to our hugee. With my grandma, we finished our mindful hug with a moment of eye contact and her standing on the front porch waving to us as we drove away in our Chevy station wagon.
So how does hugging relate to our yoga practice? For one thing, we can think of a hug as just another asana. We can put as much care into our hugs as we do into our downward dogs. In yoga class, we pay a lot of attention to the contact of our palms on the floor, fanning our fingers, and pressing into the mound of our index finger. Can we bring that same quality of presence into our hugs? Taking three breaths in our Hugging Meditation, is very much like holding a pose. Sometimes it can be quite challenging to stay connected to someone for three breaths. All kinds of thoughts arise. “Do I smell bad? Do they want to let go now? This is really weird… etc, etc.” The practice is to watch the thoughts go by, and stay present with our connection to our loved one.
And in a deep way, hugging reminds us of our oneness with other people. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings.” Knowing that we are one, that we are not a separate self alone in the universe is one of the most delicious fruits of our yoga practice. We may practice for years on our mats and cushions to achieve this realization. Perhaps we can realize union, or yoga, just as fully during a mindfully executed holiday hug. Try it. Let me know.
May we all have plenty of opportunities to practice Hugging Meditation during the holidays, and may we have fun doing it.
with a big hug,